THEY are the sunset students. Hair turning grey, they have fulfilled all but one commitment in life: that of higher education. In pursuit of which, they have wielded the pen and are ready to fight the rigours of examinations.
Like Lieutenant Paras Nath Singh, the student who invited curious glances when he first enrolled at the Little Flower Degree College to appear for the Osmania University external examinations. His has been a life well spent—39 years and 295 days in the Indian Navy, before he finally retired and decided to graduate from being an honorary lieutenant to a degree holder. In subjects that ranged from political science and public administration to sociology—16 papers to graduate in one go. "I had passed my intern college from the Allahabad University in Uttar Pradesh. Then I joined the Navy. Just when I was going to give my degree exams from Vikram University, Madhya Pradesh, I got transferred to the Andamans," says Singh.
"There is nothing parallel to education, nothing parallel to knowledge," he observes. Even though acquiring that knowledge wasn't easy. "I once told my son that I was going to fail the exams," recounts Singh. And got some very good advice. "He retorted that I was wasting my time studying everything instead of studying selectively. Maybe he had the right approach—but I didn't want to try it out for fear of everything, apart from what I had chosen carefully, appearing on the question paper."
Skipping lunch, sweating over 16 papers 18 hours a day, Singh is confident that age has nothing to do with academic performance. "The only handicap is writing speed. I could complete only 50 per cent in the first four papers though I managed to increase my speed later on. The trepidation was the same though: I felt no better than a seventh standard student at the start of his school exams."
And with results round the corner, the apprehensive lieutenant fears he might have to appear again. As does Subhashini Sreedharan. The 49-year-old teacher plunged wholeheartedly into studying for her post-graduate examinations in history even as she wishes her son Darshan would do the same. Her burden of books is as awesome as her housework and her teaching job at a suburban school. "I got my Trained Teacher's Certificate (TTC) from Kerala in 1966. Soon after that I got married, my daughter was born within a year, a son after four years and that was the end of all hopes of higher education."
But not entirely. The man she married turned out to be an enthusiast for education. He goaded her into enrolling for a diploma in education, and graduation from Osmania University. And now, 30 years after her TTC, she seems all set to appear foran MA in history. With full support from her husband. As she mulls over complex questions in the examination, he takes charge of the kitchen, constantly exhorting her to concentrate on her studies.
She has company with Dhyan Singh—also an educationist juggling with the joys of being a student. Being guru and teacher to hundreds of children keeps the quinquagenarian breathlessly busy, but hasn't affected his desire to be on the other side of the teaching desk. Which is what found him enrolling in the Law faculty of Delhi University recently.
There has never been a dull moment for Dhyan Singh ever since. Due to retire from service in a year's time, he spends the few hours of his day when he is not teaching or commuting to his workplace in Bawana, on the outskirts of Delhi and 35 km away from home, studying law. "Yes, it is strenuous but I have chosen to do it. I should have done this long ago, I would have benefited from all the knowledge I am acquiring now," hesays. He is as comfortable in his new avatar of student as he is in his post of principal. Having completed his post-graduation in English and B.Ed in 1966, and teaching ever since, Dhyan Singh harbours no secret ambitions. "I am educating myself for the sake of pure education," he says.
Unlike the others, 50-year-old Lily Lobo wasn't looking when the book bug bit her. When she went out one day to get her nephew, a school dropout, admitted to the Indira Gandhi Open School, little did she know that she would end up enrolling herself. The result, courtesy her husband and three daughters, was that she lost her job at the kitchen and found herself a long-awaited promotion. "I failed the Senior School Certificate Examination in 1961 because composite math was introduced in English when our medium of instruction was Kannada; a second attempt was aborted due to ill-health; then I came to Bombay, got a job as an assistant at the United India Assurance and after marriage in 1967, there was no time to think about studies," says Lily. However, she was never allowed to forget her unfinished tryst with education. Once United India Assurance was nationalised in 1972, under the promotion policy drafted, Lily was eligible for a promotion but never made the grade because she lacked the requisite academic qualification. "I had never heard of open schools and when I did for the first time, I knew it was a now or never swing at a promotion," she recalls. Taking English, home science, typing in English, and commerce as her subjects, Lily enrolled herself at the CBSE. "My daughter accompanied me and helped carry my typewriter into the examination hall, and all the other parents, who had come to see their children off, were surprised that it was me and not my daughter who was going to appear for the exam." And having cleared it, she is satisfied and does not aim higher.
Want, not need, goaded Neena Vyas into graduation. When she did, her husband was thrilled. So were her children...and her grandchildren. At 55, nobody expected the mother of a married son to make the most startling announcement: that she had enrolled for a graduate course through correspondence. "I just had to do it. There was no rationale for me to study. Not that I wanted to work and felt the need for a degree," she recalls. "But I just had to...." She did, and is now set for a repeat performance. "I feel like doing a post-graduation. I don't know why. It is an urge to study and age just doesn't seem to be killing it," she chuckles. A lesson she seems to have learnt only too well.