My father died when I was hardly five years old. He died young. Didn’t leave much savings for our mother. She had to bring up four young kids—two sons and two daughters. I was the youngest. She had to see we got at least some nutritious food, we were well educated and got a good job in life.
We lived in a three-room apartment, with a separate bath room, but with a common toilet which we had to share with two other families. From a young age, we were conscious of our poverty. We were never ashamed of it. We took our poverty in our stride.
I started going to school after our father’s death. My mother did not have to spend a single rupee on my primary and secondary education. I studied for nine years in the Ramakrishna Mission School on a merit scholarship.
I did not do very well in the school final examination. I got only about 70 per cent of the total marks. Despite this, I managed to get admission in the prestigious Loyola College, but I could not get a merit scholarship. My mother had to spend money from her savings for my college education.
To spare extra expenses for her on my college education, I used to walk to college every morning (about five kms). In the evenings, sometimes I used to come back home walking, sometimes by bus. I never spent much money on my clothes. I wore whatever my mother gave me— which was just three dhotis and three shirts.
I never felt ashamed of having to wear the same kind of dhoti and shirt every day. There were a few rich students in the college with me—they used to come in their cars or motor-bikes and wear fancy dresses.
I never suffered from any complex. I moved on equal terms with them. They moved on equal terms with me. I did not notice their affluence. They did not notice my poverty. They would come to our house without any hesitation and eat with me the austere meals that my mother used to cook for us. I would go to their house without any complexes and eat the kind of food they ate.
They never flaunted their riches. I never fought shy of admitting our poverty.
I did not do too well in the college. I did a one-year journalism diploma course after leaving college and got a job in The Indian Express on a salary of Rs.100 per month. I managed to save enough money to study for the UPSC competitive examinations, sat for them and was selected for the Indian Police Service.
I was quite successful in my career and achieved all I wanted to achieve. It was not only because I was a good professional, but also because I was a balanced individual. Our poor mother and our poverty gave all of us a sense of balance and a determination not to let our poverty come in the way of our achieving whatever we wanted to achieve. All of us did well in life.
I compare ourselves with the children of today from both poor and affluent families. What complexes they have! How ashamed they are of their inadequate economic circumstances! How they keep comparing themselves with children of affluent families and hold it against their parents for not being able to afford for them the same quality of life and education that affluent parents are able to afford for their children!
It becomes a matter of mental torture for the parents at the time of admission to universities. What drama in the house! What tantrums! What rude words to parents the like of which we never used to our parents!
Whose fault is this? Or is it a fault at all? We blame the universities and colleges. Rightly so. I will equally blame the parents and other elder members of the families for not inculcating in the children a realistic attitude to life—devoid of exaggerated expectations—and a feeling that not getting what they wanted is not a tragedy.
It is good to get admissions to prestigious and glamorous institutions. If they don’t, that will not be the end of the world. They can still move forward in life and achieve whatever they want to achieve with a right sense of balance and the right determination.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.