Love, with an albatross attached: Part II
18 May 2018
A personal essay about coming of age in the world of hypercompetitive education in 1990s India.
(This is Part II of a two-part essay. Read Part I.)
In my fourteenth year on earth, my Bombay Aunt decided it was time I got the advice that was to change the course of my life yet again. A career socialite and mother, her biggest achievement in life had been her marriage to a thin South Indian man with cholesterol problems and a 6’1”, hard-science-inclined son. My cousin possessed everything a human being in modern India could wish: male genitalia, fair skin, caste, property waiting to be inherited and a capacity to love quantum mechanical concepts. In all these ways, he was now my superior. But all hope was not lost for me yet.
I was old enough to be warned, she told me. Her tone was one of careful seriousness. Friendship, she revealed, was a plot, a scam. The world’s biggest scam. “They want to bring us down,” she said, “and step over us.” She used the Tamil word avaal for “they”. Think about it, she urged. If you become occupied with emotions, phone calls and sharing experiences, you lose focus, you lose direction and they take advantage. They get you out of their way in class. They win. I didn’t ask who “they” were and she didn’t tell me. She was a Brahmin woman in post-Mandal India. We both knew who haunted her dreams. She needed no proof that her theory was correct, but proof came all the same when her son fell down two flights of stairs and smashed his left kidney a few years later. She was sure it was a jealous classmate who had pushed him because there was no other way of incapacitating him in the race for first rank. He was, after all, a good boy who stayed out of the friendship racket.
Moving from childhood to the post-grandparental age was rapid and largely painless, but the transition to teens was like walking uphill in slowly increasing heat, barefoot – like a punishment I once knew. Then adulthood descended, a large bird darkening the desert sky, bringing with it our sealed fates.
It is possible to explain what the parent-child relationship meant in the social context I grew up in, but I am guessing it isn’t easy to understand it. How do I make it visceral to someone who hasn’t known it? It is like a relationship you might have with a stranger who tore out their heart and gave it to you when you were about to die, a tapestry woven with alternating threads of amazement, gratitude, guilt, regret, resentment and obligation that thickens with time. I only began to understand this when I talked to people who had grown up very differently. “Your parents are smart people and they can take care of themselves,” a friend told me many years later when I shared with her my worry about my parents’ financial situation and guilt for the toll my expensive liberal arts education was taking on them. “It is not your responsibility to take care of them.” This made no sense to me. I had grown up with the understanding that the cycle of life meant reciprocal sacrifice – parents sacrificed to raise children and children sacrificed to make parents happy. A give-and-take relationship. Childhood was the time when you didn’t have to pay any interest on their investment, the free loan and the years when you just took and took. By the time you were ten, you had accumulated a massive emotional debt that now needed to be repaid over the next few decades to the people who took care of you when you were helpless. And one popular way of repaying that debt was going to hell.
Hell was in Kota, Rajasthan, another small desert town five hours from mine, different in that it was hotter in the summer, colder in the winters, and dustier all year round. My earliest memory of Kota was from when I got lost at the train station there in the mid-2000s on a trip to the South. Papa had gotten off to buy soft drinks at the station at a five-minute halt at Kota and I’d wandered off behind him because I’d wanted him to get chips too. Naturally, I couldn’t find him once I got into the sea of men at the station. By then the train whistled and started to stir. What ended up saving my life was my blue frock that caught Papa’s eye as he was climbing into the moving door. Panicked, he got off and ran to the girl in the blue frock on the off-chance that it was me thus saving me from what he later told me was the lifetime of child trafficking that awaited the ten-year-olds who were unlucky enough to get lost at an Indian train station. What I didn’t know then was that he was planning to traffic me himself and was only waiting for the right moment.
C2 was what we called a “coaching centre.” The point of these was to prepare you for “competition.” A typical coaching centre was an after-school extra help session on acid. “Competition,” you see, meant competitive examinations that every student took after school to go to college. Which is to say, to survive. Places like C2 usually admitted kids who were studying the hard sciences (we were told this was the purest blood in the new “post-caste” India). Students would ride their motorcycles to coaching every morning at 4 am to get in a few hours of exam prep before school and again after school to get some six hours more. These institutes came in varying intensities. The lighter of these were the places that operated out of a teacher’s house and accepted birthdays and festivals as valid excuses for late homework. At the deep end was Kota.
Kota was a city of the highest intensity coaching centres clustered together into a concentration camp of medical and engineering aspirants. To study in Kota, a child would uproot her life. She would move to Kota, alone, and enrol in a local high (or middle) school. These schools were popularly known as “dummy schools” because their only point was their name showing up on college applications. Having partnered with coaching centres, dummies falsified attendance records and exam grades for everyone enrolled. It was bunking school, only with adult sanction. Now that the distraction of school with its “other subjects” and its lunch breaks, P.E. lessons and drama clubs was no longer in the way of the actual preparations, parents experienced a period of relief. Once the substantial fee, equivalent to an average middle-class family’s annual income, was paid, the student could settle into her new room and begin classes at the coaching centre.
Classes lasted over twelve hours a day of learning shortcuts to solve problems in physics and chemistry. Weekends and major religious festivals were no exception. Leaving the coaching campus premises was frowned upon; having electronic gadgets was frowned upon; anything that distracted from coaching was frowned upon. The reason this place even had a residential campus in the first place (given the huge risk of distraction that putting young people together brings) was because it was believed that living with the people you were “up against” in the exam was good for productivity; seeing how hard they were all trying and how much they were willing to sacrifice created a snowball effect where people constantly tried to outdo others in an endless spiral. This was what you were paying for.
Every Sunday, a rank list went up on the bulletin board, a grown-up’s version of reading marks out loud in class. This rank list was the God of all academic evaluations; as the greater percentage of India’s best and brightest were locked up in coaching centres, your rank in coaching tests was as good a ballpark figure as there existed of where you actually stood in the real-world version of the competition. The extent to which the Sunday afternoon rank list shaped one’s life cannot easily be overstated. In a lot of other places in India, the moment of reckoning for teenagers in high school came and passed them by every month. In Kota, you had 52 moments of reckoning a year, one for each week. In most other places, you wished your life would work out fine; in Kota, you were reduced to wishing that it always went better than that of others. Survival was the special skill on ten thousand resumes, survival above all else, against all odds and at the cost of every reason to continue surviving. Survival was paramount and survival meant making the cut ahead of the rest.
Life went on. Summers came and went, but the frequency of relatives and golas decreased. The world around me was growing up while I struggled to stay the same. People went for coaching. I wrote anonymous articles in the school magazine about a teenager’s broken relationship with her father. People smoked, drank, and did math practice papers for IIT. I became depressed and cut myself. People competed, and I made sure I didn’t know how to.
If medical education didn’t exist, I can’t imagine what would become of India’s youth. Medical colleges kept hundreds of thousands of people employed – and not just as doctors. Since there was no limit to the number of times you could take the PMT (Pre-Medical Test), people well into their late 20s were still attending coaching, going to a dummy college for a B.A., getting dummy Masters and PhDs, living dummy lives and still waiting to get into a medical college. These people stayed off the grid – not unemployed, not students, not particularly human, stuck in an eternal middle ground of giving the PMT every year.
I once knew a girl who ran the 100 meter sprint, and she was fast. Shama was one of the funniest people I knew with a natural knack for drawing and retaining crowds whenever she wanted. Voice impressions, satire, humour in verse – she had it all and people loved hearing her talk. Shama wanted to be a doctor when I first met her; she’d known that for years. She did not go to residential coaching but attended it on the side while attending an actual high school. She did not crack the PMT on her first try, and it didn’t come as a big surprise to her: school had been a huge distraction to competitive training. She could, of course, have gone to a private medical college, PMT or no PMT. Private colleges, on paper, had the same rigorous testing requirements as public colleges, but off paper, a “donation” of some 60 lakh rupees ($90,000) per year could get you squeezed into a spot reserved for that oppressed caste known as NRIs (“Non Resident Indians”). Reserved spots more often than not served as back-door admissions. In fact, enough NRI spots and donation opportunities existed throughout medical college so that a total of some half a million dollars could almost ensure you a doctor’s certification even if you flunked every test you took. But Shama couldn’t afford it. Her father had risen from humble origins and worked as an engineer for the government, a typical Indian dad who had given his all for the education of his children. She had two little brothers. How could she repay the debt? Naturally, she ended up in hell.
She kept a frowned-upon cell phone with her so that her mother and friends could call her. I called her infrequently because talking to her depressed me. She was lost. In class, she was studying the same facts she had been studying since eleventh grade, trying to develop the same test-taking skills that had so far eluded her. She convinced herself that the problem was that she hadn’t focused enough before, but all the same, I could tell she was bored of repeating the same life she’d just finished living. Then there was all the guilt about feeling such boredom. She seemed always to be just around the corner from ingratitude and guilt, no matter what it was she thought or felt.
All she could talk about was others. Some of our friends from high school had scored the same as her on the PMT, but were now “NRIs” in medical college because their parents had the money. She saw this as a sign of their superiority over her. She would make (hilarious) deprecating remarks about herself, most of them in comparison to the others, her scathing bitterness damped only with a thin layer of her trademark humour. All the friendships she’d had with people who were now in college began dissolving slowly in the acid of a mind that could not stop saying to itself, “You ‘dropped’ a year. You failed. You suck,” that could not stop assigning a number to her worth. She was a 374 when the required marks had been 400 (out of a possible 800), and that’s all she was.
It wasn’t just her mind that ruined her life; her body went along too. She wouldn’t eat to punish herself after many Sundays and it only stopped after she had had to come so home often for different medical problems that it began interfering with her coaching. She was surrounded by people involved in self destruction. The drug scene on campus was vibrant and diverse. She would talk about 13-year-olds snorting cocaine at a joint on campus because what else were they going to do? They were people who had been stopped from happening, trapped in the abyss of a twisted version of “real life.” The only consolation was the passing of time and even that wasn’t really a consolation. After one year of unimaginable dedication, discipline and ‘roboticism’, she managed to miss clearing the PMT once again. This wasn’t just one test. These were different exams at the state and national level, and yet more for private colleges that she had now desperately decided she could afford. Nothing worked. The number of her worth changed, but there was always a number, and it was never enough.
The last I heard from her, she had moved to Lucknow. She was living at a relative’s place, had joined a dummy college for a degree in Biology and this time, had decided to prepare on her own (maybe coaching was distracting too much from coaching?). I suspect this move was mostly about escaping; Lucknow was more than 500 miles away from her parents. Along the way, she apparently became involved with and eventually obsessed with an older man who was rumoured to be related to her (“He’s probably married, too!” Amma said derisively when she heard). In a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone else, no one really knew much of the truth. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that here was a girl (Muslim, no less!) who didn’t clear the PMT, twice, despite Kota. There was obviously something very dark in her stars. Of course she had to be involved in some kind of an incestuous or home-wrecking relationship. It just went with the story, and everyone took their pick.
My life was ruined by engineering, which was the impatient man’s (or woman’s) medicine. Becoming a doctor took too long, I decided, when I got the option to choose between the two. With the gun at my head when the time came to decide at 14, I chose engineering.
When my time came and I had my narrow miss in the engineering exams that I had always known was coming, but that Papa had never foreseen, I knew I had Shama’s life lined up for me. On one particularly empty new moon-night in our house – the day when the second and final waiting list for the last college into which I had any hope of being accepted had just come out, and I hadn’t made it – Papa rushed into my room and kicked the door open with wild force. I braced myself for violence.
Instead, he cried.
“What did I do wrong?” he wailed, crumbling before me as Amma reached the room to save me, too late as always, panting for breath. “What did I fail to provide you with? Where did I go wrong?”
In that moment, years of fear and suppressed rebellion evaporated as I saw this broken man before me who had just realised that he was failing at providing for his children. Survival was paramount, engineering was survival, and he had let me down. I began crying in front of him for the first time in a very long time and he did not stop me. We stayed there, weeping, making promises neither of us would keep. He promised to get me the best coaching our city could provide for my next try and I promised him I would be in IIT next year, I would give it my all, I would not let him down again, Papa, I promise, don’t cry, it was my fault, I’m worthless!
Amma watched in amazement. I don’t know if she teared up as well. I didn’t look up from the floor where Papa’s tears fell. The tears of my father who hadn’t cried when Thatha died. My father who hadn’t cried when Paati died, crying at the death of a dream – the dream for his child to have a better life than he did. Eventually, he dried his tears and left the room, asking me to have a good night’s rest before I began my new journey the next day. But I stayed up all night and cried for every person who had known the position I was in – the place right in between ingratitude and being something more than a robot.
An unforeseen third waiting list emerged – before Papa had paid the 80,000 rupees to the coaching institute in which I was going to enrol – and the course of my life changed. Instead of my old hell, I now went to a new one: engineering college. For me, hell; for my parents, much more. It was the prize that was always ours and yet had to be won, our salvation from imminent social ruin and that which animated the entirety of their politics: the new temple of which the gates had to be guarded.
Over the following year, I met many robots in engineering college and after quitting it, I met yet more. I met Akshata who spent her weekends baking pie, who could talk to waiters in Spaghetti Kitchen about how dry a certain type of sauce made for penne should be when they all sounded exactly the same to me and who read cookbooks when she went to a bookstore. I met Aliya who loved field hockey with a fierce passion and made her decision for engineering college based on the presence of flood lights. I met people trying to go about their lives, some building bridges around the cracks in our system and some falling through. People who enjoyed things, wrote articles, were historians in their spare time, were trained in classical music and were national-level gymnasts, all either making room for, or, crushing, their personalities for survival. People who loved and thrived in the system, and were good at it and understood it. People who loved building things and solving problems so much they would have done it even if they’d had all the choices in the world, but who couldn’t fit into any of the tests. Indifferent people, just drifting by. People dead, alive or somewhere in the middle. Everyone dealt with it in their own different way. Some dealt with it by running away and I met them in America. But we all dealt with it because it was the hand we were dealt.
Over time, I met a lot of people who felt the way I did. Scores of “intelligent” and angry conversations about how we needed to “fix things,” talking incessantly and forever about the flaws in the way things were set up when what I actually cared about was the pain I had gone through that I didn’t know how to deal with because so many had gone through it and it wasn’t considered anything worth talking about. For years, I talked a big game about fixing this inhuman, unfeeling, heartless “system” as if I could get out a hammer and hack at it or use my scalpel to tear into it: change some syllabi here, add some humanities there, more humane entrance tests, less parental pressure. But no, I can’t. I can’t “fix” it because it isn’t just a “system”; it’s not a broken bridge or an anaesthetised body. It is dangerous because it is conscious. It works because it is all too human. It has too much feeling, too much heart.
Thatha had worked for the Indian Railways and had lived in a two-bedroom railway apartment with seven mouths to feed. His kids were malnourished and I don’t think they could afford milk. One of Papa’s siblings died when she was very young. Thatha gave Papa an education and Papa gave himself a better life. Papa now had the luxury of watching cricket on TV and eating out once a month. He wanted to pass the torch, to create a better life for me the only way he knew how. This was what millions of fathers were doing for their sons and daughters. At the end, “the system” was fuelled by this: the desire to create a life for your family more secure than what you had known and making sure they knew how to sustain it once you were gone. This desire is not pure and innocent; it can also be vicious, violent, exclusionary and oppressive. In this story, it is haunted by the panicked fear of them; in fact, it often works through fear, disgust and hate. Power, I realise now to my bitter regret, forms the very substance of love, permeates it and becomes indistinguishable from it.
There exists hell; even the way there is paved with good intentions. There is futility when young lives are ruined and spirits crushed. There is a suffering that takes you by the neck and forces you to look into its face, a suffering that demands to be known.
But if it is conscious feeling, if it works through our best selves and through our love, our obligation – and in other words, if it has heart – then no kit of small tools can tinker with it, and no bombs can blow it up. What else is there, then, but to stare squarely back into its face? What else, but to write an ode to the pain that afflicts us, which we are made out of, which we cannot yet kill?
And so here it is. This is an ode to that pain – the pain of standing barefoot in the sun after knowing many summers of golas.
*Back to Part I.
~ Aparna Gopalan is a writer, community organiser and anthropology grad student. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Ajmer, Rajasthan.