How this rickshaw driver's daughter made it to law school
Coimbatore's Menaga Murugan is the daughter of a rickshaw driver who struggles to make ends meet -- but that did not deter this 18-year-old from pursuing her dream of becoming a top lawyer. Successfully securing an undergraduate seat at the city's Government Law College, she's set an example for underprivileged youth across the country.
Menaga Murugan was 12 years of age in 2005, when she mustered up the courage to tell her father that she wanted to become a lawyer, and not an engineer.
A rickshaw driver who earned a few thousand rupees monthly, Mr Murugan merely smiled at his daughter's choice of career, but said nothing.
Perhaps Menaga, a bright and intelligent child, was too young to decipher his forlorn smile. For he chose not to discourage his eldest daughter by reminding her that she had two siblings, a younger sister and brother aged 16 and 14 respectively. Unless a miracle occured, funding their studies and managing the family expenses would well be impossible in the coming years.
But that's Murugan -- an optimistic father, he never discussed his poverty in his children's presence.
As inflation and fuel prices rose, he struggled harder to make enough money to run the family. Each time her school teacher informed Menaga that her father had missed the deadline to pay her fees, she worried for her parent, who she knew was working extra hours so as to send all his children to school.
The siblings often talked among themselves about their family's financial condition at home. Unaware of this, Murugan would assure them that they could study as much as they wished to, without having to worry about their fees.
Meanwhile, Menaga's mother Malliga, who had never attended a day of school in her life, silently prayed for her eldest daughter's dreams to come true.
Now, seven years later, Menaga scored 1126 marks out of 1200 in her Class XII and was allotted a seat at the Government Law College in Coimbatore in the first week of counselling -- and it didn't surprise her mother at all.
"My daughter takes her studies very seriously. She's never bunked her classes or demanded any luxuries at home. We are financially challenged, but we want to give her the best we can. I am very happy that she got what she deserved," said the proud Mrs Murugan.
Menaga, who passed out of Thambu Higher Secondary School in Coimbatore, is as effusive when she talks about the sacrifices her parents made to fuel her ambition.
"My father has only studied upto the fifth grade. My mother never went to school. There have been times when we have had no food to eat at home, but neither of my parents ever asked us to quit our studies. Whenever I felt low, my mother would encourage me to move on, improve my preparation and focus better. Without her support, I'd have given up long ago," says Menaga.
Here the young achiever tells how domestic hardships inspired her to get ahead in life and how she intends to use her education to serve the poor and bring them justice.
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Image: Menaka Murugan with her parents
Photographs: Divya Nair
'We've never wished for any luxuries and lived a hand-to-mouth existence'
How did you prepare for the exam without any coaching?
Frankly, I could not afford it. My father struggled every month to pay for my school fees. How could I ask him to fund my private coaching too? Besides, I was fortunate to have teachers who were ready to help us clear our doubts. Most of them even stayed back late to help us, if we requested them to. Without their help, it would be difficult to imagine scoring high marks in the board examination.
How did you plan your studies? Please share some tips for board aspirants.
I'd wake up at 4 am and study for some time before I got ready for school. I had to travel 45 minutes by bus to reach my school at 7 am. And since there were limited buses to ply me there, I could not afford to be late.
After school ended at 6 pm, I'd reach home by 7.30 pm, finish my assignments and study upto 1 am. Since I got only a few hours of sleep, waking up in the morning was quite a challenge. If I overslept, my mother would wake me up and encourage me to get ready for school. If you are preparing for an exam, you have to make a plan and stick by it.
You must finish your syllabus on time and set aside at least a month for revision. Never push aside your doubts for later. Remember, the real challenge is to keep the heat on till the final day of the examination.
Were you always a studious child?
I always scored well in academics because I knew that was the only way I could move up in life. I scored distinction in the Class X state board examination and secured the fourth highest marks from my school.
What challenges did you face as a student? How did you overcome them?
It would be unfair to list my challenges because my parents have brought us up really well, with whatever they could manage. Still, not a day goes by when I don't think of how much we've struggled in the last few years -- from sharing the little food we ate to the clothes we wore, we've never wished for any luxuries and lived a hand-to-mouth existence.
Sometimes my father would come home empty-handed from work if he did not get a passenger. But he never let his hardships affect his morale. The next day, he would go back to work optimistically. Even when we were young and we wanted something, we would think twice about bringing it up before our parents -- be it new stationery, uniforms or shoes. Nobody helped us, neither did my parents ask for help. My parents have taught us to respect what God has given us and if we wanted something better, we should work towards it.
When I scored good marks in my board exam, my high school principal agreed to waiver my monthly fees by Rs 1,000 per month. That was a small amount, but I got the message that if I really wanted to help my father, I must perform well in academics.
What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
Thenmozhi, a distant aunt of mine is a criminal lawyer who is practising in Coimbatore. She'd often come to our home and meet us, tell us stories about criminals and how she helped people get justice. My father respects her too. When she stepped out of her home, she'd walk with pride, with her head held high. Despite being a woman, she is fearless and doesn't hesitate to take up cases against bad people. I have always admired her for her courage. When I told her that I wanted to be like her, she was very happy. She guided me about pursuing law as a career and told me that she will help me achieve my dream.
What are your views about the judicial system of the country? How do you think you can make a difference to society?
The lack of timely justice is a major challenge our countrymen face. The poor are illiterate and are oppressed in many ways because they don't know what rights they are entitled to. Most of them can't afford to hire an advocate. Even if they pool in all their savings, and the case is taken to court, it is sent for further hearings. It's a long process of gathering relevant witnesses and requesting further appeals. Instead of spending long hours in courtrooms, people prefer to continue with their lives. This situation must change. I want to become a lawyer so that I can bridge this gap of injustice. I want to serve the poor and help them get quick justice.
Where do you draw your inspiration for success from?
When you face so many hardships, there are only two ways to go about it -- either you get so tired that you give up, or you take it in your stride and start trying to change your situation. Right now, I am doing the latter. In a way, my hardships have inspired me to succeed in life.
Similarly, if I see someone who is brave and courageous and has made a mark on their own merit, I admire them.
What would you say life has taught you?
Life has been unkind in many ways. I won't deny that we have grown up seeing the worst of times. But sometimes I feel that it could have been worse without the support and guidance of my parents. They did not study, but they wanted us to study because they did not want us to suffer like them in the future. In many ways, they have helped us improve our lives. They taught us the importance of education, respect and humility.
Besides academics, what are your other interests?
I like to read autobiographies of famous people -- especially people who have built their careers from scratch. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Agni Siragugal, the Tamil version of Abdul Kalam's book Wings of Fire. Every youngster must read it.
What is your career plan?
I want to study law and practice for a few years under a good lawyer. I have not decided about my specialisation yet, but I'd prefer to serve the poor for free.
Career-wise, I want to grow to the position of a high court or a Supreme Court judge.
I want to work hard so that I can improve the lives of my parents and the people around me. I want my brother and sister to go to the best of colleges and gain maximum education.
What's your advice to India's youth?
Hardships and obstacles are part of our lives. What are big issues to us may be trivial to others. Only you have the power to decide how to better your life -- for good, bad or worse. Understand the situation of your parents, respect them and make them feel proud. Success is all about making the most of what you have. The results definitely take time, but your hard work will definitely pay off someday.
Image: Menaga Murugan
Photographs: Divya Nair