It Takes Two to PhD

At 7 am in his room at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Kaveri Hostel, Dr Akshansh Gupta wakes up Mahajan bhaiya. The two of them have their bed tea, and then Mahajan bhaiya helps Akshansh — known on the campus as Bunty Dada — take a bath and eat his breakfast. The two then head to the computer science lab by 11 am, where Akshansh has been researching brain-computer interface for the last few years.

While he works, Mahajan bhaiya goes around meeting his friends, security personnel and contract labourers employed in nearby buildings on the sprawling campus. The moment his phone rings, however, Mahajan bhaiya fleet-foots it back to the lab: Akshansh needs him, it’s time for lunch. After Akshansh has eaten and returned to work, Mahajan bhaiya goes back to the mess for a solitary lunch. The two get another break around 6 pm, when they head to the local market for a shave, and finally, back to room number 20 for an early dinner and some more research.


Akshansh has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth, which left him with 95 per cent disability. It meant that if he wanted a glass of water or to relieve his bladder, it was going to be a gigantic effort of the will. And would require help from an external agency. With these odds against him, nobody would have predicted that a child who could barely move would one day not only complete his education, but also get a PhD.

The story of Akshansh and Mahajan bhaiya began in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, when Akshansh was five years old. The little boy wanted to go to school like the other kids but couldn’t. More than study, Akshansh would dream of running. “Those were good dreams,” he said. “I would wake up and tell myself, ‘some day’. Some day, I would get my legs in shape and run faster than anyone in the village.”

Akshansh and Mahajan bhaiya met in Jaunpur, UP, when Akshansh was 5 years old. Their friendship soon developed into an intensely dependent relationship.

Photo Courtesy: Udayan Nag

That never happened. What happened was that instead of being the fastest kid around, Akshansh became the smartest one. His mother believed in his mind, and so, on the advice of a teacher, they decided not to shelter their wheelchair-bound child in a school for the physically challenged. Instead, they thought of sending him to a regular school, which would allow him to compete in the real world.

But to admit Akshansh to a regular school would require the help of a constant companion, someone who would stay by his side day and night. But who would do that? There were many unemployed people in the village, but taking care of someone with special needs demanded more than just time — it demanded self-sacrifice.

That’s when Akshansh’s parents found the wiry rickshaw puller, Mahajan bhaiya. When they met him, Mahajan was a muscular young man who would carry up to three people in his rickety vehicle for kilometres at a stretch. The idea of taking care of a child full time never occurred to him, but the decision to come on board was more pragmatic than sentimental. “It seemed to me a no-job,” he said. “The kid couldn’t have weighed more than 12 kg. And I was used to carrying up to 300.”

But soon, Mahajan realised the load he was ferrying to school and back couldn’t be measured in kilogrammes. It was an intensely dependent relationship. Akshansh needed assistance for everything. At school, Mahajan had to be within shouting distance of the boy at all times, never knowing what the child would need next. Over time, their understanding grew.

If Akshansh glanced sideways, Mahajan knew he needed a drink of water. If he squirmed, Mahajan knew he wanted to relieve himself. The job was intensely demanding and not without its share of friction. Mahajan would lose his temper and yell at Akshansh, asking him to find someone else to take care of him. But eventually he would come back and do whatever he wanted. “I soon realised the weight I carried was so heavy because it was a child’s life,” he said.

At school, Akshansh turned out to be excellent at math, scoring the second highest marks in the Class 10 exam at school. He graduated from Umanath Singh Institute of Engineering and Technology with what his teachers termed “superhuman willpower”, but that was not enough. “I wanted a tail,” said Akshansh, “a PhD to my name. Dr Akshansh Gupta.”

But the man who had to decide whether Bunty would get a PhD was Mahajan bhaiya. Would he go to Delhi? Be a part of the JNU campus? Mahajan wavered. “I had to decide between my family, my children, and Bunty,” he said. Then, he chose Bunty. In 2008, they signed up for the M Tech and the integrated PhD course and took the train to Delhi.

That JNU is a friendly university for the differently-abled has helped Akshansh a lot. In his busy life on the campus, he has made a bid to run for university president in 2012. He didn’t win the election, but he definitely had everyone’s vote.

These days he is busy filling out job applications. “A lot of people I know, believe I can’t get a job,” he said, looking at Mahajan bhaiya with a grin. “We tell them not to bet on it.”

With inputs from Kangana Sachdevaa