Genius at work

Maths wizard Anand Kumar of Bihar is known all over the country for his ‘Super 30’
programme. He selects 30 poor but bright students out of thousands who appear every year
for a test, and prepares them to get into the IITs, writes Uttam Sengupta

Anand Kumar was not a household name 15 years ago. He was then barely into his twenties, a postgraduate student of mathematics in Patna University. His father was employed in the Postal Department, and the family struggled to make ends meet. But Anand (37) is now known all over the country for his ‘Super 30’ programme, under which he tutors and provides books, board and lodging for eight months to 30 poor but bright students, preparing them to crack the joint entrance examination for the Indian Institutes of Technology, deemed one of the toughest entrance examinations in the world, tougher than getting into Harvard.

Anand Kumar has spread much happiness among people who had very little to look forward to in the backwaters of Bihar
Anand Kumar has spread much happiness among people who had very little to look forward to in the backwaters of Bihar Photos: Ranjan Rahi and Deepak Kumar

It has been a privilege to have known this extraordinary young man. Discovery Channel has done an hour-long programme on his project. The New York Times has devoted half a page on him. He has figured in programmes on the BBC and has shared his experience from the IIM, Ahmedabad, to California. It is an extraordinary story that began with a phone call from the Head of the Department of Mathematics in Patna College. "In the course of 40 years of teaching mathematics," said H.P. Verma over the telephone, " I have come across two mathematical geniuses. Anand is one of them". The boy, he informed, had met him some years ago and sought his advice. "My parents want me to get into the IIT but I want to study mathematics," Anand had said. "What should I do ?"

The mathematics teacher recalled that he had placed all the cards on the table. "You want a secure life, a nice house, material success and recognition, then you join the IIT. But if you are ready to remain a teacher, a researcher and face an uncertain future, you are welcome to study mathematics," he had told the boy. Four days later, the boy was back to seek his blessings and inform him that he had enrolled in mathematics.

When I first met Anand, at the instance of Verma, he was a PG student of mathematics. He taught students maths without charging anything. The P & T Recreation Club in Patna had allowed him to hold classes late in the afternoons. He called it Ramanujan School of Mathematics, and observed the great mathematician’s birth anniversary with a mathematical competition. He came to extend an invitation to the prize distribution function. We got talking about his interest in maths, and he casually mentioned that he writes on theoretical aspects in foreign journals.

Seeing my incredulous look, he fished out two university journals from the UK and offered them for scrutiny. Sure enough, they carried his articles.

Still fumbling for words, I asked how he managed it. " As far as I know, Patna University does not even get foreign journals in the library any longer," I commented. He nodded and informed that every week-end he undertook the six-hour train journey to Varanasi, where his younger brother was learning to play the violin under N.Rajam, and had a room in the hostel. "I use BHU’s central library on Saturday and Sunday and return on Monday morning," was his innocent explanation.

The next year he invited me to have look at the one-month coaching classes in maths that he had organised for IIT aspirants. " I am charging them Rs 25 each," he informed, " to cover the rental and cost of arranging drinking water". It was quite a sight watching over 300 eager boys and girls cramped elbow-to-elbow in a room meant for just 100 students. But they obviously found the lectures useful because they put up with the hardship for four hours every day.

Tragedy struck the family when Anand’s father died in harness. He was offered a class III job on compassionate grounds, and he was forced to take it. An admission offer from abroad went abegging, and to supplement his income, Anand bicycled to shops and delivered home-made papad made by his mother.

A year later, there was a call from him, almost out of the blue. He was in Delhi and would be visiting the IIT, Kanpur, the next day. I was, of course, delighted to hear from him and invited him to stay with me. He turned up with two large bags full of books. "They are not available in Patna, so I bought them all in one go," he explained. Intrigued, I asked him what took him to Delhi and how could he afford to buy so many books.

It seemed a coaching institute had invited him to take classes in Delhi. They offered him a Rs 10 lakh contract, he said, but he had turned it down. But, why, I asked sharply. Rs 10 lakh in 1998, I thought, was good money for a maths teacher. He nonchalantly replied that if the coaching institute offered him Rs 10 lakh, the institute surely was raking in much more. So, if needed, he would start his own coaching institute.

Seeing my bewildered look, Anand explained that for the first time that year he had charged money from tutor students for IIT JEE. " The market rate in Patna is Rs 6,000 per subject for the three-month course. But I did it for Rs 1,000 this year," said he, adding that he had tutored 400 students. He had clearly found his vocation.

The next time I was in Patna, he claimed that he was taking a class of 600 students in one batch. He laughed when I refused to believe him, and invited me to see the class for myself. And next morning, sure enough, there he was with a microphone clipped to his shirt and 10 speakers carrying his lecture to the students, who sat in a makeshift shed. At one point he took up an algebraic formula and asked if students really knew what it meant.

Every year in August, since 2003, the Ramanujan School of Mathematics, now a trust, holds a competitive test to select 30 students for the ‘Super 30’ scheme. About 4,000 to 5,000 students appear at the test, and 30 are eventually shortlisted by Anand and his team of teachers.

It was heart-warming to see bank officials chasing these students with offers of education loans. Cracking the JEE had opened up new doors for them and the future looked secure. Most of them come from a rural background and their vulnerability in English is a handicap that the trust is trying to overcome. But barring this weakness, insists Anand, the boys are brilliant.

The best part of this prodigal teacher is the time he carves out for his own study. At one time he used to set aside 7 am till noon for classes. The evening was meant for his own reading and writing. " I try to write at least one article every month on mathematics for foreign journals," says Anand Kumar, with disarming simplicity.

In a way, he has lived up to his name. He has spread much happiness among people who had very little to look forward to in the backwaters of Bihar.