What I had not imagined happened in 1988. It was not just positive, it was a major milestone in my life — one that shaped me in ways I cannot even imagine.

I used to live in Tumkur, Karnataka State, India and I was living there for the last two years. I was studying at Sarvodaya Colleage (from Class XI to Class XII). The exams were over and it was that time when they would announce the results. Class XII is a public exam in India and the results mattered a lot and influenced what Engineering colleges I could get admissions to.

I remember that day very clearly even today. I was with a few friends in Room #3 at the Vasavi Hostel where I had been living for the last two years. We were listening to some songs on the radio from 2pm.

At 2.25pm there was a break for “Pradesha Samachara” (Regional News). Just a five minute update on what’s happening in the state. We decided to listen to that not because we were interested in listening to that news but because everyone was lazy and nobody took the initiative to switch the station. The news was inconsequential for the most part.

At about 2.29pm, the lady said that the results of the Class XII exam are now announced and the following are the top three rank holders in the state. The first rank went to someone called Sunil.

And…

My jaw literally dropped when she announced my name and my college next. I had secured the second rank for the state in one of the most important public exams. The six people in my room who were listening to the radio cheered and one of them went outside the room and screamed out loud and asked everyone to come to our room to listen to what was happening.

I had secured the second place in the entire state from among 160,000+ students. It was unbelievable. Within minutes, the entire hostel went into a festive mood and I was transformed from a “nobody from a village” to a “sensational success story.” Tumkur, for decades had not seen a state rank holder and it was the very first for Vasavi Hostel to have one of their students get a state rank.

For the next hour, I didn’t even know what to do, how to react, whom to thank. I was in a state of pleasant shock and disbelief.

Following is the story of what happened 90 days before my exams.

The Big Decision

One of my close friends in the Hostel was my classmate Badrinath. He used to live in Room #17 and I was in Room #3. My roommates were students of an Engineering College so I couldn’t talk much to them about my class related topics.

Earlier in January, it became clear to both of us that Hostel environment was great but wouldn’t be all conducive for a serious preparation for the exam. This was because there were only four of us who were taking the Public Exam. The rest of the hostel mates were engineering students. So the exam dates didn’t match. While most of the hostel mates were all nice, it was just not enough to peacefully study every single day.

Badri and I decided to do something drastic. What if we stayed at a hotel every single day and come back just for meals at the hostel, we thought. That sounded like a crazy idea at first as we both didn’t have that kind of spare money to live in a hotel for months. We scraped together ALL the money that we had. It didn’t take long to figure out that for us to make this work, we had to find a hotel that could cost us less than 20 Rupees (less than 50 cents) per night.

That was almost impossible but we started our search anyway. Our theory is that we might just get lucky and find “something in our range.”

The “Luxury” Room

It took us almost the entire day but we had a breakthrough that night.

It was a hotel at the Tumkur Bus Stand. The hotel was not looking good but the price was just right — about 17 Rupees per night if we paid for the whole month in advance. Now all we had to see is whether the room was livable. It was one of those hotels where Lorry and Bus drivers stay overnight instead of sleeping in their vehicles.

Luck was on our side as the Owner of the hotel who was listening to our conversation came out and asked who we were and why we wanted to stay in the hotel for the entire month. It was definitely an odd occurrence for them. When Badri and I explained that we both are going to stay there to study for our exams, his eyes lit up. He instructed the cashier there to reserve a luxury room for us.

It definitely seemed like a lucky day.

We thanked the owner and once he left, we asked the cashier what a luxury room was in this hotel. The cashier explained that he would allot a room on the third floor at the back of the building so we won’t hear any noises from the Bus Stand. Plus, it was one of the dozen rooms where they had completely sealed all the holes so that there would be NO rats in the room. He said it in such a matter of fact way. Before we could react he also said that he couldn’t promise the same for cockroaches as the cockroaches have a way of getting into the rooms one way or the other. He would supply an extra broom for us to kill those cockroaches when we saw them.

I learned for the first time that, “luxury” is always relative and everything depends on the context.

Badri and I looked at each other once. Honestly, we both didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I guess we decided to smile because at least there would be NO rats in the room.

The cashier took us to the proposed room upstairs.

Like we had expected, it was a tiny room with one bed and one table and one chair. While we were in the room, the owner came over to see us. He noticed that we were hesitating about what to do next. He again looked at the cashier and said, “Do whatever it takes to make these students comfortable. Get each one of them a study table, an extra table lamp — clean up this room once again.” He then looked at both of us and said, “Don’t worry, we will take care of you. Do well in your exams.”

That sealed the deal and the next day we moved in. True to the hotel owner’s word, they did take care of us. It was like our own study room. They gave us extra utensils, a water jug, some candles (I will come to that soon and explain why)

The only problem was that we both had to share a tiny bed.

The “Sleeping” Arrangement

Badri and I had to come up with a sleeping arrangement and after debating a bit, we arrived at an ingenious solution. One of us will study a bit late and the other one of us will get up a bit early. That would leave us with about four hours of overlap time.

During the overlap time, each of us would sleep on one side of the bed turning our backs to each other. We both resolved that for those four hours we would not turn as turning would knock one of us out of the bed. That would not be a good thing.

[Side Benefit: Even today, I can sleep anywhere and can go to sleep within a couple of minutes. Why? Simply because every other arrangement that I encounter today will have far lesser constraints than what I had to face at that hotel]

The first couple of days were hard as we had to sleep on one side without moving one bit for the four hour stretch. But by the end of the week, we had mastered it. In fact, we were such experts we could sleep like that for the entire night.

Throughout our stay there might have been TWO incidents where one of us knocked the other out of the bed in our deep sleep, but luckily, no major accidents happened.

The Fire

Badri had a two-wheeler (a moped bike) that we used to go back and forth to the hostel so that we continue to eat food there.

One day, we heard that it had caught fire in the parking lot. We rushed down and the bike had indeed caught fire and people were trying to put it off. Long story short, the bike was gone and we couldn’t do anything about it. Badri didn’t want to say anything to his parents as that would expose our “staying in the bus stand hotel” adventure. So, we kept our mouths sealed. We also never came to know how and why the two-wheeler caught fire.

This created another problem. We had to go in a cycle back and forth to the hostel. Our hostel was about 3 miles and we would lose a lot of time traveling back and forth.

So, we made a choice. We skipped dinner on alternate days and when we didn’t skip dinner, we would eat at the roadside carts that would serve some Idli and Dosas for a throwaway price. We prayed to God that we don’t fall sick during the holidays. Luckily, we didn’t.

Everything seemed to be going well until early March when the power cuts in the nights started. Every evening from 8pm to 10pm, there would be a power cut. The hotel didn’t have a generator and reading with candle lights started becoming a problem.

We were running out of options. One day we went out for a walk and observed that there was a restaurant closely that had a generator. We had some hope.

The Restaurant Manager That Cared

The same day we went to that restaurant with our books. If we could study at the restaurant until 10pm, we could come back to the hotel room

The very next day, we came to the restaurant, the moment the power was gone — right at 8pm. There was not enough money to eat there so we just ordered one coffee and asked him to split it into two (it is known as by-two coffee). He gave us a strange look as everyone around us were eating “full meals.” We couldn’t be bothered by those looks. We opened our books and made that table a study table. For the next two hours, we studied at the noisy restaurant. The solace was that there was light and we didn’t have to struggle in the candle lights at the hotel room.

This became a daily habit. By day number four, the servers in the restaurant knew us as coffee boys as the only thing we would order was a coffee split into two. The Manager at the restaurant Dinesh noticed this and he came and sat down with us. Asked us what we were studying. After a brief conversation, he went back thinking something. We thought he might just kick us out. Instead, he asked one of the servers to clear an entire section at the back of the hotel and place “Reserved” boards on all the six tables there. He moved us to the section and immediately turned down the volume of the music that was being played.

For the rest of our stay there — thirty days or so, we had a mini-office space at the restaurant from 8pm to 10pm. Dinesh became a good friend of ours. While we ordered only one coffee, usually we would get more food for free every single day. The gesture touched us both and provided us some more energy to study hard.

The Final Countdown:

We stayed at the hotel until the exams were over and almost had moved everything from the hostel to the room — our clothes, shoes and books were in the room. The room was really packed and finding anything was like to engage in a treasure hunt. But none of this mattered as the exams were going on. Honestly, by this time Badri and I were used to living in a matchbox, rather comfortably.

When it was all done, we told our hostel mates where we were staying. Some of our friends couldn’t believe it so we arranged for a visit for them to come and stay with us for an evening. There was no place to sit in the room so it was a short standing meeting inside and then we went over to the restaurant and introduced our friends to Dinesh, the manager there.

When we came back to the hostel after this saga, it looked like we were entering a palace.

In the end, it was all worth it for both of us and we both were glad about all the choices we made and grateful for every single person who lent a helping hand.

The Big Question

When people ask me how getting ranks (20th in the state in Class X, 2nd in the state in Class XII, 6th in the State in Common Entrance Test, 4th Rank for the University in Engineering) helped me in my life, I simply smile. Ranks really didn’t help me, the growth happened while I was preparing for the exams — way before the results were even announced.

Lessons Learned from The Final Push:

1. If you keep moving, people will support you

This is the first thing we observed. When we made the decision to move, help started appearing from places where we never expected. Many times, help came without us asking for it. People started noticing what we were doing and offered us support/help on their own. But, it has to be us to take the first step. Otherwise, all we would have been left with would be “excuses.”

2. Constraints amplify creativity

It was interesting to see how we found creative solutions to live with our constraints. On the last day when our friends learned about where and how we lived for the last ninety days, the only word that came out of many of them was “Impossible.” If someone had told us that this was how we will be living in the last ninety days, probably that would have been our reaction too. But, constraints pushed us to innovate and think creatively as to how to get through those days without breaking down.

3. There are a LOT of good people out there

It was clear from our experience that there are a LOT of people with good hearts, people who walk the extra mile just because that’s the right thing to do. That’s what makes this world a super special place. Life is really beautiful.