His name is Vijay Singh. He has been studying since long before dawn, as he has done every day since he arrived in this low-slung city of high school dreamers on the edge of India’s northern deserts.
Three months ago he left home, effectively dropped out of high school and entered a highly competitive Kota cram school. For eight months he will study — every morning, every night, every day of the week — for a six-hour test. If he does well, it will propel him up the Indian social ladder.
His target is the Joint Entrance Examination, a multiple-choice test that teases young Indians with the golden ticket of this country’s educational system: acceptance to the impossibly exclusive Indian Institutes of Technology.
Imagine the entire prestigious U.S. Ivy League universities distilled into one small network of colleges. Imagine tens of millions of parents dreaming from their children’s birth about the joy of acceptance. Imagine if there were no reliable second tier of science-oriented schools. That is the IIT.
Vijay Singh’s mother is illiterate. His father, a retired soldier, never finished high school. His older brother is unemployed. In a country obsessed with status and bloodlines, he is from a caste officially termed an “Other Backward Class.” Even in the small towns and ragged villages where the family carved out their lives, they did not amount to much.
After Kota, he says, all that will change.
Every year, more than 450,000 students take the IIT exam, hoping for entry to the hallowed public engineering institutes scattered across India. Slightly more than 13,000 passed in 2010, a 3 percent success rate that makes Harvard, with its 7 percent acceptance, look like a safety school.
For generations, there was little surprise about who got in.
India is a nation where the concept of social mobility barely existed until the last two decades. So the children of farmers spent their lives tilling soil. The children of Indian professionals, by and large, became professionals too.
The IITs fit right in, as enclaves of the urban, the middle-class and the high-caste.
Over the past two decades, however, cracks have developed in India’s centuries-old social system, forced open by one of the world’s strongest economies.
Today, in a country where 300 million people live on less than $1 a day, the economy is growing at nearly 9 percent and the rich shop for Porsches and Louis Vuitton purses. The number of Indian millionaires jumped by 51 percent last year, reaching more than 127,000.
Amid the explosion of wealth and the growing economic divide, such hard-wired traditions as arranged marriages and dowry payments are now openly questioned, at least among the educated elite. Tens of millions of villagers are pouring into cities for better-paying jobs. A few dalits, as India’s lowest-caste “untouchables” are now known, have reached corporate boardrooms.
In many ways, India has become a grand contradiction: a rapidly changing country where social mobility is possible, but still hobbled by deeply ingrained class attitudes.
Out of that contradiction has emerged the modern city of Kota and its biggest industry, cram schools.
Today, an estimated 40,000 students arrive here every year from across India to prepare for the IIT test.
They come because getting into IIT means family status and neighborhood bragging rights. A degree from the institutes, which charge barely $1,000 per year, can mean a lifetime of good-paying jobs, whether in engineering, software development or banking. IIT, perhaps more than anything else in modern India, has become the ultimate sign of success.
To critics, the cram schools are part of an educational system that leaves IIT students ill-prepared for anything more complex than memorization and prodigious work.
Still, about one-third of those who pass the IIT exam are believed to pass through Kota.
“The students think this and the parents think this: `Once my child is in IIT, then his future is secure,”’ says Pramod Maheshwari, the founder of Career Point, one of the city’s largest cram schools, with 6,000 students preparing for the IIT exam.
Walk up to nearly any student here, and you’ll find a story of pressure and ambition.
“Everybody who comes is here to study,” says Singh, whose outward gentleness only partly hides the relentlessness of his ambitions. He comes from a north Indian region best known for bandits and bad soil. He has no desire to return. “The people who come here are the best, and I need to compete against the best.”
He knows exactly what he would get from a diploma. “If I have been to IIT,” he says, “people will look at me with dignity.”
So he came to Kota.
A decade ago, this riverside town was known, if at all, for its vast textile mills and high-quality saris. Here power revolved around a handful of executives and the former royal family.
Today, it is an educational destination where ever-expanding schools battle for undeveloped lots, billboards herald the latest saviors (“Shervani Classes: Where Success Speaks for Itself!”), and hostels spill over with anxious students.
The town has no university, no research laboratory, no community of intellectuals. It does not have particularly good high schools.
What it has are cram schools.
Kota has more than 100 of them, from fly-by-night, one-teacher operations to marble-floored six-story institutions. It has become synonymous with IIT entry, drilling students in the brutal system of rote memorization at the core of the country’s educational system.
As the Indian middle class has grown, cram schools — their proprietors prefer the term “coaching institutes” — have become commonplace. Every Indian city now has at least a couple. Most offer a few hours of classes per week.
But in Kota, it is complete immersion. Classes are normally held six days a week, with practice tests every fourth Sunday. That pace holds steady for the eight months leading up to the IIT exam.
It is a place where school grades, caste and family connections do not matter. If you can afford the fees (up to $1,700) and pass the cram school’s own entrance test (the top schools reject about 30 percent of applicants), you are in.
The modern city of Kota began with V.K. Bansal, an industrial engineer who 30 years ago began tutoring students for the IIT exam. As one student after another passed, his fame grew, as did Kota’s. School after school opened.
By the late 1990s, “Kota” was a brand. While most people come hoping for IIT, there are cram courses to get just about anywhere, from medical school to the civil service academy.
Today, there are so many students that new hostels are built every few months; so many that there are bicycle traffic jams. But it is a city made for rote learning.
It has no discos, no bar culture, no sports teams. With girls still just a small percentage of the population, both in Kota and at the IITs, the social whirl is nonexistent.
Kota is desperately dull. Deliberately dull.
“My father sent me here because he didn’t want me to hang out with my friends, he didn’t want me to have fun,” says Prashanth Singh, leaving the Delight Cyber Cafe, where teenage boys played video games or watched B-movies with lots of bikinis and bouncing cleavage.
Once, Singh dreamed of becoming an airline pilot — Travel! Adventure! Stewardesses! — but his father thought differently.
“Engineering,” his father said. And in the way of Indian families, Singh is now cramming for engineering.
An afternoon physics class at Career Point, and the teacher walks back and forth on a small stage, speaking into a microphone headset and slowly repeating an explanation of the “maximum distribution of molecular speed.” Behind him, a two-foot-long formula of numbers and symbols spills across the white board.
Over 100 students are jammed together onto metal benches, sitting beneath fluorescent tubes that spray a sickly yellow light. Vijay Singh is there, one more silent teenager frantically writing.
Monsoon rains have cooled the worst of the summer heat, but it’s stuffy inside and the room smells like a high school locker room.
After the teacher has repeated the definition three times in English, he goes back and explains it in Hindi to make sure everyone understands.
No one here is talking about Nobel Prizes or making contributions to science. In Kota, the dream is more prosaic: a steady job, respectability, a decent salary.
Even the people running the cram schools admit that.
“Our objective is to get students into IIT,” says Maheshwari. “If examination papers were being set to test critical thinking, the coaching institutes would put effort into developing students’ critical thinking. But if the exam system is based on rote learning, then coaching institutes will concentrate on that.”
To critics, that’s depressing.
“There is a new caste system,” says Mohandas Pai, the normally avuncular personnel chief for Infosys, a multi-billion-dollar Indian technology firm that hires thousands of engineers a year. IIT graduates “are the new upper castes.”
He says the exam, which he dismisses as “that stupid test,” and the cram schools strangle intellectual life out of students.
“Forget about the spirit of inquiry, forget about curiosity,” he says. “Students only know ’This is the answer.”’
“It’s a tragedy,” he says angrily.
The students, though, tell a different story.
Suvraj Kumar is 17 years old. He spends his days in a dingy, fluorescent-lit room in the Jugal Shree Hostel for Boys, one of hundreds of buildings across Kota transformed into student housing. The nicest ones are freshly painted in primary colors, with banners advertising 24-hour air conditioning for summer heat that regularly crosses 110 degrees.
The Jugal Shree is more the norm.
Its staircase has no lights, and the hallways are barely shoulder-width. The tan-colored walls are stained with grease and dirt. The furniture is chipped and scraped.
But if it has the feel of a run-down bordello, Kumar has no complaints.
He gets a shared room, a bed and a bathroom down the hall. It is a place to study 10 hours a day and sleep a few hours a night.
Most important, it is just $40 a month.
His father runs a small cosmetics store, earning $300 in a good month. Kumar’s cram school will cost about $1,400. To get the money, his father went to loan sharks. For the son, the loan cannot be forgotten. And without Kota, he says, there’s no way he could get into IIT.
“I have to pass the IIT,” he says one evening, sitting on his bed. “I don’t have a choice.”
In the Kota neighborhood where many of the largest schools are, in an old industrial area where moldy concrete warehouses are quickly giving way to educational complexes, the city can seem as if it has no past.
When the cram schools let out and the streets are jammed with students, it feels as if everything began with V.K. Bansal, and memory only goes as far back as the top scorers that the schools use to advertise. Photos of exam heroes are everywhere: on billboards, on fliers littering the streets, on video monitors in school hallways.
None is smiling.
Vijay Singh understands why. He divides his time between Career Point and a tiny, painfully neat, one-room rooftop apartment. There is only one decoration: a small table of elements from the Insight coaching institute pasted to the wall.
Outside, the sound of playing children rises above the narrow streets. He doesn’t notice.
His story is so common here it can feel cliche: the nagging fear of slipping behind, the thousands of dollars in loans, the generations of small-town expectations. But Singh says that story, and the resulting pressure on kids like him, are what makes them succeed.
Asked what he does in his spare time, he looks confused.
Each of his days is exactly like the last, and exactly like the next — voracious ambition distilled into formulas, knowledge reduced to memorization, energy powered by a forever-looming deadline to change your life.
“Right now my target is the test,” he says. “There is nothing else.”