It took Machhindra Bochare 25 years to make the 45-minute train journey from his Colaba municipal school to the Institute of Chemical Technology in Matunga.
Seated in the canteen of one of Asia's premier research institutes, where he is a first-year pharmacy Phd student, Bochare, 26, spoke of inhabiting two disparate worlds.
"When I go back to visit my parents in my village in Ahmednagar district, all the children curse me because their parents point to me and say, 'You should also become like him'," said Bochare, the son of a handcart puller.
The Azad Nagar slum where he grew up is still home to blue-collar workers who earn daily wages from the area's fishing economy.
"The parents of the children who study at my school do manual labour, but they have aspirations and want their children to study," said Upali Gosavi, the principal.
That was the case with Bochare's father, now retired in his village but who came to the city in the 80s to earn a living and try and educate two children, leaving two more behind.
"He brought me and my older sister here because he thought there would be better opportunities," said Bochare. "My parents made so many sacrifices. My father worked long after the usual retirement age of 60 just to give us an education."
A year ago, Bochare left his job with a drug formulations company, Rubicon, which paid Rs 18,000 a month, to pursue a Phd on a UGC scholarship of the same amount. During his year-and-a-half stint as a junior research scientist there, he helped develop drug delivery systems. "Because I had to support my family and wanted to see how the industry works, I decided to work after my M Pharm before studying again," he said. The pharmaceutical industry has benefited significantly from liberalisation (see 'Economy').
"Pharma from India is accepted all over the world, the way IT is," said Milind Wagh, who taught Bochare during his M Pharm years in Nashik.
Bochare matured fast. "It was a big family and a small house, and as the only son Machhindra was conscious of his responsibilities," said Mangala Pokharkar, his social studies teacher in secondary school. "He would come to school early in the morning and stay back till the evening so that he could study. There wasn't enough room at home." Pokharkar taught Bochare in the aided Marathi-medium Ryat Shikshan Sanstha's Waghe High School on Colaba Causeway.
"Whatever I am today is because of the school and its teachers," said Bochare, w ho topped his school at the SSC exams in 2000 with 78% (see 'Education'). A junior college stint in Pune district followed, and thereafter, a series of opportunities thwarted by financial constraints.
"I couldn't sit for the civil services exams because I couldn't afford the time or money for coaching," he says. A vague desire to do something in science and research propelled him towards a B Pharm, where he discovered other dimensions to himself as a public speaker and debater.
Admission to an M Pharm course was a rinse-and-repeat episode, with private colleges demanding donations. "It was very frustrating," he said.
But a court ruling that year ensured admissions became centralised and Bochare made it to an aided college in Nashik on a government scholarship.
But pursuing a career in research meant several hidden expenditures. "I couldn't buy a laptop for a couple of years, it was expensive to attend conferences and every small cost such as using a cyber café or getting my thesis bound added up," he said.
Bochare raised the money by tutoring students prepare for competitive exams. "Research is what I want to do for the rest of my life," he said. "India may not be the best place for that, but I need to stay back to look after my family."
He shares a flat in Nahur in north Mumbai with friends, and commutes to Matunga every day. Ever so often, he goes back to his other world, in Colaba, to meet teachers and old neighbours.
It's a 45-minute journey.