[FoRK] [NYT, India] from the bottom to the top (IIT)

Rohit Khare khare
Wed Jun 29 00:14:34 PDT 2005

[I have a hunch I'll be referring back to this article again in the  
future -- I thought it was Alger-esque and forgettable at first, but  
it resonated with me, so I'm including it here for all... -- RK]

June 25, 2005
A Vision of Stars, Grounded in the Dust of Rural India

PATNA, India

ANUPAM KUMAR, 17, is the eldest son of a scooter-rickshaw driver. He  
lives in a three-room house made of bricks and mortar and a hot tin  
roof, where water rarely comes out of the tap and the electricity is  
off more than on, along a narrow unpaved alley here in one of India's  
most destitute corners.

Anupam is good at math. He has taught himself practically everything  
he knows, and when he grows up he wants to investigate whether there  
is life in outer space. He wants to work at NASA.

"It's becoming very important to explore other planets because this  
planet is becoming too polluted," he said with deadly seriousness.  
Next door to his house, pigs rifled through a pile of garbage on an  
empty lot. His mother, Sudha Devi, a savvy woman with a 6th-grade  
education, cooled him with a palm-frond fan.

His father, Srikrishna Jaiswal, who made it through 10th grade,  
flashed a bemused smile. "He has high-level aims," he said.

"I'm not so concerned about reaching the peak," Anupam clarified.  
"I'm more interested in doing something good for the world."

For now, Anupam's sole obsession is to gain admission to the Indian  
Institutes of Technology, or I.I.T., a network of seven elite  
colleges established shortly after Indian independence in 1947 that  
produces an annual crop of tech wizards and corporate titans.

It is difficult to overstate the difficulty of getting in. Of 198,059  
Indians who took the rigorous admissions tests in 2005, 3,890 got in,  
an acceptance rate of under 2 percent. (Harvard accepts 10 percent.)

Anupam does not know anyone who has attended the institutes, nor do  
his parents. But they all know this: If he makes it, it would change  
his family's fortunes forever.

"I feel a lot of pressure," he said. "It's from inside."

A VOICE in his head, he says, tells him he must do something to  
rescue his family from want, and that he must do it very soon. No  
wonder, then, that Anupam's mother forces him to wash his hair with  
henna, a traditional Indian hair-dying technique: At 17, Anupam is  
going gray.

In Anupam's story lies a glimpse of the aspirations of boys and girls  
in India today, a country that arguably offers greater opportunities  
than it did for their parents, but one that is also more competitive  
and a great deal more stressful.

More than half of India's one billion people are under 25, and for  
all but the most privileged, adolescence in this country can be a  
Darwinian juggernaut. To be average, or even slightly above average,  
is to be left behind. Nowhere is that more true than here in Bihar,  
India's iconic left-behind state, making the drive to get out all the  
more fierce.

"For average students, they have no scope," said Anand Kumar, 33, who  
runs a one-man I.I.T.-preparatory academy here. "The new generation  
feels more pressure than my generation."

At 7 on a recent morning, with the sun already blistering, Mr. Kumar,  
drenched in sweat, drilled a gaggle of nearly 600 students, almost  
all boys, in calculus. "Find the domain of the following function,"  
he repeated into a scratchy microphone. His young charges, packed  
tightly under a tin-roofed compound, furiously scribbled in their  
notebooks. He resembled a revival tent preacher in a small American  

Every week Mr. Kumar, who is not related to Anupam, tutors more than  
2,000 youngsters, each paying just under $100 for a yearlong math  
session. Thirty others, the most gifted and neediest, he teaches free  
in an intensive seven-month course that includes room and board. He  
has received death threats - he suspects from competitors who resent  
his low fees - and on a recent day two policemen and two private  
guards stood sentry.

The intensity of competition can reveal itself in extreme ways. Mr.  
Kumar recalls how a neighbor, under enormous pressure from his  
family, failed the entrance exam and took his own life; he was 18. A  
former student, the son of a poor peasant, sank into a crippling  
depression after failing the exam last year.

Moni Kumari Gupta, 17, is one of the rare girls in Mr. Kumar's  
program. She, too, wants to do space research, also at NASA. The  
I.I.T. exam that Moni plans to take is still 10 months away, and yet  
she rises at 4:30 a.m. and studies 13 hours a day, seven days a week,  
with short breaks only for meals and a brisk morning walk. Her  
father, Sunil Kumar, gives her pep talks: "Face the competition," he  
tells her. "Don't be demoralized."

Disappointment stems from the depth of desire, piled on this  
generation by those with even fewer opportunities in the past. Before  
Anupam was born, his father had wanted to teach. His mother had  
wanted her husband to do anything other than ply a rickshaw, become a  
rickshaw-wallah. But Patna offered few options, and the children came  
quickly, two boys and a girl. Sudha Devi told her husband, " 'At  
least our children will do something big.' "

At home, the television could be blaring, the music could be on, the  
lights could have gone out, but Anupam would be studying, his father  
said. "How he concentrates, how he focuses his mind, I really don't  
know," Mr. Jaiswal mused.

At family parties, Anupam would be found in a quiet corner, his head  
in a book. Relatives warned Sudha Devi, "He will go mad."

Anupam's education has been spotty, as it is for many in a country  
where public education is often in disarray. He enrolled in a small  
neighborhood private school, then a government school in ninth grade.  
But most days, like many children, he skipped school and studied at  
home because he figured it would be more rigorous. Every now and  
then, a math tutor, impressed by his gumption, gave him tips.

Anupam says he was first drawn to the mysteries of space at 9 because  
of a television serial, "Captain Vyom," in which an astronaut ranges  
across outer space in pursuit of bad guys.

He recalls telling his mother about his interest in life in outer  
space, and he remembers her matter-of-fact encouragement: They  
haven't discovered it yet, he recalls her saying, but you can explore.

"He says there's something called research," is how his mother  
describes it today. "He wants to be a research-wallah."

IN the spring of 2004, studying by himself, Anupam failed the I.I.T.  
entrance exam; it is virtually unheard of for anyone to make it on  
his own. Then, under Mr. Kumar's tutelage, he devoted himself with  
the intensity of a monk.

On May 22, Anupam took the exam again, a grueling six hours of math,  
chemistry, and physics. He was not nervous either before or after,  
his mother said.

The week before results were published, Anupam bubbled with optimism.  
He was sure he would be among the top scorers, he said. His mother  
beamed at this. To a visitor, she referred to her son as Anupam-ji,  
an honorific usually reserved for elders.

Buoyed by his optimism, Anupam said that after graduation, he would  
install a proper roof, then dig a borehole so water could be drawn  
right at home. As soon as possible, he would like his father to stop  
driving a rickshaw.

[On June 16, sitting at his tutor's house, Anupam learned the  
results. He made it into the institutes, with a rank of 2,299.  
Classes start in mid-July.]

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi for this article.

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