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Why Karthika Annamalai wants to be Prime minister

Stone quarry to law school, shanty to IBM, chawl to medical school — the latest stories of young people climbing out of poverty show us how the old India can become the new.

india Updated: Jul 16, 2011 23:41 IST

Karthika Annamalai, 19
Has cleared the national Common Law Admission Test
Father: murdered Mother: quarry worker


Marenahallibunde (Karnataka): There are three things Karthika Annamalai misses at home — a bed, a toilet and English.

Home for the slim, articulate 19-year-old is the village of Marenahalli Bunde, an untidy collection of unpaved lanes, rudimentary open sewers and one water source on the windswept eastern edge of India's technology heartland, Bangalore. There are two "rooms", each smaller than a ping-pong table; the flooring is cowdung; the roof, dried coconut fronds; the walls, four granite slabs slammed into the ground.

The toilet is the great, smoky outdoors, its Dickensian gloom rising from fires and stone dust in the vast quarry (Bunde is Kannada for quarry), seven-storeys deep. Once a forest, the quarry feeds Bangalore's unending building boom and sustains the village of about 500 migrants from Tamil Nadu, one invisible drop in the ocean of 300 million internal migrants seeking better lives. At night, six of the extended family squeeze together and sleep on the cool floor. They speak Tamil and a smattering of Kannada.

"At school I had my own bed, I had a toilet and I spoke English," says Karthika, who last week moved to the sprawling National Law Institute University in Bhopal from her boarding school for poor but gifted children in rural Tamil Nadu. "It was tough when I went home. I was often homesick for school."

As Karthika prepares for her new life as a law student, she is acutely conscious of the poverty and people she left behind. "I think power is very important to do anything in India," she says. So is money. "Before politics I need to make some money. Corporate law should allow me to do that." Her real ambition is to join politics before her 40s and — she says this with great seriousness — to be Prime Minister. Back at the quarry, she is a fulcrum of inspiration. Every child is in school, and mothers gather around me to say they dream of their daughters (there is no mention of sons) being like her.

Her ascent from family shack to national prominence — television crew came visiting when she cleared the nationally held common law-admission test — reveals the role that parental sacrifice, individual determination and, often, chance plays in the climb out of poverty.

Karthika's chance came when she was four years old. On the advice of nuns from a local nunnery, her mother Palaniamma, took Karthika to Shanti Bhavan, a boarding school started by Abraham George, a former army captain, author, and philanthropist.

"It hurt me a lot, to leave her," says Palaniamma, a sun-baked, silent woman (Karthika says her mother "closed up" when her father was murdered 15 years ago) who utters her first sentence an hour after our visit.

"Shanti Bhavan is the best thing that happened to me," says Karthika. "Otherwise I would be married like my (elder) sister or breaking stones like my mother." Palaniamma earns Rs 40 on a good day, working 6 am to 5 pm at the quarry. For two years, 1st standard to 3rd, Karthika was the only child at Shanti Bhavan who never went home. Her mother could not afford it. Later, they met twice every year.

"My mom and I, we don't talk much," says Karthika, who also has two brothers, the elder dropped out of school to help his mother at the quarry; the younger studies at a local school. While at school, Karthika met Palaniamma twice a year. "I really care about her, her sacrifices, but I do not know her that well. When I was younger she used to cuddle me. Now, when I call she only asks if I am eating properly, stuff like that." She pauses. "But I know she loves me."
— Samar Halarnkar

Sunita 17, History student at Sri Venkateswara College
Anita 15, Class 10 school topper
Father: jal board worker
Mother: domestic help

New Delhi: The sisters studied under the toilet light so that other family members could sleep undisturbed in their one-room quarters. Now their parents can't stop raving about their "bright" daughters.

There is a flurry of activity at Professor HN Gupta's residence at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi campus. His domestic help Lakshmi's neighbours are over, drinking tea with them, to celebrate her daughters' achievements. While Sunita, 17, has got admission to History Honours at the prestigious Sri Venkateswara College, Lakshmi's younger daughter Anita, 15, has topped her school in the class ten board exams with an A1 grade.

Even as Lakshmi appears overjoyed, her husband Ram Bahadur oscillates between happiness and bewilderment.

Initially the sisters faced stiff opposition from their dad — a Delhi Jal Board employee — who believes education is a waste of time and money since the girls have to be married off anyway. "He used to create a fuss during their exams. He doesn't want Anita to take up computer science in eleventh saying he can't afford to get her a computer or pay for coaching classes," says Sneh, Professor Gupta's wife. "Every student knows the basics, it's tough to study computers without one. It was disappointing when papa didn't support us," says Anita. "She used to get upset and cry in one corner, thinking she would flunk!" says the elder sister. Their mother says she's ready to sell off whatever jewels she has to pay for a second-hand system and coaching classes.

Apart from the disturbing familial bickering, the girls have not had it easy otherwise too. "Since bhai and parents had to sleep early, we would try and study as much in the day-time and in the nights, switch on the toilet light and sit there. Also, we are both used to walking back and forth while reading and learning, and there isn't much space to do that, it was quite crazy," says Sunita.

"Despite the hardships, the girls have managed what children from more privileged families don't," adds Mrs Gupta.

Apart from academics, expressive Sunita is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, loves theatre and has won dozens of certificates at school level apart from the best student award in class 12. She wants to be an archaeologist when she grows up. "I want to make documentaries," she says. Meanwhile, studious Anita wants to become a software engineer and is focused on making the IIT entrance. "We have always lived in IIT since our parents have worked here. I want to crack the exam so we stay on," she smiles.

Apart from their parents, the girls' achievement has made the family they stay with proud too. As Sneh Gupta goes in to get apple juice for everyone, the girls shyly swing their feet sitting on the Guptas' living room sofa.

The sisters enjoy trolling the "shiny shops" in Delhi's malls. "We can't buy anything since it's all so expensive, but it is fun to roam around since it's all air-conditioned."
— Shalini Singh

Mumbai: As Smita Mahadik, 21, walks in to her brightly lit, plush IBM office in Pune, she often fondly remembers the nights she spent studying on the wooden loft of her shanty.

Every monsoon when water flooded their home she would quietly climb up to the wooden plank straddling on one side of the room to keep her books safe.

"I would either be in school or studying on the loft," she said. "Studying was my life."

Life was difficult then. Her father Vijay, then 40, was earning Rs 1,800 a month as a peon in a private firm. Her mother Laxmi, a housewife, spent her time cooking and cleaning after her dozen-strong family members that included various cousins, all of who shared a 100-square-feet room in a Prabhadevi slum. In 2004, Smita topped the state board exam in the Mumbai municipal school category by scoring 89.6%.

"It was the best day of our lives," she smiles, "My parents were proud. So many relatives and politicians came to visit me. My photograph was printed in the papers."

But college only added to her problems. The family had no money to support further education. "Let alone education, I had barely enough to feed my children," said Vijay, who now earns Rs 6,000 as a peon.

After her board result, Smita received Rs 50,000 in prize money from government and charitable sources, which went towards her junior college fees at Ruparel College in Matunga and for the first year of engineering college.

"But I had enough to pay just the first year's fees," she said. "I knew I might have to drop out any time." So Smita started teaching young children in her first year, earning Rs 2,000 in all. At the start of her second year, Smita was Rs 20,000 short of the Rs 50,000 annual fee. But a government scheme for scheduled castes and tribes came to her rescue, allowing her to pay one-tenth of the fee until the final year.

Money wasn't the only challenge; she suddenly had to function in an English-speaking world. "I would stare at the board all day, trying to make sense of what was written there," she said.

Katalyst, a non-profit programme that works towards empowerment of women helped Mahadik with financial assistance and trained her to face interviews.

By the time this scholarship student at the Sardar Patel Institute of Technology in Andheri finished her computer engineering she had offers to join Infosys Technologies and IBM as a software programmer – each offering her a six-figure annual package that is three times her father's salary. Last month she took up a job at IBM, Pune.

"My daughter is half my age but earns much more than me," her father says proudly, "It is all her hard work. I only studied till class VII. I could never guide her."

Now, a few cousins from her village near Ratnagiri have moved in to their one-room-kitchen flat in Prabhadevi that was developed under the government slum rehabilitation scheme last year. All inspired by Smita's success, they plan to follow her example.

But this isn't the end of Smita's journey. While she has been paid a nominal amount for the first 15 days at work, Smita hasn't spent a penny. Most of it will reach Mumbai to support her family. "I have a family to support. I still have to finish my higher studies," she smiles, "There is still a long way to go."
— Radhika Raj

Vivek Tiwari 19,
Medical entrance topper, Maharashtra
Father: autorickshaw driver
Mother: housewife

Mumbai: He practised physics theorems and chemical equations with the TV playing on full
volume. Even the constant presence of nosy neighbours and relatives into his one-room house in a Mumbai chawl didn't distract Vivek Tiwari.

"I was so accustomed to the noise and activity in the room that I couldn't study in a quiet place," said Tiwari, 19, who topped the Maharashtra Common Entrance Test, which determines entry into medical colleges in the state, in his second attempt this year, scoring 195 out of 200 marks.

"Considering my preparation, I knew I would be among the top 10. But getting right at the top was still a huge surprise."

Ten years ago, his father, Premshankar, 43, lost his well-paying job at Standard Mills, and took to driving an auto rickshaw. "It was a difficult phase because my mother had a major accident during the same period, so we exhausted all our savings footing the hospital bill," he said. "It was back then that I decided I wanted to become a doctor, and cure my friends and family for free."

Driven by the dream to buy a bigger house for his family and to be referred to as the "world's topmost neurosurgeon", Tiwari began preparing for his exams in October 2009. Hoping to do well in both his Class 12 board exam and the medical entrance he spent six months studying more than 15 hours a day. At the end, he scored 90.33% in his Class 12 exams, and secured the 799th rank in the entrance test — his first attempt.

"With my rank, I would have had to move out of home and live in a hostel in the interiors of Maharashtra," he explained. "My father would have had to incur a lot of additional expenses, which he said would be very difficult to fund. Knowing that I had the potential, my mother convinced me to take the entrance exam for the second time this year. Local tutors gave me private classes for free and ensured that I stayed calm throughout the preparatory year."

When the results were declared on June 14, he went wild, his neighbours taking his screams for a family fight. "Because I don't have a computer at home, my tuition teacher checked my results. When he said I had topped, my friends and family began to squeal, alerting my neighbours, who came running to our rescue," he said, grinning. People in the chawl have already begun calling him "doctor sahib." "Earlier, it used to take a lot of effort to convince my mother to make aloo parathas," he said. "Nowadays, I don't even need to ask."
— Reetika Subramanian