Ajith answers my phone call after the eighth or ninth ring just as I am wondering whether the number I had dialled was the correct one. “I’m sorry,” he says, apologetically. “I was busy cleaning my autorickshaw and didn’t hear the phone ringing.”

The 29-year-old has been busy answering calls from scores of friends and well-wishers over the past few months since news of his success appeared in local newspapers.

Ajith, you see, is an autorickshaw driver and also a guest lecturer in a college in the southern Indian state of Kerala. But that is not the reason he is in the news. The well-spoken, confident young man is the first and only autorickshaw driver in his state to have received a PhD degree in Malayalam from the prestigious Thunchathu Ezhuthachan University in Tirur.

Although he can afford to smile now, Ajith’s path to academic success was not one without potholes.

He still remembers the time when as a teenager he used to sell fish at a small makeshift market that stood by the main road in the small town of Anchalpetty, in Kerala’s Muvattupuzha, some 40km from Kochi.

Ajith and his mother, Santha, who was the family's main breadwinner a daily wage earner in a pineapple farm

Hailing from a poor family that included his mother, Santha, and grandmother (his father had left the family when he was a kid), the then barely 16-year-old would do odd jobs to help his mother, a daily wage earner on a pineapple farm who struggled to make ends meet. Ajith had failed to clear his grade 10 exams and with little hope of ever getting a second chance to complete schooling, he offered to assist a local fish seller in return for a few rupees at the end of the day.

“That was not the only job I did,” he says. “From the age of 13 I’ve been doing sundry jobs including working as a painter, a store assistant, a peanut hawker, a rubber tapper, a helper in a flour mill, in a pineapple farm… I’ve even worked in road construction. That was really tough – breathing the acrid fumes of boiling tar, carrying buckets of gravel from one place to another… by evening I’d be coated in sweat and dust and grime.”

But it was while selling fish one day that Ajith experienced an epiphany of sorts. The market was close to a bus stop where students of a nearby high school would gather in the evening on their way back home. “Every day, I’d see boys and girls, books in their arms, laughing and talking while waiting for their buses back home. Envious, I too wanted to be like them – to go to school, to study, to have friends my age, to get a better job, to make something more of my life,” says Ajith, in a telephone interview in Malayalam, from his home in Kerala.

That night, when the young boy returned home he told his mother that he planned to resume his studies. “I’ll fund my education,” he told her, allaying her fears of finding the funds for his study.

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Apart from selling fish in the evening, he also earned some money working in a local quarry loading stones in trucks. Quite literally burning midnight oil, Ajith passed grade 10, then grade 12 albeit with modest marks. “I was happy to complete my schooling,” he says.

He may have been happy but not contented; he now wanted to go to college and earn a degree.

To that end, he enrolled for an undergraduate course in Malayalam at St Peter’s College in Kolancherry, close to his home town; three years later he stepped out with a BA degree certificate in hand.

Bitten by the education bug and following his friend’s advice, Ajith then signed up for a Bachelor’s in Education (BEd) course keen to qualify to become a teacher. The annual fees, though, were quite steep – around 35,000 Indian rupees (about Dh1,683), a princely sum for Ajith, whose mother, the main breadwinner, barely earned enough to keep the family together.

Ajith takes his mentor and good friend, Joby Thomas, for a ride in his auto. Thomas, a lecturer during Ajith's BEd programme, was instrumental in encouraging him to pursue a master’s degree

“I knew it’d be difficult to pay the fees, but my heart was set on becoming a teacher,” he says. Taking a gamble, he purchased an autorickshaw on loan, confident it could help fund his education.

He was not wrong. Attending college during the day, he plied his auto for hire in the evenings earning around 600 rupees on average daily – enough for his college fees and to help his family a bit.

Once he completed BEd, Ajith’s mentor and good friend, Joby Thomas, a lecturer during his BEd programme, advised him to pursue a master’s degree at the Malayalam university. Why settle for a schoolteacher post when you can become a professor, Joby goaded Ajith. “He perhaps knew I had it in me to study well and encouraged me to continue studies,” says Ajith.

In 2013, the auto driver enrolled for a master’s degree in Malayalam at the university and two years later graduated.

“Joby sir was a major motivating factor. He encouraged me tremendously to pursue research even though at the time I was not sure I’d be able to put in the hours required for a PhD,” he says, unstinting in his praise for his mentor.

A passionate lover of theatre and theatre songs since his childhood, he rarely missed plays that used to be staged in and around his home town. So, when it came to choosing a subject for his research, he did not have to think too much. “I decided to explore the enduring quality of drama songs and their relevance in popular culture,” he says.

Fortunately for him, an extremely helpful faculty that included his guide and supervisor Prof Anita Kumari offered him all help. “Anita Kumari madam was a pillar of support always available to answer all my queries and help me whenever I hit a hurdle in my research,” he says.

He admits that pursuing research was no easy task. There were several moments when he felt like giving up but during all those trying times, his mentors Joby and Prof Anita would encourage him to never give up. “She would tell us that hardships and challenges will often crop up in life; we need to learn how to juggle several things and keep them all up in the air at the same time to stay on course in life.”

The self-made man also credits his friends, including a few auto drivers in his neighbourhood, for helping him and motivating him to complete the program.

During college breaks, he would return to his hometown and ply his auto on hire as well. “Several passengers, some of them senior government officials and retired people who I used to ferry, shared a lot of life’s lessons which have helped shape my thinking,” he says.

Ajith presents his thesis to his supervising professor Anita Kumari, who was 'a pillar of support' in his postgraduate studies

In June last year, three years after beginning research, Ajith’s dream materialised. “Receiving the certificate confirming my doctorate was a great moment for me; all the hard work finally paid off,” he says.

So, what is his dream now? I ask.

“To become a teacher,” he says, without a moment’s pause. “I’d never dreamed that I could become a teacher and now that the path has been cleared for that, I want to achieve my dream.

“That said, I still have no qualms of driving an autorickshaw or having to sell fish or doing odd jobs to earn a living. Every job has its own dignity and I have the greatest respect for all professions.

“But to me, teaching is a noble profession – one that can help carve a new generation and mould them by inculcating in them the right values and morals. I want to set an example to the next generation and help develop a generation the future students will look up to.”

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