I sacrificed my health and teenage years to study at the IITs—but was it worth it?

Quartz india
Quartz india

In eighth standard, I volunteered to revise one of the Anglo-Indian battles for the class. Using the blackboard, I described the various players and events of the battle in great detail, making up for my faltering English with infectious enthusiasm.

Impressed, my class teacher asked me, “So what have you finally decided? Who do you want to be: a cardiologist, a historian or a scientist?” Those days I used to proudly proclaim that I wished to be a cardiologist, primarily because my doctor parents used to tell me that it was the hottest specialisation in medicine. Excited by my teacher’s praise, I went to my father and told him about it. It brought a proud smile on his face and he said, “Tell her you want to become an IITian.”

The cram schools

Most of the initial 13 years of my life had been spent in Rajasthan’s Kota, the epicentre of the coaching tsunami that engulfed the rotten senior secondary science education system in India. That is not to say that our schools teach commerce or arts any better, but the most significant impact of coaching classes, at least initially, was felt by the science stream. Kota pioneered the trend of training class 10 pass-outs for JEE, the Joint Entrance Examination, for admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). A number of cities followed suit.

Students from distant parts of the country started flocking to Kota, a city earlier famous for its delectable kachoris, cotton sarees and excellent building limestone. Soon, these classes became the lifeline of the city’s new economy. Numerous science graduates (including many ex-IITians) became instructors in these coaching classes and earned fat salaries; renting out rooms to students became “a thing” in every other neighbourhood; numerous hostels were built; and autowallas, mess-owners, street-food vendors—almost anyone and everyone you can think of—raked in a lot of moolah. With such a huge influx of students, the bigger and more reputed coaching classes started conducting entrance tests for themselves and believe it or not, new coaching classes opened up to prepare students for these considerably difficult tests.

These institutions cracked the code of the extremely competitive and difficult JEE and soon became like wish-granting factories for students willing to work hard; a large majority of whom consistently put in roughly ten to 12 hours a day.

 Obviously, these coaching classes had no space for experimental science or scientific curiosity or individuality  

Contrary to the popular belief, they did teach fundamentals of science quite well. They made students solve dozens of problems daily and provided them with a rich inventory of tricks and techniques that made the JEE tractable. At their peak, coaching classes in Kota accounted for a quarter of the JEE selections. Obviously, their model had no space for experimental science or scientific curiosity or individuality.

They merely filled the void created by our low quality education system to the extent that schools were forced to play second fiddle to them. A number of faux schools came up that placed no restrictions on student attendance. Students visited these schools only to take exams and maybe to practice for lab experiments. Many students, miles away from their homes, away from the protective gaze of their parents, away from their much-needed guidance and supervision in the formative years, couldn’t handle the newfound independence. Many drifted away towards cyber cafes in the city, gaming and watching movies for hours at length, ultimately failing to achieve the goal that had brought them to the city. Many “repeated” or “dropped” a year, i.e. spent a year after class 12 solely preparing for the JEE, because they didn’t take or fare well in previous year’s JEE.

Expectedly, the most unfortunate casualty of this system were these students’ precious teenage years, that led to a lot of them feeling “burnt out.” Later, that became a big reason for their poor performance in the IITs.

The worst years

I’ve spent four years of my life studying in coaching classes: Classes 9 and 10 for National Talent Search Examination (NTSE) and classes 11 and 12 for the JEE. When I look back today, I feel I didn’t lose much during the first two years because there was more to my life than just coaching classes. I went to school and studied English and Hindi, wrote poems, painted and participated in debates and extempores. The last two years were depressing, despite living at home with my parents. Any activity apart from attending the coaching class and self-study used to drown me in a sea of guilt. Thus, no more reading newspapers, no more watching TV for long hours, no more afternoon naps (sports, anyway, were never a part of my life).

Getting up from, and sitting down on, my study chair was the maximum amount of movement my body went through and as a result, the flab on my belly thickened manifold. At my worst, I weighed close to a quintal. Things moved pretty fast in the coaching class, so falling sick was never an option. And if I did, which I did numerous times (especially in class 12), catching up became a task in itself, partly because of my own flawed studying techniques. And yet, things were easier in class 11 because I managed to stay on top of things and was among the toppers in my class. Things became darker in class 12. Course content suddenly increased and so did competition, and I found it increasingly hard to cope up. With every drop in my rank, my confidence dwindled. My allergies decided to wreak havoc on me during the same period and I went in a downward spiral of low scores, enormous amounts of backlog, a substantially reduced enthusiasm for studies and a lax attitude.

 “I spent the worst years of my life in this room. It’s your turn now.” 

Eventually I did manage to pass the JEE with a rank that was decentish, but nowhere close to what I expected of myself and others expected of me. In fact, after the results, one of my insensitive batch mates who had cracked the exam asked me, “Repeat karne ki to nahin soch raha na?” (You aren’t planning on repeating a year, are you?), a question for which I still despise him. Having gone through these years, I could very clearly understand why one of our previous IITian tenants had scribbled this on his cupboard before vacating his room: “I spent the worst years of my life in this room. It’s your turn now.”

There were a few of these toiling, burnt out IITians in my family, too. One of them, my maternal cousin, had cleared the JEE in his first attempt but “dropped” a year and got himself enrolled in a leading coaching class in Kota in order to improve his AIR (All India Rank).

Parents and their myopia

It must have been impossible for my parents to stay insulated from this crazy atmosphere. So, when my father told me that he would want me to “become an IITian,” I wasn’t surprised. I am sure my brother, too, hadn’t been surprised. Both of us went through the same grind and eventually did manage to “become” IITians.

 “Brand IIT” brought with itself an undeniable sense of reputation for students, their parents, their uncles, their aunties, their teachers, their neighbours, their friends. 

This myopia was characteristic to other parents of my parents’ generation. Most of them took these life-defining career decisions without giving much thought to their wards’ skills and interests. A lot of them wanted to send their kids to the IITs for bright future prospects that “Brand IIT” had come to symbolise. A father whom I met in IIT certainly falls into that category. He had come for the admission of his son and was already worried about his son’s placement: “Bhaiya iska meta mein hua hai, suna hai ki meta mein package achha nahin milta, galti to nahin kar dee?” He wasn’t sure if he had made the right decision by opting for metallurgy (meta) department because he had heard that “salary packages” are comparatively lower in meta.

Then, there were parents who believed they were sending their children to the best possible colleges in the country. Moreover, it was a pursuit of pride. “Brand IIT” brought with itself an undeniable sense of reputation for students, their parents, their uncles, their aunties, their teachers, their neighbours, their friends: basically everyone they had ever been related to. Students, like me, would eventually pay the price for their parents’ decisions.

What does my IITian tag actually mean?

I have an absurd habit of googling my colleagues and contemporaries whom I perceive better than myself. The goal is to analyze their academic and professional trajectory with the hope of finding some flaw or area where they lag in order to discredit them in my mind. This worthless exercise in self-indulgence massages my ego and provides me a momentary sense of relief, except when it backfires.

Last year, I wanted to discredit a colleague roughly as old as me who joined my company a couple of weeks later than I did. Unlike me, he was in the prestigious program for entrants, the only one in my office last year. The program entailed better salary and somewhat better work with more freedom. He specialized in arguably the hottest field in computer science and seemed to have a far better handle on the future. More than sufficient reasons to get jealous. I googled him and the only “flaw” I could find out was his mediocre undergraduate college as compared to “my” IIT.

On other occasions, this might have been enough to soothe me, but not this time, because this person, after his undergraduate degree, had completed a master’s degree by research from one of the IITs, had a number of quality publications and was all set to join the laboratory of his choice next year for PhD. And he was, at most, a year older.

And here I was, without a single publication, not in the prestigious program, with only two things to boast of: my IITian tag and my CPI, both of which didn’t mean a lot after I had landed my job. That day, I could only see a past and a present filled with failures and enormous amount of mediocrity. My imaginary future shimmering with uniqueness and success that had always enraptured me ceased to exist that disgruntling moment and I found myself caught in a flurry of existential questions: What did I really achieve so far? What does my IITian tag actually mean? What is it that I want to do with my life? And the most painful of them all — if my life had been so freaking ordinary so far, why should I hope for an extraordinary future? I remember weeping at the loss of the lie that was the edifice of my life.

 What did I really achieve so far? What is it that I want to do with my life?  

I wasn’t facing these questions for the first time in my life. Many of these are in fact characteristic to 20-somethings of my generation as this article beautifully illustrates. Yet, I had observed that some of these questions were unique to my batchmates in IIT Bombay and hence seem more systemic than mere outliers. The last time I had suffered such a strong bout of existential void was roughly a year ago during campus placements.

A 20-minute job interview

I spent a lot of time in self-introspection during my second last semester at IIT and yet, I was so unclear about what kind of job I wanted immediately out of college that I ended up applying for and preparing (extremely half-heartedly) for every company I was eligible for. I also wasted some days preparing for and taking the Common Admission Test to the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) despite having no particular interest in getting an MBA straight out of college. By that time I had already secured deferred admission to the Indian School of Business through their Young Leaders Programme.

My “diverse” profile got me shortlisted for some nine companies on day-1. These companies were from varied sectors: consulting, finance, FMCG, analytics and “core” electrical engineering. All of these were prestigious companies that paid well. My utter lack of focus made Dec 1, 2013 one of the most nightmarish experiences of my life, but one that taught me something about myself. From 8 in the morning till midnight, I had given 13 job interviews.

In my extreme desperation to get a job, I had pleaded and begged. I felt too ashamed to pick my parents’ and brother’s calls as the towering expectations they had from me and I had from myself had been shattered. And yet, the one emotion I felt when I returned to my hostel by around 2 in the night was that of relief, for the ordeal was finally over. I was starving as I had eaten only a handful of biscuits the entire day. So, I went to our wonderful underground night canteen and ate a lot of extremely delicious and unhygienic food.

 In my extreme desperation to get a job, I had pleaded and begged. 

It slowly began to sink in that I had failed to secure a job on the first day. Failed. The one question that troubled me the most that night was: What is it that I want to do? What am I going to do now? This lack of clarity must have been abundantly clear in my embarrassingly manufactured replies to interviewers’ most favourite questions: Why our industry? Why our company? Morning did bear better news as I woke up to find I had received an offer from the last interview of the day. There’s an interesting story about how I managed to give that 20-minute interview at around last midnight.

I was busy running from one room to another, one floor to another to give interviews for the companies that had shortlisted me and the Taiwanese company that eventually took me had already finished interviewing all its candidates. One of my closest friends who was a constant companion during slot-2 of the day requested the company to wait for me for 15 minutes while I was being grilled by another company. The Taiwanese gentleman pointed towards his watch and told my friend: “15 minutes. Okay?”. The interview that I was in meanwhile didn’t go well and I rushed for the final interview of the day and reached, sweat-drenched, to find a couple of interviewers sitting idle, waiting for me. Interestingly, I had applied for this company rather casually as I preferred many other firms over it. So, when they say that placements are random, they aren’t entirely wrong.

Was it all worth it?

Sometimes I feel I should have heeded the advice of my sweetly rotund class 9 biology teacher: “If you wish to become an IAS officer, why go to an IIT? I think you should do a B.A. as it would be more relevant to your preparation for UPSC exams.” In case you didn’t notice, within a year, my future goals had shifted from becoming a cardiologist to an IAS officer and yet it had already sunk in that I had to be an IITian first.

I recently looked up the 2009 cut-off scores for the prestigious colleges of Delhi University such as St. Stephen’s and SRCC and found out that I would have got into one of those places, had I applied, for my scores in board exams were quite good. Of course, I didn’t even know what “applying” to a college really meant back then. Heck, I didn’t even know that I was going to a “college” after 12th because my mental picture of college was only shaped by Karan Johar’s films and I was sure I wasn’t going to any of those places. I only knew that I was giving JEE to go to a place called IIT.

The reason why I feel that, is partly because I really enjoyed the HSS (humanities and social sciences) courses, I took in the institute. They ranged from creative writing to sociology and each one of them engaged me immensely, providing me with that thing called the joy of learning. I looked forward to attending classes, took initiative to find out more on what was being taught, interacted with the professors on a personal level and attended relevant seminars and lectures outside of curriculum (not just for the sandwiches and biscuits in the high tea that followed). Learning seemed fun and almost effortless and surprisingly, exams were fun, too.

I never felt that magic doing the compulsory core courses in my department. They seemed work. Now, that could also have been because of our mental association of compulsory and voluntary with work and play, respectively, and maybe because engineering courses tend to be more technically involved and demanding. But I did experience a toned down version of Csikszentmihalyian flow whenever I took an HSS course.

And then when I look at St. Stephen’s alumni, I feel I should be among them some day, in that illustrious ensemble of economists, historians, writers, journalists and politicians. It would be heretical and foolish to claim IIT alumni are in any way inferior, or even compare the two for that matter. I guess it’s to do with the fact that I associate myself more with the aforementioned professions.

 I feel that deep down, the questions of development, economics, history, society, culture are closer to my heart as compared to questions of technology. 

I feel that deep down, the questions of development, economics, history, society, culture are closer to my heart as compared to questions of technology. That is not to say that I don’t enjoy working on problems of research in engineering. In fact, that’s what I have been doing for a living ever since I left college and it has been fairly interesting, despite the roller-coaster that life immediately after IIT can be.

But whenever I ask myself the question, “Is this what I would want to continue doing in my life and be known for when I die?”, and I ask myself that question a bit too frequently, I feel disconcerted and a little helpless. If and when I make a career switch, I will be joining the massive club of defector IITians who are unfairly despised for their choice to divorce their majors for a dizzyingly varied career trajectories, not that it is going to prevent me in any way from making my decision. It’s “my choice” after all.

The opposing thought in my head about the choice of undergrad is that I’m probably far better off now than I would have been had I gone to any of those places. It’s more than just the fact that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Whether we like it or not, quantitative skills have become increasingly valuable in today’s world and it’s not going to change any time soon. Further, a switch from engineering to other disciplines seems far more plausible. I haven’t heard of people going the other way round.

Finally, the unparalleled network that you inherit by virtue of being an IITian could be a reason enough to toil for JEE. Let me take a moment to explain the immense power of this network for my own sake, as it has taken me some time to fully appreciate it. I was an enthusiastic literary arts secretary of my hostel in my second year. Apart from widespread acclaim and an award, I have bagged multiple job offers from seniors who were impressed with my work during that period, and I am sure, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a classic example of seemingly insignificant things leading to disproportionately significant things in life.

IITs must do more

But I can’t help but feel that won’t it be better if we inherited this network by virtue of being in a university offering a wider range of courses (not just technology)? Won’t it make more sense for us to spend the crucial four-to-five years of life studying what interests us, something on which we could build further rather than starting afresh after graduation? Won’t it be better if the institute played a more active role in shaping our lives over and above its current role as a mere facilitator and as a crucible for smart students with diverse backgrounds?

Last year, I asked the director of IIT Bombay about the institute’s opinion on most undergrads taking up careers not even remotely related to their core fields of study. He replied that institute was fine as long as students continued to contribute to the society in a meaningful way. Although, it’s an admirably liberal and pragmatic position to take, it’s also a bit complacent one as it glosses over the issues we face.

We can’t be okay with so many of our students studying stuff they don’t care about.

When I say that the institute should do more for us, I basically raise the contentious question what should a college education do for us? There are no easy answers. However, I feel, our education should provide us some direction for our future, and despite everything, that didn’t really happen for me.

Today, as I eagerly await that elusive direction, I see myself as an older, more mature and less energetic version of the clueless 18-year old who entered IIT, confidently staring at a horizon full of possibilities — not because being IITian is my achievement, but because despite my qualms with my education, it has put me in an enviable position where I can afford to take big risks without the fear of failure.

I feel much lighter today with the loss of the burden of my lies and my expectations. Sky’s the limit as I continue to chart my trajectory and make sense of the life to come, a life that seems to begin now, after IIT.

This post first appeared on Insight, the student media body of IIT Bombay. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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