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Monday, February 25, 2008

Exams. ahoy!

Come end-February, and this country is gripped by examination fever. Several tens (or more likely hundreds) of millions of youngsters are going to sit for all kinds of examinations in the weeks to come – from annual examinations in school to board examinations, as well as all kinds of college-entrance examinations, from the IIT-JEE to dozens of similar but less 'exalted' kinds of tests that will decide where our young are going to study after school, and what. Once upon a time, for two decades, I was myself a part of this grind, now my daughter is (and will be for more than a decade yet), and having been a teacher all along, I have observed and learnt a few things about the whole process that I would like to share with my readers – many of whom, I suppose, are students or ex-students of mine who are going to be examination candidates themselves, or maybe their parents. So, before saying another word, here’s wishing the best of luck to all of them!
1. First, let me make it quite clear that I do understand how bad most candidates feel at this time. The mental pressure on them is tremendous, whether it is imposed by parents, relatives, neighbours, peers, teachers, or self-imposed (as it used to be with me – I cannot blame anybody except myself for all the horrors that I suffered: I had this compulsive urge to be first in class, as though that would compensate for all the other good things that childhood had not given me!). However…

2. Much of the anxiety-related suffering of both students and parents will vanish if they can accept a few things: a) in the case of those who are at least moderately intelligent and study all year round, the anxiety is needless; bad luck alone can spoil their results, and what is the point in worrying about which way the dice will fall? b) in the case of those who are stupid, careless as well as lazy (a very large proportion of the present-day student population is like that!), again, it’s pointless to worry, because luck alone can get them ‘good’ results (that does happen pretty often in India, actually – I have lost count of ex-students who were duds in school but have gone to the best engineering and business schools in the country, thanks to Lady Fortune and daddy’s money and quotas and contacts and cramshop tutors – things which have nothing to do with how good a student one is); c) much of the anxiety is not only needless but fake. Why do I say this? Because, considering primary school children first, it is ridiculous to suppose that the child’s test performance in class one will be a big determinant in shaping her career – her parents are merely spoiling her life pestering and nagging her night and day just because ‘everybody else is doing it’, just because a child’s marks, like the new car and mobile and flat-screen TV, has become an idiotic middle-class status symbol, just because most such parents are utterly frustrated with their own lives and have very little serious work to do, so they find obsessing over their children’s school performance both a necessity and an enjoyable luxury (and talking point: 98% of the parents I know have very little else to talk about). Taking a higher level of exam. candidate next, stop bothering about board examination results and just do the best you can (anxiety can actually lead you to underperform!), remembering, again, that this particular examination is not the end of the road, that board examinations are so hamhandedly conducted that your scores don’t really say much about you (lots of people who ‘shine’ in ICSE go on to get very mediocre marks in HS, and vice versa), that various kinds of competitive entrance examinations coming up next will be far more decisive in shaping your future, and, finally, lots of people who have never done well in either kind of examination have gone on to make brilliant careers for themselves!

3. Going on to those competitive entrance examinations next, today’s candidates should take heart from the fact that in many ways things have gotten far easier than in my time, broadly speaking. Take engineering – back in 1982, the year I wrote the West Bengal Joint Entrance Test, barely two thousand people, I think, got seats in engineering colleges; these days I hear that even those whose ranks are 70,000-plus find a berth in this college or the other. Apparently you cannot be so poor a student that you cannot become an engineer! Enjoy your life, I am telling my daughter, and if you score only around 50% marks in the science subjects in class ten, and you are still keen on engineering, you will get in somewhere, no fear – at most I will have to shell out a few lakhs at admission time: but much better that than wasting thousands of hours and lakhs of rupees on stupid tutors (most of them are both stupid and misguided!) all through your school life. Better concentrate on your music practice and drawing and karate lessons. Indeed, it is far harder to get into the English department of St. Stephen’s or Economics at Jadavpur, or into some place like the NLSIU or NID on your own merit than to get into engineering college. As for sour grapes in case you don’t make it to one of the IITs, no fear, again, because the lines are blurring rapidly – over the last ten years I have been seeing how so many old boys from the humblest of ‘general’ colleges and bottom-of-the-pile engineering colleges have been getting in along with so many IIT-wallahs into the same IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, Cognizant, Satyam, Pentasoft… (funnily enough, many of these kids, even if they are ‘engineers’ after a fashion, don’t have a clue about computer science, having studied things like civil or chemical engineering, yet that doesn’t stop the IT firms from hiring them – am I missing something here? And what exactly do IT firms need to hire tens of thousands of ‘engineers’ every year for? I know for a fact that steel plants don’t hire even day labourers on that scale!) while a great many IIT-wallahs are chucking up the jobs which they got through on-campus placements within a year or two to cram again for the CAT so that they can become certified ‘managers’ – getting into IIT really cannot be that ‘cool’ (except perhaps in the marriage market) if the jobs it fetches are that yucky! … getting into medical school is still tougher by far, but that’s only because (for reasons I won’t discuss here) our government has not been able to let med. schools proliferate at the same pace as engineering colleges have. So good luck to all those who are aspiring to be doctors, but remember that it’s going to be a long, hard grind, and in your line perseverance, patience, good people-skills (and a thick skin!) are going to matter far more than brains and exam. scores in helping you to mint money a couple of decades down the line. But my daughter has told me categorically that she doesn’t want to be a doctor, for almost the same reasons that I chose not to, despite qualifying, so I shan’t give much space here to that particular aspiration any more.

4. What I am trying to tell my daughter – and all my students and ex-students alongwith who are right now suffering from exam. nerves – is that you ought to keep looking steadily at the big picture, the long-term picture. Just open your eyes and acknowledge reality, will you! Given innate talent, some sort of hard-won skill, ambition, diligence and a large dollop of luck, so many people are doing so well all around you, as teachers, lawyers, photographers, journalists, bankers, insurance agents, bureaucrats, sportspersons, actors, businessmen of one kind or the other, politicians, writers, musicians and what have you. At the same time, lacking one or more of those ‘essentials’ listed above, so many are languishing despite having followed the most ‘tried and tested’ career options. Oh, of course, any doctor or engineer can buy a house and a car, but these days so can any modestly successful shopkeeper or even a couple if both of them are bank clerks (I saw one last night in a spanking new Maruti Swift!) – so what’s the big deal about becoming doctors or engineers really if the purpose is only to make money (my brother-in-law, a doctor himself, used to lament routinely that the B.Com-pass Marwari who owned the hospital he worked for earned several hundred times more than he did! - and I certainly have nothing other than admiration for that Marwari). If you are keen on making money, I tell my daughter already, go in for the stockmarket or real estate brokerage after finishing high-school, and God willing, you will be a multi-millionaire by the time your doctor and engineer friends are just beginning to find a footing in the job market. If, on the other hand, making big money is not your top priority, consider why you wouldn’t want to be, say, an IAS officer or a teacher of some kind (with perhaps writing or music on the side, to stay happy and keep the brain cells alive), or a journalist worth the name, or a lawyer with aspirations of becoming a Supreme court judge someday, or a research scientist – such people don’t exactly die of starvation, and in my experience they wield much more power, enjoy their jobs far more, and do much more social good (or at least no more social harm!) than the average quack or seller of credit cards or soap. Find out what you are really good at, what you really want to do, and then follow your heart’s bidding: I am still sure, at my age, that while nothing is absolutely certain in life, this strategy comes far closer to guaranteeing a successful and happy life (with or without millions in the bank) than any other. And meanwhile, stop agonizing over piffling examination results.

5. Besides, look at what examination nerves do to you, and then decide whether it’s all worth it. It hurts your health – so many candidates (and even their parents sometimes) fall ill just before exam. time. It makes you selfish (don’t share your notes with a classmate!), unsocial (don’t visit your old Sir once in two years – you’ll lose precious study time!), silly (getting up late is okay, watching TV is not!) and often downright cruel (‘it’s so unfair of grandpa to have a heart attack during my JEE’!). Since so many people blindly cram things without love or interest, they neither understand nor remember for long what they have ‘learnt’ to get through exams, or else they get into the habit of cheating routinely by the time they are in high school (an open secret we take great care not to acknowledge publicly): that way we are not only making a great mockery of education but also creating millions of fundamentally ignorant, dishonest and opportunistic citizens of the future – how much does the country gain from it? The most pathetic thing is that people lose all sense of proportion at exam. time, so (as I saw in a recent newspaper photo) parents allow their children to cram while pillion-riding on motorcycles to their exam. centres, completely oblivious of the fact that a freak accident can spoil not only the child’s immediate examination but her whole life for good, and the way parents celebrate and preen about ICSE or JEE results, you’d think their children had won the Nobel Prize (perhaps that’s because deep within we know we are congenitally incapable of winning Nobels and Olympic golds and Oscars, so we prefer to go gaga over trifles? That these things are trifles is best proved by how incredibly quickly people forget the same ‘wonderful’ results – I find very few people who can recall the names of those from our town who got into IIT three years ago, unless it’s their own sons or nephews!)

6. To come to the last and most important point – and I can talk about this because, unlike most parents and teachers I know, I have always kept in close touch with hundreds of old boys and girls as they pass through school and college and then enter and struggle (and rise or flounder!) in the workplace, and keep giving me valuable updates on the real-life situation out there – the biggest mistake that most students make (alas, their parents and most teachers encourage them to make) is to imagine that the real fight will be over once you have gotten into college: after that life is sure to be a cakewalk, especially if your examination scores have always been good. You will sail into a well-paid job, and they will pay you by the sackfuls merely to sit in a perfumed and airconditioned office, giving orders and looking good! Sounds absurd when I put it that way, but I have found out that that’s what lots of supposedly clever boys and girls believe, this na├»ve daydream, this advertising blurb, and so when they ‘discover’ at last that real adult life is a long, long grind, and even with all the good report cards and high ranks, you must start at nearly the bottom of the pile, where the pay is paltry, the tenure is uncertain, the hours are long, the work is either hard or risky or boring (or, in the most unfortunate cases, all three together), the competition is unfair, the office politics is dirty, and you get paid essentially for how much you can earn for your boss, not for the marks that you got ever since kindergarten – that’s when the rude awakening happens, and so many of them just cannot take it! That’s when the frustration sets in, and the loneliness, grouching or alcoholism or endless quarrels with parents and spouses, the unhappy realization that this is not what one had dreamt of, and the pot of gold is still far away at the end of a very long rainbow! It is to those medical interns and lawyers’ clerks and shop-floor supervisors (junior engineers) and young MBAs who are basically doing door-to-door salesman’s work right now that I keep saying, ‘Slog on, slog on … this is what real life is all about, son, it’s the grime and the sweat and the lost sleep and the ability to bear with your boss’s insults that count – you might still make it big if you survive past forty, and thank your lucky stars for it. If daddy is still alive and has a pension to bank upon, you are luckier than maybe 800 million Indians! Nobody lives a life of luxury at 25 unless it is on daddy’s (usually ill-gotten) money, or one is a genius, a workaholic and very very lucky to boot: a Sachin Tendulkar or a Larry Page. In any case, virtually all my old boys and girls who are now approaching 30 agree that low-level examination results hardly matter in the long run at all. I hope they remember to pass on that hardearned wisdom to their children in the fullness of time!

So take heart from that, all you young people out there. Work hard, stay calm, stop consulting last-minute advisers, and sleep well at night. Go and watch a good movie or two. I went off to the cinema to watch Zanzeer on the night before ICSE began. I have no regrets, and I want my daughter to suffer less than I did from exam.-phobia. Even if everything doesn’t always go too well, I tell her all the time, it won’t really matter.

... and meanwhile, since I have made a lifelong habit of listening to my own advice, I’ll go travelling every year at the end of February once my daughter goes off to college. Not only will the weather be balmy then, but all the holiday hotspots will be empty of tourists – since they are all busy with examinations countrywide – and so I will travel in comfort and still get the best bargains! How about that?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Mind some free counsel?

Busy lives and lonely hearts
More and more young urban Indians are falling prey to acute loneliness
You would expect Reva Sen, 32, a high-flying media professional with a great career, a large paycheque and a plush three-bedroom pad in south Delhi to look confident, content and in control. Instead you meet a nervous woman who gets drunk at the slightest pretext and divulges personal details to complete strangers. ‘I desperately want to make friends, but I don’t know how to,’ she says.
For the last couple of years, Reva has been living alone in Delhi, away from her family in the US. Lonely and depressed, she is now having an affair with a married man to combat her friendless state.
Reva’s is a classic case of urban loneliness, a trend that is on the rise amongst people in the 20s and 30s who have moved out to other cities in search of better job prospects. Alone in a strange city, they struggle to make friends and form emotional attachments and often sink into depression.
And if you thought loneliness is only for people who don’t have a ‘life’, think again. According to counselors, loneliness can also be a function of a hectic lifestyle. Having to juggle work along with household chores leaves people with little time for themselves or for others.
So why is loneliness finding its way into the active lifestyles of young urban Indians? Experts say that a consumerist society’s consistent focus on achievement makes individuals competitive, but it also makes them unable to trust a peer completely. And without trust there’s a lack of proper communication. ‘People tackle job pressures and competition at work, and then return to an empty home, if they stay alone. They can’t handle this huge imbalance,’ says Dr. Shubha Thatte, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. ‘Besides, there is no other real support system by way of immediate family any more.’
Most find reprieve in socializing. It’s like creating a wall of people around themselves. ‘Initially, I partied like a maniac almost every other day. That was my way of drowning out the loneliness,’ admits Ram K., who has lived alone in Delhi for seven years. Now in his late 20s, with a hectic job in a television channel, Ram has ‘sobered down and can’t endure the stress of partying.’ Besides, says Arvind Rayakar, a Mumbai-based bachelor and a self-confessed lonely heart, ‘you soon realize that the distraction is an illusion.’
Paromita Mitra Bhaumik, consultant psychologist and director of the Calcutta-based Anubhav Mental Health Clinic, points out that while the urban young have plenty of opportunities for social interaction – discotheques, coffee shops, shopping malls – they find little scope to share emotions. This emotional loneliness can lead to myriad health problems too. ‘I thought I wouldn’t have the time to feel lonely, but I was wrong,’ says Manoj Rai, 35, who works for an IT firm and has been living alone in Chennai for three years. Despite a 15-16 hour long work schedule and several ‘hang-out’ pals, he says he continues to feel alone. Rai is now suffering from extremely high cholesterol levels and sleep apnoea.
Loneliness can also awake latent mental disorders, say psychologists. Take the case of 25-year old Rupa Jhaveri. Rupa was just another bright and friendly girl living with her parents in Mumbai. When she moved to Pune to do her graduation in law, things went horribly wrong. She started doing badly in her examinations, became withdrawn, moody and sullen and went through several relationships. Finally, Rupa was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder – a disorder characterized by extreme ‘black and white’ thinking, mood swings and difficulty in functioning in a way society accepts as normal. Her problem had lain dormant while she was in familiar surroundings.
Again, unlike older people who are quicker to accept their loneliness, young people are in denial of the problem till it becomes very serious. ‘In India, loneliness is supposed to happen only to the old. But it can happen to anyone,’ says Dr. Anuradha Sovani, reader, department of applied psychology, University of Mumbai.
Swati Salunkhe, Managing Director, Growth Centre, Mumbai, reckons that the number of loneliness related case among the 30-40 age group is high, but mostly they go unreported and hence untreated. Her centre got only two or three of these cases in the past two years. ‘They came to us in the guise of career- or job-related problems. As we analysed the cases, we identified the problem as loneliness,’ she adds.
However, not all cases of loneliness need clinical treatment. Says Hemangi Naik, who runs the Harmony Training and consultancy (a mental health clinic) in Navi Mumbai. ‘I put them through tests and questionnaires to teach them to look at themselves objectively and rationally. It helps them tackle the root causes of their loneliness,’ she says.
For India’s growing tribe of the urban lonely, that could be the best start to dealing with their problem.
By Gouri Shukla (additional reporting by Dola Mitra in Calcutta)
Carried in The Telegraph, November 15, 2005 – p. 17

My comments:
1. From my own experience, I can vouch that this is a global phenomenon, and spreading like wildfire. Like so many other imports from the US (and the undifferentiated ‘west’ more generally), this too has attacked India like a pandemic.
2. A lot of young people don’t even know this is what they are suffering from, or are hiding it (mobile sms-ing and orkut scrapping helps them to hide by pretending that they are involved with a wide circle of friends all the time!), or have no idea how to handle it. And their parents are either blissfully ignorant, or in denial, or just praying ‘it won’t happen to my kid’!
3. It is deeply ironical that this is a problem that mostly afflicts people who are apparently ‘successful’ – in the current middle-class understanding of the word! If success only brings this kind of helplessness, aimlessness and despair, what is success worth?
4. A lot of other afflictions are closely related to this problem, and are even feeding upon it. Overeating and obesity, marital discord, parental dysfunction, TV- and shopping mall or multiplex addiction, the cellphone and car craze, drug abuse, all diseases that are stress-related, such as hypertension and ulcers and cardiac ailments, the pretension that one has a lot of friends (I have always insisted that if one has three real friends one is a very lucky person. In reality, the kind of friends that most of us have only help to cause or aggravate all our problems!)… to name just a few.
5. The only cure lies in a combination of the following: training to be content with being alone, looking inwards (for which being occasionally alone, silent and shorn of all distractions is absolutely essential), not measuring personal success obsessively and exclusively in material terms and external yardsticks (marks/money/looks/cars…), cultivating the four Buddhist cardinal principles, to wit maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha, doing what one really likes to do (rather than toeing other people’s lines lifelong), and finding one or two genuine friends – who really care for you as an individual human being, not someone to be manipulated, used and thrown away for their own immediate, personal and petty gains.
6. If, like so many others, parents or spouses or colleagues cannot be such friends to you, look elsewhere. Perhaps you will get them in books – as I have done – or in a good mentor? And perhaps you need to look avidly all around yourself (beyond the little circle of relatives/friends/neighbours/colleagues) for people who are determinedly and happily different? – I find lots of such examples talked about in the daily newspaper; but I have also discovered that hardly anybody ever reads a newspaper the way it should be read!
[I just found the above article in my file of old newspaper clippings. From what I see all around me, the problem has gotten worse since the time it was written. I suggest that after reflecting upon it you get back to me with relevant queries and problems, whether you are a current student or a friend of one, an ex-student, or simply a young person who chanced upon this blogpost and wants some sensible and urgent answers.]

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Are folks really reading this blog?

I am getting a little puzzled, you see. My sitemeter counter assures me there have been 600-plus visits to my blog since I uploaded my last post, and for a provincial homebound non-celebrity, that is something to be surprised and pleased about, certainly. But the same sitemeter figures tell me that the average reading time is just a few minutes: which means that far from browsing through my older posts, most visitors don't even take the time needed to read through my home-page article slowly and carefully. Obviously that also explains why, apart from those who write senseless and ignorant abuse, so few people get back with serious and intelligent comments!
One recently-acquired aficionado has complained about why I don't write more frequently. Intelligent, informed and decent comments/suggestions/criticism will certainly go a long way to fire me with enthusiasm.