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.)
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.
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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