Like many good things in life – there’s a good chance that the IIT-JEE is coming to an end. That’s progress. I felt elated today morning to read that IIT-Kanpur had decided to not join in this backward forward march. And for a brief minute – I remembered how the JEE made me. This post is pure nostalgia.

I studied during my high school days in a small town called Ranipur – on the outskirts of the Hindu holy town of Hardwar. It was beautiful – but remote and parochial. The girls and the boys would sit on separate aisles in the most well known school in town (that i used to attend). When we entered high school – some of my best friends left town. Ranipur was too small a place to get into IIT from – they left to join schools in Delhi (DPS RK-Puram most prominently). The best that anyone had ever ranked in JEE from Ranipur was a few hundreds. Like many other middle class families in pre-reform India – we had little spare change. Getting into a good engineering school was a must – our future financial security pretty much depended on it.

For two years – I studied like crazy for the JEE. It was inhumane – and I wouldn’t be able to do it again. I would doze off solving problems and wake up and then go at them again. I was scrawny, rarely played and was almost constantly sick. Life rotated around solving problems from Irodov – every starred problem solved was like a mini-achievement. Amongst the more bizarre things I would keep track of was the number of notebooks and ball-pens I would run through every week solving problems. School – when I went there – was for fun (ie. gawking at girls). Visiting friends from Delhi would drive me nuts – it seemed like they were much further along in their preparation than I ever was. We went to Delhi a couple of times to attend training camps run by Brilliants and Agarwals. One time I saw this dude in a blue shirt sitting on the front bench (I was, obviously, a back bencher) – he solved problems as soon as the instructor wrote them out – and completely psyched me out. (I learnt later his name was Ashish Thusoo). Another time we saw this guy named Basu. He was Class Xth topper – had appeared on the cover of a famous Science Magazine. After one of the training exams – everyone would cluster around him – how did Basu solve it?

The JEE gave me role models – the guy in the blue shirt, Basu. The guy from my old school in Delhi where I had studied until the 8th grade – Pankaj Gupta – who came 15th in ’91 JEE. Deepankar Aron – who aced ’91 JEE as well from Ranipur – coming in an amazing 193! The pictures of JEE toppers from Agarwals and Brilliants tutorials would constantly swim across my eyes – Ashish Goel, Alok Mittal, Vineet Buch. I wanted to join them on those brochures. If they could do it – maybe so could I.

The JEE made me a better student. I was not a genius – but I practiced and became better. It was the 10,000 hour rule in action – I solved enough difficult Physics problems that I almost looked and felt (to others) like a genius. Chemistry was horrible – the only subject for which I got a private tutor . When I took the CBSE board exams (that are proposed, in part, to replace the JEE) – the difficulty level was like taking exams from a couple of grades below. I scored 99/100 in all the science/math exams. It didn’t matter, it was too easy – and I was laughing about the results. The teachers were impressed, maybe even the girls – hey – maybe the Board exams were good for something!

For a small towner like me – the JEE gave me an equal opportunity to prove myself. I had felt disadvantaged – but it turned out I was not (quite the converse actually). I was able to focus for two years, undistracted by cinemas, big town action (and prettier girls presumably) to make myself into a better student. The folks from DPS RK-Puram had no advantage on me – they were richer, better connected and had more resources – but it didn’t matter. Connections and money didn’t buy JEE ranks. Talent and hard-work did. People couldn’t put me down because I didn’t look right, or wear the right clothes and come to school in a nice car. I was the king of my study.

I ranked 18th in ’92 JEE. It was scandalous – it wasn’t supposed to happen. I remember vividly my father’s smile when I got off the phone and told him about it. I think he lifted me up. I don’t think I have ever – before or since – seen a smile like that. He’s no more – but he lives in my heart wearing that smile. In moments like this – I still grieve for him.

Like the giants before me – I became a role model for the people who followed me from Ranipur. High rankers exploded. If I could do it – so could they – and even better. While my family left Ranipur a long long time back – I know my name lived on there as a myth – egging others on. I had played my little role in the Circle of Life. And yeah – I had made my way into the Agarwals brochure.

In the years since – the JEE also reminded me constantly of who I could be at my best. At my down moments (and there were many) – there was this ultimate fallback. All I knew I had to do was throw myself, heart and soul, at something – and I would come off OK.

So goodbye JEE. You made me, in good part, who I am. And you will live on, living though you never were, in my heart and in the hearts of many others like me. My child and others in the next generation may not be able to aspire for you anymore. And for that, we will all be worse off.

Backwards march!

The Real Heroes

The responses have been overwhelming – the comments are better than the post. Here are some amazing people who have left their stories behind:

Board Exam Ridiculousness