It’s hard to recall a biopic on the life of a teacher. There have been films which revolved around inspiring teachers. Taare Zameen Par, Sparsh, Black, perhaps even Munna Bhai MBBS and Three Idiots would come to mind. There have been English movies including the British classic To Sir With Love. Most Indians are familiar with The Sound of Music and there are scores of Hollywood movies revolving around classrooms and inspiring teachers.
But Super 30, I am told, is not a biopic. The feature film is based on the real life story of a well known Mathematics teacher from Bihar. The teacher in question is barely 46 years old and looks even younger. But whether Super 30 bombs in the box office or becomes a hit, it will not take away anything from the work that Anand Kumar has done.
There have been scores of brilliant teachers, some possibly more brilliant than Anand. And many of them have helped poor students overcome hurdles. But few have caught international media attention the way Anand Kumar’s story has done. His own personality is partly responsible for the documentaries, interviews and features that BBC, New York Times and even TV stations in Japan that long preceded Super 30. Because he is articulate, unassuming, rooted and completely unselfconscious, comfortable in trousers or faded jeans, with a T shirt casually worn.
No film has been made on the tragic life of another Mathematics genius from Bihar, Vashishtha Narayan Singh. His brilliance took him abroad and he is said to have worked with NASA for several years before he returned to India. Hailing from a modest, even poor, family he was lapped up as an eligible bachelor and married the daughter of a far more wealthy family. But he was soon diagnosed as a Schizophrenic and ended up in a mental hospital in Ranchi.
Unlike Vashishta Narayan Singh, Anand Kumar could never study abroad. But he published his theoretical works in foreign journals when he was barely a 20-year old college student. He was offered admission, unsolicited, by Cambridge University and for years he continued teaching Mathematics to students without charging anything. In the mid-nineties, when he was still not very well-known, he would ‘coach’ students and charge them ₹25 to cover the cost of the hall that he had to hire and for drinking water that he had to arrange.
Bihar has some strange connection with Mathematics. Students even from the backwaters of Bihar have always seemed to have a special gift for the subject. But Government schools and colleges have not been able to provide the kind of teaching and encouragement that would have harnessed this gift. Anand Kumar understood the requirement and chose to provide not just free coaching but also free board and lodging to deserving students.
I met a few of them. One of them was the son of a street vendor who sold socks in a hick town. Another the son of an autorickshaw driver while a third’s mother worked as a nurse in a government health centre. They didn’t have the means to go to Kota or avail o coaching even in Patna. But since all of them had got admission in one of the IITs when I spoke to them, it was amusing to find officials of several public sector banks chasing them to avail of education loans from their bank.
I look back on a day in 1993 when I held a journal of Mathematics in my hand. Published by a foreign university, the journal had published an essay by Anand Kumar. It was incomprehensible to me because I belonged to the millions who never saw much beauty in the subject. But I stared at the name of the author and his introduction given at the bottom of the article. There could be little doubt that it was indeed written by the 20 something who sat on the other side of my desk.
For a 20 year old to get published in a foreign journal was a big deal. And the Head of the Department of Mathematics in Science College, DP Verma, had candidly said that in his 40 years of teaching, this boy was the second genius he had come across. He had called me up to introduce the boy and request that I accept the invitation of Ramanujan School of Mathematics to attend the annual prize distribution function. The ‘school’ was actually a portion of the P&T Recreation Club, which was being used by this boy to give free tuitions in Mathematics. His father held a modest job in the Posts & Telegraph Department and most of his students were children of P&T staff.
But nothing had prepared me for the journal. Patna University those days found it hard to pay salary to teachers. Subscription to all journals had been stopped years ago. And hordes of students were either leaving the state for further studies or were flocking to coaching classes to prepare for competitive exams. The ‘coaching mafia’ were making a killing and here was this 20 year old producing an essay on Mathematics that had been published abroad? There were more surprises in store for me. Anand casually informed that he took advantage of the fact that his younger brother Pranav was learning violin at BHU under the tutelage of N. Rajam. He would make every Friday the six-hour train journey to Varanasi, study in BHU’s central library till Sunday and take the train back to Patna on Sunday night.
At the prize distribution ceremony, DP Verma recalled that Anand had sought his advice after doing his Intermediate. He wanted to study Mathematics but friends and relatives wanted him to appear at the JEE for IIT. What should he do? He had tersely told him, Verma Sahab recalled with a laugh, to go for IIT if he wanted to go places, make money and live comfortably. But if he wanted to end up as a teacher like him and live on salary, which would be delayed for six months, he could pursue Mathematics. To his surprise, the boy had turned up a few days later to seek his blessings and inform that he had taken admission in the Mathematics Department.
A few months after we met, when I offered him a column in the ‘Career & Competition Times’, a weekly supplement brought out by The Times of India, Anand looked pensive. This was unusual because he would forever be smiling. It seemed he had received a letter from Cambridge University offering him admission. It sounded too good to be true. I was happy for him but there was a catch. The Cambridge Professor had tactfully said he had no doubt Anand would get a full scholarship once he joined. But he had to pay his way for the first year. We calculated it would cost him Rs 6 lakh to pay his fees and sustain himself for a year. In 1993, it was a huge sum and my requests to the business community, the Rotary and the Lions Clubs etc. were met with indifference. There were more pressing issues. Election, lawlessness, kidnapping for ransom, exam rackets and here was a nobody dreaming of studying in Cambridge.
In desperation, we turned to the state government and explained the situation to both political and administrative heads. The money was a pittance for the state, I had argued, but this boy would be a celebrity one day and perhaps win a Nobel. The Chief Minister seemed positive and asked me to send Anand to his PA. But a few days later when Anand did meet the PA to the CM, he was laughed out of the office. If he needed money, the CM’s office could part with ₹20,000. Anand left empty handed and never went back.boy’s
The next few years were bleak. His father suddenly passed away while still in service. P&T offered him a class three job on compassionate grounds and this is the period when he was forced to help his mother make papads or wafers at home, which he then helped sell and deliver to shops. I moved to Lucknow but not before I introduced him to a batchmate of my wife, Abhayanand, who had studied Physics with her and had joined the IPS. Abhayanand was looking for a Maths tutor for his daughter and I suggested Anand’s name, asking Anand to call on the DIG Sahab.
Some time in 1999, I received a phone call from him in Lucknow. We had lost contact and the call was the first time we spoke in several years. He was in Delhi and would be visiting IIT, Kanpur the next day to meet a teacher. Could he come to Lucknow and catch up? Of course, he could, I said.
He landed at my place after 11 pm with two heavy bags, both crammed with books. He had been invited to take classes by a coaching institute in Delhi, he said. “I agreed because I wanted to see if teaching in Delhi would be different,” he confided. Two weeks after he began taking classes, the coaching institute offered him an annual contract for ₹10 lakh. Excited, I congratulated him and hoped he had accepted the offer.
A half-smile hovering on his lips, he shook his head. “No, I didn’t. If this institute is ready to offer me ₹10 lakh, imagine how much it would be earning for itself. I now know that I can earn much more if I start teaching in Delhi on my own,” he declared. Turning down such offers was not easy those days. And I was a little crestfallen.
When I recovered somewhat, I asked him about the books he was carrying. They were books on Mathematics published by foreign publishers and each one cost a bomb. These books were not available in Patna, he informed, and therefore he had spent a part of the money he received from the coaching institute in Delhi on buying the books.
“What about Cambridge? Have you abandoned the idea?,” I asked. To my amazement, he replied, “Don’t worry about that. I will earn enough to go to Cambridge one day with my own money”. Looking at my quizzical look, he laughed. “Sir, for the first time I engaged classes for money. Abhayanand Sir advised that I should not teach Mathematics for free. So, this year I offered a three-month course to prepare students for the IIT Joint Entrance Test.”
“The rate in Patna for similar courses is ₹6,000 but I offered the course at just ₹1,000 per student,” he declared.
Still sceptical, I asked, “And how many students took the course?”
“Six hundred, sir, “he said and casually sauntered away to the washroom.
The boy who couldn’t go to Cambridge had earned a cool six lakh of Rupees in just three months!
A rolling stone if there was one, I had moved to Calcutta to launch The Times of India’s edition there. Anand called and declared that he had made a mistake. Alarmed, I asked him to elaborate. He had applied for a US Visa and had appeared for the interview in Calcutta but he had not informed me. Happy to learn that he was off to the US, I asked how long he planned to stay. I was taken aback when he volunteered that the Visa had been declined. What’s the mistake you talked about, I anxiously enquired. “I should have come to you first,” he disarmingly said, “you would have given me the correct advice. Next time I will inform you in advance when I apply.” Alarmed, I said, “hey, Americans don’t issue visas on my advice,” but he had signed off.
A few months later came yet another call. “I need an International Credit Card but banks are not issuing them in Patna. I am coming to Calcutta. You must help me get one,” he said.
Uncomfortable, I expressed my doubts. Why would banks in Calcutta give a card to someone in Patna?
“Give me a few days to find out,” I said, “and I will get back to you.” “But I am at the airport and will be in your office by 3 pm or so,” he said and rang off.
Irritated, I called the TOI’s finance manager and sought his help. After I explained the background, he called up a bank and got back to say that the bank would issue a card against a fixed deposit. If Anand deposited three lakh of Rupees, the credit limit would be, say, for Rs two lakh.
When Anand turned up, I sternly told him that he should have waited to hear from me before rushing to Calcutta. Now he would have to go back and get the money.
“But I am carrying Rs four lakh in cash,” he exclaimed.
Watching him engage a class of 400-500 students is a sight. I am hoping the film will have some real footage from his class in Patna. The class that I witnessed 19 years ago was being conducted under a thatched roof. Students sat crammed, eight to ten students to a desk. Anand Kumar stood on a raised platform and spoke with a microphone clipped to his shirt. There were speakers on either side of the students. I had scoffed when he first said that each of his class was attended by 600 students. But seeing was believing. It was clear that he had the gift of simplifying the most complex of mathematical formulae. He had the knack of breaking up the process and explain the process to students.
What was also impressive was his attitude to life and Mathematics. He could have earned a lot more, I had thought, if he had turned himself into a money-making machine. Like other teachers at coaching institutes, he could have engaged classes in three shifts. But I found that he would teach only between 7 am and noon. The afternoon and evening hours were meant for studying, writing and household works.
He is a hero who is also disliked by many. There are teachers who hate him and believe that marketing and publicity are responsible for the hype. Others call him a ‘fraud’ and are convinced that his ‘Super 30’ is a sham, if not a scam. Local policemen have threatened him with false cases. He has received threats of abduction for ransom. When he married, his upper-caste in-laws had been upset enough to darkly hint at physical harm that could come his way. He and his associates have been implicated in false cases and an attempt was made to mow down his younger brother Pranav who manages his affairs.
He has not turned into a scholar of international repute that I had anticipated. Nor has he published too many academic books of international standard. Though he does go abroad very often and engages classes from California to Tokyo and last month he posted photographs from Cambridge, where he delivered a lecture—somewhere in his journey, Super 30 took over his academic ambitions.
Rather than helping himself achieve even greater glory, he decided to help others. He had started holding special coaching classes for students who were bright but could not afford even the discounted fees that Anand charged. He would hold a test every year in August and identify 30 such students who needed special coaching and offered it free to them. But in the month of June or July one year, two boys turned up to take the test. They were told to return in August for the test but the duo confided that they did not have money to go back. They were put through a test and performed brilliantly. Anand took them home and decided to offer free boarding, lodging and tuition to disadvantaged students.
The New York Times has devoted half a page to write about him and Super 30. BBC and several European and Asian TV channels have aired interviews and documentaries. He is now invited by celebrities at home and abroad and his opinion is sought on various aspects of education policy. But he remains his old self, boyish, comfortable in plain and sometimes shabby clothes.The last time I met him, I asked why the production house settled on Hrithik Roshan to play him in the film. Wouldn’t Aamir Khan have been better, I asked. Hrithik is taller and is way too sophisticated, I thought. But Anand seemed to be under the spell of Hrithik. “I think he related to my life and struggles with an intensity that touched me. I think he is the best choice the producers could have made,” he said. With Super 30 releasing this week, I hope he is right.