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How an 18-year-old from a Kolkata slum cracked the IIT exam this year

Devjyot Ghoshal/Quartz
Can’t stop grinning.
By Devjyot Ghoshal
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

By the time the motley group of teenagers—sons of farmers, daily labourers and shopkeepers—woke up on June 18, the tripods, microphones and television cameras had already started arriving for their annual ritual at Anand Kumar’s house.

In 2002, Kumar established the Super 30 programme, a free year-long coaching session for one of the toughest engineering tests in the world: The joint entrance exam (JEE) for undergraduate engineering admissions in India. And year after year, the mathematics teacher helped children from families who otherwise couldn’t afford any such luxuries find a place at elite engineering schools.

Exactly how many of Kumar’s 30 candidates made it this year wasn’t immediately clear. The results were supposed to be online at 10AM, but the website just wouldn’t work. An hour later, the marks started trickling in: Twenty five of them had cracked the test.

A lanky, buck-toothed boy from Kolkata was fourth in line to check his results. He worried a little when he saw this score—270 out of 360—but as others checked their marks, the 18-year-old realised that he’d nailed it. With an all India rank of 1,217, Niraj Kumar Jha had managed the highest JEE score in Super 30—and a ticket to the one place he wanted to study at, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

With over a million applicants each year, the IITs have an extraordinary acceptance rate of 0.7%—about eight times tougher than making it to Harvard University.

The youngest child

Bachchi Devi Jha had been married as a 15-year-old. And though she herself had only studied till Class 7, she was determined to give her children a college education. So, a few years after her first child—Saroj—was born in 1991, she moved to Kolkata to live with her husband and send their son to the best school they could afford.

“My father used to be a teacher,” she explained, crouched at the doorstep of her home. “My father-in-law was also in a school, where he worked as a driver.”

Her husband Bhagwan Jha—who studied till Class 9—has also spent most of his life behind the wheel. For years now, the moustached 46-year-old, with a ready smile, has chauffeured a Kolkata rice mill owner.

The money wasn’t great, but few expenses were spared for Saroj. He was sent to an English-medium school, and because his parents knew little of what he was studying, a handful of tutors—including one for English—was arranged to help him out.

Devjyot Ghoshal/Quartz
Bachchi Devi and Niraj outside their house.

“My eldest son was the first one in our family to be properly educated,” Bachchi, 41, proudly told me, though she admitted that it wasn’t easy. “He would sit outside under the street lamp and study, because we didn’t have a (electricity) line till he got to Class 10.”

By the time Saroj got to high school, the Jhas had two more children in school. Their daughter, Soni, and the youngest sibling, Niraj. The five crammed into a tiny room, some two metres by three metres in size, in a south Kolkata slum, where they still live.

The Jha home has one high, narrow bed with two identical pillows, under which Bachchi’s kitchen is stacked. On one wall, next to the door, a shelf holds a television and a desktop computer, both neatly covered in transparent plastic. The opposite wall has two shelves of thick books. A loft-like shelf right under the bamboo and mud-tiled roof is crammed with all their clothes. And there are two naked bulbs dangling from their wires.

Mentored by big brother

The family could barely afford Saroj’s education. Bhagwan—the only earning member of the household at that point—earned just Rs7,000 a month. So the younger siblings were enrolled at more affordable Hindi-medium institutions. Still, the elder brother’s relatively expensive education rubbed off on Niraj.

“Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton…That’s how he got his glasses”

“When he was in Class 6, I went and got him a membership at the Nehru Children’s Library,” Saroj recalled. Although, by his own admission, Saroj himself rarely used the central Kolkata library facilities despite being a member, Niraj quickly fell in love with British children’s literature and crime novels.

“Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton,” 23-year-old Saroj explained, with his bespectacled brother grinning beside. “That’s how he got his glasses.” Those language skills came in handy when Niraj moved from a Hindi-medium school to an English language institution for Classes 11 and 12.

Their sister, Soni—now a 20-year-old student at Kolkata’s City College—was less enthusiastic about books. “She likes to write more than she likes to read,” their mother explained.

Meanwhile, Saroj had wrangled a place at one of West Bengal’s best private engineering schools in 2009. That feat, however, came with a sizeable loan, which further stretched the already fragile financial resources of the Jha household.

Saroj—who tutored several students to help out with money—had already began preparing Niraj for bigger things. Even while the younger sibling was in middle-school, he had gradually been introduced to math and science concepts more advanced than what was required in his coursework. Encouraged by how quickly Niraj grasped them, Saroj pressed on, while he himself finished engineering school and landed his first job at one of India’s largest information technology (IT) services companies.

“By the time he was in Class 10,” Saroj said, “IIT was also a dream.”

The IITs are, by and large, the domain of India’s affluent, with families with household income above Rs4.5 lakh dominating the entrance exam.

The illusion

Last summer, Niraj walked into Kolkata’s Jodhpur Park Boys’ School and emerged a few hours later almost in tears.

“I was in an illusion,” he explained, sitting cross-legged on the bed at home. “I didn’t know how well prepared I was.”

In the JEE Main test last year—that first of two rounds of JEE tests for admission to the IITs—Niraj had scored 173 out of 360 and qualified for the next exam. But one close look at the JEE Advanced paper, and he realised just how tricky it was. He panicked and botched it all up.

His rank—some 10,500th in the country—was a disaster, by his own reckoning, because it wasn’t good enough for the IITs. Only about 9,000 make it. Still, nothing else was even an option. ”I only wanted to go to an IIT,” Niraj said, almost grinning.

Niraj’s failure wasn’t necessarily for the lack of trying. For almost two years, he’d wake up at the crack of dawn, scramble to reach school—Shree Jain Vidyalaya in Kolkata’s crowded Burrabazar neighbourhood—by 6AM, make it back home by noon and then cram till midnight with a couple of short breaks in between. Closer to the exams, it got even more intense. And weekends would be spent at an IIT-JEE coaching centre, which he could attend after a local non-profit gave him a Rs30,000 scholarship.

Devjyot Ghoshal/Quartz
Niraj out for a stroll in the neighbourhood.

But it still wasn’t enough.

“He started crying when the results came out,” his mother remembered. “We all felt bad. It was difficult.” Saroj, then away in Bengaluru, sternly instructed his parents not to rebuke Niraj, while the family figured out what to do next. The question wasn’t if he’d give the IIT-JEE again, it was about where he could spend a year preparing for it. He could only give the IIT-JEE once more.

A teacher from a tuition centre that Niraj attended between Class 8 and 10 tipped him off about Kumar’s Super 30 programme in Patna. Within a matter of weeks, he made multiple train journeys to the city, cracked two rounds of tests, and found a place in one of India’s most celebrated coaching schools.

“I was happy,” he said, “I figured that if I could prepare properly, I’d make it to an IIT.”

Mock makes perfect

A typical day at Super 30 began with three hours of classes—and that was it. For the rest of it, the 30 teenagers theoretically were free to do whatever they wanted. But they usually settled into a steady routine of studying, interrupted by meals and a few short breaks.

“Last time, he had fear on his face… this time, he looked confident.”

“There was no pressure,” Niraj explained. It entirely depended on the students themselves. Yet, the group consisted of driven, ambitious young men—there were no girls in this batch—who hadn’t had it easy. And Super 30 was perhaps their last realistic shot at making it to some of the most well-respected engineering schools in the country. That, in turn, nearly guaranteed a career and affluence in stark contrast to the struggles of their own impoverished families.

So, for an entire year, the Super 30 studied together, bouncing ideas and problems off each other, preparing notes and study materials, all under the watchful gaze of Kumar. There was no television or internet, only newspapers and their mobile phones.

In the months leading up to the IIT-JEE, Niraj and the rest were drilled by a barrage of mock exams. He doesn’t exactly remember how many, but reckons they must’ve been between 30 and 40. “We gave three or four exams a week,” Niraj said, “My speed had gone up, and my scores were good.” For his last IIT-JEE, he’d given only about 10 mock tests.

Eventually, this summer, he walked into Jodhpur Park Boys’ School again.

“Last time, he had fear on his face,” Bachchi Devi described him after the JEE Advanced, “This time, he looked confident.”

Kharagpur or Kanpur?

The one-room shack where the Jhas live is at the end of a narrow, L-shaped alley. At one end, a little past the house, is an open urinal. The other end opens into a wider alley, with a tube-well, where locals often gather for a game of carom in the evenings. The meals are cooked inside the single room, and at night everyone crams into the tiny space.

Moving out isn’t really an option. Although Saroj’s salary at the IT firm is multiple times what his father makes, a sizeable chunk of that goes into paying off loans—and putting the younger siblings through college has its own costs. But soon there’ll be more space in the Jha household.

In the next week, Niraj must decide what he wants to study at which IIT—and, depending on where he’s accepted, the youngest of the Jha children will be in an IIT hostel room by the middle of July.

Niraj is keen on IIT-Kharagpur to study either electronics or electrical engineering, but Saroj isn’t ruling out either IIT-Delhi or IIT-Kanpur. Money, the elder brother hopes, won’t be a constraint; the banks shouldn’t be unwilling to bet on an IIT-ian, after all.

And while they’re befuddled by all the engineering jargon being thrown around, Bhagwan and Bachchi Jha are quietly aware of what they’ve achieved: In a family where no one even finished school a generation ago, their youngest child is on his way to an IIT.

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