When Pragya Verma saw her IIT results at a cybercafé in Patna, her eyes became moist. In just moments, the stress of a 17-year journey completed in the sparing presence of her father, went away.
'My whole life flashed before me!' Her rank was 3001 out of 5000. Pragya, now in her fourth year at IIT Mumbai, is studying Integrated MSc programme in Chemistry.
Her mother and three siblings - a brother and two sisters - visit often, but her father has yet to. Very early in life, Pragya learnt to rely on herself. She and her brother were sent to a boarding school in Darjeeling. Pragya fondly remembers her Darjeeling days.
'I liked studying there. But then quite suddenly, her father started spending more time away from home, the household income was affected, and she and her brother were pulled out of boarding school and admitted to regular schools in Patna.
Pragya and her mother together managed the household, and her dad sent what he could. Being the eldest, she looked after her siblings and did household work. And when her father would come to visit them, she wouldn't be too excited. 'He would come to go back.'
When her classmates came with their fathers to school, she didn't miss her father. 'Patna isn't safe for women, but I don't depend on male company to accompany me I have learnt to manage on my own.' Because of this outlook, she feels she's different from the others.
Cracking the code
Until Class 9, Pragya was an average student. 'I had no ambitions perhaps it was because of the way things were at home.' But one day, her uncle, who was a code developer, came over and gave her an algorithm code to crack. 'It took me time, but I did. It was fascinating!' And before she realised, she became absorbed in math.
'When I started doing well in studies, I began to dream of a future. I wanted to achieve something.' Her uncle said that IIT would change her life, and after that all that mattered was getting into IIT. She scored 97 percent in math in Class 10.
In her first attempt at IIT-JEE, after her Class 12, Pragya got through Roorkee University where she got architecture. But she didn't enjoy the subject and quit the programme. So when she came across an article on Super 30, she was willing to risk a year. 'The only challenge was to get into Super 30, because once you are in it, half the battle is won as Super 30's success rate was excellent.'
Studying there along with sharp brains was a challenge. She would come home with doubts of getting through IIT, but her brother would encourage her. 'He believed in me and this revived my spirit. Of course, my mother has always supported me.' When Pragya looks back she says those were tough times.
She would wake up at 5 a.m. every morning, revise what she had studied the night before, and then help her mother in the kitchen. She would leave for college by 9.30 a.m. and be back by 4 p.m. buy vegetables on the way home, help her mother again, go through her brother's and sister's copy books, and then get back to studies. 'I have never had time for myself.' Until now her mother hasn't brought up the issue of marriage. 'That's not a priority for my mother or me I have to first fulfil my dreams.'
Sunset at Chowpatty
When the results came out in 2006, for the first time she had a real sense of achievement. 'I made my mother proud whom I have never seen resting. She's always doing something or the other.' So when the time came to leave home, Pragya worried about her mother's health. 'She only looks after us, but not herself. You know how mothers are.'
IIT Mumbai was Pragya's second choice and Guwahati first as both the IITs have a good faculty for both biotechnology and chemistry. 'I just wanted do a course where I could study both chemistry and biology I like the subjects very much. I want to be a researcher.'
On the first day in IIT Mumbai, she was nervous, but the atmosphere was such that 'I settled in very quickly'. Pragya's been awarded the Merit-cum-Means Scholarship, so her semester fee, which is Rs. 25,000 (for four months), is now Rs. 8,000. And she says she manages her monthly expenses in just about Rs. 2,000.
She has a few close friends in college, but does not like to attach herself to a particular group. 'I prefer to be with everybody than take sides.' And when she gets the time, she heads to Chowpatty or Marine Drive, sits by the sea to watch the sunset. 'I am happy with my solitude.'