Muhammad Ali Shihab was born in Edavannappara, a remote village in Kerala’s Malappuram district. He spent his childhood helping his father sell betel leaves and bamboo baskets in a makeshift pan shop. After his father’s death, he was put into an orphanage, since his mother was too poor to bring him up properly. He had to fail in Class V in order to get admission to the orphanage.
Shihab received good guidance in the orphanage. His only hope was excelling at studies and taking life head on. In an interview given to the Hindu, he said, “I used to read in scant light under the cover of bed-sheet and pillows in order not to disturb my friends sleeping in the neighbouring beds of the dormitory. In fact, I was violating the orphanage rules.” While in the orphanage he completed his elementary education and graduated in history through distance learning.
According to an interview given to the Indian Express, Shihab said he has cleared 21 exams conducted by various government agencies so far. “I appeared for posts of forester, jail warden and railway ticket examiner. The civil service crept into my dreams only at the age of 25. When I revealed my intention to try my luck at the UPSC exam, the orphanage supported me in every way,” says Shihab. After long struggle, he cracked the UPSC exam, ranking 226th. He believes that his understanding of the grass-root reality will help him serve people better.