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From the mud floor to designing algorithms

By Jimmy John and Anoop Khanna
June 12, 2015 10:52 IST
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Tanmoy’s story is one of hope in times of despair, courage in times of trouble and confidence in times of adversity. His story is a reminder that no matter what the situation is today, you can hope for a better tomorrow, say Jimmy John and Anoop Khanna.

Image: Tanmoy's convocation at Jadavpur University. Photograph: Knowledge Allianz.

At first, Tanmoy’s childhood was off to a normal start. He was the elder of the two sons in the family. His father, Tamal was a mechanic who repaired and assembled electronic items in a suburban part of Kolkata. Like many others, he squandered away most of his meagre income on alcohol and cigarettes. Although he can at least be credited for ensuring that his kids went to school.

Life in the Tamal household, however, came to a standstill when Tamal, the sole breadwinner, was diagnosed with a debilitating kidney ailment. “Dad was addicted to alcohol and cigarettes for many years and this severely affected his health.” says Tanmoy. His father’s condition kept worsening and so the family had to run from pillar to post to ensure that he got the best possible treatment for his survival. With minimal financial resources of their own, borrowing from neighbours and relatives was the only option for them.

Shefali and Tanmoy. Photograph: Knowledge Allianz

“We were absolutely down in the dumps”, says Tanmoy today when he remembers the financial state of affairs of his family. Despite their best efforts, Tamal succumbed to his ailments. Eleven-year-old Tanmoy and his family were left to fend for themselves in an indifferent world. ‘Why did this happen to us?’ wondered Tanmoy many times when he saw other families around him.

He remembers how his father would take him to his small electronics shop where Tanmoy developed a love for gadgets and electronic spares. “Dad would ask me to list out items needed for the shop. So I was familiar with many electronic terms from a very young age.”

The family’s indebtedness rose to the point that everything in their house was sold and they had to move homes a number of times, mostly sleeping on mud floors. “We were literally on the streets. Then a friend of my mom invited us to stay in the veranda of her small home for four months.”

The shifting of homes resulted in the boys moving out from their local school and losing the school year. No school was willing to admit them during mid-academic session.

"Even as a teenager you begin to realize the important role that money plays in life. Looking back I only wished that Dad had made some better life choices rather than waste his money on his addictions.”

With no choice left, Tanmoy's mother Shefali started working for a door-to-door sales company, selling pickles and jams. She was out of the house early in the morning and returned late at night. A strong-willed and God fearing woman, Shefali insisted that her children go back to school and she would arrange the means for it.

She earned close to Rs 1,000 every month which ensured that the bare minimum needs of the family were met. “There were days when mom would earn less than Rs 5 after a full day’s work but spending more than Rs 10 on bus fares,” Tanmoy recounts the struggle that his mother had to undergo for them. “There were several occasions when my mother would walk more than ten kilometres to save on the transport fares so that she could spare some money to feed her kids. We survived only on puffed rice but this eliminated the constant hunger pangs and nourished us.”

Access road to the slum. Photograph: Knowledge Allianz

The boys went back to school and also managed the home front on their own when mom was away. "If it weren't for my mom, I don't think I would have gone back to school. She made sure that we were educated, unlike most other kids in our locality." Today, Tanmoy has nothing but gratitude for his mom's resolve.

Tanmoy still remembers studying under the light of a kerosene lamp and without a fan, as his mother could not afford to pay the electric charges of Rs 150 every month. "The floor was our all-in-one study table-cum-dining table-cum-bed”, recalls Tanmoy. “I started studying under a proper electric bulb only in my ninth grade.”

One of their rented rooms had a leaking roof. Each time it rained the room was flooded. “At another home we had to share a single toilet with a hundred people and often had to wait for hours for our turn. Moreover, there were no water taps in the home.

Water for all their needs had to be collected from a single tube-well within the premises. But at that point in time sanitation and hygiene were the last thing on our mind as for us it was a matter of survival”, says Tanmoy.

His mom moved from sales to a house maid’s job and ensured that her sons never missed out on their studies. Tanmoy started excelling in class and realizing his potential, his teachers backed him to the hilt. “Knowing my family condition some teachers even coached me for free.”

Tanmoy outperformed in his grade 10 exams and was granted a government scholarship for two years, which helped him complete his higher secondary examinations. “This was like a dream for me, as my fees were now being paid every month and I just needed to focus on my education.”

Shefali’s new job as a house maid not only paid her more, it also enabled them to move into a better flat that had a single room with a kitchen and an attached bathroom. Tanmoy continued to do well in his studies and passed his grade 12 board exams with high marks. This ensured that he was now eligible for selection to an engineering college. “I started giving private tuitions to supplement the family income.”

Tanmoy's old slum home. Photograph: Knowledge Allianz

Sitting with her son, Shefali remembers how Tanmoy never asked her for new clothes nor ever expressed any desire to go out with friends. "He was not interested in anything but his studies. He did not want to put any strain on my finances”, she recalls. She was already burdened with the monthly house rent, the school fees for her second son and the expenses to run the home.

Tanmoy eventually got admitted into Jadavpur University, the best engineering college in the city and was selected for a course in Electrical engineering. He had always dreamt of following in his dad’s footsteps and here he was pursuing a much higher vocation. “God does everything for our good and in everything there is a purpose”, he says.

Engineering college was a different ball game. He was now exposed to a world where competition was intense and one's background was always scrutinized. “I remember being taunted for my English accent”, says Tanmoy.

Being from a government school background English was the second language and never a priority for students as everything was taught in the local vernacular language. “I felt totally out of place as most students in my class were from well-known private schools and spoke excellent English”, he reminisces.

Determined to speak proper English he vehemently pursued the language, started reading English newspapers and listened to English news on the radio. The efforts paid off as he now converses fluently in English.

Mathematics was his favourite subject at school. His passion for the subject continued in college, too. "I have a talent for mathematics and love to solve mathematical problems", Tanmoy explains. He also has a passion for computers. He started tinkering with computers from his first year in college and became an expert in both software and hardware. “I am now the official computer technician to many of my class mates and professors in college”, says Tanmoy.

On completing his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering, Tanmoy was offered a high paying job by a multinational company. Yet he felt that his calling was for academics and so participated in the national level entrance exams for a Masters in Engineering. Here too, he managed to achieve a high ranking among thousands of applicants, enabling him to pursue his masters in the same institute.

His research paper was on the uses of an image encryption algorithm and has been published by the German Springer Journal, which is a leading publication for scientific research and related papers. “The algorithm is shown to be highly robust and almost invulnerable to statistical attacks and is designed in such a way that it can be extended by incorporating other chaotic systems as well”, Tanmoy explains.

He completed his Masters and was declared the ‘Gold Medalist’ in his class. “I could not have achieved this without the support of my mom and teachers and friends who stood by me.” The gold medal achievement caught the attention of a leading private university who offered him a faculty position in their new campus in the city. Tanmoy now works as an Assistant Professor at the Techno India Engineering College and is pursuing his Doctorate in Electrical Engineering.

Tanmoy reflects on his own success: “There are thousands of intelligent poor kids in our country who cannot pursue their dreams of a decent education or higher studies and I want to contribute to the lives of such kids."

Tanmoy now works as an Assistant Professor at the Techno India Engineering College and is pursuing his Doctorate in Electrical Engineering.

The tube well was the only source of water. Photograph: Knowledge Allianz

Her son's phenomenal achievements have made Shefali a happy mother. "Tanmoy wanted to pursue a career in mathematics or engineering but I did not have the wherewithal to send him to a proper school. I am so grateful to God that he made a way for him to pursue his dreams”, smiles a grateful Shefali.

Having grown up in a poor impoverished family of nine kids, her own parents could not afford to teach her beyond tenth grade. She remembers her struggles as a young mother; how as parents they could not afford to send their children to a private school.

Instead, they had to choose a local government school because there they did not have to pay much for their fees and textbooks.

"Tanmoy was a hard working child. I always knew that he would pass all of his exams with flying colours." Shefali wished her husband were around to savour the success of her son. Reflecting on his life’s journey so far Tanmoy quotes a famous African proverb: “If you want to run fast, you should run alone; but if you want to run far you need to run together.”

Whenever he gets an opportunity Tanmoy advises young people to never give up on their dreams, whatever the circumstance they are in. “Run the race of life in such a way that you win the prize", he concludes.

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