A Vision of Stars, Grounded in the Dust of
ANUPAM KUMAR, 17, is the
eldest son of a scooter-rickshaw driver. He lives in a three-room house
made of bricks and mortar and a hot tin roof, where water rarely comes out
of the tap and the electricity is off more than on, along a narrow unpaved
alley here in one of India's most destitute corners.
Kumar, a self-taught mathematician in Bihar, failed on his first try
for a prestigious college, but then diligently tried again.
Anupam is good at math. He
has taught himself practically everything he knows, and when he grows up
he wants to investigate whether there is life in outer space. He wants to
work at NASA.
"It's becoming very
important to explore other planets because this planet is becoming too
polluted," he said with deadly seriousness. Next door to his house, pigs
rifled through a pile of garbage on an empty lot. His mother, Sudha Devi,
a savvy woman with a 6th-grade education, cooled him with a palm-frond
His father, Srikrishna
Jaiswal, who made it through 10th grade, flashed a bemused smile. "He has
high-level aims," he said.
"I'm not so concerned about
reaching the peak," Anupam clarified. "I'm more interested in doing
something good for the world."
For now, Anupam's sole
obsession is to gain admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology, or
I.I.T., a network of seven elite colleges established shortly after Indian
independence in 1947 that produces an annual crop of tech wizards and
It is difficult to overstate
the difficulty of getting in. Of 198,059 Indians who took the rigorous
admissions tests in 2005, 3,890 got in, an acceptance rate of under 2
percent. (Harvard accepts 10 percent.)
Anupam does not know anyone
who has attended the institutes, nor do his parents. But they all know
this: If he makes it, it would change his family's fortunes forever.
"I feel a lot of pressure,"
he said. "It's from inside."
A VOICE in his head, he
says, tells him he must do something to rescue his family from want, and
that he must do it very soon. No wonder, then, that Anupam's mother forces
him to wash his hair with henna, a traditional Indian hair-dying
technique: At 17, Anupam is going gray.
In Anupam's story lies a
glimpse of the aspirations of boys and girls in India today, a country
that arguably offers greater opportunities than it did for their parents,
but one that is also more competitive and a great deal more stressful.
More than half of India's
one billion people are under 25, and for all but the most privileged,
adolescence in this country can be a Darwinian juggernaut. To be average,
or even slightly above average, is to be left behind. Nowhere is that more
true than here in Bihar, India's iconic left-behind state, making the
drive to get out all the more fierce.
"For average students, they
have no scope," said Anand Kumar, 33, who runs a one-man
I.I.T.-preparatory academy here. "The new generation feels more pressure
than my generation."
At 7 on a recent morning,
with the sun already blistering, Mr. Kumar, drenched in sweat, drilled a
gaggle of nearly 600 students, almost all boys, in calculus. "Find the
domain of the following function," he repeated into a scratchy microphone.
His young charges, packed tightly under a tin-roofed compound, furiously
scribbled in their notebooks. He resembled a revival tent preacher in a
small American town.
Every week Mr. Kumar, who is
not related to Anupam, tutors more than 2,000 youngsters, each paying just
under $100 for a yearlong math session. Thirty others, the most gifted and
neediest, he teaches free in an intensive seven-month course that includes
room and board. He has received death threats - he suspects from
competitors who resent his low fees - and on a recent day two policemen
and two private guards stood sentry.
The intensity of competition
can reveal itself in extreme ways. Mr. Kumar recalls how a neighbor, under
enormous pressure from his family, failed the entrance exam and took his
own life; he was 18. A former student, the son of a poor peasant, sank
into a crippling depression after failing the exam last year.
Moni Kumari Gupta, 17, is
one of the rare girls in Mr. Kumar's program. She, too, wants to do space
research, also at NASA. The I.I.T. exam that Moni plans to take is still
10 months away, and yet she rises at 4:30 a.m. and studies 13 hours a day,
seven days a week, with short breaks only for meals and a brisk morning
walk. Her father, Sunil Kumar, gives her pep talks: "Face the
competition," he tells her. "Don't be demoralized."
Disappointment stems from
the depth of desire, piled on this generation by those with even fewer
opportunities in the past. Before Anupam was born, his father had wanted
to teach. His mother had wanted her husband to do anything other than ply
a rickshaw, become a rickshaw-wallah. But Patna offered few options, and
the children came quickly, two boys and a girl. Sudha Devi told her
husband, " 'At least our children will do something big.' "
At home, the television
could be blaring, the music could be on, the lights could have gone out,
but Anupam would be studying, his father said. "How he concentrates, how
he focuses his mind, I really don't know," Mr. Jaiswal mused.
At family parties, Anupam
would be found in a quiet corner, his head in a book. Relatives warned
Sudha Devi, "He will go mad."
Anupam's education has been
spotty, as it is for many in a country where public education is often in
disarray. He enrolled in a small neighborhood private school, then a
government school in ninth grade. But most days, like many children, he
skipped school and studied at home because he figured it would be more
rigorous. Every now and then, a math tutor, impressed by his gumption,
gave him tips.
Anupam says he was first
drawn to the mysteries of space at 9 because of a television serial,
"Captain Vyom," in which an astronaut ranges across outer space in pursuit
of bad guys.
He recalls telling his
mother about his interest in life in outer space, and he remembers her
matter-of-fact encouragement: They haven't discovered it yet, he recalls
her saying, but you can explore.
"He says there's something
called research," is how his mother describes it today. "He wants to be a
IN the spring of 2004,
studying by himself, Anupam failed the I.I.T. entrance exam; it is
virtually unheard of for anyone to make it on his own. Then, under Mr.
Kumar's tutelage, he devoted himself with the intensity of a monk.
On May 22, Anupam took the
exam again, a grueling six hours of math, chemistry, and physics. He was
not nervous either before or after, his mother said.
The week before results were
published, Anupam bubbled with optimism. He was sure he would be among the
top scorers, he said. His mother beamed at this. To a visitor, she
referred to her son as Anupam-ji, an honorific usually reserved for
Buoyed by his optimism,
Anupam said that after graduation, he would install a proper roof, then
dig a borehole so water could be drawn right at home. As soon as possible,
he would like his father to stop driving a rickshaw.
[On June 16, sitting at his
tutor's house, Anupam learned the results. He made it into the institutes,
with a rank of 2,299. Classes start in mid-July.]