I know you have watched Super 30, the movie, so have I. We all love underdogs and their impossible dreams, and we exult when they win. But I write today because the film reminded me of Ratan. He was my best friend in college, where I was studying for 12th. Tall, dark and sensitive, with a heart of pure gold. Every morning, our college van undertook a bumpy ride to reach his house on the outskirts of Patna. He would emerge from the front door, his shoes sticking to the kuchcha road, muddied in the rains. In monsoons, I would see him wade, and wear the same mud-stained jeans throughout the week. For a girl who was constantly told to make friends with people she could learn from, Ratan was my best friend in a city where girls weren’t expected to compete. Ratan had a dream. He wanted to make life comfortable for his parents. His father, a clerk at the Secretariat, believed he could make it to the IITs. After all, Ratan was the topper of the class, great at Math, English and Science. Unlike the students in Super 30, he didn’t even need coaching. Just eight hours of study every day and everyone knew his chances were bright.
Ratan made it to one of the top three IITs and drifted away. In a decade, our paths crossed and I found him transformed. Ratan had acquired an American accent, his hair coloured ember, and muscles the size of Sylvester Stallone. And he was doing his best for his parents: right from bearing expenses for his sister’s wedding to getting his mother a ₹10,000 facial in a Tony beauty clinic in Delhi. His job at an American multinational had taken him around the world, and in just five years at his job, he could now afford the fees of a mid-career MBA in Singapore, all on his own.
Paths for a number of bright students appear almost charted in the meritocracy that is India. It was no different for boys like Ratan. There are enormous expectations to meet from families and then life takes over—marriage and kids and the necessity of being gainfully employed. Ratan sailed through this successfully, uplifting not just himself but also the lives of others around him. Last heard, he was parked solidly into family life, growing from strength to strength and succeeding in an increasingly unstable world. Of course, Ratan had his moments of reflection in which his modest salary in his first job bothered him but he would immediately, in a change of perspective, say it was still several times more than what his father ever earned.
Ratan hasn’t been the only IITian I know. As a journalist writing on India’s higher education, I met hundreds of them on IIT campuses. I still remember writing about the trio at IIT-Delhi who made a fun film called Formula 69, and they weren’t the only ones devising brilliant ways to express themselves, within and outside the academic frameworks. There were others whose IIT education helped them overcome the limitations imposed on them by their physical disabilities and the barriers of caste. I distinctly remember an inspiring story of this talented guy with a significant physical deformity, who if not for his IIT education, wouldn’t be leading teams at MNCs today. What’s more, he fared handsomely in the marriage department and now is a proud father of two bright kids completing his circle of joy at home. Then, there were many others who burnt the proverbial midnight oil to study mechanical engineering but took up coding jobs in American companies because the money was good.
For long, parents in India have ambitiously woven the IIT dreams for their sons and the boys have obliged. The path is usually decided in the womb—if it’s a boy, he needs to go to the IIT; if it’s a girl, she needs to be a doctor. Anyone else doing anything else is not good enough, a mere compromise for vaulting ambitions of families propelling aspiring IITians into the real and daunting challenge of making it to the IITs. It’s here, in this clamour of ambition, that we get to see the great enterprise of millions of Indians for whom education remains a great leveller and IITs, with their high standards of pedagogy and rigorous training, have been doing a great job of it.
There are, of course, challenges. Covering placements at IITs for years, I am aware of the average pay package for IITians in the job market and the eulogising reports talking about exceptional pay packages. I must confess, even I have felt pressured to preserve the IIT brand. This is because IITs aren’t just mere institutions for millions of Indians, they are the sum total of their belief that if they are good, they will rise. And ultimately, success shouldn’t just be defined by pay packages, handsome or not. There are times when the bitter realities of placements emerge—slow and drying job offers, new IITs, more students and growing competition in placements. This cruelly competitive world isn’t just the curse of the IITs alone; why else would Darwin say only the fittest shall survive.
In my home state Bihar, nothing beats the middle-class obsession with the IITs. Parents from middle class or lower-middle-class families have sold properties for years to pay for their sons’ expensive coaching classes for admission to the IITs. It’s in this context that Bihar’s Super 30 phenomenon—now translated on-screen as the latest Hrithik Roshan-starrer—needs to be understood. Students at Super 30 are selected after rigorous screening tests and once they qualify, Super 30 bears the cost of their tuition fees, food and boarding. Money to sustain the programme comes from the tuition fees paid by hundreds of students enrolled in coaching classes run by Super 30 for IIT aspirants with means to pay for tuitions.
I met Anand Kumar a decade ago to understand his work and what was driving his students’ success rate at the IITs. I was curious: with more than a dozen students like Ratan, housed in a modest hostel on the outskirts of Patna, Kumar’s Super 30 attracted aspirants from all over Bihar, especially rural Bihar. Kumar then had proudly told me: he would send every boy from Bihar to the IIT. As times would have it, Kumar’s mission became every coaching institute’s ambition in Patna, spawning not just hundreds of such institutes but also adding to the competition and life threats for Kumar from bitter rivals.
Genius Forty, Fantastic Fifty and Stupendous Sixty, styled after Anand’s Super 30, have queues after queues of IIT aspirants from Bihar’s smaller towns and villages waiting to be accepted for their mentoring. Smelling of mustard and hair oiled into waves, these students have a singular ambition to get into the IITs. No other ambition? I have asked and they have laughed at the question. They have argued and endeavoured to convince me: there is money, social prestige and don’t most of the IITians eventually go abroad and have a nice life? Naturally thus, giant hoardings in Bihar’s state capital Patna scream: “Let’s make Patna the next Kota.” Hundreds of coaching institutes located in every nook and corner of the city cater to thousands of students with dreams to get into the IITs, their ticket to upward mobility, a highflying life and big figure salaries. Everyone wants a pie, their dreams fuelled by middle-class parents seeking a way out for their children to dazzle the world.
But Super 30, beyond the grit and glamour of its success stories, is also a reminder of what an education at the IIT has done for thousands of Indians over the years. It has inspired, uplifted and made them believe in the power of education to make their lives better, and this is better than anything the materialistic brands in your Instagram feed promise you every day. In Kota, the city where coaching centres are grim reminders of the rat race for the IITs, the students come from villages and small towns that most people in Indian cities wouldn’t have heard of. They hear of them in the headlines of stories celebrating their incredible successes. Fair enough then that the appeal of the IITs endures, more than 11 lakh students appeared for the IIT-JEE this year.
Yet, there have been legitimate concerns: the competitive barriers to admissions into the IITs may have been rigged by coaching institutes out to spoon-feed promising aspirants. Then, there is a growing number of suicides by those who don’t make it to the IITs. IITians may do that too, beaten down by the pressure to keep up with the studies. But the problem doesn’t lie with the institution. IITs are enablers of dreams, fertile ground for talent to thrive and prosper. Successful examples abound, of course. From Sunder Pichai to Nandan Nilekani to Rajat Sharma and NR Narayana Murthy. And in recent years, stories of successful entrepreneurs, who are IIT alumni, have only added to the glamour of the institution. These entrepreneurs are also evidence that IITs are changing with the times by nurturing enterprising ideas and encouraging entrepreneurial determinism on their campuses.
The real trouble lies in the culture of looking at the IITs as repositories of money-minting jobs. An education doesn’t just prepare us for jobs. A good education’s primary job is to enable dreams, find our ever-lasting purpose in life and to allow us to find ways to live for that purpose. Yet, the appeal of brand IIT remains inextricably linked to its promise of jobs with attractive pay packages. The media coverage on IIT placements and the preponderance of reports on pay packages makes it worse. Making it to an IIT, thus, has become a sort of an Indian fable—a person makes it to the IIT and makes it big. Not surprisingly, because for long, a person’s success and social status have been defined by his job and the economic value of his labour. For men, in particular, failing to earn enough money doesn’t just mean financial hardship and loss of social status, it’s also an insurmountable barrier in the marriage market.
Yet time has revealed that excruciating long hours and hard work have their limitations, especially in the age of automation, which has wreaked havoc on jobs as we know them. It’s in this shaky new world that the nature of jobs, meaning of success and how one earns a living that needs to be redefined. There may be cues for an alternative approach here. Maybe disentangling from the pursuit of a job and career, the pressure of making impossible amounts of money could lead us on the right path. Maybe then, we will see the unreasonable pressure on IIT aspirants and the students easing up. And maybe then, we will truly learn how to appreciate the transformative power of the IITs, beyond the considerations of money and capitalistic ideas of success.