Today: Brijesh Kumar Saroj, the son of a poor weaver, who overcame every hardship to make it to IIT-Bombay. When he cleared the IIT entrance exam, villagers threw stones at his home because he is Dalit. This has only hardened his resolve to ‘make it in life.’
IMAGE: Impressed with Brijesh’s achievement, Aamir Khan met him after he arrived in Mumbai. The actor has asked him to get in touch if he needs help. Photograph: Kind courtesy, Brijesh Saroj
I heard about IIT (the Indian Institute of Technology) in Class 8. The boys in Class 10 would talk about IIT all the time.
So I asked a senior, ‘Bhaiyya, yeh IIT kis bala ka naam hai? (What is this thing called IIT?)’
He said after you finish IIT you can earn a salary of Rs 25 lakh per annum.
I thought kya baat hai! Pachhees lakh ka package! Phir to hum zaroor karenge. (Wow! A salary of Rs 25 lakh! I will definitely do it).
And here I am and believe me it’s like a Hollywood film.
There are projectors in the classrooms, everyone speaks in English, people look different, they are so open-minded … And you can take second, third helpings of food and even order for eggs in the canteen. The toilet even has a flush.
When I told my father I had got into IIT, he said, ‘Theek hai. Acchha hai (OK, Good).’ He was happy that I would be able to earn money soon.
Mummy is angutha chhap (illiterate). She said you must be doing something worthwhile if you are going so far away to study. I think she was happy just to watch my brother and me being interviewed on TV. (Brijesh’s brother Raju, 18, secured the 167th rank in the IIT entrance exam and is at IIT-Kharagpur.)
My parents may not understand the significance of getting into an IIT, but they have always been supportive. We are five brothers and one sister, all good students.
In Class 5, our teacher in the village school told my father, ‘Eat just one meal a day, wear one pair of clothes, but educate your children.’ That’s the funda my father held out to.
In my entire extended family, only we children are educated. All my cousins, elders in the family… everyone is illiterate.
Going to a Navodaya Vidyalaya was the turning point of my life. I too would have been a Chhotu, Motu, Pinku, working in a dhaba, but for Navodaya and my maths teacher Sunil Mishra.
I was in Class 5, late for class that day. Mishra Sir was solving a Simple Interest problem on the blackboard. The answer was wrong and I told him so. He said I should go to a better school, a Navodaya Vidyalaya, but warned me there was very little time to prepare for the entrance exam.
Most people in the village demotivated me. They would tell my father, ‘Why are you educating them?Kaam pe lagao (Make them work).’
IMAGE: Brijesh and his brother Raju (in a white shirt) with their family in Rehualalganj village in UP. Raju also cleared the IIT entrance exam and is in IIT-Kharagpur. Photograph: Kind courtesy, Brijesh Saroj.
My father works as a weaver in a Surat mill and earns between Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 a month which is not enough for us six children, my parents and my grandparents.
I took up a job in a garage in the village as a helper to a mechanic, ‘get the wrench, get the spanner. Yeh karo woh karo (Do this, do that).’ I learned nothing there, but earned Rs 3,000 in two months.
As Mishra Sir suggested, I filled out the Navodaya form and studied hard. I passed. I studied at the school from Class 6 to 10. It was a residential school and it was my foundation.
I got three meals a day. I learnt judo-karate and basketball and I’m a regional level player. I also ate paneer for the first time.
The Navodaya school had 40 students in a class, while the village school had 100 students in a class, different age groups all studying together. The teachers gave each student undivided attention.
People ask me what is the difference between life now and before IIT. Zameen aasman ka fark hai (the difference is as wide as heaven from earth). We had no electricity because we couldn’t afford it. We had no TV, no fan or running water, or a toilet or a gas cylinder.
In Class 10 during my final exams, the thatched roof of our house fell down. We had to spend a few days in the open. It was only because of the BPL card (Below Poverty Line ration card)] and the milk from our eight goats that we could survive.
When the media found our story, the life that we knew changed. As did the life of the village. Five hundred families in the village who had kachcha houses (made out of mud), got pucca ones (made of brick) with toilets, solar lights and hand pumps.
Tarred roads are being built, there are plans for a hospital and an ITI (Industrial Training Institute), as well as a coaching class for IIT entrance exams.
Yet, the villagers threw stones at our house when the results were announced because we are Dalits. They have threatened to throw acid on our family, they said we won’t allow your children to get jobs in this village. And it’s only because our father tried to push us towards the promise of a better life.
I get upset when people use the word ‘higher’ caste to describe these narrow-minded, uneducated, uncivilised people.
Whatever little I have achieved today is because of my opponents. What they said dil pe lagti thi aur jab dil pe lagti thi toh baat ban jati thi (It hurt me and it pushed me to realise my goals). They always told me you won’t be able to do it because you are Dalit.
If there is one thing I want ended in India, it is the caste system.
IMAGE: The family home. Brijesh had no TV, fan, running water, toilet or a gas cylinder. When the thatched roof collapsed, the family lived in the open for 5 days. Photograph: Kind courtesy Brijesh Saroj.
There is nothing like this in IIT or Mumbai. Two weeks ago, I met Aamir Khan. He called me after a newspaper report about us and told me to meet him when I came to Mumbai. I did, for one-and-a-half hours! Just him and me.
You know, 3 Idiots is my favourite film. He told me I should get in touch with him if I ever needed any help.
Sometimes, when I walk around the IIT campus, I can’t believe I’m here. Socho Bombay aaaya aur woh bhi flight se aaya! (Imagine, I came to Mumbai, and that too I flew in!). It was sponsored, of course.
Nobody knew I hadn’t flown before; I just copied what everyone else did. If there is one thing I don’t lack, it is self confidence.
Arre, we don’t even speak Hindi in my village, we speak Awadhi. Everything is padhbya (padhna, studies), jabya (Jana, to go), khabya (khana, to eat). Here everything is in English. People think in English. I understand the language, but never spoke it. I thought I would be embarrassed, but I am not. It’s not my mother tongue, I’ll learn it. It’s just a matter of time.
But I have to get used to life in a city like Mumbai. In the beginning I was shocked to see so many people. In the village, when we went to graze our goats, there is just vast emptiness everywhere. Marathi is a problem.
Once I went and sat next to a woman in a bus because it was the only vacant seat. Another woman came and told me to get up. It was reserved for women apparently and I did read something that said striyam sathim or something (striyan saathi, For Ladies), but I couldn’t figure it out. But these incidents should happen. How will I learn otherwise?
Another thing about this city is that people hardly walk. In the village we used to hop and skip 5 km to watch Shaktiman (the superhero television series of the nineties), here people take a bus or auto for even 1 km.
And it is expensive, a plate of patties costs Rs 60 to Rs 70; do time ka khaana ho jata hai gaon mein (we can eat two meals for the same amount in the village).
But money is not such a problem now. We used to have two bank accounts — my brother’s had Rs 504 and my mother’s account had Rs 2,000. I don’t know about my father’s account since he lives in Surat.
After we got into IIT, the HRD ministry waived off our tuition fees, mess fees, hostel fees. We got funding of Rs 8 lakh (Rs 800,000) from private donors as well as the state government and politicians.
The government has also given us a plot of land. But that land is now under litigation since my neighbours claim it belongs to them. So we are using some of the funds to fight the case.
IMAGE: From the monetary help received, the brothers have set up a trust fund for deserving children in their village. Photograph: Kind courtesy, Brijesh Saroj.
We have received so much love from strangers; we want to return the favour. From the Rs 8 lakh we received, we set up a trust fund of Rs 2 lakh for 10 deserving children between 12 to 13 years from our village.
We will be funding their education and will shore up the money once we begin earning. The rest of the Rs 6 lakh will be spent on the education of my two brothers and sister.
Before I got into IIT, I used to tell people in my village to educate their children and they would brush me off saying, ‘Bade aayen tips dene (who are you to give advice?).’ I want to be able to achieve such a stature that when you help people they don’t question your motives.
I want to help my village, my family, especially my elder brother Rajesh. My brother always pulled me back into the straight and narrow when I strayed. I had started doing drugs in school and my brother found out and beat me up. Thank god for that. He is doing his MSc in Maths and he started giving tuitions to support the family.
After I finish my IIT, I want to do IAS so that I can be part of the system and change it. I idolise Swami Vivekananda and I have tried to follow what he said, ‘Arise and awake and stop not till the goal is reached.’
IMAGE: Brijesh at the IIT-Bombay campus. ‘Everyone speaks English,’ he says, ‘And you can take second, third helpings of food and even order for eggs. The toilet even has a flush’. Photograph: Reuben NV/Rediff.com
People warned me that I will be swept away by the glamour of Mumbai. But I have always been my own guardian. I went to the Navodaya school when I was just 10. If my friends here tell me to go out socialising with them, I will refuse. I don’t have the money, I can’t go out.
I have budgeted a personal expenditure of Rs 500 per month, otherwise I will be depleting the funds. Who doesn’t like going out? I will, when I can.
It was my birthday on August 10. I turned 19. Nobody wished me because nobody here knows it was my birthday. I called my parents and they blessed me. We have never ever celebrated birthdays because we never had the money. Actually I don’t even know what you are supposed to do…
Sometimes, it is a little lonely here. I find it difficult to connect with my batch mates because of the language barrier, so to keep my spirits up, I wrote these lines…
Jab tootne lage hausla
Toh itna yaad rakhna
Bina mehnat ke haasil
Takhto taj nahin hote
Dhoond lete hain andhere me bhi manzil ko
Jugno kabhi roshni ke mohtaj nahin hote
When you lose hope
Remember this thought O my friend
No scepter or crown ever came to one who did not work hard
There are some who find their destination even in darkness
Just like fireflies that are never scarce of light.
I know I will make it.
Brijesh Kumar Saroj, 19, is the son of a daily wage labourer from Rehualalganj village in Pratapgarh district, Uttar Pradesh. He scored the 410th rank and is now doing Engineering Physics at IIT-Bombay.
He spoke to Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com after his classes at the IIT campus.
Source by rediff