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Narasingakoottam is a small village near Kadaladi of Ramanathapuram. With some 50 households, Narasingakoottam is barely a speck on the map. It has no bus service. Villagers have to trudge under the hot sun for more than 1 km to reach Kadaladi. A bunk shop is all there is in the village if anyone wants to buy anything. Sivaperuman grew up in one of the mud houses of Narasingakoottam. If someone had told him a few years ago that he would be researching asteroids in a NASA program at Arizona University soon, it would have sounded like science fiction to him at the time.

There was no electricity in his house. Darkness would envelop Narasingakoottam in the night since there were no bright lights anywhere near. But that also meant the night sky’s astronomical delights would not be hidden by the glare of city lights. For Sivaperuman and for others, nights meant sitting on the coir cot outside the house and gazing into the splendors of the sky. There was no television to distract.

The hut in which Sivaperuman grew up

Just like Arabs living in the desert made astronomy their subject of study and made advances, Sivaperuman, living in Kadaladi under desert-like conditions, acquired a fascination for the sky. He wanted to soar up into the heavens.

Sivaperuman was born into a Most Backward Class community and studied in Tamil medium at a government school. Yet, his academic record took him all the way to Chennai where he got admission at BTech at the Madras Institute of Technology. Studying aeronautical engineering there, he then did his MTech in aerospace engineering at IIT Kanpur. Now Sivaperuman is on his way to Arizona in the US to do his PhD.

What helped Sivaperuman’s dreams take wing was the Elite School set up by Ramanathapuram collector K Nanthakumar for high performers in government schools. Sivaperuman did his Class 12 there.

The young man recalls a childhood marked by a sick father who couldn’t go to work. Mother Boopathy worked as a noon-meals worker at the local school. Her monthly salary was Rs 2,000. The family had a cow. Selling curd made from the cow’s milk gave the family of five, which included Sivaperuman’s brother and sister, their livelihood.

Sivaperuman was born into a Most Backward Class community and studied in Tamil medium at a government school. Yet, his academic record took him all the way to Chennai where he got admission at BTech at the Madras Institute of Technology. Studying aeronautical engineering there, he then did his MTech in aerospace engineering at IIT Kanpur. Now Sivaperuman is on his way to Arizona in the US to do his PhD.

From Class 1 to 5, Sivaperuman studied in his village. For middle and high school, he would walk up and down every day to Kadaladi.

The young engineer recalls getting much encouragement from his school maths teacher Stephen Vijay. Other teachers would support and help, often silently. They would give cash, buy books for him and so on. In Class 10, he scored 433 out of 500. He then took the maths, physics, chemistry and biology group in Class 11. Then he got admission at Elite School.

Sivaperuman as a young boy with his teachers at the government school where he did most of his schooling.

Since there was no teacher for maths during his class 11, Sivaperuman struggled in the subject initially when we joined the Elite School for class 12. School coordinator Navaneethakrishnan told Sivaperuman that he should buck up and perform or leave and go back to his school in Kadaladi. Navaneethakrishnan would sit with him every week and guide him on how to do better, and the boy did improve his performance in maths.

Recalling his days at Elite School, Siveperuman says their physics teacher, Kumar, would teach well into the night and past midnight sometimes. Such was his dedication.

Sivaperuman scored 1,086 in Class 12 in 2014, with 200 out of 200 in Physics, 199 in mathematics, 198 in chemistry and 192 in biology. His MPC (maths, physics, chemistry) score was such that he bagged an admission at the Chrompet campus of Anna University. Sivaperuman recalls that going for counseling to Chennai was the first time ever he had set foot on a train.

His teachers helped him pay the college fee. Sivaperuman says Navaneethakrishnan stood by him through his four-year course and helped him to do well.

Coming from a small village, life in Chennai was like being pushed into the deep end of the ocean and asked to swim. Sivaperuman was too shy to even speak to his classmates. Classes were in English and Sivaperuman took time to adjust to the new situation. His friend Kiran Ebenezer’s family became his local guardian and took care of him.

The shy boy slowly gained confidence and became adept in his studies. His research project on collision avoidance of aircraft that he took up with his friends received funding from the university.

He then set his sights on doing postgraduation in aerospace engineering at IIT. In his first attempt at GATE, he got scored 145 (for admission into top IITs, the student must score a GATE rank below 200) and got admission in IIT Kharagpur, but for mechanical engineering. Sivaperuman was determined to study only aerospace engineering, so he started preparing for GATE again. The next time he scored  178 but was able to get into IIT Kanpur for the subject of his choice.

Coming from a small village, life in Chennai was like being pushed into the deep end of the ocean and asked to swim. Sivaperuman was too shy to even speak to his classmates. Classes were in English and Sivaperuman took time to adjust to the new situation. His friend Kiran Ebenezer’s family became his local guardian and took care of him.

The monthly stipend of Rs 12,400 was a big support, he says, adding that he is grateful to his professor Mangal Kothari who encouraged him to dive deep into aerospace engineering.

Ramanathapuram collector Nanthakumar encouraged Sivaperuman to set his sights even higher and pursue research at the highest levels. Sivaperuman applied to do PhD at the University of Arizona where aerospace research happens with support from NASA. Sivaperuman has got admission for doing research regarding asteroids and sending satellites around small heavenly bodies. A focus of his research would be mining for minerals up in space.

While the stipend of $1,700 would take care of his monthly expenses, Sivaperuman still needed some money to travel and pay for his first month’s expenses. Even in that his teachers helped and assisted in generating crowd funding.

Sivaperuman is waiting for his visa, which he expects to get by the end of February. Online classes have already begun. The young man from Narasingakoottam is all set to fly to Arizona soon

Meanwhile, he wants to do his part to help along government schools that helped him so much. He is currently a volunteer at the government model school program, and hopes to do a lot more as he establishes his career.


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