There is hustle bustle of activity in the first floor of SB Khan chawl in Malad East,a north western suburb of Mumbai.Media persons with camera crew are jostling with each other to catch a glimpse of Prema who lives here. Overnight, Prema Jayakumar, the 24-year-old daughter of Jayakumar Perumal, an autorickshaw driver for the last 20 years, who topped her final chartered accountancy examination by scoring 607 out of 800 marks (75.8 per cent), considered one of India’s toughest competitive exams, has become a shining example of how “hard work, hard work and hard work” can bring success at the doorsteps of anybody with “a mission in life” irrespective of class.

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Overnight, Prema’s world has turned upside down, and she is not complaining, as the media, in its zeal for a ‘positive story after a long-long time’ turn her into a role model (which she indeed is because of what she has achieved despite odds), a celebrity (which she is not as she doesn’t hide her discomfort while coping with the media’s excesses) whose virtues and scholarly aptitude needs to be minutely examined under a microscope and highlighted over air waves, ether and bold newsprint sooner than competition.It is in this context that Prema’s mother, Lingammal, a god-fearing woman who had toiled all her life for this very moment, was beseeching her to come into the house and eat some food (Beta khana kha lo na!) in their kitchen, just 80 square feet in size that accommodates a Cudappah platform to cook food, a cabinet full of steel utensils, a plastic drum to store water, a small bathroom and a toilet.The rest of the house makes up for their living and study room, where Prema would either sit on a five-feet long cot or on the empty floor to study and her 22-year- old brother Dhanraj, who too cleared the CA exam in his first attempt just like her sister, would sit on a study table for almost ten to twelve hours a day as they prepared for their D-day, exchanged notes and discussed their difficulties to find a proper solution to achieve their mission in life.

“Doing CA was a passion,” says Prema beaming like an innocent child who had asked for the moon and got it.”But topping the exam at the all India level came as big surprise,” she says as a retinue of media persons wait their turn for her interview.Exhausted with all the attention she has attracted ever since the news broke out about her feat, Prema was running a slight fever and had to visit a doctor for medicines with her brother Dhanraj.Non-stop media interviews, felicitations, a steady stream of visitors, local politicians who wanted to bask in her glory and relatives distant and near is what Prema had been attending to since Monday and it had taken a toll on her frail built and health which she had so assiduously conserved during those marathon bouts of studying, discussing and problem solving with her brother.”It feels great,” says Dhanraj when asked about his sister’s achievement “like a double dhamaka,” he quips to anybody who congratulates him.”We studied for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch and at such times maintaining good health is very important,” he says looking at his sister in the narrow verandah that leads to their house .Dhanraj is all admiration for his sister and her determination and devotion, two things that, Prema says, kept her going through times thick and thin.

At moments like this day when she is not keeping well it is this stamina built during her exam days that helps her bravely face the media with a smile that is grace personified.One can guage Prema’s determination as she patiently poses for photographers, gives them interviews, turn-by-turn, even after throwing up medicines she was trying to consume making Lingammal a bit anxious as she asks her relatives to give her some sugar.Just a pinch of sugar and Prema’s smile comes back, determined and ever so humble as she is, to come out and offer her take on her hardships, study methods, and everything that the media people ask her.

Though most of her answers to similar type of questions differed in tone and measure, she answered in the same vein when we asked her about her parents.”They are my life; they have given me life and I want to give them rest now. The reason why we siblings did not face many hardships as we grew up was because they silently toiled while we studied,” she says about her father Jayakumar Perumal, an autorickshaw driver for two decades ever since he migrated from Periyakolliyur village in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district and her mother who would work from home for a cottage industry, a source of daily income to millions of homemakers like Lingammal.

It was as recent as 2010 that Prema and Dhanraj told their mother that enough was enough and because they earned stipends through their articleships — a sort of mandatory apprenticeship that chartered accountants must enroll for as accountants in any firm even as they prepare for their CA exam — they would manage the costs that would come their way en route to achieving their mission in life.”The fact that we were earning during our articleship also helped. We would defer unnecessary spends. But we were determined to do our CA at any cost,” says Dhanraj from inside his house that contains a television for entertainment and pictures of gods and goddesses to keep their faith in their destiny intact.

Jayakumar, however, continued with his 12-hour duty that began at 8 in the morning and ended at 8 in the night, to ferry people in the city in his autorickshaw, earning him, in recent times, Rs 15,000 every month.A simpleton to the core, Jayakumar, who has studied only till Class V, answers pointed queries from the media without showing a trace of discomfort.He never utters a word to even hint that his finances were stretched as his two children began their tryst with higher education.All he says is this: “I have studied only till Class V in a remote village. I didn’t much understand what Prema and Dhanraj wanted to do when they said they would like to become CAs one day. But we never questioned their decisions about what they wanted to do and always stood by them.””We would always encourage them to study whatever they wanted, the way they wanted. We always assured them that we would do all we could to help them achieve their goals in life.”

Now it is time Jayakumar takes it easy and enjoys the small pleasures of life.”In the next few months Dhanraj and I are sure we will get a good job. Then we would request father to retire and do all that he could not do because of the pressure of rearing three children and taking care of their education,” says Prema.Mahalaxmi, the eldest sibling, is a homemaker and hugs her mother, letting her eyes express her emotions, as she joins the family to celebrate its success.

The odds that the family faced gave birth to Prema’s doughty determination.”I had seen my mother and father struggle to make ends meet when we were kids. I was always determined that one day when we grew up we would have to help them with their everyday struggle,” says Prema, who studied in Tamil till Class VIII from a Tamil medium municipal school in Malad, about how she felt when she was in school.”It was only in the ninth standard that I began to learn and understand English. The switch was difficult, but then if you have the determination to do something, hurdles look small,” Prema says about how she was introduced to an alien language, but yet adapted quickly.It was this determination that got her 79 per cent marks in the tenth standard, 80 per cent in the twelfth standard and later 90 per cent marks in her final year of graduation to emerge second in Mumbai University.

Despite her academic record Prema humbly offers that she was confident to pass the CA exam, but emerging the national topper has completely floored her.”Two days before the results, everybody had huge expectations from me. People would ask what rank I would get as if I had already got my rank before writing my exams. That built huge pressure on me not only to pass, but pass with good rank,” she says of the nail biting moments before the results were declared.”When a former ICAI president called and asked if I had seen my results, I trembled with nervousness. I said I hadn’t. Then he told me that I had topped the all-India CA exam. I began to cry. He asked me to hand over the phone to my father and informed him about the result,” Prema recalls.
“My mother and I are very emotional. We always cry when we hear good or bad news. We all cried when the news broke,” she adds.