Kolkata // On a monsoon kind of day in Kolkata, Adrita Dutta shelters in a coffee shop a block away from the local university, tallying the cost of her dreams. Ms Dutta, 21, had just finished her studies in business management at the top of her class. Hardly taking a breath from that rigorous regimen, she was already preparing for a Master of Business Administration programme.
But in India, the way to the top of the academic heap is paved with more than good grades. India's youth are paying a steep price for the country's development, flocking to schools in the hope of getting ahead, and, in many cases, failing - with fatal consequences. The fee for taking the entrance exam is nearly Dh1,700 - no small figure in a country where the average annual income is about Dh8,000. Where Ms Dutta's family will really feel the crunch is if she actually gains admission.
"There, I'll definitely pay six to seven lakh (Dh51,000 to 59,600) for my studies," she said. "It's a huge amount of money. It's a big pressure for me as well as for my family." But as an overachiever from a middle-class family, Ms Dutta can afford to shrug off the pressure with a smile. She will find a way - even if thousands of others are not so lucky. Every day, newspapers in academic cities across the country bear witness. In Kolkata, the country's oldest subway comes to a grinding halt because a student has leapt onto the tracks. In Faridabad, just outside of New Delhi, a 17-year-old student hangs herself because she was afraid of failing the board exams. And in the southern city of Bangalore, three students, including the daughter of a high court judge, take their lives after receiving less-than-stellar marks in their exams.
More than 16,000 students have committed suicide in the past three years, according to India's ministry of health. Since 2006, the number has risen every year, with experts expecting 2008 to be the deadliest yet. "We find that it's definitely increasing," said Gorav Gupta, a senior psychiatry consultant at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi. It is not unusual, he said, for developing countries to drive their youth headlong into the future. Everyone is vying to get ahead and parents push their children to seize opportunities they themselves never had. With student ranks swelling, admission requirements are ratcheted up accordingly.
The problem is particularly acute in southern India, which leads the world in youth suicides, according to a 2004 report published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Beyond Kerala's picturesque canals, beaches and Chinese fishing nets, for instance, is a well-oiled scholastic machine. Academies and institutes stud the landscape. And the focus on education shows, with a nation-leading literacy rate of nearly 97 per cent. Most of the state's youth are groomed to get medical and technical jobs abroad. But according to The Lancet report, there are 32 suicides for every 100,000 people - about three times the rate as the rest of the country. Although that number includes all age groups, it is notable that northern states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have some of the lowest literacy rates in the country - and also the fewest suicides.
Indian schools are, at last, recognising the need for students to take a deep breath. And exhale slowly. In fact, at the Heritage School in Gurgaon, near Delhi, it is part of the curriculum. Days begin with meditation sessions, along with a tall glass of fresh juice. Yoga and breathing classes are becoming the norm at schools across the country. Even one of Kolkata's oldest learning centres, La Martiniere School for Boys, is shaking up 150 years of book-bound learning with a concerted effort. To keep pupils from becoming what Sunirmal Chakravarthi, the head teacher, terms as "lumps of flesh", the school is reviving its orchestra and making weekend football matches mandatory for children between 11 and 13.
Mr Chakravarthi arrived at the school in Jan 2006 with a mandate to unplug the high-tension academic atmosphere. "You obviously have to perform," he said. "But in doing so, I think we're turning out a generation of academically bright people, who are diffident in everything else." In other cases, students are simply opting out of the rat race entirely. Instead of pursuing his education to the highest possible level, Bhim Kaul, 21, emerged from the academic gauntlet relatively early with a university degree in electrical engineering.
"That's about all the education I could manage," the New Delhi resident said. "I couldn't put up with any more classes." Indeed, Mr Kaul says it is too easy to get lost in India's endless procession of classrooms. "A classroom kind of education nowadays in this country doesn't actually help you get a great job," he said. "It's what you know in an extra-curricular way that can help you be more outspoken, be more unique than all the other candidates that are there with you."
So Mr Kaul joined a management consultancy based in the United Kingdom, and started playing drums in a heavy metal band. Anything, he said, to differentiate himself from the hyper-schooled masses. India, he said, placed too much emphasis on rote learning. "What about all the guys that maybe didn't do so well academically, but they have a good IQ? They're good abstract thinkers, they're creative in nature.
"With so many guidelines and so many boundaries being put across education, it's very hard for people who think out of the box to actually find a niche for themselves. They just get drowned in the regular rat race and I'm sorry to say, they get left behind." Unless, of course, the aim is a career in the percussive arts. "I want to make a living out of music some day," Mr Kaul said. "And I want that day to be really soon."
But in a country of 1.2 billion people, no vocation is certifiably free of stress. "Even that is a stressful job. Indian music is not like it's going anywhere. People can keep patting you on the back and saying, 'Wow, your band is great. You guys are really going to go places.' But no one actually goes anywhere. They still stay. They do their regular jobs." @Email:email@example.com