The village I grew up in, Chennalode in Wayanad, was small but beautiful. It would plunge into darkness every evening, since we were not on the grid, and candles and kerosene lamps would flicker to life, like fireflies. We had just one primary school, and the secondary school was a three-kilometre walk and a village away. Roads were bad, so most kids would drop out after seventh standard.
My family wasn’t well off — Uppa worked in other people’s farms and earned a modest salary of Rs.600/month. It had to support seven people — father, mother, my three younger sisters, my father’s parents and me. Three meals a day was a distant dream and breakfast, a luxury we couldn’t afford.
Uppa would take additional jobs such as cleaning the farms, and sub-contract the work to me. I started working at the age of 10. I would help after school and on weekends, and he would pay me for it too! On the weekends and holidays, umma would take all four of us into the forest nearby, six to seven kilometre away, to collect firewood. She was admirably courageous and didn’t let even wild elephants get in our way. After a day’s gathering, we would carry the most we could, to sell in the village. Every penny counted.
I think I learnt the art of hustling and getting the job done, no matter what, from my parents. It’s probably in my genes. When I turned 10, I embarked on my first entrepreneurial venture.
During my summer holidays, I borrowed money from my uncle and walked 14 kilometres to the nearest town and brought back a lot of candy to set shop. I raised a rickety one with umma’s saree and uppa’s old bench, and ran the establishment for an entire summer to make Rs.300 over the two months. It was a zero-capex model. I only had to ensure my goods were safe from my sisters; and I was a brother good enough to give them one each every day.
When I turned 12, I bought a goat from what I had saved, sold the milk and gave the money to umma, who saved, and soon, one goat became three. Like any good entrepreneur, I was already thinking of expansion, not in numbers, but moving up the value chain. So, I traded in the goats for a cow and that helped bring in more income.
Studies never interested me. I was keener on helping uppa and umma run the family; anyway studying under the candle light or kerosene lamp was quite painful. It was the perfect excuse to stay away from my books. The only thing I was good at was math and, the only motivation to go school, honestly, was the mid-day meal!
This attitude finally cost me heavily. I failed in class VI and quit school out of humiliation. I could not bear to think of sharing a bench with the juniors. My father tried to convince me to go back, but I stood my ground and insisted that I would join him for work full-time. One person, however, noticed my absence in school after a few weeks — my math teacher, Mathew sir. He used to teach classes VI and VII. He sent word through my friends for me to go meet him and, when I didn’t go, he landed up in the farm where uppa and I were working. All of them tried to convince me but I wasn’t willing to give in. Except, Mathew sir asked me a question that changed the course of my life. He said, “When you grow up, do you want to struggle like your father or be a teacher like me and support your dad?” Instantly, I knew what I had to do. Of course, I wanted to be a math teacher like him. I will never forget his hand in my success.
So, I went back to school. I was struggling with English and Hindi, and Mathew sir once again came to my rescue. He helped me with English and persuaded the Hindi teacher to teach me after school. I had no friends in class, since I was sitting with the juniors, and that helped me focus on studies without any distractions. To my surprise, I started to do well. Suddenly, a lot of my classmates began to ask me for help with lessons and teachers became more attentive. Now, I loved going to school. Nothing builds self-confidence like success. I topped class VII, and there was no looking back.
In Class 10, I stood first and the marks I got were the highest in the school’s history. For junior college, I had to step out of Wayanad, but my parents didn’t have the money to pay for my fees or boarding. That’s when my father’s friend suggested I apply to Farook College in Calicut, and when uppa and I got there, I fell in love with the campus at first sight. Luckily, I got the admission and the college had scholarships for poor students, which covered stay and food as well.
Thus began one of the most difficult phases of my life. During mealtimes, we had to wait for the paying students to finish before being served. We were made fun of by a few paying students and sometimes the food ran out. If we went in before them and food fell short, would complain against us. It was humiliating, but we swallowed our pride and stuck around because we knew education was our ticket to a better life. I was determined to get a college degree and become a collector. Most of the paying students didn’t discriminate against us, only a handful did and we learnt to deal with it.
I hadn’t heard about engineering. My classmate was the son of a school teacher, and he was always in a crisp white shirt and black pants. Back then, I had only two pairs of clothes for an entire year and they would tatter and tear by the end. I wanted to be a collector who wore crisp white shirts and black pants to work.
Besides the taunts, there was a bigger problem at college. All the classes were taught in English and, until then, my schooling had been in Malayalam. So I didn’t understand a word the teachers were saying and I was distraught. Thankfully, I had a generous friend Usman, who translated every lesson for me. It was such a big help. I was able to catch up with my studies, classes weren’t as nightmarish as they used to be and eventually I was among the first five students in class. When you are determined to do something, you will always find a way despite challenges.
One of teachers noticed I was doing well and asked me to attend coaching classes to crack the engineering entrance exams. I told him I was broke and didn’t have the money to pay for tuition. Again, kindness saved the day. He was a teacher at the institute and he offered to pay for the classes. I passed with flying colours — or to be precise, with the 63rd rank, and joined Regional Engineering College (now the National Institute of Technology). Here too, Usman had a part to play. He had filled the form for admission into the college on my behalf and, after the results were announced, both of us were in. I chose to pursue computer science.
With part student loan and part scholarship, I made it through, but I had to be judicious with the spending. Often, friends who knew that I couldn’t join them for dinners for this reason would chip in for me. Four years went by really quickly and it was placement time. It was my next stumbling block. I was keen on getting into Infosys but I couldn’t crack their aptitude test; in fact, I didn’t make the cut with most leading software companies. If I cleared the aptitude test, I fumbled during the interviews because I couldn’t speak English that well. I finally managed to land an offer from Manhattan Associates.
I was to join their Bangalore (or Bengaluru now) office at a monthly salary of Rs.7,000, but it was the beginning of the IT boom, so people were quitting their firm. Desperate for people to join them, they bumped up our joining salary to Rs.14,000/month. I couldn’t believe my luck! My dad thought something was wrong and perhaps that would be my annual package. He couldn’t believe that anyone would pay that much as a monthly salary. It was more than his lifetime savings. He thought it was a scam.
Uppa, my uncle and I left for the city, where my cousin Nasser lived. If you thought my childhood was tough, his was worse. His family couldn’t afford even two meals a day. So, he ran away to Bangalore in search of a better life. He started as a sweeper and became a store manager in two years. He was, and is, dear to me.
My father came with me on my first day of work. He patiently waited outside through the day, since he still didn’t believe that the offer was real. I convinced him that all was well, that the company was trustworthy and the offer was official. Finally, after much cajoling, he and my uncle took the bus home. When I got my first month’s salary, which was indeed Rs.14,000, I traveled to Wayanad and handed it over to uppa. He was thrilled beyond words. After a few months, I got an offer from Motorola and, for a boy from a small village in Wayanad, getting to work with a multinational was a matter of great pride.
After a few months in the city, I was sent to Ireland. I couldn’t understand their accent and they couldn’t understand mine, but it was the best thing that happened to me. Travelling opened my eyes and gave me confidence. It also led to many interactions with different people, and with that, my English improved as well. All was going great but I could not shake off a growing homesickness. I had no close friends there and missed Indian food. I still prayed five times a day in congregation, and it was not an easy thing to do there. But how could I give up my salary in pounds?