Parminder does the bhangra at The Telegraph School Awards; (right) at home. Pictures by Anindya Shankar Ray
He has toiled in a tyre shop, worked as a waiter at a roadside dhaba, spends festival nights touring with a professional bhangra troupe and tutors students almost his age in math.
If these challenges weren’t daunting enough for a schoolboy, life has hurled one personal tragedy after another at him. First his father died, then an elder brother, followed by his mother. In his teens, he was suddenly responsible not only for himself but also his brother’s widow and their two children.
But trust Parminder Singh, 17, to vault life’s hurdles with a smile — and a jig, if you insist. School topper with 83 per cent in Madhyamik, head boy of Khalsa English High School, backbone of his family and the pride of the 17th edition of The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence: that’s Parminder for you.
The only thing that temporarily wiped the smile off the teenager’s face at the Science City auditorium last Saturday was his mother’s absence when he strode the stage to receive the Surrendra Paul Memorial Award for Courage and the Keshav Rathi Memorial Scholarship.
“My mother was a courageous woman. She left no stone unturned to get me educated. But she suffered a fatal cardiac arrest a week before my Madhyamik results were declared. When I topped my school, everybody was there to congratulate me except the person who mattered most,” he told Metro.
But looking at Parminder playing the obliging entertainer on stage, the Science City audience would have found it hard to believe this was a boy with so much weighing on his mind. All it took was a request from awards convener Barry O’Brien for the 17-year-old to break into a balle balle step.
“During the festive season that starts with Navratri, I do the bhangra professionally and get around Rs 500 per show. The money is a little more if I go out of station,” he said later.
Though he does not have much to spare, Parminder tries to save money to send to his sister-in-law and her two children in Ludhiana. “Bhaiya died of a heart attack and after that Bhabi and her two children went back to Ludhiana because I and my other brother couldn’t afford to keep them here. I send them money when I can,” he said.
Apart from attending school, Parminder packs in a lot into a day. He helps two Class IX students with their math after school, followed by engineering coaching classes till 8pm. The tired teen then heads back to Azadgarh in Tollygunge, where he has been staying as a paying guest. “A part of the coaching fee has been waived and the rest is paid by my school. My physics teacher pays for the paying guest accommodation,” he said.
Parminder used to live with his second brother, a bartender, until three months ago. “The room where I studied had a leaking roof. So when my physics teacher offered to pay for my lodging elsewhere, I took it,” said the aspiring aerospace engineer.
Many of his relatives had tried to dissuade Parminder from studying science but encouragement came from a friend of his brother. It helped him make up his mind.
“He told me to do whatever I wanted to. He said: ‘Even if you become a driver, at least you will be able to repair your car.’ It was just what I wanted to hear,” said Parminder, who also feels indebted to his science teacher Ganesh Jha for guiding him from Class VI to X without ever asking for a tuition fee. Although help has come from various quarters, Parminder still needs to do odd jobs to pay for his modest needs and buy books for himself and his nephew and niece.
Life had become a struggle even earlier when his salesman father fractured his pelvic bone. “I was barely 10 when things went wrong. My father was bedridden for two years and it was becoming increasingly difficult to run the family with just my elder brother’s income from his transport business,” he said.
The family decided to shift to Ludhiana and Parminder’s elder brother wrapped up his business. His father’s health started deteriorating shortly after moving to Punjab. For Parminder, the worst part was adjusting to the standard of education in the local school. “Classes were hardly held and I felt completely lost,” he recalled. Parminder, who was then 12, would plead with his mother to take him back to Calcutta because he “wanted to study”.
“My mother was a brave woman and she brought me and my father back to Calcutta at her own risk. We lived in a 10x8ft room. We lost our father soon after,” he recounted.
His elder brother and mother’s death in quick succession almost broke Parminder’s spirit. Every time he felt depressed, his father’s words would ring in his ears. “He had told me the day before he died: ‘Continue your studies.’ That’s what I am doing,” the 17-year-old said.
And setting an example in doing so, as Parminder’s many admirers would say.
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