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Inside the Mind of a Prodigy: Aryan Mishra on Privilege, Education, and the Stars

Aryan Mishra is a 19 year old astronomer.

At 14 years old, most adolescents are readying to venture into the elusive 'real world', settling into their identities and facing the hardships of puberty. At 14, Aryan was already three years into his career as an amateur astronomer, and had discovered an asteroid, now maintained by the International Astronomical Union in Paris.

Since then, he has taught astronomy to over 100,000 children, met influential astronauts like Sunita Williams and Rakesh Sharma, published "Messier Catalogue-M1 to M110" - a manual on deep space objects, given more than 200 talks at venues like IIT and TEDxDelhi, and founded Spark Astronomy - a successful initiative to set up astronomy labs in low-income schools across India.

At the same time, Aryan has struggled socio-economically. Living in a Delhi slum with parents who did not receive an education and did not understand what value Astronomy held, he woke up every morning - rain or sun - to sell newspapers with his father. Aryan was discriminated against and bullied in school, mocked for his background. His financial difficulties did not stop him from achieving astronomical success, but they did shape his perspectives on privilege and education.

Today, Gifted India sits down with Aryan to discuss the juxtaposition of his being a prodigy without privilege, the role astronomy plays in his life, and his thoughts on the Indian education system.

Sukhnidh: What got you interested in astronomy, and how did you nurture your passion?

Aryan: Growing up, my family and I lived in a very small house. While sleeping on the terrace on hot summer nights, I’d look up at the sky and a myriad of questions would cross my mind. I wanted to know about stars and what lay beyond them.

In the fifth grade, I asked my teachers about the night sky. They said that that question didn’t matter then – I would encounter it in a higher grade. But the same conversation reoccurred the next year. I was disappointed. My questions were simple. I didn’t know of quantum physics or the theory of relativity back then – all I wanted to know about was space and why stars twinkled.

I realized no one was willing to answer these questions for me. However, I found that my school had an astronomy club. I signed up. I was 11. Most members were from senior high school and treated me like a child, refusing to let me actively participate in the club’s activities, so I would just sit and listen. On one April evening in 2011, the club organized an observation and I got an opportunity to look at the sky. I saw Saturn for the first time, and it was breathtaking. Pictures in books always seemed surreal to me. Seeing it in real life was different. It felt strange. And it made me want to look at the sky more.

I realized then that I wanted to pursue astronomy. From a fifth grader’s interest, it turned into a sixth grader’s passion. The astronomy club would meet every Friday. I tried to learn everything I could, but I wasn’t from an educated family. They didn’t even know what Astronomy was. My parents thought that there were no career prospects in the field. They wanted me to be successful, and as an 11-year old, I couldn’t explain what astronomy was or how I could benefit from it. I had the stars, but I didn’t have answers to people’s questions – at the time, I didn’t even have the internet.

Sukhnidh: Tell me something about your experience with India’s education system.

Aryan: I had a difficult experience with the Indian education system.

I joined school in 2003. My family and I used to live in a slum colony in Delhi. At the time, children like myself – from slums – did not get admission through EWS quotas, so my mother sold her jewelry to pay INR 30,000 for school. She had never been to school and my father attended only till the 9th grade, but they realized that even if they weren’t educated, I needed to be – so that I wouldn’t suffer like they did.

Back then, school authorities thought that children from slums would dirty the school. My father’s brother, who worked as a watchman for a prominent lawyer at the time, requested him to let me get admitted to the school on his address, who decided to trust my family and agreed. Even when my uncle left the job, it was his address on my school records.

In 11th grade, I the school discovered where I really lived. Since kids from slums were mocked, so was I. My classmates and their rich families had a very negative image of people like me.

The school environment was discriminatory and not very conducive to learning. People would tease and bully me – I would get really mad but couldn’t say or do anything.

I now go to several schools to talk about astronomy, and I have found that prominent schools in Delhi teach EWS category students separately in the evening, not letting them sit with other, more well-off kids. The government has created a rule, but the schools are not doing what they should. Corruption and discrimination are rampant in the Indian education system and the society in general, according to me.

Another example is junior high school. I used to attend tuitions, but upon learning where I lived, my teacher decided that I wasn’t allowed to attend her classes anymore.

The thing is, people don’t want to interact with you because you live in the slums. And when no one wants to teach you or talk to you, your learning process is heavily impacted.

Sukhnidh: As someone who grew up being considered a child prodigy, what were some of the struggles you faced? How did you feel growing up, in the circumstances that you’ve talked about? What were the best parts and what’s the ‘behind the scenes’ of being a child prodigy?

Aryan: Being in the newspaper at the age of 14 was a big deal for me and my parents.

Having experienced media attention at a young age, I believe I could not learn a lot of things that other kids my age learnt – because the attitudes of people around me changed. Everyone tends to respect you and agree with whatever you say. When someone doesn’t, you feel awkward and egotistical. You want everyone to say yes to you. Once you inculcate this during adolescence and grow up with it, it’s very hard to change.

However, because of the background from which I came, I was used to ‘no’s. I was ‘famous’ in school, but I still woke up in the morning to sell newspapers with my father every day. I thought I would have to do that after school, too. I don’t, now, but I thought I would have to.

One of the craziest things about the Indian education system is that if you want to study a subject, you have to score marks for it. I scored a 6.4 CGPA in 10th. You couldn’t study science in 11th without an 8+ -can you imagine? I was able to, because I discovered an asteroid, and the school authorities made it very clear to me that it was only my additional work that allowed me to pursue science.

As a ‘prodigy’, you’re always in the spotlight. It’s the little things. One time in school, my shirt was untucked and younger students noticed it. They started copying that and when questioned why, they said they’d learnt it from Aryan Mishra. My headmistress told me that my juniors saw me as an inspiration, and that people were going to copy my actions, sometimes without question.

Sukhnidh: Do you feel pressured by being looked at as an inspiration?

Aryan: Yes. I feel pressured to act properly all the time and it is difficult. You have to be in your limits, you have to act the way you’re expected to, and it can become difficult, especially in school.

I haven’t given any interviews for about 1-1.5 years. I don’t want to do too many in the future. I only agree to concepts I find interesting, not everything I am approached for. I think fame is very time-consuming, I don’t want to spend time being famous.

It has its upsides too. My juniors in school liked me very much, we would play together. They saw me in the newspaper and it became a big deal for them. When I would go to the school assembly, peers and teachers would look at me differently.

This special treatment felt good and bad at the same time.

Sukhnidh: Did you feel different or like an outcast, incapable of relating to your peers, when you were treated like this?

Aryan: Yes. People did behave in a weird manner with me. There were some teachers who didn’t scold me if I, say, bunked a class, or if my friends said they had missed a class because they were with me. When my classmates wanted a free period, they asked me to ask the teacher, and she would agree. I wanted people to behave normally with me.

Why was I not punished when everyone else was? I was normal and I very aware of my limits. I never stood on someone’s head or took unfair advantage of these liberties.

One of the best parts of my job is that when you look up at the stars, you feel insignificant in front of them. In astronomy, when you calculate distances, they’re so huge that you feel like you’re smaller than an atom, in comparison.

I did struggle with depression for some time back in 2016, due to my poor grades. My class teacher didn’t like me. I don’t exactly know why. I had low marks and she felt that I couldn’t do well in science. That led to anxiety.

But even then, the night sky is so beautiful, when you look at it, you forget everything. Even if I wasn’t moving forward, or if I stopped at some point, I always looked at the stars. They’re the reason why I am here today.

Sukhnidh: Your tagline is that you want to inspire people to look up. Can you tell me more about this? Why is it important and how can we make sure it happens more often for kids and even for adults, for that matter?

Aryan: Looking up doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to be an astronomer. I attend events across disciplines – I don’t want to be a professional at all of them. I just need knowledge. Similarly, a lot of people come for my talks just to get knowledge.

When you’re under the night sky, you’re always truthful. I don’t know why, but it’s true, at least for me. There’s nothing to hide. When you’re looking at the sky, you’re not just looking at the universe, you’re looking at yourself. You’re made up of asteroids - your DNA, your cells, everything. You’re looking at your past.

That inspires me, and in turn, I want to inspire people to look up.

Sukhnidh: Do you think that there are other children just like you who are capable of being prodigies? If yes, what is it that’s holding them back and what was it that helped you succeed?

Aryan: A majority of the people I talk to don’t know what to do in life. They haven’t figured it out yet. It’s not wrong. But I strongly believe that once you do figure out what you want to do, you’ll be able to succeed.

Most people lack that – they just don’t know.

They’re diverted by other things. Family pressures, mental issues, health issues. There’s people who have money and don’t want to do anything. Everyone has different issues.

Astronomy isn’t very popular in India. That was a problem for me. There’s a lot of things that people want to do, but these things are either not popular or people around them say that they aren’t beneficial. Even if they want to remain unfazed, they’re unable to because these opinions are everywhere.

The people around an individual play a major role in this, but if you have already figured things out, I think you can be unstoppable. I did everything on my own, I saved money, I didn’t know where I would end up. I still don’t. But I simply want to know things – I have a passion for knowledge.

Now there are a lot of people who think I am a competition to them. They tell me that they’re going to be better than me.

The night sky is the same for everyone. It depends on us how we think about it. Everyone has different perspectives.

Sukhnidh: Gifted India’s readership consists of educators, stakeholders, parents, and students. What’s one thing that you would like to tell them, perhaps rooted in a lesson you have learnt in your own life?

Aryan: Let children do what they want to do. If they’re failing or losing interest, they’ll let things go themselves. Give them time.

Most parents keep thinking about competition, they want their child to be better than other people’s children. My parents were also like that. But I am happy doing what I do, I may not eventually be as well off or as successful as others, but I am happy.

If children aren’t happy, they’ll eventually get tired, regardless of how rich or successful they are. Happiness is very important and it occurs only when you like something. Parents need to give their children some time to discover what they like and what they want to do.

My advice to children is to take time to find what they like, to dream big, and to work for the dreams. I know how hard my father worked and how hard I worked. Irrespective of the weather, our situation, and our problems, we had to deliver newspapers on time. It would be raining, we would get drenched, but the newspapers that people received were dry. This taught me that it’s important to work hard.

Someone told me that there’s two kinds of people - the ones who don’t have money but have a heart, and the ones who have money but don’t have a heart. Whatever I do and whatever little money I earn, I try to donate some of it to charities, because I'm trying to be the latter.

Another one: Don’t be overconfident. Whatever I do in the future, I know that there are people who are better than me. No matter how much knowledge I have and how many discoveries I make, I have to remember where I came from. I always want to remember and live my life accordingly.

There’s a lot of things I can say, but I am going to conclude with my favorite lines –

Your dreams are your wings that help you to fly, go see the world and reach for the sky.

The sky is not your limit. The limit lies beyond that.

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