How families of Asian prodigies nurture, support their rare talent

Shaunak Sivaraman (L) and Tharika.
Shaunak Sivaraman (L) and Tharika.

MEET the child geniuses whose intelligence is at Albert Einstein levels and who often leave their parents and teachers amazed with their talent.

The school children are members of British Mensa, the high IQ society. The number of under-11s joining high-IQ society British Mensa has risen by more than half, from below 200 five years ago to 319 in 2019. Overall, the number of children joining has risen from 1,344 to 1,956.

Eastern Eye spoke to three families with Mensa prodigies about their gift, their favourite subjects at school and their hopes for the future.

IONA MANDAL surprised her parents by starting to read before she turned three.

The youngster did the Mensa test at the age of 10 and came in the top one per cent category with a score of 162, making her one of the most intelligent people in the world.

Iona Mandal

Iona has won a number of poetry prizes, and said she is a keen reader. She told Eastern Eye: “I like reading dystopian novels like the Noughts and Crosses novels. I started reading To Kill A Mocking Bird, it is a fantastic novel.

“I like reading about events in history and how racism has affected literature. English is my favourite closely followed by drama and I really enjoy religious studies and biology. I was thinking about a Politics Philosophy Economics degree at university to encompass that all.”

Iona, who was born in India, and her parents came to England from Kolkata in 2002. The teenager, from Birmingham, has stayed close to her roots, appearing in a Bengali play adapted by family friends.

Her mother Ilika said her daughter’s intelligence is down to a combination of nature and nurture.

She said: “Something that gets spotted early, it is up to parents, teachers, community to nurture.

“I firmly believe in the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. At the end of the day, you can take a horse to river, but you can’t make it drink.

“At this tender age, it is important to see that the children enjoy what they do rather than put them under pressure and go overboard. When a child has that quality in their selves, it flows very naturally.”

Iona is member of Mensa’s editorial board for its junior magazine, is a coordinator of its group learning about Africa and writes for the travel group.

Ilika added that her daughter had a love of books from an early age. “In the beginning she didn’t know English,” she said.

“One of the first things I did was getting her used to the language by getting her loads of books from the library.

“I also encouraged her to write something every day. She was very good in poetry, I started sending entries into competitions. Gradually she built her writing skills, won several competitions.

“She also pursues speech and drama and competes around the UK in prose and poetry contests.”

SIVA BARATHAMANI discovered his son SHAUNAK SIVARAMAN had a gift when he began reading before his second birthday. The software consultant got his son tested for Mensa aged six and he got the maximum score of 160.

However, the eight-year-old is not the only child genius in the family. His sister THARIKA, six, is also a Mensa member after achieving a score of 145.

Shaunak revealed his ambitions when he spoke to Eastern Eye. The confident schoolboy said: “I want to be a scientist to replace Albert Einstein. I am interested in chemistry.

“My favourite subjects are maths, French and science. “I like square rooting numbers. Nothing in maths is difficult.

“I like reading non-fiction like The School of Numbers, the Science of Everything.

“I like reading the dictionary. I like to get smarter and learn new words, how to spell and the meaning of them.”

Thakira is also a fan of fiction like Roald Dahl books and wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a doctor. Their father Siva, who hails from Chennai in south India, said his son’s gift was a surprise.

“Before he was two, he started to read through no effort of ours. I still have no idea how he learned how to read.

“In year one, his teacher said he was a bright boy, but he was being a bit disruptive and was potentially bored.

“I remember when he was 14 months old, he wanted to watch something on YouTube. He said, ‘not this particular video’. I was stunned he was able to understand what I was typing.”

He added that they taught Shaunak how to add fractions during a 45-minute car journey when he was five and he picked it up without using pen or paper. Siva said his daughter shows her gift in different ways.

“At home she suffers from the elder one outshining her all the time. My daughter kind of looks up to her elder brother for validation and approval.

“They do have competition, but not intellectually. He helps her out, teaches her stuff.

“I would say to parents of girls not to discount them. Anyone meeting our two children, my son’s ability is obvious.

“But most do not recognise my daughter’s ability in a similar way. A few articles say girls tend to be more of perfectionists. Parents tend to favour one over the other. If they get them tested, it will give all their children the fair opportunity they deserve.

AT THE age of 11, TUNISHQ MITRA is already a boy of the world and can understand four languages. He has learnt Hindi, Bengali, Spanish as well as English.

Tunishq Mitra

He got the maximum score of 162 when he sat the Mensa test aged 10, which puts him in the top one per cent in the world.

Tunishq said he loves to read books and journals on science, technology and space.

He said: “I like to read various subjects, fiction and nonfiction, even Greek, Roman and Indian mythology. I enjoyed reading the whole series of Mahabharata by Amar Chitra Katha that my aunty gifted me on Christmas a few years ago. I cannot sleep unless I read a book at bedtime.”

On the classes he most enjoys at school, he added: “Science and maths are my favourite subjects. I do not like biology that much.”

His proud mother Priyanka said they are keen not to put pressure on the youngster.

She said: “Raising a child like him is like holding a very precious object in your hand. You don’t know which direction to go.

“We are treading slowly and steadily with him.

“He has an extremely logical and analytical brain. He just reads something at school once and that’s it, without any stress he can sit through tests and exams.”

Tunishq began reading books by the time he was two and-ahalf. The schoolboy’s parents are both fashion designers, but his interest lies in maths, computers and science.

Priyanka added that one of his many gifts is his memory.

“For the Mensa test, there was no such preparation. He’s always been one of the highest achievers at school, he has a very good memory. He knows the London Tube map very well. He picks up languages quickly. He reads a lot and can finish a Harry Potter book in a couple of days.”

She added: “He is generally a disciplined child who loves reading more than anything else – newspapers, magazines or whatever. There are times I have to pull out newspaper [articles] because I don’t think its appropriate for him to read some articles.

“There was a time when he was around six, if you asked him how many stops were there on the Jubilee Line, how could you go from here to there, and he could tell you the route.

“To have the child doing the map so brilliantly at that age amazed me.”

Priyanka added that she and her husband limit their son’s time on gadgets to maintain his focus.

“He has not shown interest in a mobile phone,” she said. “He spends time on the iPad and Playstation. We got him one recently. We had tried to keep him away, we tried giving him books and the Kindle.

“He’s allowed a bit of tech. I like to teach him vedic mathematics and try to help him in that.

“He watches videos to further his knowledge of the subjects that he likes.” Research in April found that young children who are exposed to large amounts of adult speech tend to be more intelligent.

The study, led by researchers at the University of York, identified a link between children who heard large volumes of adult speech and their nonverbal abilities such as reasoning, numeracy and shape awareness.

On the debate on whether it is nature or nurture that leads to raising a child prodigy, Priyanka believes it is the former.

“Other parents would say how is it he is doing so well, where does he go to coaching, does he take tuition?

“It is a bit of nurture but definitely nature more. It is more him then us. We have nudged him a little, given him the platform to explore more, read more.

“He goes to the library and always gets 12 books.

“We have always encouraged him but it’s more his nature. I wouldn’t want to take that away from him.”