By Amarnath Tewary
The students come from the poorest sections of the society Pics: Prashant Ravi
Santosh Kumar, son of a landless farmer from the dirt-poor Indian state of Bihar, has got through the entrance exam of the country's most prestigious engineering school, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
When you consider the fact that some 230,000 students from all over India compete for barely 5,000 seats in the country's seven IITs every year, you realise the significance of Santosh's achievement - he ranked 3,537.
IIT graduates have gone on to head companies like Vodafone, Infosys, Sun Microsystems, United Airlines and McKinsey. There is hardly a US-based Fortune 500 company which does not have an IIT alumnus in its senior management.
Santosh and other underprivileged students in a state where nearly half the population cannot read or write have been helped by a small, derelict training school in the state capital, Patna.
The private coaching school, named after famous Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan, has attained a cult status among academics and students for consistently churning out students who crack arguably one of the world's most competitive exams.
Hitting the jackpot
Most of the students are like Santosh, whose elder brother, Niranjan, never went to school. His younger brother, Saurabh, emboldened by his brother's feat, is pursuing his education.
"We don't know what my brother Santosh has passed, but people say he will get a respectful job and earn good money when he starts working," says Niranjan.
Patna's four-year-old Ramanujan School of Mathematics is the brainchild of a local maths teacher, Anand Kumar.
Mr Abhayanand does not take a salary from the school
Consider the results of this 30-seat school run out of a ramshackle yard - during its first year, 2003, 18 of the 30 students cracked the IIT entrance tests.
Next year, the number rose to 22. In 2005, 26 students sailed into IITs. Last year, 28 students passed the exam.
"This year, my school may well hit a jackpot with all my 30 students passing the entrance test," said Mr Kumar, 34, who has never been to an IIT, but won critical praise for his work in mathematics.
Word has spread about his training school far and wide - some 5,000 students turn up from all over Bihar for a place in the school, run out of a thatched hut with fraying wooden benches and creaking tables.
"We select 200 of them initially to train with us, and then finally, 30 are chosen depending on their talent, family background and education," says Mr Kumar.
The school charges a paltry 4,000 rupees ($89) annually from its students for the seven-month training, compared to other private coaching institutes who train students for IIT exams for nothing less than 40,000 rupees ($890) a year.
But the handpicked 30 students who finally sit for the exam are given free coaching and food.
Anand Kumar says he set up the school after he himself was unable to cough up the money needed to finance his higher education when he received admission to Cambridge University.
"I tried very hard to raise the money, but since I came from a poor family I failed. So I wanted to realise the dream to help poor students to crack the toughest engineering exam in the country," he says.
His school is run on a shoe-string budget - students often stand up because of a shortage of benches while Mr Kumar and his group of teachers give lectures.
Santosh Kumar's father is a landless farmer
Among the teachers is also one of the senior most policemen in Bihar, additional director-general Abhyanand, who uses only one name.
Mr Abhyanand, who himself went to an IIT, teaches physics without taking a salary from the school.
"My remuneration is seeing the growing numbers of students coming from poor, rural families who succeed. I hope they pull their families and relatives out of penury," he says.
He is not wide of the mark - 11 of the 28 successful students who cracked the IIT test last year were from the lower castes, the bottom-most rung of Indian society.
The parents of students like Anupam Kumar (rank: 2,299) and Priyanshu Kumar (rank: 2,379) and Suresh Ram work as auto-rickshaw drivers, watch mechanic and construction workers respectively.
Writer Sandipan Deb who has written a book on IITs says these students are "exposed to a whole new world" when they arrive on the IIT campuses.
"The first thing they realise is that just because they spent their lives in a village does not make them any less bright than the kids from the metropolises. This is a huge confidence booster," he says.
The training school's feat is amazing in a state where more than two million children are out of school, and the literacy rate is a shameful 47%.