Armed with a laptop, Mohammed Asif Iqbal, 38, fires some tough questions at a nervous group of youngsters aspiring for IITs.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers employee, Iqbal is visually impaired, but it is his vision for youngsters daring to undertake the gruelling preparations for the IIT entrance process that has brought him to Mumbai.
Iqbal, seated in a room at Mumbai’s Anjuman-I-Islam college, took a day’s leave from work and flew in from Kolkata, to pick the most resilient and passionate of the lot.
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The college sponsors food, education and lodging for students who cannot afford expensive tutorials while preparing for the IIT exam. This time, it has shortlisted 56 candidates, of which 15 will be singled out based on Iqbal’s assessment.
These students, mostly from the underprivileged sections of society, will then gear up for the daunting IIT-JEE after a two-year preparation. Collaborating with Bihar-based Rahmani Foundation, Anjuman-I-Islam decided last year to start such a preparatory course for Muslim students in Maharashtra.
It is 10.30 pm, but Iqbal, who started his interview session 12 hours ago, refuses to tire. With only one candidate left, he explains why the behavioural test is essential. “The college is going to invest a great deal in them, and I do not want them to leave the two-year preparation midway,” says Iqbal as he turns to the last candidate.
Soon after the youngster leaves the room, Iqbal turns to his left and tells his team member cheerfully that they have finally found a “diamond”. The youngster has scored the maximum marks in most of the five parameters set out by Iqbal on his laptop that has the Job
Access With Speech (JAWS) software loaded. “It is all about passion and this young boy is a true example of that, as he not only answered confidently but practically as well,” he says.
Finding similar confidence was a difficult ballgame at one point in life for Iqbal — winner of a national award in 2008 and recipient of several honours in his home state of West Bengal. When his 50 per cent vision at age 15 degenerated into complete blindness at 16, owing to retinitis pigmentosa, studying further seemed a colossal task. Iqbal was then in Oregon, US, with an aunt and uncle undergoing treatment for his deteriorating eye condition. “They took great care of me, while I grew up from a 9-year-old boy to a 21-year-old adult,” he says.
For Iqbal, his aunt, an American woman, was the guiding light who taught him that apart from empathy, he needed determination to sail through life. He says he will always remain indebted to her. After completing his Associate of Arts diploma in the US, he came to India and went on to graduate in commerce from Kolkata’s prestigious St Xavier’s College.
“People would say you cannot see so you cannot study,” Iqbal says, amid returning a call from his wife, using a “talking” software on his phone.
Iqbal’s next hurdle was to get enrolled in a business school. Professor MS Pillai, who Iqbal says was instrumental in getting him the admission, felt he could inspire many lives. “I never recommended anyone in the previous 18 years at the institution, but Iqbal was special,” says the former founding director of Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development.
Iqbal worked with the Unique Identification Authority of India team led by Nandan Nilekani, on designing the disabled-friendly aspects of the Aadhaar policy to troubleshoot issues faced by the disabled.
“He has also had the likes of Kumar Mangalam Birla, Anand Mahindra in the audience when he spoke at the National Human Resource Development Network conference a few years ago,” says Professor Pillai.
Iqbal once even helped a disabled woman who was forcefully off-loaded from an airplane and in the process got the Director General of Civil Aviation to amend their rules for the disabled, says his professor.
Flashing a broad smile when asked about his family, Iqbal says he and wife Sajida are proud parents of a four-year-old daughter they adopted when she was a toddler. Professor Pillai says Iqbal’s deed of adopting a girl child, despite being turned away once before, is an inspiration.
Rachna Nath, Iqbal’s former boss at PricewaterhouseCoopers, recollects an incident when people found his impairment hard to believe.
“Iqbal and I had gone to see a few clients, but the discussion went for an hour. At its end, they asked if he had problem with his vision and I told them that he was visually impaired. They could not believe it,” says Nath.