Feeding The Machine

>> Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I went to Kota for a week in December 2014. To most people, this might not sound like the ideal setup for a winter break, but my brother was studying there–post-Class 12, IIT prep, that stuff.

I hugged my boyfriend goodbye at the Bangalore airport and got on a flight to Jaipur, where I teamed up with my father, and we got in a taxi headed to Kota.

My father had been waiting at the airport for a while and was cracking jokes with cab drivers when I met him. I thought I heard him say something about helping them start a revolution. They laughed nervously.

We stopped at Tonk for brunch, where I judiciously stopped myself from buying Rajasthan-themed skirts and earrings clearly priced for foreign tourists. On the way, we made conversation with Rajesh, the driver. My father asked him what he thought of Vasundhara Raje. "No one respects her," he said. But isn't she from the Scindia family, asked my father, doesn't she have the whole dynasty thing going for her? "That's not her family," Rajesh said. "A woman belong to her husband. She was married to the Maharaj Rana of Dholpur, but they aren't together any more. What respect? A woman without a husband deserves no respect." My father dropped the subject, and I silently rolled my eyes.

Till the coaching class boom happened in the past decade, Kota was largely a trade town, with a type of limestone (known as Kota Stone) as its primary export. It's still a small town, though, but now most of its economy is built around institutes promising to get students into the IITs, NITs, and top medical colleges. There are hostels, apartments, family homes, all of them housing 15- to 20-year-olds. The city is teeming with young people, cheap "tiffin" restaurants, and cyber cafes. It's like a college town, except, of course, it isn't one at all. None of the large, privately-run educational institutions here are awarding degrees. Kota is a sprawling symptom of the failure of the Indian educational system.

The star of Kota, though, in on the wane. Rajesh, our taxi driver, attributed this to a series of kands, or scandals. A quick Google search showed that there have been a couple of "MMS scandals", but this is hardly surprising, given that Kota is a highly concentrated vat of unsupervised, enthusiastic young people at the peak of their hormonal turbulence. The rightness or wrongness of shaming young people, especially around issues of sex, is, of course, a whole other conversation. In any case, the parents I spoke to were troubled by the supposed licentiousness of the place, and it is possible that this is contributing to fewer admissions in Kota coaching institutes in recent years.

We met my brother in his hostel, a place run by a middle-aged family who seemed more concerned about "hostel rules" than about the emotional welfare of the youngsters living with them as their wards. My brother is a friendly person–smart and silly in equal measure, but he seemed downcast. No passing cloud, either; this felt like the shadow of a long imprisonment. People can have differing opinions on the worth of going through a ritual such as Kota, but to me, at that moment, it seemed like all the students here were in limbo. Not in school, but not in college either. All they had, really, was hope, and that didn't look like it was counting for much.

I called my boyfriend that night. "It's a prison," I said to him, "He's so unhappy. He's not meant to be here. He's too interesting, too alive.""I know people who spent time in Kota," the boyfriend said, "and they're all great people–fiercely independent, but great fun to be with."

I don't know if that's true. I do know that whatever happens, whether these students are successful in feeding the great Indian machine of the IITs or not, they will learn something about themselves in a place as insular and stressful as this (enough to be almost surreal), and sometimes that is more than enough.

I had dinner with my brother and his friends the next day. "Tanmay got a 52 rank in the previous test." Someone corrects him, "Not 52, 47." All of them contemplate the ramifications of this information in silence as they slowly chew their pieces of rubbery naan.



2 comments:

Clever Moniker April 11, 2016 at 2:13 AM  

I stumbled on to your blog through your twitter profile, and I read this latest post, and then all the rest, and I wanted to say that it's a terrible shame that you didn't / don't blog more frequently.

Nor April 16, 2016 at 2:58 PM  

Thank you, kind stranger. :) Maybe I will write more...

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