I come from a rural background, with father teaching in a school about 7 km from home. The St Ignatius High School, where I studied in Malayalam Medium, was very near, only 3km from home. There was a village library and reading room (Amballoor Grameena Vayanasala), where I used to go every evening, to read some newspapers and borrow books for reading, mostly in Malayalam. I used to read, books on fiction (including science fiction), novels, poetry, history, and scientific publications. I remember having read a translation of Les Misérables of Victor Hugo, and some Russian Classics, those days.
In 1964, I appeared for the Secondary School Leaving Certificate Exam, and passed with a First Class. I got admission to the First Group of the 2-year Pre-Degree Course (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Social Studies, English & Hindi), in the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. The medium of instruction was English and for a whole year kept me down with a complex, as among my class-mates some 50% had come from English medium schools.
My father decided to get my accommodation in a hostel, which made me quite independent at that age. I had a large number of friends from almost all over Kerala, but unfortunately, lost touch with most of them as time passed. My visit to the village reading room & library had changed to weekly routine. The hostel used to have a large number of daily newspapers, and college library was good. Unfortunately, we were the junior-most in the big college and for that reason, I didn’t feel very comfortable to go there. Secondly, most of the senior students, who used to frequent Library, were very fluent in English, which made me nervous with inferiority complex.
By the second year in college, I had several senior students in B. Sc. And M. Sc. levels, some of them used to go to Library. While each department had its own library for the post graduate students, the Undergraduate level they used to go to the general library, which used to be crowded, and noisy. As a result, I decided not to go there.
Preparations for future
Towards the end of that academic year, I applied for the National Science Talent Search Examination, just before the university examination. Also, I had to apply for the selection to one of the Engineering Colleges, and separately for the Regional Engineering College, Calicut. However, I learnt that the admission to IITs was through entrance test. I was quite busy in January-Feb with these applications. I was mentally prepared to go to IIT Madras, or Bombay, but not farther ones like Delhi, Kanpur of Kharagpur.
Around the end of this period of applications, a friend asked me if I was willing to try for admission at the Indian School of Mines in the far away state of Bihar. One of his relatives in Kolkata somehow found out that the institution is very reputed and a degree from there was a sure way to a secure job. His family was not keen as the place was very far. I felt that might not be a bad idea, as, even the IIT was far away. I took the application form (and paid him Rs 10/- the cost of that form!) and started filling up. It turned out that the IIT Entrance test was in Trissur, and ISM Entrance test in Trivandrum, a week later. Luckily the admission to Kerala’s Engineering Colleges did not require separate tests.
In the university examination, as we were of the first batch of Pre-Degree, there was no question papers of previous exams, and all we had were the questions in our text books to study. The college conducted a model examination sometime in March, and that was our only guide. None of my friends, who were taking the entrance examinations like me, knew anything about centres which prepare students for these exams (Coaching Classes)
The exams went on well, and after that I was also busy with a project report for the National Science Talent Search Examination, which was also in Ernakulam. I was helped significantly by Mr Kamath, a lecturer in the Chemistry Department. He, as well as some of my friends doing post-graduation in Chemistry and Physics helped me to correct my project. After this was the Entrance tests for IIT and a week later for ISM.
I realized that two subjects, Hindi and Social Studies, which in our college, we all had neglected, would affect the rank list. I thought I would be very lucky to just scrape through these papers, and if so, a fairly high first class was sure (though it was not probably enough for securing admission to Kerala Engineering Colleges).
The entrance test for IIT was tough, and I was not able to answer even half of the questions in Mathematics (The format was just 4 subjects English, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, in two days). The IIT entrance test that I took the previous week really helped me in my ISM Entrance, as when I saw the question papers, I didn’t have any great surprises. Also my friends told me that since the same questions are given to all students across India, it does not matter how well I do a paper, but more important is how others did it! In a way, for the first time I realized that when you get a First Class, it is your effort, but a rank is given to you by your peers!
The results of the Pre Degree, Science Talent Search Exam, Entrance Tests for IIT and ISM all came, around May-June period. There was nothing surprising, as I had a First Class in Pre Degree with a bare pass in Social Studies, Hindi and English (where I thought I should have got more marks, though). The interview I had for the Science Talent Search Examinations was held at IISc Bangalore, and I was told that the scholarship was not open for those who opt for Engineering or Medicine, so I had to excuse and not appear for the interview! My name was not there in IIT Entrance tests, but ISM had called me for admission.
Think about it, I was planning for admission to one of the Engineering Colleges in Kerala, but it was only pure destiny that I was selected in ISM, an institution I had not even heard about at that time. I had very few people around me who had heard about Dhanbad. One of them told me that the summer is scorching hot, but when it rains there is a flood, from his experience during the time of British, when he had served in the Army. One of my relatives told me that the place appeared to be one of the rare places of learning, and so I would not have any issue of finding a job in future. I accepted the offer.
Those days there was a train from Ernakulam/Kochi to Madras (Chennai now), from where I had to change train and go to Calcutta (Kolkata now), and board another train to my ticketed destination Dhanbad. I proceeded without reservations! I had met the oldest member of our matrilineal family, my grandmother’s uncle, who blessed me profusely, and gave me Five Rupees, saying that since I am not doing any work in the train, that money would be enough for one meal a day for a three day journey.
The train that left Cochin Harbour Terminus (the starting station, where I could find a seat) in the evening arrived in Madras Central Station next morning, from where my next train was in the evening. My mother’s uncle had sent his son to the Madras Central Station and picked me up, as he knew fully well that I was so unfamiliar outside Kerala. He dropped me off at the railway station in the evening, well in advance, so that I could get a seat in one of the several unreserved coaches. The train seemed to have taken over 40 hours and reached Calcutta in the afternoon. There I tried to find out which is the train going to Dhanbad, perhaps it was too tough for me to communicate with people. The railway people advised me to take “Toofan Express” and something more that I could not follow. I did take that train, but when the ticket examiner came, the train had just left Asansol, where I was supposed to change train (Obviously I did not know that!) He advised me to get down at the next stop Chittaranjan and then travel with a new ticket. I thus got down at Chittaranjan, and one of the co-passengers took me to a bus near the station, instructed the conductor to drop me near ISM Dhanbad. In the hurry, I even forgot to thank that good Samaritan. The bus conductor took the exact fare, and reassured me that the bus actually went near Indian School of Mines (called “Mining College”), and would remind me to get down. Later, after a couple of hours, he asked me to get down, right in front of Mani’s café, outside the main gate of ISM!
I was hungry, and tired, it was around 8:00 PM, and decided to go to the small roadside restaurant; while having something to eat, I asked the owner of the place if I could stay somewhere for the night. Mr Mani told me in Malayalam that I can directly go to ISM, but then decided to introduce me to one of the lecturers of ISM, Mr Satheeshan, who had come to have Dosa with family. He told me that as I was very tired, I could stay in his quarters that night, and take me to ISM for admission next morning. I simply agreed for all that.
As expected, I joined ISM the very next day.
Now you would have realized what exactly was my contribution to my getting educated at ISM! If I had studied a little better and got a decent mark in the three subjects (English, Hindi and Social Studies), probably I would have got selected in one of the Engineering Colleges in Kerala. Else, probably I would have gone to IIT, but neither of these possibilities happened. Thus, getting myself to ISM was something happened and I was simply taken there by some unknown power, which was not me. That is why I said “इदम् न मम” (it is not mine). Later at many occasions in my life, I felt this statement is so profoundly true.