Against all odds: From the streets of Kolkata to an American college. And back

By the time he was five years old, Ashok Pal had seen the Taj Mahal. But he didn’t know what it was. Years later he saw a picture in a book and realised it was the world famous Taj Mahal. Ashok had been abandoned by his family when he was four. He grew up on the streets and railway platforms, hopping on and off trains, surviving on his wits.

Chances were Ashok should never have made it. Like thousands of children similar to him he could have fallen through the cracks. But at the age of ten he was taken to Don Bosco Ashalayam in Kolkata, a non-profit working with street children. He went on to become a competitive rugby player, graduated from school and joined a B.Com programme in Kolkata. Now he’s just back from a year of community college in Miami in the United States.

“My English proficiency was not much good,” he says. “I was worried how I would survive.”

 Against all odds: From the streets of Kolkata to an American college. And back

Ashok Pal (left), Pratap Kundar (centre) and Zeeshan Ali (right). Firstpost/Sandip Roy

But he’s a born survivor. He’s never had any other choice. He has even started his own web development company Sky Cursor. It’s an Indian success story albeit with an American touch. The Community College Initiative Program began in 2007. Since then some 2,300 students, nominated by NGOs, selected through a competitive process, have spent a year in American community colleges studying disciplines as varied as early childhood education, public safety, applied engineering.

Ashok studied IT at Miami Dade. His rugby buddies Zeeshan Ali and Pratap Kundu have also returned from community colleges studying Business Management in Virginia and Human Resource Management in Washington respectively. They all took part in a programme organised by the American Center in Kolkata recently.

Pratap too comes from a hardscrabble background. Abandoned by his family after his father’s death he grew up on the streets of Kolkata. Now he works for a furniture and interiors firm to finance his B. Com. Zeeshan does his BBA by correspondence while setting up his own event management company – Kohinoor Electric and Decorator.

All have their own stories about their American adventure and the surprises they found there – snow, turkey for Thanksgiving (“Oh my God, it was delicious”), American football. They all had their own challenges adjusting to life in the US, challenges familiar to any reader of immigrant stories. “Hardest thing was the English accent,” says Pratap. “I didn’t know to even say ‘water’ so that they could understand me.” His host family taught him how to maneuver through supermarkets and use debit cards.

But what surprised them more were the unexpected things they brought back. “They teach you have to give back to your community, “ says Zeeshan. “We had to 100 hours of volunteer work. At first I thought why. But when I went to do it people treated me so well.” Now he says his colleagues are mystified by his new found punctuality as well as his adherence to rules. When he landed back in India and got into his cousin’s car, his cousin was surprised to see him put on a seatbelt. “Now even if I am five minutes away, I wear a helmet if I ride a bike. Looking at me, I hope my juniors will learn.”

“People didn’t like the way I used to speak in India,” says Ashok sheepishly. “I used to shout all the time with slang.” “He was like Salman Khan in Bodyguard,” grins Pratap. Ashok says “But now people say you’ve changed. I learned if you do good with people they treat you good.”

But it’s not like America was just some wholesome moral character building diet. These are youngsters and it was a fabulous adventure. Ashok grins and says “Before going to America I came for my interview and said I was going to teach rugby to the American girls team. Everyone was very concerned.”

Girls, he says frankly are “open minded there. Once you get into relationship with me, you don’t have to get married, I have enjoyed with you, you have enjoyed with me.”

It was, indeed, a good time.

Zeeshan recalls playing rugby with three members of the US Eagles team on a cold night in New York. Pratap remembers the Seattle Seahawks game and Ashok lights up when he talks about Florida beaches every weekend and Miami nightclubs. “I went to the Ultra Music Festival. It looks like heaven inside,” he beams.

In his Miami Dade jacket, with his purple tie, and eye-catching red watch, Ashok looks very much the young entrepreneur, shaking off a tough childhood and now getting a shot at the American dream.

And then comes the real surprise. He says though he enjoyed his time in Florida he does not really miss that culture now that he’s back. “There I found I really love my country,” he says.

Then he leans forward. “From the beginning I am alone. From age four. Whatever I do no one cares. You must understand there is no family here to miss but I missed my country. I knew when I returned back I would do something for my country. And myself. My heart connects to my country.”

And that is why even though he went all the way to America and back, Ashok Pal and his friends are stars of a very hopeful Indian story of survival and success against the odds.

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2015 11:28:07 IST