Saturday, March 07, 2009

Testing times , Benin times....

.....Now I lay me down to rest
Pray I pass tomorrow's test
If I die before I wake
That's one less test I have to take.......

April is a busy time in India.

An educational system, that makes students study, the whole year's syllabus for a single exam, that can make or break your career, happens in April, and later. The various Board examinations still use the antiquated traumatic grading system where a 40/100 has you passing, but a 39/100 throws you into tears and desolation. Then there is this perverse pleasure the school boards get, in fixing your examination center far away from your Alma mater. It is certainly not as if the walls of your own classrooms are carved with examination answers and chemical formulae, or that friendly invigilating folks specialize in turning a blind eye to things.

As if this is not enough, this year the National elections have been announced in April. The Indian Premier League, has also announced its cricket in April. Most parents are worried.

Elections mean candidate processions, loud spouting of fiction and lies over public address systems, blaring songs of praise set to popular tunes, and a different kind of Green Revolution, having to do with lucre-based political turnarounds. As if this is not enough, the Indian Premier league will broadcast, almost every alternate day, the T20 cricket matches, complete with cheerleaders, bands etc.

I know families where the parents of children appearing for the Boards are in more tension than the students. The entire year's schedule is based in the child's requirements. Cable connections are put on hold. Outings and vacations are postponed. Guests planning to travel from outstation for a family wedding and planning to put up at your place, are faced with alternative suggestions. I know a family which disconnected the TV, packed it up in the box and left it high up in the loft for a full year.

How times have changed.

We had no television, no FM, in fact no commercial radio, no cell phones, and the telephone had just made an entry a year before my board exams. Not just our families, but our neighbors were cognizant of the significance of board exams, and helped in their own way. Playing loud rock music was NOT the popular thing then, and studying to background music with suspect wording was totally frowned upon. Not that those were the days on individual music systems, but we were resourceful.

The last few months before the Boards were dedicated to practice sessions, where we got hold of the last several years' question papers from the libraries, and bookstores, and sat and wrote out the answer papers for practice. Our teachers at school encouraged us to do this, vis-a-vis a clock, to time our answers. We used to take these papers to them for evaluation, grading and suggestions. Sometimes, if it was a weekend, the teacher would call us home, and a grading session would end up with some wonderful eats, prepared by Mrs Teacher, and indulgently offered to the hard working student.

We studied late, as well as at the crack of dawn. I remember hearing the alarm clock and emerging like a robot from my mosquito-netted bed. I would be trying to get my bearings for a few seconds, when my Grandmother, who stayed with us then, would tiptoe in, her back bent with age, smelling of incense and flowers, fresh from her 4 am prayers , called "kakadarti" .

That was a signal for me to shake myself out of the lethargy, freshen up and get organized for a dawn study session, as my grandma appeared once again with a refreshing cup of ginger tea, my share of the wonderful early morning tea she usually had. Don't know if it was the ginger, the tea, or the infused care and good wishes, but it kind of shook up the neurons into an alert stage, and my studies continued where I had left them off the night before. At daybreak, when I was deep into some formula, conjugation or essay or something, my mother would come sit for a while with milk, fruit, and some hot breakfast for me, and would sometimes shush my brother who was making a noisy fuss about his school uniform, and missing pens (with accusatory glances in my direction).

Examination days , one took it a bit easy. Your preparation was complete. You were relaxed. A recce of your examination centre had been made by some cousin or uncle, who knew exactly how early one had to start from home. Brothers even offered you their extra pens, sharpeners and protractors and stuff.

Sometimes we had 2, 3-hour papers in a day. The end of the first session, at 2 pm, would see a whole bunch of parents coming by with refreshments. April was burning hot, with non existent humidity in my hometown. It was a season for a cooling raw mango drink made from steamed raw mango pulp, jaggery, cardamom, and saffron. It was also a season for refreshing freshly squeezed lemonade. Grapes , just out of refrigerators also made an appearance. And the small garden at the examination centre would be dotted with folks having all this stuff, parents anxiously standing by. There would be a lot of sharing of stuff, and some of my friends whose parents couldn't come, never felt they were alone, as they were cajoled into having some more fruit, or a glass of mango "panha", not to be gulped, but to be peacefully sipped as you thought about your next exam that afternoon.

In those days before CocaCola and tissues, come parents even came with freshly washed cotton towels, which were dipped in cold water and offered , so the children could refresh their hot tired faces, after emerging from a non-AC room, where 2 fans were not working, and not a single leaf moved on a given tree if you looked outside through a large window.

The end of the second session at 6 pm, would see a carefree set of students emerging, with no other schedule to keep. Animated discussions about the questions, sneak glances at the so-called scholars to see what they had to say about the papers, and it was time to go home, relax for some time, maybe take a short nap. Folks came home from work, and you showed them the question paper, and watched their face. Wiser counsels often prevailed in the minds of parents. What was done , was done. And you got ready for another day at the exam centre.

Today , in Mumbai, the winner is Money.

If you have lots of it, you send your child to a school that follows an International Board. You pay scandalous amounts as fees. And move around with children at the highest echelons of society, where all transport has 4 wheels and is airconditioned, someone or the other is always related to someone in power; inability, unwillingness and aversion to using public transport is appreciated as a sign of your exclusive place in society, and you always speak of London when you talk about last summer.

If you have lots of it, you attend exclusive tuition classes over and above your school, with a car and driver totally at your disposal for travel. Your parents are normally, amazingly busy, earning their considerable livelihood, but your mealtimes happen on the dot. The food is wonderful, the feeling is missing. And you have your own television to "de-stress", and several cell phones so you can de-learn all the English you learned, as you message around. Your room AC failing, is a calamity.

If you have lots of it, your driver comes with an icebox and lunch box , in the recess between papers, and you sip a cola . You wont be found using anything but tissues to wipe your face, as you take bites of the sandwiches, specially ordered from the Taj.

And all this while, some, whose parents cannot afford to miss a work day, struggle to get on the Mumbai buses and trains, sometimes in advance by a couple of hours, so as to make it in time, regardless of possible delays. Cases of students desperate to make a specific train, trying to jump into a running train are well documented. Some make it , some don't. Today, those parents who can manage, take leave from work during exam week. Elderly grandparents at home, themselves in need of care, stoically tolerate delays, as their daughter-in-law juggles the exam timing, accompanying her son, and their own mealtimes.

The pressure often gets to the students. Some are known to start out from home and disappear for the duration of exams, only to return in the evening, Pressure to succeed, pressure to match up, pressure to see a smile on the face of your parents does that to you.

Some even give up and pay with their lives.

But for others, life is not easy. It is manageable with understanding and empathy from the family.

My generation enjoyed a lot of it. Empathy and support. Many of the current generation also do. We had lesser expectations, believed our teachers and parents, referred to our teachers in the second person plural, and had less, or even non-existent, supply of ideas from television , on how crime pays.

The Government and IPL certainly don't have any. Concern or Empathy.

And so you have episodes like students traveling for miles to their examination centre, only to have their road blocked by the police, who are monitoring the motorcade of the President of Benin, on a state visit to Mumbai; all traffic is halted, walkie talkies are active, occasional trespassers are chased around with a rod.

A quick flash of a smiling face and waving hands through tinted glass in a fancy car, and I am sure the President of Benin doesn't realize why an entire population below 20 doesn't wave back.

The students , delayed unexpectedly , in the middle of nowhere for 30 minutes, in a desperate panic, and getting late for exams, call up a thoughtfully set up Board helpline, and are guided to the nearest possible examination centre, where they may appear for their paper.

It is wonderful to know the Board cares.

But the Government ? The IPL ? The Police?

I am just wondering if anyone knows where Benin is , and why the President of Benin is here.


  1. wonderful post as always..and a good question too !

  2. Brought back harrowing memories of 3 am alarms!

    It is terrible how everything hinges on one set of exams.

  3. Exams ! geee i always thought our education system was always exam oriented and it was wrong !!

    Even on board exams i would go to play my daily dose of cricket and my mom or dad never stopped me !!

    I remember in board exams in 10th I used to wake up at 3 am as India was touring New Zealand ! I would read in between the commercial breaks !!

    Cricket and Exams have always been together for as long as I can remember !!

    Elections i dont remember !!

  4. Wonderful post ! I am getting alarmed at the kind of emphasis thats placed on board exams ! As though life depended on it !

    I remember playing my cricket at the end of each exam ! And i did not end up as a wasted good for nothing ! Atleast not yet !

    I am appalled at the tension that pervades a Board school exam home ! I think life needs to be lived. Exams are to test understanding. Not memory ! We need to change our education system.

    The joy of discovery and the progress towards learning must take place and stay with students !

    My parents did not come and be my side when we took exams. 'Its your life' they said !

    Life is different these days i think ! Very different !

  5. sandwiches specially ordered from Taj..hmm kai bolnar

  6. Lakshmi Thank you. I've heard of missing buses. But Presidents from vague countries holding up exam appearances is a bit much.....

    -Sujatha I am surprised soometimes about how I myself managed to go through all this.....

    Hitch writer Studying in between commercial breaks..... I can see your mother wringing her hands in desperation....:-)

    Kavi Actually, I just realized that besides a generation difference there is also a gender difference in how we look at exams. And our ability to listen to parents. But yes, the education has to become less by rote and more fun.

    Vinita Ashi loka mi baghitli ahet ....

  7. We are seeking to get as much support as possible to change the education system. To do so, please vote here!

  8. I had a nostalgia of my those dready exam days. Even my parents took many efforts during those days. I had same concerns back then, u raised in here. Thanks for reminding me those again. Even during my board exams there were some elections and it was an absolute nuisance:(.

  9. So much to comment on and so little time. ;-). I think your politicians took a page out of our politicians book. They sure sound the same.

    No wonder your young people are so much better educated than ours. Yes, exam week was stressful for me, but we didn't have the emphasis on it with the entire family becoming involved.

    I felt the stress building as I read your blog. Great post.

  10. I think it is wonderful how families there stand behind their children as far as education is concerned and stress an education. I wish it was more that way here.
    Our parents could learn something from your parents. Great post. I really enjoyed it as usual.

  11. Darlene, I have an observation about who is "better educated"... in India or overseas. I have experienced the educational systems in India and the US and Europe, through my own experiences and now through my school age children, hence my observation.

    Ugich has described the family efforts involved in exam taking down to a tee. That is a wonderful phenonmenon but there is more to education that just parental encouragement and support.

    The process of education is more meaningful and more organic outside India. There is more meaning to the knowledge gained and students are encouraged and taught to "think". There is less emphasis on "knowledge" perhaps but correctly students are encouraged to be unafraid of using thier own analytical skills. Those skills are more useful in real life and in furthering education than just knowledge. My elementary age children amaze me by how unafraid they are to think for themselves and make mistakes in order to learn. They have a joy in learning that I never exprienced at that age.

    Given a choice I will take an education here in the US anyday over the "learning" I experienced in India. I discovered a joy in learning only when I was able to emerge from the strait jacket of a classic Indian education. I had to relearn "learning" from scratch when I first came to the US. The idea of thinking for myself was pretty much foreign to me as it is to many legions of Indian students.

    Ugich your post brought back many memories, most of which I shudder to remember. Still it is a part of my experience and makes me who I am.

    The whole election. IPL, etc timing is just stupid.

  12. Gosh! I cannot imagine the trauma the students had to go thru due to the traffic halt. Thankfully all my board exam centers were always close by and I could easily take an auto rickshaw there.

    But i relived my exam days while reading ur post. I was not a morning person. I could stay awake till late night, revising lessons or mostly mugging them up :-(
    But had to wake up in morning again anyways to read them again and make sure i still remembered them.

    I agree with Kiran, there is very less emphasis on knowledge and more on what to expect in exams in a particular format. I remember sometime in engineering 2nd or 3rd year, half of our paper was based on conceptually applying what we learnt and none of us could attempt those 50 marks. And I was in one of the best colleges in Mumbai, but this was the case throughout the entire Mumbai university. We cribbed about how this out of syllabus exam paper was unfair to us. When it was not actually out of syllabus. It was just different format and type of question from what we were expecting.

    I am not sure if what we actually learned helped us anyways. Atleast i am not using any of it and most of us working in IT dont either. The university just churns out people who dont boil down under pressure and are capable of taking any amount of stress.

  13. Man, this hit a chord.

    Yes, we lived in far far simpler times. Eventually, what it came down to was simply realizing that this was the system that one had to get through and then make one's best efforts at getting through it. It wasn't fair. It still isnt.

    Changing the way we educate and teach our students to think will perhaps take more than just changing the education system - it will take changing the entire social system as well. Its not that there are no original thinkers in India, just that they are stifled even before they get anywhere.

    It makes me sad to see the state of students today. I always say a silent prayer hat those day are now behind me.


  14. HA! I tried studying once at dawn but just could not take all those crows yakking away... so stuck to the night schedule.
    As usual, warned my parents of dire consequences if they came during the exam break.. could not bear having them administer naryal paani and emotional support.
    And, tore up my question papers before I reached home so it could not be scrutinized... hehehehehehe!!!

    Did you know I was abnormal?!

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