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Where there’s a will, there’s a way

The journey of Ramjal Meena from a guard in JNU to cracking the entrance examination for pursuing Russian was marked by endless struggle. His inspirational story made headlines and has caught the attention of many. Like Meena, there are several other such stories of people who have survived all odds to follow their dreams. Patriot catches up with a few such achievers

IAS, no less

Diagnosed with a condition called scoliosis at birth, Ira Singhal had a bent spine right from the day she was born to Rajendra and Anita Singhal in Meerut. The spine grew more deformed as she grew up, and this restricted the free movement of her arms.

However, despite this condition, Ira always had a great mind for academics. She was always among the toppers in Sophia Girls School, Meerut and Loreto Convent School in Delhi. After completing her education from Army Convent School in Dhaula Kuan, she got an engineering degree from Netaji Subhash Institute of Technology, Delhi and then MBA from University of Delhi.

During her student years, Ira says, she did receive taunts, but never from her near and dear ones.

“There were instances of people making fun of my condition, but since I was always among the best students wherever I studied, the trolling never took a nasty turn,” says Ira, adding that her family members have always been extremely supportive of her. “The only difficulty I faced was the constant visits to the doctors to treat my condition. This continuous to and fro to the doctors did take a toll, but I never let it hamper my education.”

After completing her MBA, Ira managed to land a job as a Strategy Manager in Cadbury India. But somehow, corporate life didn’t satisfy her. She always harboured a dream – a dream to one day become an IAS officer.

In 2010, she quit her corporate job, returned to Delhi and started preparing for the UPSC exams. And she managed to crack what is considered India’s toughest competitive exam on her very first attempt, securing a position in the Indian Revenue Service.

However, what followed is what Ira considers one of the biggest setbacks of her life. Ira was not allowed to assume office because of her physical disability. The authorities cited her “inability to push, pull and lift” and hence she was rejected. It was the first time that her disability came in her way of achieving her dream.

This, however, did not deter Ira. She started rigorous preparations to take the civil services exam again, her goal being to become an IAS officer, since it was the only department in the UPSC where her physical disability was acceptable. She gave the exam three times after that but couldn’t clear it. “This was a really testing time but I never gave up hope, and was determined not to give up until I got what I wanted,”she says.

All this never set Ira in panic mode. She remained calm, and “never used to study at odd hours at the risk of my physical well-being. I just took it one chapter or one subject at a time.”

In 2015, after giving the examination for the fourth time, Ira says that she felt somewhat confident but “You never know with UPSC”, she adds. This time there was no disappointment around the corner. She managed to clear it, and not just in any manner. Ira Singhal topped the all India charts, becoming the first physically challenged person to top the UPSC exam in history. “It felt surreal. I never thought I would top,”she says, adding that she also felt relief that her days of struggle were finally coming to an end.

The girl, who was once rejected for her physical condition, now sits in the office of the Deputy Commissioner (Keshavpuram Zone), North MCD, on the 16th floor of the MCD Civic Centre, the largest building in the city.

“The four years that I have been an IAS officer has been the most exciting phase of my life. It’s like I am living the dream”, she says. In fact, Ira is also a brand ambassador of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and has received countless awards including a President’s gold medal for topping the IAS training. Ira is also the first IAS officer to hire two transgender employees in her department, and has rescued several victims of child labour during her tenure as Deputy Commissioner.

With all these achievements behind her, Ira feels strongly that India needs to be more friendly to the disabled. “People’s attitudes towards us is still the same, as I still get demeaning messages on social media. I choose not to pay heed to them,” she adds. She feels that at the very basic level, children should be taught that the disabled too are human beings and how one should behave with them, and that will make for a more inclusive society.

Ira concludes with a message for people like her who want to achieve something despite their handicaps: “Never give up. If you have a goal in mind, do whatever it takes to reach it, and never think of yourself as inferior to others, because no matter what, nothing can stop you from reaching your goal.”

Super saviour

Back in 2014, Keshav Raj was almost forced to give up studies and go back to his village, due to financial constraints. Now studying in IIT Delhi, he has had quite the journey.

Hailing from a middle-class family in Patna, things were quite smooth sailing for Raj until his father passed away. Studying in 8th standard in Patliputra Central School, he clearly did not have much idea about how difficult life would be after his father — the sole earner of the family — died.

“My father was suffering for over 8-9 months and would always be in the hospital. But I was never informed about his real condition. Just 2-3 days before he passed away, I was told that he was suffering from cancer and will not make it. I was shocked,” recalls Raj.

The untimely death of their father compelled Raj’s sister to take up a job soon after she graduated from school. After completing her board exams, she started working to support her family and also enrolled herself in an open university.

Her earnings of a meagre Rs 6,000 a month was surely not enough to pay for rent along with Raj’s school tuition fee.

“She did everything she could to help me continue my studies. But things became very difficult since most of the family’s money was already exhausted in my father’s treatment,” says Raj.

It dawned on him that it would perhaps not be possible for him to continue his studies after completing his 10th and he decided to go back to his village in Orhanpur near Nawada.

“Despite not being mature enough, I could understand that my family’s finances were not in good shape and it would be best for me to go back to my village and take up farming. Staying in Patna was very expensive for us back then,” adds Raj.

It was during this period – in the end of October 2014 — that he had a chance encounter with maths teacher Pankaj Kumar at the ghats during Chhat puja. Pankaj was looking for students to coach at Abhayanand Super30, which was set to open in the year 2015.

A coaching institute for IIT, Abhayanand Super30 provides guidance and training to students from difficult financial backgrounds to crack the entrance examination to the prestigious engineering institute.

Pankaj asked Raj a few maths questions right there and the latter solved them correctly, leaving the older man mighty impressed.

“Soon after this he met me again and took me to Abhayanand Sir who took another interview and then asked me to join the coaching institute.”   After finishing his 10th Board exams in April 2015, Raj joined Abhayanand Super30 as one of the students from its first batch. After two years of coaching, he ranked 487 in JEE (Advanced).

He has been at IIT Delhi pursuing BTech in mechanical engineering for two years now. Looking back at his training days he says, “It was like heaven. It was a very important transition period for me. Those two years were the best part of my life.”

On learning about the family’s financial condition, Abhayanand Super30 also provided a clerical job to his sister, which paid her better than her previous job. Both Raj and his sister joined the institute at the same time, changing their lives for the better.

Now their mother has
gone back to their village to take care of Raj’s ailing grandparents and his sister
is doing quite well to sustain herself. Raj is planning on sitting for the UPSC exams and is looking forward to securing a government job in the future.

Painting dreams

Tiyasha Dhara was born to a family of four in a small household in North Kolkata. Her father is a tailor earning around Rs 8,000 a month, which is all that comes in to support the family. Tiyasha always wanted to do something in life to turn around her family’s fortunes.

And she was gifted with a good intellect, as she was a topper in each and every class she studied in. Everyone, right from her teachers to her family, knew that she had a bright career in academics. But Tiyasha harboured dreams of her own, inside her heart.

From a very young age, she was fascinated by the intricate woollen sweaters her grandmother used to knit and the finesse of her mother’s rangoli during Saraswati Puja. “These nuances always made me realise that this is my dream: to become an artist”, she says.

She took art lessons as a child, and was absolutely exceptional at it. She participated in many state level and district level competitions — and won.

In her Class 12 Board exam, Tiyasha scored a brilliant 88% in the arts stream. Her parents and teachers were happy, and she got admission in the English (Hons) course at one of the most reputed colleges in Kolkata. But Tiyasha was not satisfied with what she was getting into. She wanted to go to an art college.

But admission in a private art college demands a lot of money — which was absolutely out of her poor family’s grasp. However, there is one college in Kolkata which is affordable – the Government College of Arts and Crafts, one of the premier fine arts institutions in the country. The fee to be paid is nominal.

The hurdle before her was clearing the entrance exam of this institution, no mean feat. But first, she had to convince her parents, who understandably were against the very idea of studying fine arts,  given the general perception that there is no money in this field. However, help came from an unexpected quarter.

The principal of her school, recognising her talent, helped convince her parents to let Tiyasha try for this course.
“My parents respected her a lot, and when she said this, they agreed to let me take this exam,” she says.

Her principal took her to a renowned artist Amar Sarkar, an alumnus of the institution. He, in turn, helped her prepare by lending her books and critiquing her drawings.

“When I went for my entrance exam, the other candidates were talking about how difficult it was to crack it. All the people I met had sat for the exam at least twice and still not made it”. Tiyasha, however, managed to get through in her first attempt.

The difficulties didn’t stop even after she got admission. Students had to spend around Rs 10,000 a month to buy paraphernalia like colours and canvases. She gave art lessons to young children seven days a week to make the money.

Tiyasha is now in her final year, and has already managed to get an apprenticeship under artist Narayan Sarkar, in addition to doing a lot of freelance work. Some of her works include projects under the Ambuja Neotia and the RP-Sanjiv Goenka groups.

“After years of struggle, I can proudly say that I can sustain myself through work that I absolutely enjoy doing. I still can’t believe that I made a career out of my passion for painting,” concludes Tiyasha.