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Against all odds: From potato fields to IIT

Last updated on: December 7, 2009 10:35 IST

Photographs: Ajit Sen

Here are five stories of hardship and struggle, of people born in places with limited means, but with unlimited dreams.

Common in their difficult journey, is a passion which has kept these bright young people going, while they wore old, used clothes, studied from borrowed books and sold papad to run the household. This they braved, because for them education was their only hope for a better life.

"Writing about these young men and women has been a humbling experience, as one learns from them, that much can be achieved with very little," writes Sumita Vaid Dixit for

In this five part series that chronicles stories of sheer grit and determination, we begin with Suresh Ram, who's currently a third year civil engineering student at IIT Delhi.

In his 18 long years of a hand-to-mouth existence, Suresh Ram hasn't had the time to grieve his mother's death or feel angry that he's poor. Every day was a struggle, for months his family lived on bhuja (flattened rice), but somehow they scraped through to the next day. Now, Suresh Ram is a third year civil engineering student at IIT Delhi.

Even now he doesn't have the time to reflect on his difficult past. "We are overloaded with work here and there's never enough time."

Suresh comes from a village called Adhkhani, in district Sitamarhi, close to the Nepal border. His father, for most part of his life has tilled land as a labourer in the village. But had it not been for his father's determination, Suresh's life's course may not have altered greatly.

Options for primary education were limited; there was only one school in the village, a government school. But his father after many requests to the principal, was able to get Suresh admitted to the school. "My father didn't want me or my brother to live a farmer's life. It was a hard and ungrateful life."

The school was small and the teachers weren't that good, says Suresh. Since the school was in such a remote area, teachers came on short tenures and with little passion to teach. Except for one: the math teacher. It was because of him that Suresh's interest in math began to develop.

Before that he wasn't particularly interested in studies although he studied every evening, after helping his father in the potato fields. There was no electricity in his mud house and he studied in the lantern light. Even today, there's no electricity in his house; again one of those villages of the country that have been left out to remain in the dark.

Suresh knows farm work all too well. "For years, I have given my father a hand in the paddy and wheat fields, in
picking potatoes; tilling land, sowing seeds, watering the fields, and in the harvest season carting sacks full of potatoes
to our small kitchen." Suresh and his family lived off the farm; nothing was bought. Even clothes weren't bought; all he had was his school uniform which he wore to school and at home.

But there was a "burning desire" to do something. At the time, his math teacher started taking special interest in Suresh, as he could solve complex mathematical problems. "It was because of him that I discovered I was good in mathematics."

And so his teacher called him over to his residence for extra studies. "When he said that I was good, that's when I
started believing that I was a  good student."

Against all odds:

Part II: 'Hardships had taken away my sense of humour'
Part III: 'When I started doing well, I began to dream'
Part IV: 'When you have little means, you become a fighter' 
Part V: 'Money doesn't open doors. Hard work does'

The villagers' taunt

One day, a classmate's brother came over to Suresh's school. "He was studying in IIT Kanpur, and he told us that we must study hard and prepare for IIT. He said, IIT main zindagi badal jaygee (IIT will change your life)."

So, all he did was study day and night. "For the other students in the village, like the children of rich landlords, they still had options. For me it was almost a matter of life or death." His Class 12 results weren't too encouraging, and with
his initial preparation he couldn't crack the IIT-JEE exam. "I was shaken up. All along I had only thought of getting into
IIT. That's what I had been preparing for, been thinking of; I had no other future plans."

Suresh's father gave him Rs 4,000 and asked him to go to Patna to find a good coaching centre and prepare for IIT all
over again. He went to Patna, stayed there for two weeks, spent all the money and came back to the village empty-handed. "I couldn't find any centre where I could study in that little amount of money."

When the villagers got to know of his failure, they laughed at him. Especially, the rich villagers taunted: "But you were confident of getting into IIT, eh?"

Then a friend from Patna told him of Anand Kumar's Super 30. Suresh's elder brother encouraged him to give it another shot, and so he went back to Patna. "When I met Mr Kumar, I knew I had come to the right place and once again found the strength to dream of IIT." There, along with the others, Suresh studied for 10 hours every day. "All we did was study." Everything was provided for: food, a place to stay.

It was Kumar who saw his result. Suresh's rank was 77 in the scheduled caste category. "Now I had a reason
to go back to my village and shut the mouths of those who mocked my failure. But I laughed when some villagers
came up to me and asked me why I was going to Delhi, when ITI was here, in the district?"

Not many had heard of IIT in his village, and they often confused it with the Industrial Training Institute (ITI).

Disappointments at IIT
With the blessings of his father, Suresh came to Delhi. It's been three years now, but not once has he felt out of place in a big city, or in the prestigious institute where students of different backgrounds come from all parts of the country.

"Nobody at IIT is valued for their money; education makes us all equals."

But Suresh appears to be a little disillusioned. "IIT is an institute that seems like a magical place from the outside, but the story is different when you are behind its great walls."

He says that the teachers are least interested in the students. "Their priorities are different." Writing research papers  close to performance-review time often leaves the students unattended. "You have to fend for yourself. There's no support." As campus placements approach, he worries about his communication and English skills. "I am aware that they are weak, but we aren't encouraged to do better." So Suresh is teaching himself English now.

But there's no doubt that IIT attracts the best companies in the country, says Suresh. More than the corporate  sector, it is the civil services that allures Suresh. Being a civil servant, he says, will give him both the power and the opportunity to change things. "I want to make life better for my people in the village who still light the lantern at night."

But one thing that IIT has taught him will stay with him forever. "IIT has taught me how to fight; it has taught me how to
survive. The work pressure is so much but we somehow finish on time. You learn to manage time." But despite a punishing routine, Suresh finds the time to takes tuitions. "I send home some money." And when he wants to take a break from it all, he goes to the nearby Priya Cinema Complex to watch Shah Rukh Khan. "I like his films. They are about love and romance."

Against all odds:

Part II: Sketching in the coal mines
Part III: Grit and chemistry in her DNA

Careers360 is a complete education and career magazine offering campus and course reviews, career features, scholarships, expert advisories, entrance exam preparation & solved papers, admission alerts and more.

Careers360 is a complete education and career magazine offering campus and course reviews, career features, scholarships, expert advisories, entrance exam preparation & solved papers, admission alerts and more.