From Patna to the Burj, from a farmer in Bihar to a chemistry Professor in Germany; these are just a few of the people impacted by Anand Kumar’s Super 30 programme. The man is a phenomenon and I had the privilege of listening to him keynote the Foundation for Excellence’s Gala in New York recently.
As he spoke I was awed, applauding and emotionally overwhelmed, all at the same time. A few thousand Anand Kumars and the geography of India will be transformed. The man had to keep taking breaks due to the continuous applause. He was a math prodigy and got admission to Cambridge university but the lack of finances or sponsors prevented him from attending. Instead, he started a small scale business with his mother, making ‘papad’, to earn money. His mother finally gave him the courage to start The Ramanujan School for Mathematics where he began tutoring deserving students.
The school began the Super 30 programme with a simple premise. Students without the financial wherewithal but with good grades are prepared for the IIT entrance examinations. He lodges feeds and teach his chosen thirty students with no donation or external financial support. He manages on the fees he gets and with the help of his family. His IIT educated wife and mother cook and feed the thirty students and his brother helps run the institute. Anand Kumar was self-deprecating and humble. He spoke with eloquence and a great sense of humour. He has been felicitated by many governments and private organisations in India. Anand Kumar has also been invited to IIM Ahmedabad and Stanford, among other education powerhouses, to speak about his endeavour.
There was a time he was requested to stand for elections because his popularity would help the party get votes, but he deadpanned as he said, no one would have given him the time of day if he had become a politician. Time and again, the local mafia has threatened to shut down his school. His intention is not fame and fortune but to pass on the love of Math as well as to help the less privileged succeed. Ironically, one of his students, an auto driver’s daughter, made it to the billboards of Paris when a film was made on her life.
Anand Kumar talked about the paradox of his situation. When he was a nobody, no one was willing to donate. It was only after he gained recognition, did people come out in droves to support his cause. While he does not require financial aid, he reveals banks do not give loans to the students for their career counselling sessions and there is a lacuna in that area.
Foundation for Excellence was started by Prabhu Goel for successful Indian Americans, to help brilliant but needy students in India join the best schools for engineering, medicine and computer science. The organisation has not only helped over 15000 students, it has a self-sustaining mechanism wherein students who benefit from their programme, pledge to support two other students upon passing out and joining the workforce. At the function, many such students spoke about their gratitude to FFE for giving them that edge and enabling them to become successful in their chosen careers. Apart from helping two other needy students, these students have also helped their own families and loved ones. It is a unique organisation and deserved the standing ovation given to them for their excellent work.
What does not get standing ovation is the service I got at a well-known NYC restaurant recently. ABC Kitchen is part of the Jean George group that has started a new vegan eatery. Since my companions were vegetarians, we decided to try out the new restaurant. I generally like the cuisine at ABC but I doubt I will go to the vegan place again. While the food was too bland for my palate, that is not why I will not go there. The server’s nonchalant manner is what turned me off. He placed a dish at our table that we had not ordered. When I pointed that out to him, he quickly said it was compliments of the chef. We were pleased, like any desi who gets a freebie. But within a few seconds, he was back, picked up the dish stating it was not the right dish and our complimentary dish was on its way and walked away. He obviously made a mistake and gave us the wrong dish. He could have simply apologised. Instead, he claimed another dish was coming. We finished our meal and dessert, but there was no sign of a complimentary dish appearing at our table. For a reputed eating place such as ABC, this is shocking behaviour.
Shocking is also the state of many of New York’s subways and subway stations. They are filthy and have a stench. Some stations have corners with urine pools. I cannot understand how a supposedly developed country like the US can allow such unhygienic conditions. I am no fan of Trump, but his slogan Make America Great Again, has much validity if the infrastructure is anything to go by. Recently I drove a friend to that shopping Mecca of all desi visitors: Woodbury Commons. (Case in point, we bumped into three other Pune families shopping there!) So many of the roads in and out of the city have potholes and are in need of a total rehaul. They resembled Pune roads after the monsoon. I had to keep reminding myself I am in New York and not Pune. If nothing else, I do hope Trump does something about the crumbling infrastructure.
In the meantime, I continue to hold my nose as I trudge up and down the stairs into New York’s subterranean region. Maybe some of the brilliant Super 30 or FFE students, will come up with fool proof engineering technology to keep the subway clean.