(Success Story) The lorry driver's son who topped the civil services exam in Tamil Nadu
The 2006 competitive examinations for India's civil services is notable for the number of young people from non privileged backgrounds who feature in the merit list. Again, for the first time, none from India's elite metros appeared in the top ten.
Topping the Union Public Services Commission examination is Revu Muthyala Raju, a farmer's son and a member of the so-called Other Backward Classes, whose amazing story we will chronicle later in this special series. No less incredible are the stories of the other toppers. Like K Nandakumar, a lorry driver's son, whose success story we chronicle today.
There is, prima facie, something condescending about such headlines; an unstated presumption, almost, that a lorry driver's son topping a competitive exam is a freak show of sorts.
K Nandakumar's parents don't think so; they see their son not as some freak of nature, but as a young man who knew what he wanted, and went after it, surmounting obstacles as chance, and circumstance, threw them in his path.
"He was always a serious student," mother K Lakshmi says. "During school days he never used to go out to play. He used to go for tuitions from six to eight in the morning and again from five to eight in the evening. During exams, he studied till midnight and beyond. And in between, he was in school -- so there really was no time to play."
Amusement, as we know it, was limited to a weekend game of cricket, of the limited variety -- limited, in this case, not by the number of overs, but the amount of time Nandakumar could spare for such frivolity: exactly an hour a week.
Nandakumar's academic curve is typical of the no-pain, no-gain formulation that increasingly defines the Indian student. Up until the 12th standard, he studied in the Namakkal Government South School, an institution where the medium of instruction was Tamil.
With 1,018 marks out of a possible 1,200 in his Higher Secondary exams, he went to the Pollachi Mahalingam College for an engineering degree.
Economic constraints, and the feeling that he needed to pitch in to help his father run the household, led to a six-month stint with a private company in Coimbatore. During this period, he attempted to work days, then study nights -- but when work, and the resultant fatigue, began impacting on his studies, he quit to focus on the Indian Administrative Service exams.
The first time he sat for the UPSC exams, he failed. On his second go-round, he ranked 350th -- a result that parlayed into a job with the Indian Railways.
Though his sights were set on the IAS, it wasn't easy spurning the job that had come his way -- his background just did not give him such luxuries.
Father M Karuppannan, of Mamarthapetti village in Tamil Nadu's Namakkal district, had stopped his own education at the SSC level, and went to work in the paddy fields of his native village.
That proved a dead end, so Karuppannan had joined a local lorry service, as a 'cleaner'. During that stint, which lasted two years, he learnt to drive and got his license; he then parlayed that into a job as a driver, and with a relatively steady job in hand, married Lakshmi. The couple had two children: Nandakumar, now 26 and Aravindkumar, now 20.
The household ran on Karuppannan's income; as the two boys moved up the academic rungs, expenses escalated and the family finances were stretched impossibly thin.
Given this, Nandakumar could not ignore the bird in hand that was the Railways job, while dreaming of the IAS job he hoped to land some day.
So he joined the Railways, and began the required training. Nights, he shrugged off the fatigue, and studied for yet another attempt at the big one.
This year marked his third -- and, to his mind, final, attempt. When the results came in, his first reaction was relief; that of his parents, pride.
He had ranked 30th all India; in his native Tamil Nadu, where he had taken the exam in his mother tongue, he topped the charts.
Lakshmi, seated in her home in Tiruchirappalli, where the family moved from Namakkal three years ago, now anticipates her son's homecoming. He has not, she says, managed to get leave for a trip home, after the results were announced; hopefully he will come sometime in June, and the family will celebrate.
She is used to Nandakumar being away from home. When he was studying for his engineering degree, she says, he stayed in the hostel and only came home during holidays.
The mother paints a picture of a son focused, to the exclusion of all else, on studies, on the relentless march to his self-appointed goal of becoming an IAS officer. Even when he was in hostel, she says, all he did was study. He didn't like movies; he only had a small circle of friends.
Lakshmi is most happy for her husband. "He grew up facing great difficulties and I too come from a poor background. Thus we know the value of money and have always saved. We never waste money. All our life, we have saved to educate our sons."
Even now, the grind that she has been witness to, part of, for 27 years is far from ending: Karuppannan continues to drive his lorry, going wherever the load takes him, returning whenever he is done with his deliveries. There is, Lakshmi points out, the younger son still to worry about.
Aravindkumar is currently in his second year, working towards his own engineering degree. One year's worth of education costs Rs one lakh (Rs 100,000), she says -- and that is about all her husband can earn.
To put food on the table, Lakshmi invested in a sewing machine, and works from home. "I make about one hundred rupees a day, and that takes care of the household expenses," she says, with the smile of a woman who is proud of pulling her freight in the partnership she has with her husband.
They have a small two-room house -- but, she points out, it is their own. "My husband will continue to drive his lorry till our second son finishes college," she says.
The mother meanwhile is busy planning how to "settle down" her elder son. "We will find a good girl for him; we don't want dowry or anything, just that she must be a good girl, a good wife for my son.
"He will agree to an arranged marriage," she says, almost as an afterthought. For her, it is inconceivable that her son, who in all his 26 years has shown no thought for anything other than his academic goal, would have a mind of his own on this subject.
She still cannot get over the day she heard the news. "He always used to say he would become famous -- but when he called me (on May 14) and told me the news, my first reaction was to tell him he was lying."
Once she realised that her son had found the pot of gold at the end of his particular rainbow, she and her husband rushed to share the news with their relatives, friends.
The first real intimation of what Nandakumar had achieved came when Ashish Vachchani, Tiruchi's District Collector, visited their home to felicitate the couple on their son's success.
Close on his heels came Murthy, an IAS officer who had previously served in Tiruchi and who was now in neighbouring Karur district.
To Karuppannan and Lakshmi, for whom a 'Collector' is only a remove or two from celestial beings and just as unapproachable, to have two such persons visit their humble home was exhilarating; those visits brought home to them, in graphical fashion, the fact that her son was now the equal of these exalted beings.
Aravindkumar, happy though he is for his elder brother, has no intention of following in those footsteps; his ambition is to graduate, then find work as an engineer.
His elder sibling, Aravind says, is a "jolly fellow" who would help with studies, who taught him chess and yoga. Nandakumar's success has, he says, given him cachet with his own friends in college, some of whom plan to write the UPSC exam.
"I have given them my brother's number, so they can ask him for tips," Aravind says, with more than a hint of pride.
For both Aravind and Nandakumar, their parents are "our gods". "We are proud of our father," Aravind says. "He is very hardworking and very thrifty."
At the centre of all the attention, Nandakumar is a bit bewildered by it all -- especially his sudden, unlooked for fame.
There is no secret to success, he says, seemingly puzzled that someone would even ask. "It was hard work and nothing else," he says. "It was a group effort. We are five friends who studied together."
The friends went together to trawl through the market, looking for books relating to the civil services; they then pored over their finds. Newspapers were devoured cover to back page, with meticulous care.
"For current affairs, they usually ask questions about the last one year, so you have to read a lot of newspapers," Nandakumar points out.
Like his younger brother, Nandakumar too believes that if there is a "secret" to his "success", it is his father.
"I am lucky to have a very friendly father," Nandakumar says. "He is very understanding. I can discuss anything with him. More than a father, he is a friend."
"He always allowed me to express my thoughts freely. Because of his job, he has had exposure to people and places all over India; maybe that is why he has given me so much freedom to express myself."
Down time with his father is a rare commodity since he is always behind the wheel of his lorry, travelling to wherever work takes him.
"My father doesn't even have a mobile; when he gets somewhere, he calls, and that is how we stay in touch." Nandakumar recalls how, when he passed the UPSC and got a job with the Railways, it was over a month before he could share the news with his father.