Portrait Of A Prodigy
- Ranked 33rd in IIT entrance exam at 14
- Gold medal at International Biology Olympiad at 14
- Bronze medal at 14, silver at 13, at Asian Physics Olympiad
- Passed Class X at 12, Class XII at 14
- Won Nehru Planetarium’s Young Astronomer Award at ages 10 and 11
Sahal Kaushik keeps mostly to himself as he makes his way around the sprawling IIT Kanpur campus with student guide Soumyajit Bose. It’s his first day of class and, at 14, he is the youngest ever student to enter the portals of an IIT; no little feat, but amplified by his somewhat unconventional education—home-schooling, no less—and the award of a gold medal at the International Biology Olympiad in Seoul.
Not surprisingly, his reputation has preceded him here. As second-year student Soumyajit puts it, “There is a lot of curiosity about him on campus, because making it to IIT at the age of 14 is quite an unprecedented feat.”
But the reticent and somewhat withdrawn Sahal, who has enrolled in the five-year integrated MSc course in physics, would rather not have the spotlight trained on him. And mostly he won’t be prodded beyond brief, sometimes monosyllabic, responses on his remarkable success story.
Ask him how he rates himself academically and a disinterested “I don’t know” is all he’ll offer. Did he expect to crack the Joint Entrance Exam? “Yes. But I did not expect such a good (all India 33rd) rank.” On subjects that catch his fastidious fancy, however—like astrophysics, for one—he is more obliging. Says father Tapeshwar, an army officer, “When he interacts with participants at the olympiads, he can talk for hours. He is comfortable with people who share his interests.”
That precondition should be easily met at IIT, where, even though his classmates will be senior by 3-4 years, intellectual wavelengths should be in sync. Institute director Prof Sanjay G. Dhande has no qualms about handling such a young student. He believes that once someone is ready to participate intellectually, age is not a consideration. Sahal’s mother Ruchi isn’t anxious either, recalling how, as a newly anointed teen, Sahal spent all of eight days in Bangkok at the Asian Physics Olympiad last year, with ‘peers’ older by five years or more and didn’t feel a wee bit out of his depth.
To meet the challenge of ensuring that school and home, too, provided Sahal with similar levels of stimulation, Ruchi, a doctor, had hung up her white coat for good to home-school the prodigy. Clearly not a mother in the usual mould, she decided quite early to teach her children herself until they were seven or eight. But when Sahal’s unusual mental abilities surfaced—reciting multiplication tables up to 100 when he was only three and juggling binary numbers a year later—she had to make that crucial decision. Did she want to send him to school at all? “Had I sent him to school at seven, he would have been restricted to addition and subtraction whereas he had already moved on to trigonometry and logarithms,” she says.
So, in the face of all the naysayers’ words of caution that a boy who wasn’t sent to school or didn’t go out and play (and never watched TV either, their home doesn’t have one) would be socially maladjusted, the Kaushiks knew what they had to do. And while Sahal today is, the Kaushiks admit, “very reserved”, his Facebook account has as many as 295 friends (he reveals the number after much coaxing). He met them through all the science camps he has attended, and a few of them will be keeping him company at IIT too.
But just how enviable is it to be a minor—and a gifted one at that—among adults in a fiercely competitive and demanding environment? Consultant psychologist Anuttama Banerjee says, “There are some emotional challenges. There could be jealousy among his older classmates, which might lead to inter-group conflict. Older kids might not wish to include him when they are hanging out or just chatting about their girlfriends.” She adds, however, that if such a child’s social and emotional intelligence is on the same level, he would be able to match up.
Only the next five years will tell if he does. Sahal’s parents don’t seem too apprehensive, yet, tellingly, they’ve reorganised their lives just to extend his comfort zone. They have planned their own relocation from Delhi, to a housing complex near the campus, so that Sahal, who is a day scholar, could come back home every evening.
It may sound suspiciously like a case of ambitious parents living vicariously through a super-achieving son. But the Kaushiks argue, with some eloquence, that this is not a hat that fits them—they’re just parents who want to provide the right environment for a gifted child. “The thirst for knowledge was his own. We were there basically to provide him with whatever information he wanted,” says Ruchi. Interestingly, the same set of parents allowed Saras, Sahal’s 12-year-old sister, who is also home-schooled, to take her own time to get started on her education. “Till the age of eight, Saras could not even write her mother’s name in Hindi,” says Tapeshwar. “If society can accept a delayed learner like Saras, why hold back a fast learner? Why is someone who is good at something that others generally aren’t comfortable with made out to be a geek?” argues Ruchi, making a strong case for greater recognition, by society, of the needs of gifted children.
The decision to try for IIT so early was, says the family, Sahal’s own. He had sailed through the Class X and XII board exams, but to crack the JEE he needed specialised training. And so from the world of stimulating, flexible home-based learning, the Dwarka boy made his way to what many would regard as its polar opposite: a coaching institute. Excited by the opportunity to help Sahal achieve his feat, teachers at the Narayana IIT Academy coached him individually, with chocolates and juices as incentives to spur on their little student.
IIT will be a much longer, tougher journey down the road of formal education for this home-schooler, who wants to be a researcher one day. “Sitting in a class of 400 is a first for me, but I’m enjoying it,” he says in one of his more talkative moments. “He must learn to fend for himself,” says Tapeshwar on the transition. “After all, he has to make his own way.” That seems to be Sahal’s style already, right from the day he looked through a refractor as a young child, set his heart on astrophysics, and decided to follow the stars wherever they might lead him.