The Essai Files: 9. Arhaan Jain

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A few days ago, essai sat down with HRH The Condom King, the prince of essai. It’s late in the evening, and surprisingly Arhaan has arrived on time. We’re sitting in the basement – a far cry from the R19 office. The first task is to coax Anuva, his sister, into leaving the classroom – she likes to stay close to her brother. The second task is to stop Arhaan fidgeting with everything within his reach.

This naturally brings us to Arhaan’s slow journey from childhood distraction to chess domination and condom deliveries.

Essai: AJ, you’ve had a lot of nicknames. Why don’t we start with the big one – how did you become the ‘Condom King’?

Arhaan: Yeah, that’s a funny story. My friend had set up a 24/7 condom delivery company called SMS Contraceptives in Gurgaon. It was my only work experience when I first came to you.

E: Wait. Of all the places you could have interned at - why SMS Contraceptives?

A: I was attracted to the idea. It’s different; I could see it had market potential. And I wanted to help my friend who’d set up the company. Everyone wants to work for an NGO, do some social service, work at a school, but I was looking for something a little different.

E: I can remember when you first came to us, I asked what activities you had done. You were sitting with your mother, and she told me you had worked for a condom delivery company! When I was your age, if I told my parents I was interning for a condom delivery company, they’d be pretty shocked. What did your parents think when you told them?

A: My father was a bit shocked. He said “Don’t take this as a full time job”, but he has always been supportive of whatever I’ve done, whether it’s been chess, cricket, or condoms. And my mother found the idea really cool!

E: That experience led to Checkmate?

A: Yeah, I created Checkmate to put condom dispensers in clubs in India, to raise awareness. I ended up getting a dispenser into Kitty Su in Delhi.

E: Where did the name ‘Checkmate’ from?

A: I came up with ‘Checkmate’ – because I play chess, and because when you use a condom, it is checkmate! *Everyone laughs*

E: So while we’ve been talking, you’ve been fiddling with the stuff in front of you, building little stacks. At the same time, you’ve been giving very polished answers to our questions. Where do these two different sides of you come from?

A: I was a very distracted and unfocused child, and my parents wanted me to do something to focus and stimulate me. So when I was five or six, I started playing chess. I played seriously for 10 to 12 years, travelling all over. The focus chess requires improved my logical thinking. It also gave me a goal – becoming an internationally ranked chess player, which I achieved.

E: And have you found the skills you learnt in chess transferable?

A: Definitely. Once I had seen my focus, hard work, and determination pay off, I knew I could do it again. After I stopped playing chess seriously, I started playing cricket. The focus and calm you need to play chess were directly applicable to playing cricket. All the more so once I became the captain.

E: So would you say the calmer side of you has come mostly from chess and cricket?

A: I think a third element was going to temple. In Grade 9, my father was really ill. There was a temple that my mother said had healing properties. So while my father was in the States getting treatment, I went to the temple. It developed a spiritual side of me. I think in many ways it did more for me than it did for my father, who thankfully got better. I ended up writing my Common App essay about the experience. And when I got into Babson, the admissions team said that the essay was why they accepted me.

E: Oh wow. So that moves us nicely onto the college admissions process. When did you first come to essai?

A: I came in Grade 9 – my mother was really worried about getting me into a good college in the States. My grades were pretty terrible at the time. Even though Grade 9 was super early, my mother was determined I start studying for the ACT.

E: She was! Can you remember what we started with?

A: Farhad started teaching me some of the basic rules of English, and also just general reading practice. I was definitely one of your most difficult students! But you definitely had fun teaching me. *Everyone laughs*.

E: I can remember it took a long time to teach you English grammar. Is ‘the’ a verb?

A: No! It’s an article: a, an, the.

E: You started coming to us in Grade 9, but when did you seriously decide you wanted to go to college in the States?

A: About two years ago, when I seriously began the process with essai. I read a sports book called Trust the Process. That book taught me that in order to succeed in whatever field, you really do have to trust each step of the process. That meant putting in extra work for school, hours (and hours!) of ACT practice, developing my profile, and so on.

E: Was it hard for you to stick to the process? I know even then you found focussing difficult – you’d fidget in all our classes!

A: The important thing to remember is that everyone is the same. No one has more talent or brains than anyone else. It’s all about channeling what you have. You can’t think that that guy is smarter than you – you have to see that he has the same brain as you, but he’s probably just working harder and focussing more. You have to put in 100% focus. In my case, I decided to focus on going to a respectable college in the US.

E: As part of that process, you went to Notre Dame in the summer. I really wanted you to go – but do you have a sense of why I wanted you to go?

A: Well, Farhad knows me the best of anyone in essai. I think you thought it would be good for me to get out of my comfort zone. You knew I wouldn’t fit in well, it was a tough course, and I was in a village. But it served as a really good learning experience, in terms of being in a different situation, and adapting to that situation.

E: I think that was definitely an important experience for you. And you’ve been an important student for us – you helped spread the essai gospel. And you’ve been an important student for me – you forced me to think deeply about how I teach. So as we wrap up, what do you feel essai has been for you?

A: Essai has really been like a family more than anything. Farhad and Nick really developed an understanding of who I was. You need to be close to those teaching you, then they can actually help you succeed. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get those results. You need to believe in them, and I believed in the whole essai team.

E: A beautiful sentiment. So do you have any questions for us?

A: Yeah, how was your experience of teaching me?

E:*Farhad thinks.* You were one of the first students I taught who reminded me about how I used to be as a teenage student. Teaching you, I had to think about how I would teach a younger version of me. You were also the first student I got to know personally – school work, friends, girlfriends. You’d try to set me up with women too! And by the end of my time teaching you, it was a different guy that I was teaching.