Against all odds: Dreaming in the lantern light
In a five part series that chronicles stories of sheer grit and determination, we look at five young people who have beaten to odds to achieve their dreams.
In the fourth part of this series we bring you Nirmal Kumar's inspiring tale of struggle and success.
Nirmal Kumar was born in 1981 in Risaura, located 25 kilometres from Siwan, a small town in Bihar. Back then his village was untouched by development.
There was no electricity, telephone lines or hospitals. Nirmal's high school was three kilometres away from his village, which he covered on foot with a back affected by polio.
Today, 28-year-old Nirmal, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate, is the CEO of Nirmal Group which owns G Auto, a company he founded a year ago in Ahmedabad. In its first year of operation, his company earned a revenue of Rs 1.75 crore and made a net profit of Rs 20 lakhs.
"When you are born in a place with little means, you learn to rely on yourself for everything. You become a fighter," he shares. When Nirmal was struck by polio at the age of three -- he could not be treated in time as there were no hospitals in his village, only 'quacks'. But it never stopped him from playing football in school or taking the cows through the rice fields.
With unsteady fingers, Nirmal learnt how to hold the pencil, firm his grip, and read and write. In the evenings, he would clean up the lantern shade with a dry piece of cloth, oil the wicker, light it, and in its glow dream of a better life. "Lagan bahut thi." ['I was very dedicated.']
Agriculture and civil services
He won the National Talent Scholarship and decided to pursue a BTech in agriculture from Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University, Hyderabad. Agriculture was an unusual choice but back then he was planning to appear for the civil services entrance exam. While he was relieved to have won the scholarship, the paltry sum of Rs 800 a month wasn't enough, so he gave math tuitions. "I have never been afraid of hard work," he says.
Perhaps that's why he gets impatient when his sales team complains about not getting a client. "I ask them how I, without political links or monetary support, could get ONGC, Reliance and the State Bank of India on board? Weak people make excuses."
That's why he wasn't surprised when he wrote to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for an appointment to discuss his future venture, and he actually got one. Fifteen minutes stretched into 50 minutes, and Modi agreed to inaugurate G Auto. Nirmal thanks his parents, or rather his entire village for making him the way he is. "Not once I was made to feel that I was handicapped," he shares.
Against all odds:
Photographs: Siddharaj Solanki
The phoenix rises
Two things happened to Nirmal in Hyderabad that changed his life, forever. At the university he met toppers, polished people from big cities, and his confidence was shaken a little. "I came from a village with no electricity and it was a challenge coping with a competitive world," he admits. Many made fun of his Bihari accent as his spoken English was poor. But he was determined to fight.
So Nirmal formed a club called 'Phoenix' for people like him who wanted to improve their communication skills. Every week its members met and discussed current topics in English only. If anyone switched to their native tongue they were fined 25 paise! Much change was collected and used for samosa parties. Little did he know then how handy this exercise would come when he was preparing for the Common Admission Test (CAT).
One day, when a senior at university showed him the prospectus of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Nirmal had heard the institute's name for the first time. He was also told that after studying at an IIM one could earn Rs 1 lakh a month. "I was shocked! My father earned only Rs 8,000 and he raised five children with that money."
Two years of intensive preparation and he sat for CAT. He remembers shouting inside the internet cafe, when he realised that he was shortlisted. "It was an incredible feeling."
He made it to IIM Ahmedabad, and one evening while returning to campus, the auto rickshaw he travelled in charged an extra Rs 10 saying it was evening time. "When I questioned him he spoke rudely." That's when he got the idea for his start-up.
Nirmal realised there was a need for well-behaved drivers and rickshaws in the city, who gave a better experience to the customers. So when the time came for a job interview at IIM Ahemedabad, he opted out of the queue. His mind was made up: he wanted to start his own company. "I had nothing to lose I can live under any circumstances. Those who have been brought up in luxury worry about losing things. They are the ones who are insecure."
Now, G Auto manages 1,500 auto rickshaws, which are equipped with public phones, water and first-aid facilities. Every day Nirmal spends one hour counselling and grooming the drivers in customer etiquette.
But as a CEO he also believes in serving his people, so the company offers the drivers an insurance cover worth Rs 2 lakh from LIC, a mediclaim policy of Rs 50,000, education allowance for their children and a savings account with an ATM card. So how does he make money? "Through advertising. The autos are great advertising vehicles!"
Nirmal has now launched Mr Coco, coconut water on pushcarts. The carts are equipped with a chilling unit that chills fresh coconut water in 30 seconds. To the existing five carts, 100 will be added with the support of SBI which is loaning Nirmal money for the business.
He pauses and then reflects: he can't believe that he's managed to achieve all this. But there's so much to do he says. For one, he has to prepare for marriage. His fiance is currently pursing an MSc in Chemistry. She too, has a disability. And for the first time during the interview, his bold voice sounds a little shy. "I am nervous," he confesses.
Tomorrow we feature Manish Patel, who started from scratch to realise his dream.
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