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Mission possible

Though nine-year-old Siva Kalyan is orthopaedically challenged, he is exceptionally talented. Studying university level physics and mathematics is only one of his many achievements. V. R. DEVIKA writes about him and his family's struggle to tap his potential.

KALYAN KRISHNAMURTHY, father of Siva Kalyan, says "We don't believe that exclusive focussing on education is the road to success. Such an approach is not desirable for most children." Siva Kalyan does a lot of things with his studies, a mix of fun and goal-oriented activities. He enjoys comics and storybooks, from Archie and Garfield comics to Mark Twain, Douglas Adams and Harry Potter books. He likes sketching and makes up cartoon strips, Rube-Goldberg contraptions and is now learning to colour with markers.

Siva Kalyan is nine years old. He has just received two awards from the centre for Talented Youth of Johns Hopkins University and has scored 1,190 out of 1,600 in scholastic assessment test (SAT) I, and 610 in mathematics and 580 in physics out of 800 in SAT II. He is now doing a course in advanced placement calculus and physics of Stanford University.

Siva's grandfather T. S. Krishnamurthy, helped Siva receive his awards at Johns Hopkins. Siva walks with a frame walker and an orthopaedic support, wearing a brace to correct a curvature of his spine. He suffers from a genetic condition that makes his joints loose and muscles weak. Siva could not even crawl till the age of three-and-a-half. His parents and grandparents migrated to Australia and then to the United States from Tamil Nadu to help Siva cope with his condition and live a normal life.

In the U.S., Siva was admitted to second grade last year based on his age, but his teachers soon discovered he was not only eighth grade stuff and beyond, but also ready for college courses. His school allowed him to take the New Jersey test in basic skills for fourth graders and he scored in the top three per cent in the State.

Siva took the SAT II and I and got a very high score. This qualified him for admission into the study of exceptionally talented (SET) programme of the Academic Advancement of Youth of Johns Hopkins University. SET helps students who reason extremely well mathematically and verbally to supplement and accelerate their educational programme so that they are appropriately challenged.

"The secret of Siva's success is his grandfather", say Siva's parents Radha and Kalyan. "Actually, the principle behind Siva's success was formulated by my father, Siva's great grandfather, in remote villages of Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu," says T. S. Krishnamurthy.

Siva Kalyan's family believes that once children learn English and mathematics, they are equipped to learn anything else, be it law, history, engineering or science. Every student in America who aspires to a college education is tested in the same two areas of language (verbal) and mathematical reasoning. Such tests are indications of the student's ability to succeed in college and by implication, later in life, they argue.

It is good to build confidence and work with the strengths of children rather than telling them what they cannot do. Parents expect children to do well in every area and push them into sports, culture and other things. But to focus on their strength and what they are interested in is what they should be doing. They should focus the child's energies and efforts in an area that produces the best results for the child.

Seventy-year-old T. S. Krishnamurthy himself started his career as an elementary school teacher after finishing high school in Tamil Nadu. Studying on his own, he passed the electrical engineering certificate examination from the City and Guilds of London, changing his career to an electrical supervisor. Later he joined the Telephones Department and worked his way, and retired as Divisional Engineer. In the process, he became a graduate of the Institution of Telecommunication Engineers and completed the departmental examinations for promotions.

His wife Lakshmi Krishnamurthy worked in the post office for 25 years, taking early retirement after her three children graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology. "She has been a source of strength for Siva," says Mr. Krishnamurthy, "She

provided the much needed balance between study and play, meeting Siva's important need to be a child."

"While we followed the idea of narrowing our focus, life was not one of all work and no play for Siva," says Siva's father Kalyan. "We also keep him with his peers at school to provide him company and fun that is appropriate for his age. He enjoys company, writing stories and playing board games with other children. He watches children's programmes on TV, though he limits his viewing to 30 minutes a day. Watching videos is a bonus, for special occasions, not a routine."

"We were selective about only those activities that need to be learnt over a period of time. For medical reasons, to strengthen his back and exercise other muscles without damage to his joints, he needed to learn swimming. He started swimming at the age of four. By his sixth birthday, he had done his first one km backstroke swim. Free-style (crawl) was the next challenge. Medically he needed to do it to loosen up his shoulders and work his upper back. He achieved his first one km freestyle swim before his seventh birthday. Siva is a fighter and worked for six months continuously to stand vertically and walk with the aid of a walker."

Siva's mother Radha is a graded AIR artist in Carnatic music; she has learnt and given several concerts in Hindustani vocal too and is now learning Western Voice techniques at Princeton. She is herself a mathematics graduate from IIT Delhi. Like her husband Kalyan, she is also a software professional. Radha started teaching Carnatic music at home to children as well as adults. Siva learnt from her as well. Before his eighth birthday, he had learnt the Pancharatna Kirtanas by heart to participate in group singing in Tyagaraja festivals in Philadelphia and Washington. In 1999, he entered two music competitions in New Jersey, winning the first and second prizes in his age group.

Siva's family says they are indebted to Dr. Kalyani Nithyanandan in Chennai who helped them with Siva's initial diagnosis and treatment. "We also wish to thank the Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala. Under the guidance of their Managing Trustee, P. K. Warrier, who was also the Chief Physician in 1993-1994, Siva received nine months of treatment at their nursing home. This was done when western medicine could neither diagnose his condition nor prescribe any treatment. This treatment produced results that the Professor at Sydney, Australia described as 'near miraculous'. Their care provided the foundation of health and strength for building the rest of Siva's abilities."

Siva Kalyan says he wants to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics and theoretical physics from Princeton University. Prof. Charles Fefferman, Chairman of the mathematics department at Princeton University and a well-known mathematician, has taken note of Siva's mathematical talent and has offered to arrange for graduate student volunteers from Priceton to teach Siva math courses. For his EPGY course of the Stanford University that Siva is currently working on, he uses CD based lessons and quizzes to supplement a textbook. The assignments are submitted by fax or email and the instructor answers any questions by e-mail.

T. S. Krishnamurthy is quick to point out: "As Indians, having seen people at other parts of the world, we know that India has tremendous numbers of a very high calibre of students.

"Given the right support, they are and can be the best in the world. It is our hope that some of them and their parents find some ideas that worked for us, of use."

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