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LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - An Indian teenager from one of the country's most backward states appears to have fooled governments, the media and even the president into believing he had topped the world in a NASA science exam.
In a country hungry for international recognition, 17-year-old Saurabh Singh was feted as a national hero after announcing he had won NASA's International Scientist Discovery examination, which he said he took at Oxford University.
The Uttar Pradesh state government rewarded him with a 500,000 rupee ($11,500) prize and more than 100 members of the state's upper house each donated a day's salary to him.
But as he was at the president's official residence awaiting an audience during the week, his story unraveled.
An Indian news portal, rediff.com, contacted NASA, which denied any knowledge of the exam.
"Right now, no one knows where this examination comes from," Rediff quoted NASA education official Dwayne Brown saying.
A meeting planned with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was hastily called off and the boy returned to his village of Narhai, where he is now under police investigation.
Singh had also said President Abdul Kalam and Indian astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who died in the Columbia shuttle explosion in 2003, had sat the test. Kalam's office denies this.
Singh insists he met Kalam, although some Indian newspapers say the meeting was canceled as he waited to go in.
"It was really inspiring," Singh told Reuters by phone. "And let me tell you, he saw my certificate and praised me for the achievement, while you all are asking all kinds of questions and trying to dub me as a fraud."
The certificate, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, declared "You are the member of NASA" (sic) and is signed by Singh and "Chief of NASA, Cin K. Kif" -- NASA's former administrator was Sean O'Keefe. It also lists the name of Singh's father, common practice in Indian documents.
Singh says he flew to London on Indian Airlines -- which does not fly to the city -- and took a taxi to Oxford University and back every day for the exam from January 4-8, a round trip of about 230 km (140 miles).
Singh told Reuters he stayed in a hotel, but told a Hindi language newspaper he stayed at Buckingham Palace.
The Indian school where he says he sat the preliminary exam along with 200,000 others does not exist. The Bansal institute, where he says he studied mathematics, has never heard of him.
Singh cannot produce his passport to back his claim. That, he says, is with institute director P.K. Bansal.
"How can we possess his passport when we don't even know him?" Saturday's The Indian Express quoted Bansal saying.