IIT Madras was a strange, intimidating place when I first stepped into it. In fact, I was close to wishing I had never been so uncharacteristically mindless as to think I, the very opposite of a fiercely independent, never-tied-to-mummy’s-pallu possessor of a devil-may-care attitude, could actually survive in a place like this, full of the multi-talented brain-iacs of the country as it was.
Of course, as I often am about such things, I was dead wrong. JEE preparation was a difficult time, a whirl of confusion and the feeling that I was in a never-ending race for my life, which I managed to save by the skin of my teeth. I felt as if my existence would be even more difficult in this mean green jungle that was now my home. I am not proud to say I was not above the popular reference to a chicken.
As I got used to things, life became new and exciting. I was lucky enough to be able to explore everything that caught my fancy and develop every little talent I possessed. I was finally made privy to the existence of Avanti Fellows in this, my first year at IIT, and the work they proposed fascinated me. My worries seemed to shrink into nothing, and I was heartily ashamed of having such petty problems and fears. As I began to realize what this ambitious non-profit organization had set out to accomplish, I was awed by the sheer willpower behind such an aim.
Alumni from IIT Bombay courageously decided to form Avanti, a mentoring organization wherein underprivileged children of the 11th and 12th standards with big dreams are coached for JEE by students of IIT wishing to do so. I was initially apprehensive of being responsible for part of a student’s education so early when I was so unsure of my own, but the thought of all the better facilities I had during my own JEE training as compared to these innocent starry-eyed children steeled my resolve, and pushed me to help them in any way within my power.
I was made in charge of a lovely young girl in the 11th standard, Vasuki, who had passed screening tests and was now a fellow at Avanti. She is always eager to learn and I do everything I can to clear her many doubts, all the while reminded of my own difficulties during preparation. That is the beauty of Avanti. Teachers are people who are willing to work out of goodwill, and have themselves experienced various entrance exams recently.
As enlightening as my experience with Vasuki was, an incident, which truly opened my eyes to the sad situation a dream without funding is in, occurred some time after my induction. I was assigned the task of paying home visits to possible new students for Avanti along with another mentor. The purpose behind these visits was to talk to the students’ parents, put them at ease when it came to the start of their child’s experience with Avanti, and make sure that they were indeed of the underprivileged.
I was not prepared for what I next saw. The pride on parents’ faces in the houses we visited was evident enough, along with their happiness and sense of gratitude. Equally evident were the conditions they lived in, the tiny rooms and meager furnishing that were occupied with ease and no dissatisfaction at all. I was silenced, overpowered, humbled by their hospitality and happiness against all odds. Equally fascinating were the bright minds we found there. I was suddenly reminded of the fact that this country possesses talent everywhere, unbound by material boundaries, talent that deserves to be nurtured and honed.
I can neither understand nor speak Tamil. That did not keep me from understanding one mother’s emotions, fears and hopes as she conversed with my companion unaffectedly in the only language she knew. Her expressions said it all. She was determined to provide her daughters and son a better education than she had received. And she had succeeded already to a large extent, we realized as we conversed with her daughter.
We cannot deceive ourselves by expecting all the students (fellows) of Avanti to get into an IIT, but we can always strive to do all that is humanly possible to at least afford them a decent shot at it. Whether they make it past JEE or not, they will always be a better-informed set of individuals than they would have been without Avanti. It is this conviction that drives all Avanti workers and helps bring fellows closer to their goals.
I always look back at my unreasonable dissatisfaction at the beginning of my life just before, and at, IIT with a guilt which has taught me something priceless. I will always feel an immense sense of gratitude for being given what Avanti works hard to give its fellows: a shot at their dreams.
– Navyata Sanghvi, Avanti Mentor at IIT Madras