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Monday, September 16, 2013

My father's education

Yesterday, I wrote about my father's illness and death. Given that this blog readers mostly expect me to write about education, I thought of sharing some very interesting education related experience of my father.

He was a very quiet person, but after his illness, lying on his bed, he loved to talk. He particularly enjoyed remembering incidents and experiences from his early part of life. One day, when he was visiting us at Kanpur, he told me about his education, and it is a rather interesting, though sometimes a sad story.

Our village is only 75 KM from Pilani. My father studied in Birla School, Pilani. In the Inter final exam, there were five subjects, and there were 3 papers in each subject. So a total of 15 exams. (Inter was equivalent to 12th class, but the exam was conducted by a university, and not a school board. In this case, the institute was affiliated to Rajasthan University, Jaipur.)

During the exams, he became ill. He somehow managed to take 14 exams. But on the day of his 14th exam, his condition was serious enough that the warden forced him to go to a doctor, and the doctor promptly advised that he be admitted to a hospital. The next day, he pleaded with the doctor to let him take the last exam, even for just an hour, but the doctor was unmoved, and he had to miss that exam. It was Maths III exam, worth 33 marks.

When the results came, the marksheet showed 33/33, 34/34, 0/33, a total of 67 out of 100 in Maths, the first time in his life when he had received less than 100%, and it pained him, even though it was not because he did not know the answers. But the good thing was that he was in the merit list of Rajasthan University. It was amazing and unheard of that someone who had given only 14 exams was in the merit list.

With this performance, he could have walked into any engineering college. Yes, even in 1950s, there were only two careers which were considered attractive - engineering and medicine. But the village people had only heard of Pilani and Thapar. That Hijli jail had been converted to an IIT was not yet known to the mankind at large. And he chose Pilani. He filled up the admission form, submitted and came back home.

BITS was not yet a deemed university, and it was an affiliated college of Rajasthan University. So its admission was controlled by RU. After a few days when the list of approved admissions came to BITS, there was a shock. My father's name was missing from the list. They immediately sent a man to Jaipur to get the inadvertent error corrected. But he was told that this was not an error. My father had failed one of the 15 exams of Inter, and hence not eligible for admission to college. But if he had failed one subject, and passed all other subjects, then as per rules, he should be allowed to give supplementary exams, and the admission can be given provisionally, subject to his passing the supplementary exam. The engineering admission wing of Rajasthan University was OK with this argument, if the office controlling Inter exams allowed him to sit for the supplementary exams. When this man went to the neighbouring office within the same university, he was told that my father was the topper and how could a topper be allowed supplementary exam.

BITS Director (or Principal) immediately left for Jaipur to meet the Vice Chancellor. He argued with him that the University should make up its mind whether my father was the topper or a failure. One office calling him topper and the other office calling him a failure was not right. If he is a failure then he should be given supplementary exam, and provisional admission. If he is the topper, then of course, he should be given regular admission. But VC could not resolve the issue, and my father did not have any admission, as he had not applied to any other college, and the last date for every program was over.

That BITS would do so much for him really impressed him, and to his last day, he had a soft corner for Pilani. How many of our current academic administrators would do anything to get a good student to their respective colleges. And, by the way, similar stupidities continue till today. If you see IIT JEE (now called JEE Advanced), if you do extremely well in one exam and have good enough marks to get into an IIT, you are still denied admission if you were absent in the second part. If you come to the second part, mark your presence, don't answer even one question, and get a zero, you are eligible for admission, but an absence makes you ineligible. What is the difference between 0 and absence, only IIT Directors know. The story also makes me wonder what would have been his career if the doctor had allowed him to be at the exam for just 15 minutes. Or if he had just casually sent an admission application to Kharagpur or Thapar.

But the story does not end here. It is only the beginning. So if you are allergic to long posts, stop here.

Back in the village, it was obvious that he would have to waste one year, and next year, he could seek admission at Thapar. My grandfather was not happy with the situation, and he thought of talking to the Principal of the local village college to see if he could just attend it for a year. My father wanted admission in no course other than BSc (Mathematics). The college principal had multiple issues. The last date for admission was over. The college only ran BA courses and getting approval for a new program and that too after admissions were closed did not seem feasible. And of course, if at all those hassles could be overcome, who would teach Mathematics in that village. But he was very excited that the topper of Rajasthan University was seeking admission in the village college.

My father made it easy for him as far as the last problem was concerned. He promised that every day during the so-called lecture hours, he would sit in the college library and study those topics himself. The principal was happy to hear that and was confident that this boy would be able to self-study and pass the program. So next day, early morning, he set off to Rohtak, which had a regional center of Panjab University, the one that provided affiliation to the village college. The seniormost administrator at Rohtak looked at the marksheet of my father, and without any delay approved the new program, as well as extended the deadline for admission into this new program. Notice that he wasn't even the Vice Chancellor, for the VC of Panjab University had an office in faraway Solan in what is currently the state of Himachal Pradesh. A lower ranked officer could take such a decision without even a meeting of the Academic Council.

There was critical difference between how Rajasthan looked at education and how PEPSU state looked at education. Rajasthan was just trying to create a reputation of being part of BIMARU states and would do anything to thwart the progress in education. But PEPSU had realized that education would be key to growth in the newly independent India, and there was massive expansion of higher education going on throughout the state. (Of course, that was then. As I have written in some of my earlier blogs, today Rajasthan has amongst the most liberal policies on higher education.) So any college wanted to start a new program and requested more seats, they were easily allowed.

So the principal comes home in the night to deliver the good news that my father could start college from the next day. But the principal had not anticipated some problems when he did all this. The next day, some other kids from village who had taken admission in BA courses, also applied to shift to Mathematics. Now, the principal could not say no to them, but at the same time, he wasn't sure that these kids could pass the courses without a faculty member teaching those courses. And that could lead to violence. They would obviously demand that classes be held, and there was no way that the village college would find Mathematics faculty so soon.

My father solved the problem for him. He would study all Mathematics courses in the evening, and take lectures for all other students in the day time. So at a tender age of 16, he became the de facto college lecturer, of course, without any remuneration. And he really had to work hard for this.

One year went past. Remember, he was expected to apply for admission to Thapar. But he shocked the family by telling them that he was happy studying mathematics and he was dropping the idea of doing engineering. Not only was he deeply interested in maths, but he also felt a responsibility towards his fellow students whom he was continuing to teach.

Three years went past, and he passed the BSc (Mathematics) course with flying colors. He was the topper of the university in the Rohtak zone.

He took admission in the MSc (Mathematics) program at Delhi University. This was a dream place for him. All the great mathematicians whose books he had been reading for the last three years, were there. He could see them, hear them, and even talk to them. If there was heaven on earth, it was here, it was here, it was here. But he had some handicaps. There were some topics which were part of curriculum of BSc in Delhi University but not in Panjab University, and they were assumed as pre-requisites by all faculty members. There were some topics which he wasn't very confident in, since he had received no formal guidance in the last three years. So he had to work extremely hard to perform well overcoming those handicaps. And, of course, first time in a big metro city for a person from village is never very easy. But he worked hard, day in and day out, and when the result came out at the end of the year, he was ranked #2 in the university.

This encouraged him a lot. If with all those handicaps and initial teething troubles, he could secure the second position, now that he was well settled, it should not be very difficult to be the topper. He had heard that the University offered a lecturer position to the topper of the MSc program, and one could do PhD while being a lecturer. Just imagine being the colleague of those Gods of Mathematics. That was a huge motivation and he worked as hard as any human could possibly do. He just had to top the MSc program. But in the process he forgot that to survive, he needed to eat and drink as well.

Just a month before the final exam, he became seriously ill. My grand-father came to Delhi and took him to a doctor. The doctor simply said that his illness is Mathematics. The moment he leaves Maths, he will be alright, and if he does not, he will die. Grand father did not take even seconds to pronounce the judgment. By evening, he had to pack up and leave for village.

My grand father was a good man. He gave a lot of freedom to his sons to take decisions. But, once he had decided something, it was final. You could appeal a decision of Supreme Court, but there was no appeal against his decisions. It wasn't a question of just one month, but it was this whole career plan to study Mathematics for the rest of the life that scared my grand father, and he wasn't going to risk the life of his son for the sake of Mathematics.

Back in the village, my father joined a school as a teacher, and soon started enjoying it. He had enjoyed his stint as a de facto lecturer earlier, and really felt that teaching is his calling. If not at the college and the university level, then let it be at the school level. Soon, he shifted to a school in Delhi. But to get a permanent job as a school teacher, he needed a Master's degree and B.Ed.

He was advised that the easiest subject to pass at the master's level without a bachelor's degree in the subject was History. So he enrolled in MA (History). He admittedly had no interest in the subject. He was teaching Maths in the day and studying history in the night, that too without any passion, and without any background at the bachelor's level. All he could manage at the end was 59% marks in the university exams.

The marks weren't bad for those days. First divisions were rare, and he actually had a decent rank in the university. And most importantly, he could have managed a permanent job with that. But he felt ashamed of getting a second division after such a brilliant academic career throughout. He had to do another Master's degree.

He thought about the subjects that he might enjoy studying (besides maths, of course). In the post-independence India, there was a lot of curiosity regarding the constitution, the form of government, and how everything was supposed to work out. He used to read a bit on these topics. And thus, he decided to do an MA in Political Science, which he followed by a B.Ed., and then secured a job in Delhi Government school system as a Political Science teacher. Of course, through out his years in schools, he had to take all the classes of political science or civics, and in addition the school principal, knowing his background, would ask him to teach mathematics to some class. So he did double duty throughout his career. But he loved teaching so much that he would never mind putting in extra hours for it.



Unknown said...

Dear Prof. Sanghi,
Your father was a great man and full of grit. I have read only the last two posts about your father, and I cannot stop admiring him. Not many folks have the character or determination to follow their dreams, but you father was truly exceptional by all standards.
As a regular reader of your blog, I would love to read more posts on his life and struggle to create a better future, not just for his family but also for the society.

Unknown said...

Dear Prof. Sanghi,
Your father was a great man and full of grit. I have read only the last two posts about your father, and I cannot stop admiring him. Not many folks have the character or determination to follow their dreams, but you father was truly exceptional by all standards.
As a regular reader of your blog, I would love to read more posts on his life and struggle to create a better future, not just for his family but also for the society.

Unknown said...

Inspiring sir! Teaching is something different no doubt.

Amit Awekar said...

Dear Professor Sanghi,
One word for your father, "respect". His life is inspiring indeed.

Dhiren Patel said...

inspiring.... good....

Anonymous said...

Sad to hear of the loss, Dheeraj. Unfortunate turn of events prevented him from following his true calling, but I think he still achieved greatness through the legacy he leaves behind. -shamik

Anonymous said...

Sad to hear of the loss, Dheeraj. Unfortunate turn of events prevented him from following his true calling, but I think he still achieved greatness through the legacy he leaves behind. -shamik

Unknown said...

My heart felt condolences, Dheeraj. Your post is inspiring and very well articulated. I know uncle ji for many-many years, however I was not very much aware of all you have written. I have always known him as you have mentioned, however my respect for him has gone several notches up after reading your blog. Thanks for sharing such an inspiring life.

Saurabh Joshi said...

Dear Sir,
Sad to hear about your loss. Your father had a really interesting and inspiring journey of life.

Unknown said...

Dheeraj Sir, Really Outstanding and Inspiring. Pranam to your father. No words.......

Unknown said...

Respected Professor, Your Father is really outstanding , Inspiring . No words........... May his soul rest in peace.

Atul Negi said...

Very inspiring to read about the personality. Circumstances directed his life differently. Admire your writing about it and sharing. Sadar naman.