Munna Prasad is one of the four children of a poor weaver of Patwatoli in the benighted Gaya district of Bihar. His father, Krishna, works a back-breaking 16-hour-a-day routine on his looms to bring in a paltry Rs 2,500 home every month. These odds didn't deter Munna from completing high school four years ago and setting his sights on the tough IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination), the passport to a promising career in engineering and science. Unable to buy books and sign on expensive courses in preparation, Munna took tuitions by day, earning around Rs 750 a month, and prepared for the examination at night. The effort worked wonders: he cracked the IIT-JEE (rank 2,647) and got admission in Roorkee College of Engineering last year. But now Munna has set his sights higher: he's hopeful of getting Indian School of Mines (ISM) in petroleum, but his first preference is mechanical engineering at the Institute of Technology, Benares Hindu University (IT-BHU). "Here people say Munna will go to America after qualifying in the examinations and earn a lot of money," says father Krishna.
In the boondocks of Patwatoli, a hotbed of Naxalite activity, many like Munna are chasing the same dream. Cutting themselves off from sundry distractions, these boys from the backward Patwa (weaver) community study hard, sometimes in the din of noisy looms, for a place in the JEE. The results from this small town have begun showing in a state which has the highest number of school dropouts (58 per cent at the primary level and up to 80 per cent at high school level) and the literacy rate is 47.53 per cent: 22 boys of Patwatoli have qualified in IIT-JEE and more than 75 have competed in other engineering tests since 1996. Before 1990, the place had only 10 graduates and 30 matriculates. Now there are some 25 IITians, 75 engineers and one UPSC qualifier from this OBC collective of 10,000 families. And, mind you, most qualifiers are first generation.
Jeetendra Prasad, who was the first IITian from Patwatoli, is their inspiration. He got into IIT in 1991, and is now working with PriceWaterhouseCoopers-Global in New Jersey, having left for the US in 1997. Then there's Tej Narayan Prasad, son of an illiterate life insurance agent and the highest rank holder (259) from the area now doing his fourth year in IIT Kanpur. Girnari Lal had sent Narayan to school so that he could learn English and help him with preparing insurance papers for clients. "But he did me proud by studying higher and passing the joint entrance examinations," he says.
Now it's difficult to stop the flood of Patwatoli boys aiming for the IIT-JEE with dreams of going to the US. Like Jeetendra's cousin Abhishek Kumar, who's in his final year at IIT Kharagpur, studying electronics and aspiring to pursue a career in the US. Or twin brothers Balkishan Prasad and Jhanna Lal, who have done their father Khublal Prasad proud by getting ranks in IIT-JEE. Balkishan got the 3,777th rank while Jhanna secured the 1,573rd rank. Khublal has six looms, four of which are dysfunctional, and their urge to escape impending penury saw the twins through. But theirs is not an exceptional instance. Rather, in the changing economics of the loom sector, it represents the general trend.
Most of the studious boys of Patwatoli attend a coaching centre in Gaya town to prepare for the test. A common problem is lack of proficiency in English. "We all come from Hindi background and the tutorial books are in English. So, we try learning English by taking a dictionary to bed," says Gupteshwar Prasad, who secured the 1,150th rank last year and is in second year at IIT Kharagpur. But this is a small problem, because the community rallies together to provide the aspirants the required facilities: three 'home centres' have been set up where students live together in a hostel-like environment and study in a group.Former Patwatoli IITians and engineers have also formed an educational organisation, Nav Prayas, which counsels the students to prepare for the exams. They guide the aspirants whenever they are back on vacations. They also organise a local talent search examination every year to screen students and polish their knowledge. Clearly, Patwatoli puts some really invigorating truth back into that worn-out truism: where there's a will, there's a way.
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