• It’s believed 5 million children in India have genius IQs but are never discovered. (SBS Dateline)
It’s believed 5 million children in India have genius IQs but are never discovered. We follow two children from the slums who are as smart as Neil Armstrong fighting to achieve their dreams.
Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 21:30

When Varsha Kumari peers through a telescope for the first time and looks up at the moon, she’s staring somewhere she hopes to go one day.

Varsha is only 14 years old, but she’s long known what she wants to be – an astronaut.

While many kids around the world can follow clear pathways to try and realise their dreams, for Varsha it’s not so simple. Having grown up in an impoverished urban slum just south of India’s capital, New Delhi, her childhood schooling was done on the side of a dusty road, under a tarpaulin – a far cry from the education standard afforded to wealthier children in the city.

For many kids brought up in the poorer areas of India, the notion of pursuing academic study, or even a profession outside of their direct community, is a fantasy. But there are efforts to change that.

“We are trying to locate uncut diamonds in this whole mine of people here,” says Kishore Asthana, the President of exclusive high IQ society Mensa, in India. “If we can get some, we’ll try to polish them up.”

Kishore and his team travel to slums in rural regions of India, trying to find children with the IQ of Hillary Clinton or Thomas Edison. So far they’ve found 100. At various schools in the slums they give students a chance to sit a specialised Mensa test, with those who scale in the top two per cent of intelligence quotient (IQ) securing a place at a school that would otherwise only be available to India’s privileged class.

“Those who get selected, their lives will change,” says Kishore.

It is part of a program called Project Dhruv, run by Mensa, which is trying to identify children like Varsha and give them a chance to pursue their dreams

“When I tell Mummy she gets scared because I want to go into space,” Varsha tells Dateline reporter Calliste Weitenberg. “She doesn’t want me to, but I tell her this is what I want. I like to learn about space and I really love it.”

Varsha is one of millions of young Indian girls and boys who possess remarkably high IQ, but live in areas where most children are lucky to receive even the most basic standard of education.

Estimates from the country’s 2011 census suggest that there are around 5-6 million underprivileged children in India whose intelligence is at the “extremely high” level, but who will never get a genuine chance to utilise that intelligence, due to a lack of opportunities.

Education for the millions of underprivileged in India is often makeshift. Simple, roadside schools run by charities commonly fill the void in rural areas, which the nation’s public education system doesn’t reach. When it does, government-run schools face shortages of basic infrastructure and teachers.

Private schools are often the few places home to a computer. But the fees are expensive, more than most families can afford.

Ritu Paswan is one of those millions of Indian students whose life has been changed by opportunity.

The 12 year old – like Varsha – sat the Mensa test, completing it with an IQ of 145, an exceptionally high grade. The mark allowed her to relocate from a severely under resourced school in her neighbourhood, to a school where her dream of one day being a doctor no longer seems entirely out of reach.

However the stress of underprivileged life still weighs heavily on Ritu – her future could change the lives of her family, and she is aware of that pressure.

She also must deal with entrenched gender roles that pull her away from academic pursuits. For many women in India, there is an expectation that marriage and family is prioritised over education – many intelligent young girls have to struggle against their parent’s wishes just to stay in school. In Ritu’s neighbourhood, most young girls are married before the age of 18. Most work as domestic servants, with few finishing high school.

For Varsha, the budding astronaut, similar pressures apply. She is relied upon in her family to help around the house and cook each night, which eats into the time she is able to study and focus on school.

Ritu and Varsha were both identified as brilliant minds through the Mensa program. They both attend the Vidya School in Gurugram, which provides underprivileged children with an elite education – something many of the kids they grew up around do not have access to.

Without that opportunity, their intelligence would likely be squandered.

“You can be born a genius, but you can end up as a dumb adult if you are not nurtured properly,” says Kishore. “Your genius can become blunted.”

But even if these girls excel at school, the scholarship program will end once they graduate, and securing a tertiary education, let alone affording one, is no guarantee.

Ritu and Varsha may have what it takes to be a doctor and an astronaut, but will India’s education system give them what they need to get there?

Watch India's Beautiful Mind, Tuesday, 9:30PM on SBS.


The Intern Diaries: India's Beautiful Minds
Dateline producer Calliste Weitenberg discusses the inspiring young girls she met on a recent reporting trip to India, with intern Osher Fielder.
The genius children in India's shadows
The power of India’s genius kids lies not in their minds but their hearts, writes reporter Calliste Weitenberg

An interview with the Indian President of IQ society Mensa, Kishore Asthana:


Reporter: Calliste Weitenberg

Producer: Georgina Davies

Camera: Ben Emery

Editor: David Potts

Local Producer: Simi Chakrabarti

Researcher: James Elton-Pym


It is 8am and kids in an urban slum are preparing for a new day. It looks and sounds like a construction site. But it's a school.

STUDENT:   Seven.

ALL: Seven.


This are the kids of Rickshaw drivers, maids and migrants and today one or two of them could get a big step up in life. They are about to sit an exam designed by Mensa, the world's oldest high IQ society and they are here to see if they can discover a genius kid from the slums.

KISHORE ASTHANA, MENSA SCHOLAR (Translation):  An IQ test checks your intelligence. How high your intelligence is. ….And... the top 2 percent... those above 98 percent... they will be selected.

Kishore Asthana, a Mensa scholar, is hoping this test will uncover a brilliant mind that may otherwise be lost.

KISHORE ASTHANA: We have five to six million children, underprivileged, who have an IQ above 130. So we are trying to locate uncut diamonds in this whole mine of people over here, and if we can get some, we’ll try to polish them up. But those who get selected, their lives will change.

Passing the test is just the beginning. If a genius is found, they will win a scholarship at a school, usually only the privileged can attend.

REPORTER:  What would that mean to get through to a school?

BOY (Translation):  I would like that very much. My life will be made.

REPORTER: What would you like to be one day?

JYOTI:  I want to be become a policeman.

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):  You have three minutes to do ten questions. Time starts now.  We test the giftedness of being logical basically. It is about identifying a pattern.

He is looking for kids with the same IQ as Hillary Clinton, Thomas Edison, even Apollo astronauts.

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):  Don’t waste time on difficult questions Ok because you have very little time.  Time’s up, pencils down. Close your booklet. Close your answer sheet.

There are mixed feelings as the kids pack up. But Jyoti, the girl who wants to be a police officer, is confident.

JYOTI (Translation):  I’ve never seen questions like this, some were good and a bit difficult as well. Some were nice and pretty amazing.

REPORTER: Put your hand up if you think you will become a genius?

JYOTI (Translation):  I know I’ll get a good result. I’m quite confident

Now it is a waiting game.

REPORTER: We've got more now! There are more geniuses!

The likelihood of finding a genius in Australia is one in 100. In a week I will find out if any of these kids will get the chance to leave this roadside school. Mensa started its search for kids with high IQs just one year ago.  It's part of a much bigger quest, as India tries to lift itself up to become a world leader. And this is where the transition from slum kid to scholar takes place. This is the special school they get access to if they blitz the Mensa test. But it's tough. Keeping good grades is only the start of the challenges they will face.

KISHORE ASTHANA: If you can select them and guide them, we can make pilots, soldiers, political leaders, anything we want! They are raw material waiting to be moulded and that it is why it's very important.

Ritu Paswan is one of Mensa's geniuses. Only 12 years old, she tested with an IQ of 145 - a score that means she's exceptionally gifted.

RITU PASWAN, MENSA GENIUS (Translation):  Until now I never felt I was brilliant… I want to be far ahead in class, in studies. I’m halfway there and soon I’ll be twice as good!

Last year she made a big leap - moving from a school in a tent to proper lessons, taught entirely in English.

RITU PASWAN (Translation):  I never imagined that I could study in a school like this. I imagined how big the school would be, and classes would be so much better and in English. The canteen would be so awesome.  The playground would be huge. I was a bit dull in studies but now I'm a lot better

FRIEND (Translation):   She used to struggle but now she’s working hard and trying to get ahead.

GIRL (Translation):   I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I know 100%, I can be a doctor.

TEACHER: Over how many years does Halley’s Comet repeat its path?


Next door in an 8th grade class a newly discovered genius is showing up the rest of the students.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):   My favourite subject is science, like for instance, space. I really like it and I am fascinated by it.

TEACHER: As a satellite. It can be? Natural like earth is having natural satellite…


Found to have an IQ of 135, Varsha Kumari is just four points short of Neil Armstrong, in whose footsteps she hopes to follow.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  I want to be an astronaut…..I can listen to things about space all the time.
But these genius kids are under a constant threat. They can potentially lose their scholarship if they don't perform well enough.

KISHORE ASTHANA: We give an opportunity but we also know there are many pitfalls along the way, that you can be born a genius. But you can end up as a dumb adult if you are not nurtured properly. Your genius can become blunted.

The pressure is relentless - at school and also at home. Ritu lives in a migrant neighbourhood and while she aspires to be a doctor, all the women around her work as domestic servants. None have finished high school, let alone a medical degree.

SHEELA PASWAN, MOTHER (Translation):  She draws trees, bushes, flowers and animals. I wish I had the chance to study and create like Ritu!    Right from when she was very young, I felt that she was different to my other kids. That is why I feel she can become someone.

There is a lot of love here at home. But there's also a lot riding on Ritu's cleverness. Her mother and sister were both married off young and both their lives have been shaped by traditional duties, which they don't want for Ritu.

SHEELA PASWAN (Translation):   This is no life. I don’t have a husband. My life is useless.  When my husband left me we were devastated.  I felt it was better to die than live a life like this. When my kids were asleep I twice tried to hang myself.  My daughter Ritu woke up and opened her eyes then she ran outside and made a lot noise. Many people came and got me down.

Her mum is pinning the entire family's future on the 12-year-old, all because of her gift.

RITU PASWAN (Translation):  When dad wasn't there....

SHEELA PASWAN (Translation):   Don’t cry… Ritu! Please child.

RITU PASWAN (Translation):  No one visited us after Dad had gone. No one spoke to us or visited us. I was alone with my mummy and she cried all the time. So I thought, I will study and become someone. I will show everyone I can become someone.  That’s it.

The hopes and dreams of two generations are riding on Ritu's shoulders. It's 4 in the afternoon, and after a long day at school, Ritu should be doing assignments but she's needed across town with her mum.

RITU PASWAN (Translation):  I enjoyed my studies at school today. I worked hard at school. I’m tired. I don’t want to do this.

SHEELA PASWAN (Translation):   Put the bag there, take this tray and chop the cauliflower. Go on, hurry up.  Be careful of your fingers and chop it like this.

RITU PASWAN (Translation):  I can do it.

REPORTER: Ritu, do you worry that you should be studying?

RITU PASWAN (Translation):  I do think I should study but if I am of some help to my mother that’s a good thing. I still study but I help my mum too. That’s how I feel.

SHEELA PASWAN (Translation):   If she doesn’t know how to cook and if something happens to me she will be able to earn some money.
That’s why I ask her to learn to do a little bit each time. I worry about what she will do and how she will live. I keep worrying. There’s no one to look after her. 

She may have high hopes for Ritu, but her mum is already thinking of a plan B. The reality is the Mensa scholarship with stop after high school and she knows a medical degree is very expensive.

SHEELA PASWAN (Translation):   As she passes and finishes her schooling her support will stop. Then what will I do? Thinking about that makes me anxious. I’m not sure whether she will be able to fulfil her dream or not. She can’t do it without help.

Every parent worries what will become of their child. For girls in India, security comes from marriage, which means many genius girls battle their parents just to stay in school.

V SUPRABHA, VIDYA PRINCIPAL: The more challenges are coming from the society. From the families they come from. Because for them, once they are educated, they need to find a good match for marriage.

The principal admits it can take more work educating parents than it can the scholar.

V SUPRABHA: You know some parents don't understand Mensa. They aren't educated enough to understand. When we tell the parent “your child is gifted” I mean they look at us like “what gift?”

In the constant struggle to make ends meet, it can be difficult for families to see a child's role beyond their duty to the family. For 14-year-old Varsha, the budding astronaut, home is a place she tries to avoid. It means returning to a world where life is ruled by poverty, not possibilities.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  Don’t eat the carrots…Why didn’t you get some for us?

MUMTA, MOTHER (Translation):  There’s no money.

REPORTER: You look like you know how to make that pretty well?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  No! They tell me to cook otherwise it’s not good. The rice is cooked, shall I cook roti now?

REPORTER: Do you like helping your mum out?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):   No. But I have to.

MUMTA (Translation):  Maybe they think they want to study, but this is also a kind of work.

REPORTER: Did you ever suspect that Varsha was so smart?

MUMTA (Translation):  No. Why are you just staring at us?

Varsha's family not only struggles financially, her father has a serious problem.

MUMTA (Translation):  Come and have some food.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):    Dad doesn’t have a job at the moment, sometimes he looks for a job and gets one, but then he just comes home and drinks and starts fighting at home.

MUMTA (Translation):  After drinking, he argues and picks fights with everyone. We have problems with him, all six of us face difficulties.

Because of his drinking, her father can't hold down a job. Varsha's constantly worried she will have to drop out of school to work.

MUMTA (Translation):   It’s burning.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):   What can I do?

MUMTA (Translation):   Turn down the heat.

And with little time to study, the scholarship hangs by a thread - something her family doesn't seem to grasp.

REPORTER: Do they support you in your dreams?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):   My dad says “Do what you like but don’t tell me about it.” When I tell Mummy she gets scared because I want to go into space. She doesn’t want me to but I tell her this is what I want.

She says she wants to be an astronaut and, you know, she has an IQ of Apollo astronauts. And her family don't realise that. But India's genius kids don't face this journey alone. Varsha has a mentor, a woman who has climbed to the top of the professional world and is guiding the way.

SABA ZAIDI: Varsha I see that she is one of those little girls from childhood who are very clear what they want to do in life.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  So you thought this was my home? Today I will introduce you to someone.

This is Saba Zaidi. Brought together by Mensa, she's a role model to confide in and today she's arranged a surprise.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  And Varsha, do you know who is Ajay?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  No. I don’t know.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  Mr Ajay Talwar is an astronomer.


AJAY TALWAR:  I think you like Astronomy

VARSHA KUMARI:  Yeah, I want to be an astronaut.


AJAY TALWAR:  I can show you a few things, come.

Meeting an astronomer is a chance most kids in her street will never get.

VARSHA KUMARI:  The telescope is so big.

SABA ZAIDI:  It’s humungous…It’s such a big one.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  Three telescopes, all so different.

AJAY TALWAR: This is like a light-bucket, a bucket that collects light and then, all the light collects over here…

Tonight there is a super moon and Varsha, the astronaut hopeful, is getting her very first glimpse up close.

SABA ZAIDI: I want to support her completely no matter what because she has some challenges back home. So from her perspective it's very important to have at least one person in her life who can tell her "Varsha, take this step - it will lead you to your destination or no not take this step because here you may stumble".

AJAY TALWAR: Come, take a look. You can watch through here.

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):    My God!  It’s so small, so tiny! The spots on it are visible too. Wow! It’s so beautiful and I saw craters on it.

AJAY TALWAR (Translation):  You like it?

For Varsha, it's the first time her dream feels real.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  Do you still want to be an astronaut?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  Yes, but I don’t want to go to the moon.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  Where then?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  Into space. I’ll see the moon and all the other planets as well.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  After seeing all this, do you think your ambition is a dream or reality?

VARSHA KUMARI (Translation):  It will be reality.

SABA ZAIDI (Translation):  I know you will make it happen.

I don't know what's in store for Varsha. In four years, she will be among the first Mensa scholars to graduate and the path beyond that isn't clear, but she's already tasted a very different future. Even if her family don't realise it's possible.

Before leaving India, there's one last thing I need to do. It's been seven days since Mensa's last round of testing, and I want to know if a new genius could be about to start a journey of their own.

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):   We tested you to find out how intelligent you all are and who is the most intelligent. In this test seven of you have done very well.

Seven high scores out of 50 who were tested. But has anyone scored high enough to be deemed a genius?

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):  The best result was scored by Vinod Kumar Yadav. Where is Vinod?

Scoring in the 99th percentile, 13-year-old Vinod has an IQ of 145 and is announced a new Mensa scholar.

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):   A bright boy. Vinod what do you want to do in the future?

VINOD (Translation):   I want to help my parents.

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):   You want to help your parents. Very good. What do you want to become?  Engineer.

Jyoti, the confident 10-year-old who dreams of becoming a policewoman, gets a mention too. She's just missed out on becoming a genius, but her high score is incentive to try again.

KISHORE ASTHANA (Translation):  You have missed it by one point, so next year we will test you again and I feel then you will definitely qualify.

Give them the realization that they are bright, that they have the treasure within them. They can utilize that treasure. Just knowing that makes a difference.

For Vinod, there's a long road ahead. He's about to face challenges that may be more difficult than the life he has known. But the opportunities that come with them will be worth it.

Calliste Weitenberg

Story Producer
Georgina Davies

Ben Emery

James Elton-Pym

Local Producer
Simi Chakrabarti

Story Editor
David Potts

Aesh Rao
Chitra Sharma