The engineer's father

The engineer's father

His parents made enough to buy him all the books he needed.

The makeshift laundry shop in my quiet, leafy neighbourhood was run by a migrant family from Uttar Pradesh.

The NRI owner of a house in the vicinity had given out a part of the external compound to Mataprasad and Sheela.

With my fondness for wearing starched handloom saris pressed to perfection, it was not long before I became Sheela’s favourite customer. My trips to her little shop to drop off a bundle of clothes or pick up a finished stack always resulted in an exchange of pleasantries.

Pressing clothes with a coal-fired iron was back-breaking work in the heat and humidity of a North Indian summer. Bent over the clothes, iron in hand, Mataprasad would grunt in amicable silence as Sheela counted out clothes, settled the accounts and waved away their customers with a sunny smile.

Sheela’s conversation was full of references to her only child Rahul who was mathematically gifted. She hoped he could become an engineer someday. Rahul would also deliver clothes on a cycle to houses in the lanes nearby. But in the exam months, Sheela made sure he stayed away from the shop and studied hard in the small out-house they inhabited.

Sheela showed me Rahul’s report card after each final exam. He overcame his shyness sufficiently to ask me the meanings of difficult words – our textbooks are not exactly designed to be friendly to children who are first-generation English speakers.

Because he was a brilliant student, he had a government scholarship and several freeships granted by an indulgent school that sensed in him a potential topper. His parents made enough to buy him all the books he needed. Focussed and determined, he kept his nose to the grindstone as he wrote the Class 12 final exam and a slew of engineering entrance tests.

Rahul was one of the few lads in the region who cleared the IIT-JEE with a high three-digit rank. It was a tremendous moment for me to see Sheela’s little home being swamped by press photographers and reporters wanting interviews. Some took pictures of Mataprasad hunched over his iron. The next day almost all newspapers referred to Rahul as ‘the dhobi’s son’ - which I felt could have been avoided.

This is evidence of the excessive class consciousness we carry within ourselves, I thought. On the other hand it could be argued that Rahul’s was an inspiring tale of triumph over fragile social and economic circumstances and deserved to be celebrated as such.

With mixed feelings, I approached them with my customary bundle of clothes and this time, a stack of newspapers with post-it notes flagging Rahul’s success story in each. They had already read the Hindi dailies and sensitive Rahul looked glum. Sheela was quietly reading her small prayer books in thanksgiving.

For a change, Mataprasad broke his vow of silence and said to me, “Didi, please tell Rahul to concentrate well at IIT – in four years I shall be known as ‘the engineer’s father’.”

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