A few weeks ago Dharampal Yadav received momentous news, the kind of news that, in an instant, fundamentally and irrevocably alters a person's life.
He rushed home to this village in the rural Bihar state to tell his family, and they celebrated with him - even though none of them really had a sweet clue what he was talking about.
Mr. Yadav had passed the entrance exam to the Indian Institute of Technology. He was in.
The IITs are 16 separate engineering colleges spread across India which, taken together, are perhaps the most elite educational institutions in the world. More than 500,000 students wrote the entrance exam this year. Just 8,000 were admitted. That is an acceptance rate of less than two per cent, lower than that of, for example, Harvard University, or Oxford. An IIT degree is a passport to wealth and respect; to a life a million miles from the low-roofed porch where Mr. Yadav studied by lantern light, a couple of water buffalo tied to a peg near his feet.
But no one in Rashulpur, a village of cowherds and feudal farm labour, has ever gone to college. No one has ever met an engineer. And no one knew what the IIT was, when Mr. Yadav came home that day with the news.
"I didn't know what it meant, but when I found out, I felt like my dream had been achieved," his mother, Radhika said, surveying her shy and lanky son with bemused pride. "I knew even if I had to starve, I would teach my children. When I saw educated people I wanted my children to be like them - when I saw how they dressed, how they lived."
Mr. Yadav, 18, wrote the IIT entrance exam in May, alongside 29 students who had joined him in an extraordinary academic endeavour. They are called the Super 30, and they are teenagers from the most marginal families in some of the most marginal corners of India.
Each year 30 students, as impoverished as they are promising, are recruited by a rumpled, near-fanatical math teacher named Anand Kumar. Over the course of seven months, he tutors, teaches, mentors, badgers and crams as much as he can into their thirsty brains in preparation for the IIT exam. He has run Super 30 for eight years, and in three of those years, all 30 have made it in. This year, 26, including Mr. Yadav, made the cut. These are statistics unmatched by the most elite of the IIT-entrance coaching institutes anywhere in India.
"I want to show that if you have will power, even in Bihar, you don't need infrastructure or money," said Mr. Kumar. "You just need devoted teachers."
He and his ramshackle school are a source of both pride and curiosity in India - the pass rates of his Super 30 make headlines every year. But beyond the novelty value of the barefoot boys (they are almost all boys) who are vaulted into the country's elite, the furor around Super 30 points to a growing crisis in Indian education.
The roaring economy has created a desperate thirst for skilled graduates. But there is massive shortage of accredited educational institutions to teach them. India's economic reforms, which eased the choke hold of bureaucracy and corruption, kicked off this era of growth 15 years ago. But those reforms have yet to be applied to education. There are near-insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles to opening a new accredited institution. Instead, thousands of unaccredited schools have sprung up, offering education of wildly varying quality, luring students who hope that employers hungry for engineers or business graduates won't scrutinize their credentials too closely.
India's Human Resource and Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, recently told journalists that the country needed 1,500 new universities just to keep pace with demand. But he has resisted calls to allow the development of private institutions, while doing nothing to ease the path for public schools to expand.
Thus the IITs become ever more exclusive. Mr. Kumar, 39, did not attend an IIT himself. He grew up in the Bihari capital of Patna, the son of a low-caste clerk in the postal bureau, and was at best bound for a similar job himself.
But Mr. Kumar proved to have a rare brilliance with math, a genius that shone even in the dire public schools he attended, and he won a place at Cambridge University in 1994. His family scrambled to figure out a way to finance his studies, but before he could leave for England, his father died suddenly. It fell to his mother and Mr. Kumar to support the family; the dream of Cambridge was shelved and instead she made pappadums and he sold them from a bicycle. "This was our only source of survival," he recalled, his face twisting at the memory.
Mr. Kumar was taken on by a professor at Patna University who caught wind of his rare abilities. Before long he was publishing in international mathematics journals. He began tutoring other students - poor kids like he wasTheir numbers grew quickly, and in 2002 he formalized his tutoring into a school.
His classes were free in the beginning, but eventually he asked students to pay a fee of 500 rupees - about $11 - for the year, so that he could afford to run the school full-time. Most agreed, but one of the brightest students asked if he could pay in instalments. Puzzled, Mr. Kumar asked him why. The boy said it would take his father some time to scrape together the money. Mr. Kumar followed the child home that night and discovered that he was working in domestic service, sleeping under a stairwell and studying in patches of light he could find at night.
Mr. Kumar resolved to gather up 30 - as many as he could house and feed - of the best and poorest students and train them for the IIT.
For the rest of the school, he would teach middle- and upper-class kids for 5,000 rupees ($110) per course per year - far lower than the usual elite tuition rates and just enough that he would break even, running Super 30.
More than half his first Super 30 students won places at the IIT - and not everyone was happy about it. Soon he had death threats from gangsters, contract killers hired by what he calls the "coaching mafia," owners of for-profit tuition centres who didn't like his low prices or his success rates. The police assigned him two full-time bodyguards.
Mr. Kumar teaches in a huge tin-roofed, dirt-floored shed down an alley choked with trash, stray cows and sewage. A dozen ceiling fans do nothing to cut the soupy heat. The students - about 150, on a typical morning, a dozen of them girls - sit on rough wood benches and place their notebooks, limp in the humidity, on planks in front of them. Mr. Kumar wears a screechy lapel microphone, but hardly needs it: his wild excitement for quadratic equations has him yelling through half the lesson. He intersperses the math with motivational sermons, reminding his students that their background does not matter, that they are smart enough for any test, that all they need is to work and believe they can do it.
Mr. Kumar expects total commitment. "Don't sleep!" he exhorts them, mopping his face with a handkerchief. "Work hard! In 24 hours, study 14 or 16. No TV! No newspapers, no sports, no games! Just study, study, study!"
Mr. Yadav - who is so thin it seems improbable his neck can hold a brain so crammed with knowledge - began his studies at the tumbledown village school. "The building wasn't good, but the teachers showed up."
He tried to write the IIT exam on his own a year ago, but failed it. Then he read about Super30 in the newspaper, and wrote the entry test to join Mr. Kumar's small group. "I needed a good guide who could work with me, but it was not possible if I had to pay," he said. As beaming family members clustered three-deep around him, he allowed himself a small smile. "It feels good to be in."
The cost of attending an IIT is about $4,500 a year, minimal compared to say the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but wildly beyond Mr. Yadav's family's means. Mr. Kumar has negotiated with a bank to secure him a loan, as he must do every year for his Super 30 students.
Mr. Yadav already knows what he will do with his first paycheque from the job he lands with his IIT degree: return to Vaishali. "The first thing I will spend money on is to build a school, a really good school, for people of my background," he said. "After completing [a degree from IIT] I will have powers to help poor people like myself - I will do things for my village and my state."