Ishal Mahmud (pictured), 12, will join four other finalists in an intense competition to find Britain’s brightest child in Channel 4’s Child Genius
All this week 12-year-old Ishal Mahmud has amazed and entranced millions of television viewers.
Calm and composed in the face of exceptional mental pressure, she has demonstrated her intellect, quick wit and the vast scope of her extraordinary knowledge, as a contestant on the TV show Child Genius.
Answering a barrage of questions that would test the virtuosity of the sharpest university undergraduate, in three out of five days she has jointly topped the leaderboard.
Tonight, she joins four other finalists in an intense competition to find Britain’s brightest child, answering questions on her specialist subject, the epidemiology of the plague.
And alongside her unassuming parents, dad Forhad and mum Momtaj, ever-present uncle Amran Hussain will be willing her on.
In fact, Uncle Amran has managed every moment of his niece’s spare time.
The Oxford graduate, who has no children of his own, has deployed every technique he knows to try to give his beloved niece the edge over her competitors, from Skyping her at her boarding school, to dishing up goose eggs at breakfast to ‘feed her brain’, dabbing ‘concentration milk’ on her temples to help her focus and sounding a Tibetan singing bowl to calm her.
Truth be told, however, Ishal needs little encouragement. ‘I love it when my family push me to achieve,’ she says. ‘If they didn’t my intelligence wouldn’t improve.’
Which is just as well. Never has there been a more assertive uncle than Amran. From 7am to 9.30pm every other weekend, Ishal has an intense schedule with him that includes watching the news, writing to MPs and penning novels.
He’s even researched the best place to position her eyes to stimulate the optimum parts of her brain when answering difficult questions (straight ahead or right — never left).
Still, the sweet-faced girl with the pretty hairband remains unfazed and shows a reassuring impish side when recalling her time on the show.
‘Before the show presenter Richard Osman was really funny and made lots of jokes to lighten the mood.
He’d say, ‘Oh my God, I’m scared of you guys. You’re so brainy!’ Then he knocked his head on the door frame — he’s 6 ft 7 in,’ she giggles.
Ishal, who wants to be an astronaut after studying Maths at Oxford or Cambridge, has an IQ that puts her in the top one per cent in the country.
But she’s not just academically brilliant. The breadth and scale of her talents, energy levels and determination is extraordinary.
The twelve-year-old is being helped by her Uncle Amran- an Oxford graduate who has deployed every technique he knows to try to give his beloved niece the edge over her competitors
As well as winning a full bursary and a music scholarship to St Swithun’s, a high-achieving independent girls’ school in Winchester, she is also sporty.
She rides, enjoys archery, plays polo (she calls it ‘hockey on a horse’) and fences competitively.
While at her junior school, she was a chorister at Portsmouth Cathedral.
Today, she’s the only Muslim organist in the country (possibly the world), and a member of the Royal School of Church Music.
She chose the organ because, with its three keyboards and pedals, ‘it’s more of a challenge than the piano’.
‘It was a struggle to fit everything in at junior school, because I’d go swimming after school, then I had extra tuition and then Mummy took me to the church to practise the organ. The priest gave us a key so we could let ourselves in.’
But there’s another story emerging behind all this ambition, hard work and talent, which hasn’t been lost on the Child Genius audience, and that is Uncle Amran.
So intense is his interest, and pride in his niece, that those watching often have to remind themselves that he’s not Ishal’s father.
His own story is one of innate brilliance. Amran, the brother of Ishal’s mother Momtaj, was a child genius himself who obtained 26 GCSEs — all at top grades — at a comprehensive school in a deprived area of east London.
From there he won a place at Eton, ‘But our Dad didn’t want him to leave home so he didn’t go,’ explains Momtaj.
Although Amran missed out on a public school education, he still won a scholarship to study Medicine at Oxford and now works as a health care consultant.
But perhaps this lost opportunity has sharpened his resolve that Ishal grabs every one that comes her way.
Certainly he and his niece have a rapport: ‘Uncle Amran helped me. Although he hasn’t got kids he has two cats he treats like his children,’ she smiles.
Today Amran, who lives in rural Berkshire, is keen to take a back seat — after all, this is Ishal’s time to shine — but Momtaj says: ‘Amran spoils all his 35 nieces and nephews and is keen for them all to succeed, as he has.
‘He’s absolutely passionate about education and has a special bond with Ishal. They share the same sense of humour.
‘When she wanted to enter Child Genius I said: ‘I don’t know if I can handle the pressure!’ That’s when Amran stepped up and said, ‘I’ll always be there to help.’
Such a breathless catalogue of talent as Ishal’s could make a child insufferable, but she remains sweet-natured and modest. I ask how she’d describe herself.
‘Adventurous and compassionate,’ she says, ‘I’m a daredevil! I love roller-coasters, especially the vertical drop ones.
And I want to go bungee-jumping, but you have to weigh 45 kilos and I’m not heavy enough.
I want to go sky-diving, and to abseil down the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, too. But you have to be 18.’
Momtaj rolls her eyes. ‘She wants to do anything and everything,’ she says, adding that the sports her daughter most enjoys are the risky kind.
‘We think she’s broken her nose falling off her horse playing polo,’ she says. Ishal looks cheerfully unconcerned.
You might imagine her background is a privileged and wealthy one — but Ishal’s family are very modest.
Forhad, 40, grafts up to 80 hours a week as a taxi driver. Momtaj, 36, works as a physiotherapist in an NHS stroke unit even though she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.
Forhad was born and raised in Bangladesh and came to the UK to marry Momtaj, one of eight siblings brought up in east London, when she was 18.
They have imbued Ishal and her brother Zeeshan, 11, with their fierce work ethic. In a TV arena that attracts the worst kind of overbearing parents, the disarming thing about the Mahmud family is their absence of pushiness or pretension.
Home is a small terrace in Portsmouth. You sense that humanity, tolerance and modesty are as important to them as academic attainment.
Momtaj, who is chatty and outgoing, is keen to show me the certificate Ishal won for kindness.
‘She was raised to be a good human being first and foremost,’ says Forhad. ‘I did a read-a-thon for Children in Need when I was at primary school,’ adds Ishal. ‘I read 87 books one holiday.
‘On inset days if Mum went shopping I’d sit in the library and read. I love books. My favourite place is the library. I used to ask Mum, ‘Can I use your library card as well as mine?’
‘I’ll lie on my bed and read a whole book at one sitting and Mum will come in and say, ‘Are you still reading?’ Then she’ll take the book away from me — but I’ll just find another one,’ she says with a smile.
Their Muslim faith is observed strictly but tolerantly: they want both their children to learn about and embrace other religions. At home they speak English and Bengali.
Like Amran, you sense that Ishal’s parents are also keen to make sure their children make up for the opportunities in life they missed.
The couple got together while young in an arranged marriage.
‘I couldn’t study beyond 18. Life wasn’t easy for my parents. But if I can help our kids I will,’ says Momtaj.
‘Last year Ishal wanted to go skiing with the school but we couldn’t afford it. This year we’re working on it. We’re saving up and Ishal has asked for money at Eid and on her birthday, so we hope we’ll have enough for her to go.’
Forhad, who gained a law degree in Bangladesh, could not afford to qualify at an English university when he came to the UK.
‘We encourage our children in all their activities so they can enjoy a bright future,’ he says.
‘We’re not pushy at all. The kids try to do more study and we tell them to watch TV to give their minds a little break, or we take them to their cousins’ house. We don’t believe in pushing them to work, work, work.
‘I’m quite sporty. I go to the gym and play badminton. If I’ve been driving my taxi for 17 hours, I have to, and we encourage the children to enjoy sports, too.’
What makes a child genius? Ishal is greedy for knowledge. She absorbs information readily, as a parched plant soaks up water.
But she doesn’t just remember facts: ‘I don’t like learning by rote,’ she explains. ‘I have to understand everything first, and know how things relate to each other.’
She spent around nine hours a day at weekends, and five hours on school days, revising for the competition.
‘We’d get lots of books and I’d read them all and we’d highlight important facts.
‘If I didn’t understand something I’d Google it or ask my uncle or parents, then we’d make flashcards with questions on them and my parents would test me.
‘The first half of the day I might practise spellings, then, during the competition, there are about 200 pieces of information on different subjects to learn every day.’
These rounds of the contest are fiendishly difficult tests of memory and mental dexterity. In one, competitors had an hour to memorise the common and Latin names of obscure sea creatures.
In another they had a mere four billion years of the entire history of the earth to absorb.
Then there were the spelling tests: words so abstruse as to be unpronounceable, yet the young would- be geniuses have to spell them, as well as solving hugely tricky mental maths problems.
Ishal thrives on such challenges. Her active brain is always buzzing. ‘If I’m not completely engaged in a conversation I’m thinking about things; I’m solving random mental maths problems in my head, like what is 163 squared?’ (Answer 26,569.)
‘There’s no sign in her face but I know when her brain is working on something,’ agrees Momtaj. ‘She’s not 100 per cent with us.’ She is also an accomplished multi-tasker: ‘Even when I’m watching TV I’ll be knitting a scarf or blanket for a charity, or colouring,’ says Ishal.
Right from her earliest years, her parents knew she was exceptionally bright. Momtaj recalls: ‘She said her first word, Baba (daddy) at seven months and at nine months was singing along with me to nursery rhymes.
‘I took her to Bangladesh at ten months and she was learning Bengali words very quickly because she was so easy to teach.
‘Then at her junior school we thought: ‘OK, we have to earn some more money to get her music lessons and extra tuition.’
I ask her if her brightness set her apart from her classmates at primary school; whether being so far ahead of them marked her as an oddity. But Ishal is not a show-off.
‘I used to pretend I couldn’t do things sometimes,’ she admits. ‘And I have lots of friends.
‘I’d hang out with them because I like them. They don’t have to be clever.’
It was Ishal herself who asked Momtaj if she could enter Child Genius. ‘I watched it on TV and I could answer quite a lot of the questions. I said to Mum, ‘Can I go on that programme?’ and Mum said I could give it a try.
‘So they whittled all the applicants down, first to 100 and then 30, then those with the highest scores came back for more brain puzzles until they got us down to the 20 contestants.’
Clearly, even among the brightest of her peers, Ishal has always stood out. She was offered places — with scholarships or bursaries — at ten independent schools, but chose St Swithun’s because they were ‘so friendly and I liked the vibe.’
‘It’s an all-girls’ school. That’s important, too,’ she adds. ‘Boys would be a distraction. I can’t be bothered with them.’
She finishes her homework quickly — she’s effortlessly accomplished — and after evening prayers she might review books or write letters.
As a member of the UK Youth Parliament for Hampshire constituency (she won the candidacy in the face of competition from 16-year-olds), she often corresponds with her MP.
I ask her how she relaxes. ‘Mmmm,’ she ponders. ‘There’s no such thing as relaxing, although I do sometimes like to watch movies.’
Her favourite subject is maths. Little wonder she is setting her sights stratospherically high in her ambition to conquer space.
‘I’m aiming to work for NASA as an astronaut. I’d like to study the universe. I used to ask about space constantly when I was younger, and I wanted to know all the answers. I wanted to learn beyond what people already knew.
‘I still have this thirst to find out more than what is known.
‘Actually my ambition is to be the first person on Mars.’
With her questing mind, her prodigious intelligence — and her great head for heights — it doesn’t seem such an impossible dream.