College is a uniformly young idea, especially in India. When I got to the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, my undergrad engineering college on the edge of the Rajasthan desert, I was sixteen, younger than a lot of my classmates. So I remember my astonishment that one lad was nearly two years younger than me. Such a vast gap, I thought.086bb7fb85556f66693541a82ab64a16-2

I was even more astonished when I reached university in the United States. Two fellow graduate students were … not younger, but older. Caroline and Kirk were their names, and after several years in the workforce, they had chosen to study for a Masters degree. Both were at least fifteen years older than I was.

If two years was a vast gap at sixteen, fifteen years seemed an unbridgeable chasm at 21. Yet we all quickly became friends. Caroline and I even teamed up for an Operating Systems assignment, though I recall that she did most of the work while I fooled around. Kids …

Since then, I’ve always thought older students attending university was a largely American phenomenon. It reflects the opportunities that the country affords; the greater access to education for more people. It is much harder to go back for a degree in India.

Then there’s Alam Ali.

On any given Pilani morning, you might find Alam scurrying from his hostel, Malviya Bhavan, to somewhere in the Institute. Or you might find him, as I did, drinking tea in the cafeteria. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was on the staff. Maybe he’s just visiting a sixteen-year-old nephew in Malviya?

But Alam is a student, attending classes, taking tests, eating food in the mess with his fellows. In his late forties, Alam is close to thirty years older than his classmates.

When he and I meet, what strikes me about Alam is his enthusiasm, his infectious grin, his—let me say it—youth. On campus again after 27 years, he sports a wide-eyed delight, as if he’s discovering everything for the first time.

Maybe he is.

After topping the Rajasthan schools board exam in 1977, Alam got admission at BITS. Three years into his engineering degree, something happened—he won’t say what—and Alam left.

Scratch that, Alam dropped off the face of the earth, lost even to his family. Not even ads in the paper brought him back.

Several years passed. Alam travelled through north India, worked as a coolie, in construction, in apple orchards in Kashmir. In Pahalgam, he was once elected the leader during a fruit workers’ strike. He studied Indian mythology, the Vishnupurana, all four Vedas, and learned about Buddhism. Along the way, a sadhu friend told him: “You have two pathsbefore you. One is evil. The other is to go to Himachal and do road construction work. But whatever you do, work hard!”

That advice sent Alam to Simla—he remembers the train from Kalka into the hills, the lovely country, the impression that he was leaving the world behind and entering some godly abode. He would sleep on railway platforms. “I had one blanket,” he tells me, “that I bought from Khadi Bhandar in Simla.”

Eventually, Alam returned home to Ranasar, in Rajasthan’s Churu District. The village still remembered his performance in his board exams, so he was welcomed like the long-lost son he was. He married and got a job as a lab assistant in his childhood school. The BITS years helped: he found himself teaching mathematics and science to the school students, and eventually took a teaching degree from an institute called Adarsh Vidya Mandir in Jaipur. At one point, he was asked to perform a Hindu religious ceremony there; besides him, a Muslim woman was also involved in the rituals. People there must have thought, he says: “These are the people against whom we fight so much, yet look at how comfortable they are in this ceremony!”

That last observation is not casually made. At several points in his narrative, Alam tells me the lessons he learned through these years: there’s goodness in everyone, all scriptures say the same things, nobody is superior to anyone else because of their faith, and whether Hindu or Muslim, people are the same to him. Do good work, and nothing else matters.

Along the way, Alam was blessed with two daughters, the older of whom is now sixteen.

In the BITS cafeteria, I have been nursing my tea through all this, quite overwhelmed by the story of this twinkle-eyed man’s life. What amazes me is that through everything, Alam says he kept a flickering hope going—that he would one day return to BITS and finish his studies. Not that he needed to, but it remained a dream.

In mid-2007, the phone rang. It was a BITS batchmate, Nemichand from Delhi. While not a close friend, Nemichand was from Rajasthan too, and like so many others, remembered Alam topping the board exams and had always wondered what happened to the guy. In the early 90s, he heard that Alam was back home, but couldn’t make contact. While preparing for their 25-year reunion in Pilani that September, Nemichand tracked down Alam again. He asked Alamif he wanted to complete his degree? Alam said yes.

One thing led to another. His batchmates approached BITS about Alam’s case, and a meeting was arranged with the Institute management. “I felt God was putting his hand forward for me,” says Alam. He turned up for the reunion and told his story. The 1977 batch decided to offer him the financial support he needed.

Starting with the second semester of the 2007-2008 academic year, Alam Ali returned to the BITS campus, working towards the Electronics Engineering degree that he first came there for, all the way back in July of 1977. Attending microprocessor and signals classes, eating in the mess, shooting the breeze with his Malviya Bhavan hostel-mates, thirty years younger than him. “They call me sir!” he says with a chuckle.

Meanwhile, his daughter has applied for admission to BITS too. If she gets in, he looks forward to being the first father-daughter pair to be students there together.

The story leaves me moved; by the courage, the affection, and the bonds that I have heard about in the couple of hours I have spent with Alam.

“I think sometimes that this is a dream,” Alam says to me in the cafeteria, still twinkle-eyed. “But I am living it.”

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

 

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