When I was a student at Calcutta Boys’ School, our academic year was marked by three term exams. The tests would be in at least a dozen subjects. Preparations would take over a month of mugging up. During exam time, a hush settled over Calcutta’s families, as mothers fretted, cajoled and provided warm glasses of milk, while the little one prepared for his term exams. The SATs were a breeze compared to my Calcutta first-grade final exams. No test I would take in the US – not even the field exams in graduate school – ever required the amount of mindless memorisation, or produced as much competitiveness and anxiety, as those grade-school exams.
After each term exam we would be ranked among our peers. The status of the kid who topped the rankings, the ‘First Boy’, can be compared only to that of an American high-school quarterback. He was typically bespectacled, oily haired and a bit of a bore, but students revered him, teachers granted him the equivalent of diplomatic immunity, and other kids’ mothers wanted to copy notes from his ma. Perhaps I have neglected to mention that each day, mothers lined up along the schoolyards during lunchtime with hot fish curry and rice tiffins to spoon-feed their progeny. Since my mother worked as a scientist for much of my childhood, my tiffins were cold butter sandwiches carried from home, and I was spared this maternal attention.
All those years of spoon-feeding and exams led up to the standardised tests in tenth, and then twelfth grade. Six hundred thousand tenth graders took the state’s final exam in 2009. The boy who ranked first was featured on the front page of the newspaper, just under the article on the national parliamentary elections. On the inside pages each year are stories of kids hanging themselves because of a poor exam result. The preferred mode of suicide for spurned lovers is drinking acid. The preferred mode for exam victims is hanging.
The target of every Bengali family is to produce a doctor or an engineer. Both fields have rigorous entrance exams at the end of twelfth grade, known in Bengal as the joint entrance exam. By the time you reach twelfth grade, exams have provided the entire drama of your existence. These results are the measure of your self-worth. Each year, with each new report of suicide, there is talk of easing the stress, perhaps doing away with some tests altogether. Nothing much changes except that more shortcuts appear – more reference books, more coaching centres, more compilations of old exam papers – and more people pass.
01 March 2019
Examination Hell in Calcutta
From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1635-1655: