Some years ago, I spent several days in Kota, Rajasthan, gathering material for an article about the coaching industry there for The Caravan. It was hardly a difficult assignment. Signs of the industry were everywhere I looked—up on hoardings, down on the street in discarded leaflets, in offices, the Mall, a temple. All I had to do was observe, then write about it.
It may not always have been that easy, though. Until the 1980s, the town’s economy was largely centred around chemical factories and textiles. But then the coaching business took flight here. Students now come to Kota by the tens of thousands—usually after finishing their tenth standard, but some of them even before. They come to prepare for competitive exams for the country’s top engineering and medical colleges, particularly the Indian Institutes of Technology. There are five big coaching institutes—Bansal, Vibrant Academy, Allen Career Institute, Career Point and Resonance—and dozens of smaller establishments. Coaching has also spawned a parallel economy in the city: hostels, restaurants (“messes”), bike rentals, tiny roadside stalls selling everything from Maggi noodles to stationery.
Because of its apparently single-minded focus on coaching and because it caters to the needs of more than a hundred thousand students from all over the country with elite-college dreams, Kota has evolved into a city like no other I know. Bizarre in many ways, but one gigantic gold mine for stories.
For example: there are “To-Let” signs everywhere, including inside the Mall. There is heartfelt, moving and sometimes pathetic graffiti on a wall at the Radha Krishna Mandir in Talwandi. Coaching classes “poach” teachers from other coaching classes, and flaunt their victories on their billboards. Students who get a high rank in an exam are often claimed by more than one coaching establishment, their larger-than-life images gracing the lobbies of their respective buildings. The city boasts several “fake schools,” where kids register so they can appear for their board exams without having to attend regular classes—something everyone speaks of openly.
I was even delighted to find a “novel” for sale there—“To-Let” sign on the cover—that purported to tell the story of Kota student life. It was so horribly written that it was actually terrific. (“He asked out-of-odds pointing night out as an unwanted luxury”: just one of innumerable sentences to make your brow furrow.) Yet it always seemed to me that the place was fertile ground for more narrative. I thought a film might do it justice. And now we have something close, a web series: The Viral Fever’s Kota Factory. Much of what I saw in it mirrored my own memories of Kota.