[FoRK] [NYT, India] from the bottom to the top (IIT)
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
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
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
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
"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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