Is the IIT dream worth the tradeoffs?

Editor : Sankalpa Venkatraghavan

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, and represents one viewpoint. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. 

The creaky fan was definitely not helping. But why wasn’t it bothering others? Was it showing on her face? Her discomfort, the frown line, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of her forehead? Why did the others seem so comfortable in their own skin when all she felt was the agony that hit her all at once when she tried to run her hands through her once long hair and came up short?

It’s fine, she reassured herself. These are trivial concerns. Don’t mope over things that won’t mope over you. Focus on the problem in front of you. What does it ask?

I know this is an easy one, she thinks to herself as she twirls the pen in her hand. Bending closer to her notebook, she tries to let the problem sink in. She lets the pen move on its own, writing the formulae, doing the math.

It feels like the right answer to the question. But is it? Should she blurt out the answer in class? Should she raise her hand to answer? Besides being the only girl in her class, she was sitting on the last bench. She did not want to draw attention to herself but wanted to be seen as a worthy competitor. While she was contemplating raising her hand, someone had already done so. If she gripped her pen any tighter, it would break no sooner than some random guy in her classroom could shout out the exact and correct answer to the problem posed. 

Why am I so hesitant to speak up? I had the right answer! She gritted her teeth as she heard her answer told by someone else. This has to stop. She can’t go on like this. Most often, the exhausting internal monologue aside, when given a problem she thought, does it even matter? There were only two ways it could go down and neither was a win. Either she solves it correctly and the class does little to intentionally or unintentionally hide their dismay and scorn, “What? A girl?!”  else she is vehemently judged for being allowed to even sit in the same class as the rest of the overachieving boys who took up the mammoth task of cracking JEE to get into the best engineering colleges in the country.

Shreya, barely sixteen, decided after much deliberation that she wanted to pursue engineering. It turns out though, that she needed not just academic excellence and perseverance as any normal student to succeed, but a lot more than she originally signed up for. She knew it would be an emotional roller coaster, but let’s say it was a lot more intimidating than it looked on the outside.

She’d chosen a coaching centre over self-preparation for JEE. Now, she wasn’t so sure her decision was the right one. Terrified of missing out on class notes, she turned up even when she was sick. It wasn’t because she was antisocial. Having been the student body captain and a part of the school basketball team, she had almost always been surrounded by peers who thought of her as an equal. 

She had tried everything she could to fit in, to be seen as an opponent, someone to respect and compete against. She cut her hair short on her own. Her mother had been shocked to see her curly locks in the bin.  Wear loose, baggy shirts and stop caring about your appearance entirely – isn’t that what society asked of girls if they wanted to be taken seriously? She felt the need to show that she had no interest in herself as a girl. She needed to show how serious she was about cracking the exam. She wanted to be seen as someone equal to the boys in her class. Still, nobody took her seriously, no one wanted to sit with her, and everyone ignored her presence. She felt small and insignificant. Ever since she got to know that she would be in the top batch in her institute, she has had mixed feelings. On one hand, the pace of teaching and difficulty of topics had increased, which meant she worked on more exciting problems that stimulated her intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, none of her girlfriends had made it to her batch. Even though they congratulated her, they didn’t think she deserved to be there. It made her feel like she had won a lottery ticket when in reality, she had slogged for hours to reach where she was. None of her school friends would recognize this quiet girl, with uneven short hair, sitting alone in class. 

Often, she was regarded as an alien entity in class. Why are you even preparing for JEE? You can easily get into IIT, you have quota!  were some common comments she used to hear. 

When it came to class, no one really cared about anyone else. It was a dog eat dog world. The guys used to wonder about how she could score well in periodic tests when she wasn’t able to answer even a single question in class. Many would laugh at her behind her back during lunch hours for her tomboyish demeanour. This had been a common topic to gossip about in order to avoid conversations about their pathetic marks in the previous test and feel good about themselves. 

It was drilled into everyone’s heads that a distraction like a relationship or perhaps, even interacting with females may change their JEE rank. After all, it may be just one question in JEE that could change your life. Everyone is a competitor and relationships are pure distractions was an opt repeated mantra. As a result, Shreya would inevitably always be sitting alone in the class.

All the guys would think of her as a privileged girl with a quota in IIT. Everyone seemed oblivious to her isolation and loneliness. Every night she would curl up in bed and describe her loneliness to her mother. Her mother motivated her saying, “That has been the norm. You can be the change.” These words would rejuvenate her energy.  The next morning, she would wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 AM after 3 persistent alarms, with renewed vigour to face the next set of mock tests, practise sheets and other challenges, determined to make it to the prestigious IIT with unshaken spirit. The question of self-worth and others remained repressed. Was her mental health the cost of her IIT Dreams?  

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