Tailor-made talent

A father chose a unique path for his children, and that has made them wunderkinds

60-Naina-Agastya Catch them young: Naina, 19, is doing her PhD and Agastya, 13, is in his final year of graduation | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

AT AN AGE WHEN children were just being introduced to four-digit numbers, Naina Jaiswal was solving complicated equations. Naina was only eight when she passed her class ten exams with first class. Her younger brother, Agastya, too, followed in her footsteps. And, when they were both around 10 years old, they cleared their class 12 exams. But how did they manage this incredible feat?

It is to unravel this mystery that we arrive in Kachiguda, a residential locality in central Hyderabad. As we enter the building, a teenager approaches us and asks, “Are you here to meet sir?” Yes, we say, and she leads us to a well furnished two-bedroom flat on the first floor. The sir she refers to is Ashwini Kumar Jaiswal. And, he reminds us of Aamir Khan in Dangal; the actor played the role of wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, father of the Phogat sisters. That could be because Jaiswal, 44, was a bodybuilder and had joined an akhada as a youngster and participated in local wrestling competitions. Though the Jaiswals’ flat does not resemble an akhada, there is an air of deference here. Jaiswal is surrounded by students and family, including his wife, Bhagyalaxmi, and when he is around, they stand with folded arms. The students, from class one to those doing postgraduation, have no qualms in helping out with household chores, too, like serving tea or water to guests or keeping the house in order. Almost 24 of these students spend most part of their days at a flat, rented by Jaiswal on the same floor, which is under CCTV surveillance, where they study until they are interrupted with a beta by their “sir”.

Pointing to a 19-year-old, Jaiswal asks, “Do you see this guy? He was very violent. His parents came all the way from Punjab requesting me to help him. He was a complete failure in studies. I accepted the challenge and told them to shift to Hyderabad. Today, I can proudly say that I have transformed the boy into a well-mannered youngster pursuing law.” He calls another student, also in his late teens, from the adjacent flat, and says, “He was declared mentally unfit by his school and doctors as he would struggle to write. I assured his parents that he is normal. I have been training this boy for years. He can write well now and is excelling at academics.”

Home-school of thought: Naina and Agastya with their parents Ashwini Kumar Jaiswal and Bhagyalaxmi | Bhanu Prakash Chandra Home-school of thought: Naina and Agastya with their parents Ashwini Kumar Jaiswal and Bhagyalaxmi | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Jaiswal’s achievements, however, began with his two children, who were both home-schooled by him. Today, Naina, 19, is doing her PhD on the ‘Role of Microfinance in Women Empowerment’ from Adikavi Nannayya University in Rajahmundry; Agastya, 13, is in his final year of graduation (mass communication). But, it is not just academics that they excel at. Naina is a national-level table tennis player, and is ranked 6th in the under-21 category. She is ambidextrous, can type the alphabet in two seconds and plays the piano. She credits her father for coaching her in table tennis and teaching her to play the piano—both of which he learnt first before training his daughter. He believes that “we can learn anything anytime”. Jaiswal picked table tennis because he could not afford any outdoor sporting equipment. “The only choice I had was to make her play table tennis as it was relatively cheap,” he says. “All I had to do was buy her the paddle.” Naina, who is also a motivational speaker, says her father trained her to write with both hands as it is said to improve brain function, and once she mastered the skill it helped her in academics and sports. “Whatever I take up or however far I succeed, my father will always be my coach,” she asserts.

But, what prompted Jaiswal to pick this nonconformist path? It was society’s outlook towards the girl child, he says, adding only a crazy father like him could bring up his children the way he did. “When Naina was born, the reaction of people around me was disheartening,” he says. “They told me that since I have a daughter, I should be ready to bow down in front of people and become submissive. At that moment, I promised myself that I would turn my daughter into a unique and successful person.”

And, that is how Naina’s homeschooling began. Teaching came naturally to Jaiswal, a law graduate, as he says his mother and aunt both took tuitions at home and he started helping them ever since he was in class seven. In his 20s, he started a private school and later operated coaching centres. He shut down these establishments in 2004 and decided to focus only on his children. He came up with a unique method to help them memorise vast portions of various subjects, with emphasis on basics and less focus on grades. He believes in the chain method, wherein the syllabus of a particular subject is linked so that it is easy to memorise and recollect. He also prepares family trees, easy formulas and even makes up stories out of lessons to make the process of studying more enjoyable.

But Jaiswal says the toughest part was not preparing Naina for the board exams, but doing the rounds of government offices to get permission for her to write the exam. “Our file would gather dust and I would end up spending seven to eight months just arguing with the officials,” he says. Finally, Naina gave her exams through the International General Certificate of Secondary Education. Once she cleared her class 10 exams, permissions for further studies came easily.

Naina’s day begins at 5am. She exercises for two and a half hours and after breakfast plays table tennis for almost three hours. Post lunch, she studies for two hours and then heads to the gym. She again practises for two to three hours, before returning home for dinner. Agastya’s schedule is not as gruelling. He does exercise and plays table tennis regularly, even coaching his sister when Jaiswal is not around.

Naina and Agastya live a regimented life—no TV or cellphones; computer is only for educational purposes (the CCTV is to ensure there is no misuse of the computer). The family is particular about their diet and avoids outside food. Agastya, for instance, has never had ice cream or chocolate. “My parents taught me it is not good to have junk food. For good health, I follow their instructions. I am not tempted to taste them,” he says. The Jaiswals have taught their children to cook, too. Naina makes us a quick paneer dosa; she claims she can make Hyderbadi biryani in 25 minutes. Agastya, too, cooks a few basic Indian dishes. “We travel a lot and we cannot eat outside all the time. Knowing how to cook is very essential for survival,” says Jaiswal. “My children have been prepared to take care of themselves wherever they are. This way, they would also eat nutritious food.”

Teens seldom live by the rules, but Naina and Agastya do not mind them. They say they are under no pressure to achieve anything. They study for merely two hours thrice a week. While they agree that the path their father chose for them is different from those of the other students, they insist he made it comfortable for them. And, while one would think that they would not have friends their age, Naina says that is not true. She has a few good friends, some of whom she met on her travels. “But it is a fact that my thinking is very different from their’s,” she says.

Also, they have a friend in their mother, Bhagyalaxmi, a homemaker. “I have never believed in scolding or being harsh with my children,” says Bhagylaxmi, who did her master’s in microbiology. “They share everything with me. This made our bond very healthy. Whenever I told them to study, they did so without any resentment.” She adds that Jaiswal and she had a love marriage and hence it was easier for her to understand his unique passion.

Jaiswal has started teaching a limited number of students—he only accepts students if their parents believe in his ideology and teaching method. “I have started teaching students because I have to earn to support my children,” he says. “This is the only way. For every 25 students, I take fees from 20 students and teach the rest for free.”

As for Naina and Agastya, their goals are set—crack the civil services exam before they turn 21. Naina is also eyeing the 2024 Olympics. Tell Jaiswal he could have his own biopic à la Dangal or the recent Super 30 (based on the innovative educational programme run by Patna-based tutor Anand Kumar), and he says, “There is a lot for her (Naina) to achieve. After that, may be....”