Asia-Pacific

The genius children in India's shadows

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The power of India’s genius kids lies not in their minds but their hearts, writes reporter Calliste Weitenberg

Asked to imagine a genius, you no doubt picture Einstein’s wild hair or Galileo behind his telescope spying at the moon. It’s unlikely you’d see a child, 12 years old, dragging a backpack home along the impoverished roads of India.

Even then, it’s unlikely you’d picture a girl.

But this is where 5-6 million geniuses, kids with IQs of 135 or above are estimated to be hiding. Brilliant minds – diamonds in the rough – they sit in makeshift slum schools waiting to be found.  And thanks to the work of Mensa, the world’s oldest high IQ society, they’re being discovered, one IQ test at a time.

But these aren’t genius kids as we know them.

In Australia, we are used to the image of the child prodigy. Spelling bees have spawned documentaries and global TV formats. Kids solving Rubik's cubes in impossible times are now a viral YouTube phenomenon – each new child smashing a record, then having their new record smashed. Genius kids in the US even compete in their own reality show.

As consumers, we can’t get enough of the idea of perfection. We watch people pushed and trained, given every tool and specialised instruction possible to protect their unusual intellect, to ensure a journey to greatness – no matter the cost.

But it’s a very different story for India’s genius kids. Theirs is a game of catch up.

They are boys and girls with little to their name, moved from a charity-run slum school where they once sat on hessian bags, to a new one with buildings, a cafeteria, a playground (!!!).

They are masterminds who have never before been told they were smart. Their gift is as much a mystery to them as it is to you or I. Getting selected is their one chance to succeed – and they must carry the whole family forward with them.

On a recent reporting trip for Dateline, I was lucky enough to meet two of these kids; Varsha Kumari and Ritu Paswan are girls just 14 and 12 years old with IQs of 135 and 145 – exceptionally gifted.

I had a lot of fun exploring Varsha and Ritu’s minds, the ways in which their brilliance manifests.

Off camera, Ritu was loud and funny, had a quick wit, sharper than most my adult friends, her jokes and wry remarks translated even in her broken English – a language she taught herself from borrowed storybooks. She has an effervescent creativity, perhaps naughtiness. While her siblings hang in the street, she paints the doors and walls of all the neighbours houses in bright colours; birds, flowers, Hindu Gods.

Then there’s Varsha. Quiet, determined, she’s a problem solver through hard work and perseverance. When I handed her a Rubik's cube for the first time, it was fascinating to see her response. With little explanation, she sat quietly on a playground step, working the puzzle piece by piece, figuring it out in her own little world. No questions asked. Given a brain teaser I couldn’t solve, I asked how she knew the answer – not even Vashsa could say. “It just is”, she said. It’s obvious. Of course.

But realising what made these young geniuses special was bigger than any filmable trick, any viral sensation. Their genius sits on a knife edge.

Walking into Varsha’s home for the very first time I was shocked at just how small the space was. I’d been told she lived in a one-room home, part of the illegal urban dwellings built across the country.

This was barely 4 x 4 metres. The size of my bathroom in Sydney, it housed seven people, an old television, some pots and pans. Varsha explained that the cushions stacked in the corner are laid out each night to sleep on and dinner is prepared on the ground amongst their feet. There was barely room for our cameraman Ben – “I have nightmares about filming in this situation,” he said – there was even less room for Varsha to learn.

There are no crazy Tiger mums here. Instead, Varsha cooks and feeds the family. Her father an alcoholic, at times he resents her ambition. He questions the need to study, worried she’ll become too educated and won’t stay and care for them when they’re old. In his presence, she loses her words. Her intellectual gift hangs in silence, the elephant in a tiny room.

But her mind blooms in the absence of even the simplest tools. Now a Mensa scholar, she has geography books of her own and one night with her two young sisters, I watched as together they explored the world.

To understand the gift children like Varsha and Ritu possess, means understanding their lives. We spoke about things most people never do. The problems that come with family, the fears you might not make it. The expectations of tradition and those around you – things none of us ever truly escape, even if we try.

I’ll never forget the moment Ritu revealed the reason she knew she had to study. At her roadside school, study seemed futile, dust flying with each passing car, teachers who cussed and swore. Why bother?

It was the moment when her father left, and her mother cried and cried. She decided then and there, barely 10 years old, to make something of herself.

“If I don’t, then I am nothing”.

But her mother didn’t just cry. Ritu had saved her life. A single parent, she told me she was shunned. Her honour ruined, the shame so heavy, she tried to hang herself. Ritu, woke that night and found her, called to neighbours to get her down.

We all sat in silence then, tender as the camera rolled. “An extraordinary girl,” I thought.

Everyone has their quiet battles. These girls more than most. To learn then that they dream of being a doctor, an astronaut, they felt dreams more worthy than my own. Growing up as a girl in a small country town, I know how hard it is to think that anything beyond that place is possible; to see a vision of yourself beyond the little lives of its inhabitants.

I am humbled by Varsha and Ritu’s ability to dream big. To really believe in their gift when all around them every day there are signs it’s useless, unlikely, impossible.

You won’t see them in a viral video. What sets them apart isn’t yet their skill or prowess. They’re tiny pioneers and their genius is their own. Something special and inexplicable.

I hope being picked as Mensa scholars, now they’ll learn there’s more to the equation. That it’s not just nature, it needs to be nurtured as well.