Growing up in the heart of a Wadala slum, eight-yearold Narendra Jadhav knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a gangster.
Somewhere along the way he changed course and ended up as chief economist of the Reserve Bank of India and then vice-chancellor of Pune University, a chair he currently holds. This prestigious post has a special sweetness to it, for a hundred years ago, Jadhav’s Dalit ancestors were made to leave Pune city before dark and carry brooms to sweep away their own polluting shadow.
Jadhav’s unique success story has often been cited as a sterling example of how education can unchain and transform when seemingly nothing else can. The street and the slum taught the young boy to be resilient but it was the all-consuming emphasis placed on education by his semi-literate father, a Dalit worker with the Bombay Port Trust, that set him on the road to success. His brother excelled too, got into the IAS, and went on to become municipal commissioner in Mumbai.
Jadhav’s schooling was split between a municipal primary school and a private secondary school, both united in the poverty of the children who sat in the classrooms. His ambitions changed all the time. First he wanted to be a gangster, and then something far less glamorous, a peon. “I grew up at a time when life was uncertain. I wanted a steady job that nobody could take away from me. A peon’s job sounded ideal.’’ Later, he decided he wanted to be a teacher, but by 13, he told his horrified brother that he hoped to be a writer. “My brother threw a fit. He told me I’d starve.’’ But Jadhav’s father, who went on to painstakingly pen his own memoirs, overheard the conversation and jumped to his defence. “Don’t listen to what others tell you to become. They may tell you to become a doctor, barrister or engineer. But follow your inner voice and do what you want. I really don’t care what you choose for yourself, as long as you’re at the top, wherever you are. Don’t ever be mediocre. Even if you’re a thief, make sure you’re an internationally acclaimed one.’’
The boy took his father’s words very seriously. At the SSC exam, he topped in Sanskrit, a language he had defiantly chosen because generations of Dalits had been denied access to a tongue considered the preserve of the Brahmins. At Ruia College, Mumbai, he passed his BSc in Statistics and Economics with distinction. After completing the first year of his MA in Economics from Mumbai University, Jadhav got a job as a probationary officer with the State Bank of India. So, during his second year, he juggled his studies with a full-time job. “My brother thought this was a bad idea. He was convinced that my scores would dip and that I could not have my cake and eat it too,’’ said Jadhav. But he proved his brother wrong. He succeeded at his job and set a record by getting a first in Economics, something that no Dalit had done before.
After a three-year stint with the bank, during which he travelled extensively in Maharashtra, he joined the Reserve Bank of India. At 24, he was their youngest researcher. A few years into the job, he felt the need to study further. So, on a government of India scholarship, he headed for the University of Indiana, where he received a Ph.D in Public Finance. He was awarded the Best International Student and won the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Economic Theory.
His classmates at Indiana, where he headed the Indian Students Association, were shocked when he told them he wanted to return to India after his Ph.D. “At that time, no Indian who went abroad to study returned home. Most of them were from rich families who would settle abroad and then complain of how they were subjected to racism. And here was I, from a down-trodden family in India, turning my back on over a dozen job offers to return home instead.’’ Seven days after his got his PhD, Jadhav was back “because I believe there can be no substitute for your motherland. My commitment to my own people was so strong that I would not been happy anywhere else’’.
When Jadhav passed his SSC, he could barely speak in English, a language he has now consummately mastered. “Of course it was hard for me to switch from Marathi to English. But then, life is hard. You can’t use your background as an excuse for incompetence. And there’s no substitute for hard work. The fact that I lived in a slum and studied at a Marathi-medium school did not come in the way of my higher education abroad,’’ he says.
When Jadhav returned home, his mother found it hard to understand why her son was still working so hard after all these years of study. Surely a PhD meant he could now take it easy? That’s when Jadhav’s father stepped in once again with his earthy wisdom. He said a PhD was like a driving licence. You don’t stop driving once you get a licence. You start driving. “Here was one illiterate person explaining the value of PhD to another illiterate person. And he couldn’t have put it better,’’ says his son.
As a tribute to the man who, although himself uneducated, lived fearlessly and overcame caste and class barriers, Jadhav wrote ‘Amcha Baap ani Amhi,’ a book on his father’s life that has been translated into many languages. Once, while Jadhav was at Indiana, his father fell critically ill. He rushed back to see him, only to be reprimanded. “Don’t waste your time in the middle of your studies. Come back when you’ve finished your degree. I won’t die until then.’’
He kept his word. He died three years after his son returned to India as Dr Narendra Jadhav.