Of late, students’ suicides have been hitting the headlines. The suicides begin in school, continue in college and into the late 20s. According to latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a student commits suicide every hour in India. Young high school students are forced to enroll in coaching factories, where they cram for exams to get into prestigious schools like the IIT. Students follow draconian rules and study schedules that leave them feeling depleted and depressed. Those who fail to follow the demanding study schedules feel responsible for disappointing their parents and falling behind their peers. Many students who eventually pass the entrance exams feel even more pressure to excel at university, often taking their own lives when it all becomes too much. It is, therefore, fairly common for Indian students to have experienced suicide in their lifetime.
The recent suicide note of Mark Andrew Charles, a masters student of Indian Institute of Technology, IIT Hyderabad is a disturbing trend. It also makes me want to strike at the mythology of what IITs have grown to mean for the anxiety-ridden aspirations of the middle class. It means merit, success, mobility and achievement. But at what point do we gain the maturity to reflect on the psychological, cultural and educational price we pay for this IIT dream? When do we become sufficiently sensitive to hear the pain, agony and loneliness which students who enter this world of reckless speed, hyper-competitiveness and performance anxiety feel? Mark’s suicide, I know, will be forgotten soon. The race will go on. And then, another suicide, another breakdown, another loss. Meanwhile, coaching centres will do their business. Traders, bankers and section officers will send their children to Kota, that notorious town in Rajasthan which symbolises all that is dark in Indian education. Billboards in small towns and cities will display the faces of IIT toppers. Parents of the ‘lucky’ ones will boast of their children’s ‘placement and package’. And in our families, children will continue to be compared, praised, condemned, loved and hated on the basis of their academic performances. With the standardisation of life’s pursuits, we will write the obituaries of those who wanted to be unique; or to use Nirendranath Chakraborty’s poetic metaphor, those who thought they could live like ‘sunlight’.
This is sickness in the name of education. It dehumanises the learner and makes her one-dimensional. I find that this is primarily for two reasons. To begin with, the mode of preparation for the IIT entrance test needs to be critically scrutinised. For an average aspirant, it ends in complete burn out by the time she cracks the test. A careful look at the learning strategies that coaching centres — an integral component of this tedious journey — employ, indicates that students are essentially reduced into recklessly disciplined machines. Writing mock tests endlessly kills the spirit of scientific enquiry which need wonder and curiosity. Instead, it reduces physics, mathematics and chemistry into a set of numerical problems, to be solved as quickly as possible. As the exam strategy becomes dominant, aspirants tend to insulate themselves from the ‘softer’ domains of life. They no longer know the joys of a sunset, an old leaf falling from a tree, or an old woman with a wrinkled face walking slowly with her grandchild. Even schools, particularly at higher classes, become irrelevant as interactive modes of socialisation because of the routines that coaching centres impose on students. The system reduces your intelligence into something which is violent. It has no wonder, no poetry, no music. It is war. It cannot make sense of what William Wordsworth felt: “Sweet is the lore that Nature brings, Our meddling intellect, Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; We murder to dissect”
The second reason is related to the psychological transformation that the entire process leads you through. If you finally join an IIT, it becomes a heavy burden. Your ‘success’ has to be continuously redefined. Society valorises and also pressurises you. You have to run faster. The path to ‘success’, you realise, does not seem to have an end. Students are prepared to struggle from Class 8 to Class 12. In the process, they miss good cinema and good music and are told by parents, coaching centre ‘gurus’ and school principals that once they are in an IIT, they will be ‘settled’. But then they realise that the race would only get more aggressive. Classes, tutorials, labs, exams, placement anxiety… this sort of life-killing routine transforms everyone into a competitor and has devastating consequences. There is no rest, no celebration of what Bertrand Russell would praise as ‘idleness’. There is no listening to others, no friendship. Everything is instrumental and strategic. Failure is ugly. Mark’s suicide note speaks of it.