There’s no doubt Dr. Biju Mathew could tell some fascinating stories. As a consultant psychiatrist at Ridge Meadows Hospital, as well as a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, his career crosses paths with a wide range of people in desperate need of his help.
While he does publish work, usually it’s clinical papers, meant to delve into the depths of his chosen profession.
They are not stories.
But a meeting with one of India’s most noted mathematicians has opened a new door for Mathew.
Anand Kumar was in Maple Ridge in 2012 as the guest of honour for the Ridge Meadows South Asian Gala. Kumar is the founder of India’s most unique and charitable schools, Super 30.
The school seeks out 30 exemplary students found in the slums of the economically backward sections of India in hopes of graduating the students on to universities like the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the country’s most prestigious post secondary schools.
It is a story that admittedly fascinated Mathew. The two instantly stuck up a bond. And then Kumar broached the idea of having the Maple Ridge doctor write his life story.
Mathew admitted he was hesitant at first.
“I’ve never done anything like this. I wasn’t sure. I’ve written research papers, but nothing like this.”
But the opportunity was too good to pass up.
To do it, Mathew knew he needed to experience a little of what Kumar’s life was like. In order to write the book, Mathew was compelled to fully immerse himself in his subject.
“I needed to be able to smell and hear the stories first hand for myself,” said the doctor. “People can tell you about the poverty and what life is like in India, but you can’t truly comprehend it unless you experience it.”
So he took two separate trips to Bihar, located in the northeast corner of India, in 2012 and again a year later. He spoke with friends and family. He went to the crumbled buildings that disguise themselves as schools. He talked to Kumar’s students.
He still wasn’t convinced he could write the book. Others had tried, only to be rejected. So Mathew put pen to paper. He submitted two chapters.
Kumar loved it.
The book, to be published by Penguin, will hit bookstands in October. There is no financial interest in the sales for Kumar or Mathew. All proceeds will help go to build a more modern Super 30 school.
The experience has created an unfathomable bond with Kumar.
“He calls me his brother,” said Mathew. “We talk on the phone at least twice a week and exchange so many emails. We have become incredibly close friends.”
He said what he has discovered is Kumar is a man whose own life was shaped by incredible poverty. Brilliant in math from an early age, Kumar excelled in school and had the marks that were good enough to land him entrance to Cambridge University.
But the unexpected death of his father meant there would be no dream of higher education. He spent his days selling papad, a seasoned flat bread, made by his mother so the family could keep the wolf from the door. But his love of math never died. It inspired him. It drove him to work harder. Mathew said he feels Kumar’s trials only made him that much more intent on succeeding.
“His humility is very evident from the first time you meet him,” said the psychiatrist. “Poverty played such a big role in his life. He knows exactly what every one of his students goes through because he’s lived it. His integrity is incredible,” said Mathew.
The doctor said it’s is evident in the fact he’s still trying to raise money to build his school. Mathew said the hand of corruption can be pervasive in India. Kumar has had plenty of offers to finance his school, but Mathew said the Super 30 founder knows what the price would be if he takes the easy road. He will lose control over what matters most to him –helping the poorest of the poor build a better life.
Since its inception in 2001, Super 30’s success has been nothing short of remarkable. In the last eight years alone, 212 of its 240 students have graduated on to some of the country’s top technical universities, providing them a chance to escape the crushing poverty that cripples the communities they grew up in. The school not only provides an education, but also provides food and shelter.
For Mathew, the chance to share in that story has been one of his great achievements.
“I’m very humbled.”