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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Kota student’s suicide- Institute never informed about son missing classes: Parents - Indian Express

The institute authorities said the student was routinely absent and had not showed up for classes since mid-September.

Written by Mahim Pratap Singh | Jaipur | 
Published:December 30, 2015 2:53 am

The parents of the 16-year-old boy who committed suicide in Kota on Sunday have countered the allegations of the institute where he studied that the parents failed to respond to repeated text messages and calls from the institute regarding their son’s absence.

Bhanu Kumar from Bihar’s Saharsa district was found hanging from the ceiling fan at his rented accommodation in the city’s Mahavir Nagar locality, about 2-3 km from Vibrant Academy, the coaching institute where he was enrolled.

The institute authorities said the student was routinely absent and had not showed up for classes since mid-September.
However, Bhanu’s father Subhash Kumar Singh, who works at a private firm in Mumbai and arrived in Kota on Monday morning, rubbished the institute’s claim.

“They sent only two messages — one for Diwali and another for winter break. I did not receive any other calls or messages. If I had, I would have rushed to Kota earlier to find out what was going on,” Singh told The Indian Express.

“Anyway, it is futile now. None of this blame game will bring back my son. I just hope this does not happen to anyone else’s child,” he said. The police, too, said it was too early to arrive at a conclusion regarding the reasons behind Bhanu’s extreme step.

“No, it’s not like that (that the parents were ignoring the institute’s calls). Right now it will be difficult to say anything since he did not leave behind a suicide note,” Kota Superintendent of Police Sawai Singh Godara told this correspondent.

“It would not be fair to blame anyone at this point,” he added.
Authorities at Vibrant Academy maintained that the student had been missing classes for some time.

“He was not here to prepare for IIT-JEE or a medical entrance test. He was only in Class X and only after passing Boards would he have decided on a future course. So, there is no question of being under pressure. Besides, he was too young for these exams. It would have been at least two and a half years before he could have attempted clearing them,” Narendra Avasthi, director, Vibrant Academy, told this correspondent.

“He had not been coming to the institute and also wasn’t present for the ‘fun-day’ event we had at our institute on Saturday. We had intimated his parents about his absence and even called them but they hadnot responded,” Avasthi claimed.
But Bhanu’s family denied the claim, saying that his elder brother had also prepared for his engineering entrance exam from the same institute and that had really inspired Bhanu.
“He was a hard working student. He did not even stay back for Chhath pooja the last time he was home, as it would mean missing classes,” said Neeraj Singh, his uncle.

“They (institute) authorities would call promptly whenever the fee was due. Couldn’t they have called when Bhanu had gone absent for so long? Maybe it (his death) could have been avoided,” he said.

- See more at:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

From Entrance Coaching Hub To Suicide Hub, Kota Registers 30th Student Suicide This Year - India Times

December 29, 2015

Students ending their lives, unable to cope up with pressure of competitive exams and expectations from families have once again cast a shadow on the thriving entrance coaching business in Rajastan's city of Kota.

                      The Hindu/ Representative Image

The latest victim to end his life was 14-year-old Bhanu Kumar, who was found hanging from a fan in his hostel room on Sunday. The latest incident have taken the number of student suicides this year in Kota to 30 also the third such case in one week.  

Kumar, a resident of Saharsa district in Bihar, came to Kota when he was just 13 to improve his performance in physics and mathematics. He was enrolled in class IX at a city school and at a coaching centre for an edge course in science subjects. However records from his institute showed that he was a regular absentee and the centre had informed his parents about their son's behaviour.

Kumar who was living alone in a rented accommodation did not go home even during the winter vacation, when both his school and coaching institute were closed. He was also in Kota during the Diwali break, his hostel owner said.

                    Daily Mail/ Representative Image

Incidentally, the death happened a day after the district administration undertook a major exercise to de-stress coaching students to curb the spate of suicides. Coaching centres were directed to organise activities like painting and singing as part of its 'Masti ki Pathshala' campaign.


Over 1.25 lakh students come to various coaching institutes in Kota every year, with the dream of cracking the competitive entrance exams like IIT JEE and the All India Engineering Entrance Examination.

However, many take the extreme step as they are not able to withstand the high pressure coaching schedule and unable to live up to the family expectations.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

As suicides rise, Kota institutes asked to introduce screening test - Hindustan Times

  • Aabshar Quazi, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 24, 2015 11:35 IST

More than 1,00,000 teenagers head to coaching institutes in Kota every year with the dream of cracking IIT or medical exams. (AH Zaidi/HT file photo)

Students seeking admission to coaching institutes in Rajasthan’s Kota city will have to appear for a screening test from the next academic session, a move spurred by growing incidents of suicides by youngsters allegedly due to performance pressure.

At least 56 students studying in different institutes in the city – about 250 km from capital Jaipur – have committed suicide in the last five years, most of them attributed to the fear of failure.

Official sources said on Wednesday that the norm was introduced by Kota district collector Ravi Kumar Surpur to give parents a fair assessment of their wards’ chances of cracking the highly competitive engineering and medical entrance exams.

The district collector has instructed all institutes to have a screening test for the 2016-17 academic year with common counselling facility for parents. The institutes have three to four months to prepare the module for the test in consultation with the district administration, the sources added.

The quiet southern Rajasthan town attracted just over 10,000 students till early 2000 in seven major institutes but the last few years had seen a major transformation with about 1.25 lakh students taking admission in about 40 institutes this year.

However, just one-fourth of them manage to get admission in professional colleges, leading to high stress levels in a majority of them who come from middle or low income group families.
As the institutes started providing better facilities, their charges also rose with annual fees doubling in the last seven years, putting additional pressure on students.

Gopal Saini, a daily wager turned shopkeeper in Alwar, had borrowed heavily from friends and relatives to support his 17-year-old son Manish’s dream to become a doctor. Manish cracked the examination and got admission into the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) this year.

But there are many like Tara Chand, enrolled in Allen Career Institute, who apparently was not able to cope with the rigour and reportedly committed suicide earlier this year.

“I still don’t know what drove him to commit suicide,” said his father Sohanlal Sirvi, a farmer who took out all his savings to pay for his son’s annual fee of over Rs one lakh.

The reasons for committing suicide are many, says Yaadram Faasal, Kota’s additional superintendant of police, with “failure of the students to meet high expectations of parents” being the most common. Also, living alone away from their families in a rigorous study cycle and high pressure environment also push them to take the extreme step.

An official of the Kota administration said the new system will give parents a chance to opt out and choose an alternate career option for their ward.

Allen Career Institute, Kota, Director, Naveen Maheshwari agreed, saying that the guidelines make screening test mandatory but not rejection of the students.

Students welcomed the move saying there was no harm in filtering students at the time of admissions through screening test since it will prevent below average and undeserving students from falling prey to the study stress of coaching.

“It is good that screening test does not result in rejection as every student should get equal opportunity to improve their educational level,” said Tejaswin Jeengar, a student from Haryana.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life

William Deresiewicz explains how an elite education can lead to a cycle of grandiosity and depression.

                               William Deresiewicz


AUG 19, 2014
The former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz stirred up quite a storm earlier this month with his New Republic essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—a damning critique of the nation’s most revered and wealthy educational institutions, and the flawed meritocracy they represent. He takes these arguments even further in his upcoming book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Part cultural commentary, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of education itself, the book reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift adolescents struggling to figure out how to navigate the college system, and ultimately their own lives. Deresiewicz, who is also the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter,spoke to me on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon.

Lauren Cassani Davis: How does the phrase “excellent sheep” describe the typical student at an elite college today?

William Deresiewicz: The most interesting thing about that phrase is that I didn’t write it myself. It came out of the mouth of a student of mine, and just seemed perfect. They’re “excellent” because they have fulfilled all the requirements for getting into an elite college, but it’s very narrow excellence. These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.

Davis: Do you see a connection between this “hoop-jumping” mindset and other trends, like mental-health issues, on college campuses?
Deresiewicz: The mental-health issues, absolutely. People have written books about this—adolescent therapists like Madeline Levine, who wrote The Price of Privilege. These students are made to understand that they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything perfectly, but they haven’t turned to themselves to ask why they’re doing it. It’s almost like a cruel experiment with animals that we’re performing—every time the red light goes on, you have to push the bar. Of course they’re stressed.
This is also why they’re sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop. Though maybe not, because even when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards. And if you’ve always been told what you’re going to do, these options are the easiest in terms of making decisions, though not necessarily easiest in terms of the work involved.

Davis: You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?
Deresiewicz: Alice Miller wrote about this 30-plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.
These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.
These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all-or-nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.
“These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless.”
This is not really the only way to succeed, but this crazy definition not only of success, but of how you achieve success, doesn’t even really reflect how actually successful people achieve success. Steve Jobs is an obvious example, because he was obviously very gifted and ambitious but he took a circuitous path, and people who are very successful doing interesting things also often take circuitous paths.
This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high-functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get to the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there—you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.

Davis: That ties in with your argument that words like “leadership” and “service” have become hollow in the whole college process.
Deresiewicz: There’s a list of things that everyone knows you’re supposed to do to get into college: scores, extracurriculars, and then these two other things, “leadership” and “service.” They’ve been completely ritualized, and kids have become cynical about them because they know they just need to demonstrate them. In the case of leadership, which is supposed to be about qualities of character, self-sacrifice, initiative, and vision, it just means getting to the top, and that’s all. If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself.

Davis: You argue that society transmits its values through education. How would you summarize the values transmitted through the elite-education system?
Deresiewicz: I would summarize the values by quoting Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place. And I think we see that in the last 50 years, the meritocracy has created a world that’s getting better and better for the meritocracy and worse and worse for everyone else.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Student suicides: Implement rules or face action, says collector

Student suicides: Implement rules or face action, says collector

  • Aabshar H Quazi, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 22, 2015 16:37 IST
Seventeen students have allegedly committed suicide due to academic stress in Kota this year. (Representative photo)

District collector Ravi Kumar Surpur on Monday warned coaching institutes and hostels that criminal proceedings would be initiated against them if they failed to comply with the administration’s guidelines to check student suicides.

Seventeen students have allegedly committed suicide due to academic stress in Kota this year.

Over 1.25 lakh students take coaching for IIT-JEE, AIPMT and other engineering/medical entrance examinations at coaching institutes in Kota every year.

Surpur reviewed the pace of implementation of the guidelines issued by the district administration in November during a meeting with owners of coaching institutes and hostels in the collectorate.

The administration had issued a list of guidelines to the institutes last month to check stress among students.
It had asked the coaching institutes to recruit psychiatrists or counsellors, introduce meditation and recreational activities, conduct screening tests, segregate batches and give more weekly breaks among other steps to alleviate pressure on students.

The collector expressed displeasure over the inadequate progress on the guidelines, especially low recruitment of counsellors and lack of recreational facilities at the institutes.
“Institutes must develop infrastructure for recreation which should include some physical activities like sports,” he said. The institutes should also ensure weekly offs to relax the pressure on students and keep check absenteeism.

The collector also asked the institutes to not glorify selections in competitive examinations and instead inculcate competitive skills among students.

“Institutions should conduct group counselling of the students and if possible of their parents during the session starting from January 15, 2016,” he said.

Representatives of major coaching institutes including Allen Career Institute, Bansal Classes, Vibrant, Aakash and Resonance and also hostel associations attended the meeting.

Stress pushes yet another student to suicide in Kota

Stress pushes yet another student to suicide in Kota

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 23, 2015 13:47 IST
According to the Kota City Police records, this was the eighteenth incident of coaching students committing suicide in Kota so far. (Representative photo)

Bogged down by study-related stress, an IIT-JEE aspirant from Dholpur committed suicide in Danbari area of Kota City on Tuesday.

Jawahar Nagar circle inspector Rajesh Meshram said that 21-year-old Shivdutt Singh, hailing from Kolari region in Dholpur district, was found hanging from the ceiling fan of his rented room.

“Soon after being informed about the incident by the victim’s roommates, police arrived at the scene and recovered the deceased’s body,” he said, adding that they had to break into the room because the door was bolted from inside.
Shivdutt had arrived at Kota in April this year, and enrolled himself in one of its premier coaching centres.

Stating that the deceased had bemoaned not being able to “fulfill his parents’ dreams” in his suicide note, Meshram said study-related stress could be the reason behind him taking the extreme step.

The police officer said Shivdutt’s post-mortem examination would be conducted on Wednesday, once his parents have arrived in the city.

According to the Kota City Police records, this was the eighteenth incident of coaching students committing suicide in Kota so far.

Incidents like this have prompted the state government to frame guidelines for coaching institutes and hostels in Kota. A review meeting in this regard was held here on Monday.
Around 1.25 lakh students arrive in Kota every year for enrolling in over half-a-dozen institutes that specialise in coaching students for engineering and medical entrance exams.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Women biker in Doon to spread awareness against suicide - TNN

Shivani Saxena, TNN | Dec 17, 2015, 10.36PM IST

Twenty-seven-year-old Sana Iqbal from Hyderabad, who has covered over 5,200 km and 10 cities in the country riding on her bike, to spread awareness against suicide and depression is now in Dehradun.

Iqbal is running an awareness campaign on suicide, identification of suicidal traits and its prevention and chronicling her journey on bike, to spread the message of happiness across states. She is in Doon till Saturday and will be holding sessions in various colleges in the city.

Speaking with TOI, Sana Iqbal said, "I learnt how to ride a bike when I was in class VII from my uncle and it is like meditation to me. I faced depression myself and fought suicidal tendencies. I realized we often refrain from speaking about such things and youngsters specially have a hard time opening about their emotional breakdown. Some also take escape routes like drugs to deal with it and they must be made aware about the dangers of drug abuse."

"After my personal experience with depression, I decided I need to create an awareness that being sad is not even an option, it is just the wrong choice! Hence, I started with my journey on the bike across various cities in India and have so far covered almost 8 cities and interacted with over 5,000 students over how to spread happiness and combat depression. I have spoken to youth in Roorkee and Haridwar on December 16 and I am really looking forward to speak to students in Dehradun till Saturday."

Iqbal specified that this is her first visit to Uttarakhand and she would definitely like to come back. She said, "Intriguingly, most of the youngsters have relationship issues. They either are dealing with break-ups or some are depressed due to not having a special someone. They need to know this is not the end of the world and there is help out there like some NGOs where they can call and share their feelings."

"I feel a woman rider on a mission to spread happiness is a really cool thing to do. I asked her ways to handle depression in case if I ever feel that low in life. One must be prepared and she quite methodically mentioned how to speak about such things, have emotional talks with the close people and to be realistic," said Prajjwal Singh, a student preparing for his IIT entrance, who attended one of Iqbal's sessions.

Iqbal started off her ride on November 23 from Goa and intends to cover 40,000 km on her bike in a span of six months covering at least 1 to 5 colleges on her way in each state. So far, she has covered over 5,200 km and 10 cities including Pune, Gwalior, Agra, Indore, Bhopal, Haridwar, Roorkee and now Doon. After Doon, the wandering biker might leave for Ludhiana or Chandigarh.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

IIT aspirant commits suicide in Kota - Business Standard

Press Trust of India  |  Kota 
December 5, 2015 Last Updated at 13:32 IST

A 17-year-old IIT aspirant, who was studying at a coaching institute here, allegedly hanged herself at a relative's residence, the incident being the second suicide case reported in last two days.

The body of Satakshi Gupta, who was preparing for IIT-JEE examination at a coaching institute here, was found hanging from the ceiling fan of her room at her aunt's place in Jawaharnagar area, SHO Jawaharnagar Rajesh Mehathram said.

Satakshi, a resident of Ghaziabad, had been staying at her aunt's residence for last six years.

According to her relatives, Satakshi remained in her room yesterday and did not come out even at 6.30 pm which is usually when she starts from home for her coaching insitute.

When she did not respond to repeated knocks, the family members broke open the door and found the girl's body hanging from the ceiling fan, Mehathram said.

Satakshi did not leave any suicide note behind, the SHO said, adding that the relatives claimed that she had not showed any sign of depression or study pressure.

"Police is trying to find out what could be reason behind the extreme step," he added.

This is the second suicide case by a coaching institute student in Kota in last two days.

On Thursday, an 18-year-old boy preparing for competitive medical exams had allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself from a ceiling fan at his rented room in Kunadhi area.

IIT aspirant hangs herself in Kota; second suicide in as many days - Hindustan Times

IIT aspirant hangs herself in Kota; second suicide in as many days
  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 05, 2015 13:36 IST
Representative Photo. (Shutterstock image)

A coaching student preparing for the IIT-JEE examination committed suicide in Kota on Friday, hanging herself at a relative’s house.

The girl, who has been identified as 17-year-old Satakshi Gupta, was from Bihar, though her father Kamlesh Kumar works in Ghaziabad. She had been living at her aunt’s house in Instrumentation Limited (IL) Colony. Her aunt had expired in August this year.

Rajesh Meshram, station house officer of Jawahar Nagar Police Station, said that the police received information of the incident, following which they rushed to the spot and recovered the dead body which was found hanging in the room.

“The student was living with her aunt in Kota from last 5-6 years for her studies and was preparing for IIT-JEE Examination”, Meshram said. He also said that no suicide note was found, but gave stress due to studies as a possible reason.
Satakshi’s death is the second suicide of a student in as many days to take place inKota. On Thursday, 19-year-old Varun Jeengar of Ludhiana had hanged himself in his paying guest accommodation in the Adarsh Nagar area of the City.

According to data released by National Crime Records Bureau, Kota has registered 100 suicide cases in 2014 and 45 of them were coaching students.

Since October, at least eight students have killed themselves in the city.

More than 1,00,000 teenagers head to coaching institutes in Kota every year with dreams of cracking the highly competitive entrance exams. The rigorous study schedule, high-pressure environment, competitive exams and stress of living pushes many students to commit suicide.

“Parents on average spend around `2.50 lakh to `3 lakh every year on coaching. When their children find themselves lagging, they feel guilty and can go into depression,” police officer Bhagwat Singh Hingad said.

The Kota district administration had issued guidelines for the coaching Institutes and hostels on November 4 in an attempt to avert suicide by students. The suggestions included carrying out student counselling, weekly breaks from classes, meditation, yoga and recreation activities.

Kota suicide rerun - Telegraph India

Our Correspondent
Jaipur, Dec. 3: 

A student from Punjab was found hanging in Kota today, taking to a dozen the number of suicides in the medical and IIT coaching hub so far this year.

Police said they had found a handwritten note in Varun Punjabi's hostel room saying nobody was responsible for his suicide and that his parents should pardon him for the extreme step.

The police suspected stress - the reason cited in most other cases - as the cause but the director of the institute where Varun had been preparing for medical entrance exams said the 18-year-old from Ludhiana had attended barely 10 days of classes since taking admission this August.

"His friends say he had been quiet for the past few days. His parents are on the way. It could be because of stress too. But it is difficult now to ascertain the exact cause," said Kota police chief Sawai Singh Godara.

Naveen Maheshwari, the director of Allen Career Institute where Varun was enrolled, said: "Varun was a dropper, which means he had cleared his Class XII last year. We have been sending an absentee notice to his parents regularly. The case may be not because of academic stress. It may be due to family problems. We have regular counselling for those who need it."

Asked about the increasing suicides in the coaching hub, Maheshwari said Kota was "singled out because of the sheer numbers". "Students around the nation are under pressure, though coping alone in a city (Kota) for the first time also unnerves students."#

Counsellors believe that stress is inevitable in Kota, with its 14-hour daily grinds and pressure from the annual fees of Rs 70,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh the students' parents have to shell out. The police reported 14 suicides in 2014 and 26 in 2013

Thursday, December 3, 2015

WHAT IS SUCCESS? I failed to get into an IIT—and 10 years later I could not be happier - Quartz

With blinders on. (Maria Corte for Quartz)

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are among the most difficult schools in the world to get into. The University of Oxford accepts one out of five applicants. IITs take in just one out of 50. So it is little wonder that for any Indian child with ambitions of becoming an engineer, getting into an IIT looks like the pinnacle of achievement.

It certainly looked that way to me. Growing up in the 1990s in Nashik, a city of about 1.5 million people, I looked up to my dad—a mechanical engineer from one of the top regional engineering schools. I wanted to be like him, or even better. The only way to do that, my little brain thought then, was to go to an even more prestigious school: the IIT.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned. To be precise, I failed. But the years I spent working towards the goal changed me forever. More than 10 years later, I could not have achieved more success or happiness. And, most importantly, my parents could not be prouder.

A single-track mind
When I was growing up, you couldn’t go many days without hearing or reading about how IIT graduates were changing the face of the country and having an impact even beyond. They had in their ranks the likes of Narayana Murthy (a founder of Infosys), Vinod Khosla (a founder of Sun Microsystems), and Raghuram Rajan (governor of the Reserve Bank of India). Newspapers never missed an opportunity to tell the world about the top salaries that were being offered to IIT graduates. Among doting parents and aspiring kids, IITians were treated with the kind of reverence that Indians only gave to players in the country’s cricket team. (Things aren’t much different today.)

The way into the IITs is to succeed at the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), and in the last few decades a whole industry has been set up to find ways to crack the JEE. In class 8, four years before I was due to take the entrance exam, my mother bought me a subscription to an IIT coaching service.

Every few months I received thick textbooks that covered advanced physics, chemistry, and mathematics. With the help of a college professor, those advanced textbooks served me well till class 10. Then, when I was 15, my parents enrolled me in a coaching class in Nashik.

Coaching classes for JEE were compulsory. They were an antidote to the rote-learning culture that state board education promoted. The JEE was designed to test your understanding of the subject, not your memory of it. The questions challenged you to use the many concepts you’d learned and put them together to arrive at the answers.

The next two years were tough. Preparing for the JEE became an all-consuming task. As I became more focused on achieving the goal, I had already given up sports, music, and video games. Soon I also stopped socialising with other students much.

So those who attended the IIT coaching class formed a tight group. We spent hours, often late into the night, solving problems. Despite becoming very good friends, we were competitors. Only a tiny fraction were going to pass the JEE, and our competitors were the smartest minds of our age in the country.

There was also a psychological cost. Thoughts of failure often crossed our minds. I worried about getting sick; another friend imagined getting in an accident on the way to the exam. One friend ran away from home the day before the exam. He was eventually found near a local dam, considering jumping down into the river. (He now lives in a monastery.)

Industrialised coaching
The JEE is conducted in two stages. The first, when I took it in 2004, consisted of multiple choice questionnaires for different subjects. About one in 10 people got through to the next stage, which had questions that required descriptive answers. How you approached the question mattered as much as the answer.

I passed the first stage but failed in the second (specifically, in the chemistry paper). No one from Nashik I knew got through both stages that year. At the back of our minds, we all knew that we could face failure. But I wasn’t really prepared for it. Who knew that an exam result could cause stomach-wrenching pain?

It was the first major failure of my life. For weeks, I was depressed and felt stuck in limbo. My parents assured me that it was OK, but I couldn’t get rid of the deep sense of shame.

Fortunately, depression turned to anger and then resolve. I wanted another go. Now that I was 17, my parents felt comfortable sending me to Kota, a small city in the state of Rajasthan, whose handful of coaching centers were consistently producing results many times better than those of any other coaching class in the country.

There I would spend another year preparing with even more intensity.

The first week in Kota was exciting. Staying away from my parents for the first time was wonderful. The freedom felt like power. But the joys quickly disappeared.

Although I was still in India, it felt like I had come to a place with an alien culture. Students didn’t mix very much. When they did, they only talked about that day’s problems, next day’s classes, or something else academic. If there were any non-academic discussions, it was gossip about other coaching classes (or about the rare girl someone had in their class). The only recreational activity was to play computer games at an internet cafe, and even that was frowned upon.

However, what affected me the most was the constant discussion about failure. Every so often someone would share a tale they had heard about some student who committed suicide because he had failed at the JEE. (Suicides in Kota are no longer a rare phenomenon. Nine students have committed suicide in the last five months.)

The final straw was when I started to hear about friends being admitted to other engineering schools. I had come to Kota resolved to forget failure and do nothing but prepare for the JEE, but I was so focused on my studies that I had almost forgotten about this important event in my friends’ lives. And, though I should not have, I felt jealous that they had a better place to be than Kota.

There is usually a delay of a few weeks between getting results from various entrance exams, including the JEE, and starting at an engineering school. In 2004, because of some bureaucratic mess, the delay had been stretched to a few months.

These other entrance exams were supposed to be an insurance policy against failing at the JEE. For me, however, they were just an additional burden, and I didn’t take them too seriously. The All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE, now scrapped) was one of them, and I slept in the exam hall for the last 30 minutes, having finished one of the papers early.

So it came as a surprise when, in the middle of a class in August, I learned that I had been accepted at the University Institute of Chemical Technology (UICT) based on my AIEEE results. Among those in the know—mostly chemical engineers—UICT was the IIT of chemical engineering. It boasted some big names as its alumni, and to my delight it was among the few engineering schools based in the heart of Mumbai.

I had come to Kota because I wasn’t ready to settle for anything but the best. Suddenly the equation had changed. Would it really be worth spending an extra year of my life to get into an IIT when UICT might just be good enough? I wasn’t so sure, but the possibility of a life in Mumbai among happier teenagers broke my resolve.

“Akku, please think carefully before you decide whether to leave Kota for this,” my mum said. But my mind was made up and my bags were packed.

Dogged focus
Though many of the students at UICT had, like me, failed to get into an IIT in their first or second attempt at the JEE, the mood among them was optimistic. It took me six months to figure out why.

Education at UICT was slightly different from those in other Indian engineering schools. There was an unusual amount of stress on research, something that even the best of the IITs couldn’t compete with. Most professors were actively involved in research and often had many PhD students working for them. This was unusual for India, which, despite producing the world’s largest number of engineers and doctors, ranks among the lowest in the world in terms of research output.

Many students at UICT of course wanted well-paid jobs in the chemical industry. But there was also great interest in pursuing research at undergraduate level and beyond. By December, we had started hearing news about final year students getting PhD places at some of the world best universities: MIT, Cambridge, Caltech, Stanford, and others.

This exposure to a new way of thinking about my career changed my dreams. Perhaps it was not being under the shadow of my parents that gave me the freedom to think for myself, but more likely it was the effect of my professors and their exceptional research students. I no longer wanted a corporate job, but a PhD. The intellectual thrill of discovering something new was inspiring.

And so I was soon consumed by the desire to find a place at a top-notch university for a research degree. The Indian education system is too exam-oriented, but it also trains you to put on horse-like blinders and focus single-mindedly on achieving a goal. Looking back, I can see that my failed attempts of getting into an IIT enabled me to excel when it came to pursuing this new ambition.

In the ivory tower
After UICT, I got a place at the University of Oxford to get a doctorate in organic chemistry. Soon after I got to Oxford, the limitations of India’s education system truly became clear. The Indian system mints students in highly specialised institutes, such as the IITs and UICT, with great abilities in the areas we choose to study, but little knowledge of other critical subjects.

Although I knew that Western universities offered students courses in all subjects under the sun, I wasn’t quite prepared for socialising with, say, a student of literature. In hindsight, what probably saved me was my curiosity. I must have looked stupid to some, asking basic questions that probably only high-school students would ask. (I asked a historian: what is the point of studying history anyway?) Yet every conversation taught me a bit more about the world I had missed out on while studying chemistry and physics.

Finishing my doctorate was the toughest thing I had ever done. And yet, the most valuable thing I took away from Oxford was not the degree. Instead, the open academic environment, world-class researchers, and brilliant students had peeled away the blinders put on me by the Indian education system. At 25, for the first time in my life, I felt free. I was not burdened by my parents’ expectations for me to get a good degree, the pressure of Indian society to make something of my “valuable” bachelor’s or doctorate, or the hopes of my 12-year-old self to become “better” than my dad.

Of course, I could not have gotten the doctorate without the skills I had acquired in India. But Oxford enabled me to see a bigger world. After finishing my PhD, I chose to become a journalist. Three years into that career choice, and more than 10 years after I had failed at the JEE, I could not be happier.

Who knows what would have happened had I made it into an IIT. But I am happy today that I did not. From my core group of friends at UICT, all four of whom failed to get into an IIT in their first attempt, only one is still doing something related to engineering. One is an actor, another is in advertising, and I’m a journalist. Failure enabled us—forced us—to truly discover ourselves.

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