Around this time every year, countless hyper-anxious students and their even more anxious parents stop breathing, eating, living... it’s the dreaded CBSE Class 12 exam results that have given them a condition I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Thank God I am not a student in today’s insanely competitive India. I just about scraped through my final year at school, thereby shielding my poor parents from public shame. But look at the madness today! Why should millions across India have to suffer this? Why can’t we rejig our entire pattern of education and make it more humane? I looked at the headlines last week and instead of rejoicing with and for the “toppers”, I felt terrible about the “non-toppers” — all those young people who had slaved and struggled to make the grades required to get into college, and not succeeded. I read about Raksha Gopal, the girl from Noida, who just missed maxing the exam, getting 498 marks out of 500 (that’s 99.6 per cent)! It was impossible to visualise such a staggering academic feat. She lost just two marks! How on earth did she do it? Imagine the odds — 10.2 lakh students appeared for this scary exam. 10,091 kids were 95 per centers! What happens to the vast majority? Look at this other weird factoid: while nine out of 10 girls passed this hurdle, 20 per cent of the boys flunked.
What does that say? Out of seven students who have hit the 99 per cent mark, five are girls. Are girl students significantly smarter? More ambitious? Harder working? Something is definitely going on in classrooms across India that requires a closer examination. Around the same time as the results were being flashed, a young man of 19 brutally stabbed his mother in Mumbai and left her to bleed to death. But not before he had dipped his fingers in his mother’s still hot blood and written a note on the floor next to her body, taunting the police to catch him and hang him. He had signed off with a jaunty smiley emoticon. Her crime? She had been nagging him to study harder and not keep flunking. We see a sharp spike in student suicides every time the results are announced. Surely, something is not quite right with the system. Why do we refuse to acknowledge what exactly is wrong with this lopsided method of teaching, which requires students to sweat blood to get those unrealistic scores, which, after all that effort and struggle, guarantee nothing! Not even admission into an obscure college in the back of the beyond of India.
In the old days, desi parents would rejoice at the birth of a son. These days, they groan! Not only are daughters competing and excelling, they are also the ones taking care of parents in their old age. Last week, I had an interesting visitor from Italy, who told me Italians may pretend to adore their sons, but it is actually a son-in-law who gets top billing within his wife’s family. Italians end up co-opting the son-in-law into the wife’s immediate family, while he simultaneously gets further and further distanced from his own. Why does this happen? Because it is daughters who bear the main responsibility for retired/sick parents. Something similar is afoot in India. Which is also why desi parents today are investing in their daughters. They encourage girls to study, find stable jobs and marry men who don’t mind playing “ghar jamais” — glorified or otherwise. Till that status becomes semi-official, it’s worth lauding the academic glories of young people like Manish Ram, son of a cobbler, who scored 83.8 per cent and topped his class. One of seven children, here’s a boy who has made it against the most daunting odds. His family lives in a slum very close to my home, and my heart swells with pride at Manish’s triumph. Even so, I can’t help feeling our deeply flawed education system needs a gigantic overhaul. The trauma of getting into a “good” school starts before the baby is born! I see my children agonising over primary school admissions for their toddlers and I exclaim, “This is gross. This is absurd.” But what choice does anybody have? Education has become one more racket in India.
There is big money to be made and people have zero qualms exploiting the desperate situation. While watching Hindi Medium, an accurately observed film that slyly underlines the many faultlines in our lopsided priorities when it comes to getting kids into a reputed English medium school. It captures the tragedy underlying our ghastly obsession with English. We see Irrfan Khan, playing a Chandni Chowk shopkeeper with a great deal of panache, as he bends over backwards to accommodate his socially-ambitious wife’s ultimate goal to get their daughter into one of Delhi’s “top schools”. Without being preachy, the movie perfectly showcases the myriad mistakes made by misguided parents as they fake identities to impress school authorities, and go to the extent of playing “poor” so that the kid can be considered for the underprivileged quota. Of course, this is a commercial movie, but the point was strongly made. The second half which deals with the successful shopkeeper and his gorgeous wife (Saba Qamar) moving into a filthy slum to get a firsthand taste of “gareebi”, was the shakiest, because it descended into parody. Despite that, a neighbour in the slum, who reminds these two fakes that unlike them (the “new poor” if you please!), abject poverty has defined his life for generations (he calls himself a “khaandani gareeb”). This one observation, so rich in irony and pathos, sums up our confused attitude to “progress” and education. Everyone aspires to get out of the gutter and live a better life. Students who score high in these cruel exams work had for fulfilling exactly that dream. Nobody has the heart to break it to them that such a dream is just that — a dream. An illusion. For most “Make (it) in India” remains an empty slogan.