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Values Kota imparted: Anxiety and building a future on a butchered present

I have never been to Kota. In the many train journeys between Delhi and Mumbai that I have suffered or enjoyed over the years, Kota was always a station that came and went late in the night. By the time I woke up close to my destination and sought a cup of tea, Kota would be far behind me. Its value was in its passing. One saw it on route maps, not live, not in wakefulness.

Over these same years, a certain other route, one that starts from homes with high aspirations and ends — hopefully, hopefully, hopefully — with a seat in the best engineering or medical schools in the country has found Kota to be an essential mid-point, a junction that demands wakefulness, one that might even see sleep as a foe. You are required to bring your best to it. The idea is to “crack” something big. But the success ratio is dire by definition, and the result can, at times, be the cracking of something else. There have been 25 suicides in Kota this year. On this route, at this junction, things are very, very wrong.

I come from a home that held similar hopes and aspirations for me. In ninth standard, when these started to be articulated, my idea of “competition” was limited to our group of six or seven students who vied for the top spot in school exams. Healthy, fierce competition. A year or so later, when the board results were expected, I learnt from one of my closest friends that he only wanted to score more than a certain threshold so that he would be eligible for the better cohorts in Kota. He had shunned our one-upmanship for the bigger competition that lay ahead. He was going to Bansal Classes. Or Resonance. Or perhaps something else. Allen wasn’t up then. Or maybe it was. The year was 2001. We were 15.

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I felt sad that I would lose a friend. I shared the information with my parents and realised, through hints that I had by then become an expert at reading, that Kota wasn’t possible for me — my father couldn’t afford it. The matter ended there; I was told the advantages of staying at home in Muzaffarnagar, which, having no conception of living alone, I had no argument against.

Cut to two years later. I secured a better outcome than my Kota friend. But another guy, who’d joined our school from Pithoragarh, secured an even better outcome. And, of course, the Kota coaching institutes showered the papers with full-page ads of the marvellous outcomes of their students. There was no pattern to be read into it. All a big lottery, and I was glad its anxieties were now a thing of the past.

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In my engineering college in Jaipur, there were many who’d spent two or more years in Kota. Having lived in small PGs or their like, these students adapted to the grimy hostels far better than first-timers like me. They would sometimes comment on how things were worse in Kota, how a feeling of being incarcerated was not uncommon in the student community, how one felt guilty, and was made to feel guilty, if one enjoyed anything other than the concepts of Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics, and how looking over one’s shoulder to see what the one next to you was doing had become a religious thing. A state of anxiety, a cut-throat-y ethic, and a model in which the future always stood on a butchered present — these were the values Kota imparted. It’s not that those outside Kota didn’t have to parley with these. But the intensity in that city, my friends claimed, was of a different order of magnitude.

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To create space for its own regimens, the coaching industry had eaten into the idea of school. Good old schooling’s holistic promise — an engagement with all subjects and not just PCM, extra-curricular activities, morning assemblies, sports periods, social work, comfort with the idea of occasional time-pass — was smudged in favour of the injunctions of peak performance. But it’s not just the coaching institutes. Everyone, including parents, wanted it so.

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The future is, of course, a wider canvas than it appears to be in those years. Kota is a bet made by parents on behalf of their children — in a gesture of showing confidence, yes, but also one of raising the stakes and hoping that the child responds to the pressure. Some children don’t; some children can’t. Our culture is fanatical about success and will repeatedly push us to be rabid in the pursuit of our dreams, but common wisdom suggests a limit to ardency. Perhaps there is no need for the child to be in Kota. Perhaps it is okay for the child to go to Kota and not like it and come back home. Perhaps it is okay to fail from Kota. No single success is definitive, then how can any single failure be? The world is big, and right past the next corner is a new station where new trains stand waiting.

Tanuj Solanki’s last novel is Manjhi’s Mayhem (2022)

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