Get to the Top

Coaching and poaching in a Rajasthani city transformed by the business of aspiration

01 April, 2012

IN KOTA, EVEN THE ROADSIDE litter tells stories. Leaflets and shreds of leaflets are all over the place. In a deserted public garden, just below a bust of the revolutionary martyr Chandrashekhar Azad, I picked up one forlorn sheet, soggy with morning dew and streaked with mud. It was an advertisement for Gautam Institute, complete with a picture of Mr M Gautam, resplendent in a pink suit straight out of a 1970s Bollywood multi-starrer, bent ever so slightly at the waist, hands clasped earnestly, urging you to “Join NEW BATCH for Calculus & Coordinate”.

On the side of a nearby road, another leaflet, from “Er Rakesh Rathi Sir (Exp 15 years)”, promises that the “guidance you will receive” from him “will help you to improve your Rank exponentially”. Yet another, aimed at “11th to 12th Moving Students”, offers instruction in physics from one G Joshi Sir. To help persuade these Moving Students, the back of the pale blue-gray sheet has four physics problems (“A particle of mass m moves in the potential energy …”) along with their worked-out solutions.

A town and its USP, in these crumpled bits of paper.

You could make a decent living here, gathering discarded leaflets off the ground and selling them to a waste-paper collector, or perhaps even back to the respective institutes so they can be handed out and discarded again. On my last morning in Kota I walked past a woman doing just that: efficiently collecting leaflets from the side of the road—only the less-soiled ones—and adding them to the inches-thick stack she balanced in one hand. The economy of Kota these days, I had heard from teachers and doctors and tea-stall owners and friends, revolves around coaching students for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam (IIT-JEE) and other tests. Hard evidence of that, in what this woman was up to.

The pink-suited Mr Gautam also appears on an enormous hoarding on leaflet-strewn Road No 1 in Kota, where three of the city’s five major coaching institutions have built great gleaming towers. Gautam Institute, however, is not among them: it’s one of possibly hundreds of smaller cogs in the Kota coaching-class machinery, and Mr Gautam teaches only mathematics. But he looks out from his hoarding nevertheless, hoping to catch the interest of those among the thousands of students streaming past who believe they are weak in mathematics. He has competition, too, from other enormous hoardings erected beside him. One features bespectacled and cross-armed Satyendra Kumar—“SK Sir”—from an institute called ETOOS. Manoj Chauhan—“MC Sir”—wearing a checked shirt and a black watch, adorns another. Nearby I can see P Joy of Ables Education, who is apparently not known as “PJ Sir”—but there is a “DJ Sir” whose real name I could not divine. Amit Gupta (“AG Sir”) and Neetin Agrawal (“NA Sir”) share a hoarding, which also lists their cellphone numbers.

DJ Sir and SK Sir advertise their coaching services on adjacent hoardings along a road in Kota. INDIAN EXPRES ARCHIVE

In any other city, these would be figures from Bollywood or cricket, possibly politicians at election time. But in this city in Rajasthan, the bright stars are physics and mathematics and chemistry teachers. Looking up at them peering back at you, you start to get a sense of this place, of how strange it is—and of how, nevertheless, this city, like other cities, celebrates ambition and achievement.

None of these rockstars are with the three institutes on Road No 1, nor from the two more that are not so far away. The five big Kota institutes—Bansal’s, Career Point, Vibrant, Allen and Resonance—between them employ more than 400 such “Sirs”. Then again, many of the men staring down at me were once from those places. It’s a tribute to standards established and reputations built that most of these men list, under their portraits, lines such as “Ex-Senior Faculty, Bansal’s”. Even with fierce competition between the institutions, a reference to one of the five as a previous employer is a big plus on your resume. Or on your hoarding.

A 20-MINUTE WALK AWAY—or 10 minutes by cycle, which is how most students commute—is Kota’s Talwandi neighbourhood, where I went to meet a Mr Sharma. Any number of students call this area home, most of them lodged in houses just like Sharma’s. It’s the paying-guest business, of course, serving the thousands of aspirants to India’s premier colleges who converge on Kota every year, “batches” at a time, and need a place to stay.

Genial to a fault, Sharma spent an hour or more spelling out just what it was like to rent rooms in his little bungalow—R2,500 each per month, plus electricity—to boys, only boys. Most other residents in Talwandi, he said, woke up to the opportunity only when the coaching phenomenon took off. They quickly built new rooms on top, or on the side of their homes, or somewhere else in their compounds. But Sharma—he had the foresight to build seven additional rooms during the construction of his house. Not only that, some of them were what he called “family rooms”, big enough to take more than just a single student. “Thought I’d rent them out to families,” he said. At least six are occupied at any given time, and he is able to cater to the not-infrequent case of a mother (always the mother) escorting her hopeful child to Kota and staying on to see him through his time there.

Sharma’s living room was small but tidy. There were four cushions behind me on the sofa: three neat squares and one teddy bear. A plastic Tweety bird adorned the front door; a large cage with a couple of real birds, yellow and tweeting manically, sat on the floor. Our conversation had revolved around the ins and outs of housing a stream of IIT hopefuls. “Girls are too much trouble. Every month the drains get clogged, you know what I mean?”; and “I don’t take nonsense. Boy makes trouble, I give him his balance rent, tell him I want him out in fifteen minutes”; and “I don’t do any advertising, I just put a ‘To-Let’ sign outside and that’s enough”; and “I don’t say no if I think a boy is going to be trouble, I just quote a really high rent and he goes somewhere else.”

He also spoke of the upheaval that Allen—one of the big five—caused in Talwandi. The institute was originally on a nearby lane. Attracting more students every year, it turned Talwandi into one happy, sprawling, student-serving, money-making colony. Until a few years ago, when Allen outgrew Talwandi and moved to a new facility a few kilometres away. “People started burning and dying!” Sharma said, free and easy with his choice of Hindi words. “They had built rooms and hostels for students, they had loans, but now the students were going somewhere else to live. People were very angry!” So Talwandi’s residents approached Allen. “We are dying, how will we pay our loan installments?” they asked. Allen agreed to keep one set of students in Talwandi and all was well again, mostly.

Mostly? “But these days,” Sharma continued, “there’s so much corruption.”

“Corruption?” I asked. “You mean corruption like Anna Hazare is trying to fight?”

“No, no! Moral corruption! You have no idea what boys and girls are doing here, these days.” Sharma rattled off some boy-meets-girl tales, even some boy-meets-girl-at-5 am tales, what are they doing at that hour? There’s the girl who ran away with a boy to Bihar (“I don’t take boys from Bihar, they disturb everyone”) and called her parents from there to say she was OK and they were going to get married. The times couples have paid boys’ hostel guards R50 to look the other way during a morning rendezvous; 20 percent of the girls here, Sharma said, don’t go to class in the morning—they go to boys’ rooms instead.

“Moral corruption” in Kota is littered with boy-meets-girl tales—and even some boy-meets-girl-at-5 am tales. INDIAN EXPRES ARCHIVE

“This place,” he concluded with a sigh, “is more corrupt than Bombay or Delhi. This place has become an adda of corruption.”

How does Sharma know all this? He must have seen the question on my face, because at that very moment he rose suddenly, rousting me from my seat in his living room. “Come along with me on my walk,” he said. “I’ll show you what I’m talking about.” He busied himself collecting his jacket and keys, I gathered my things, he locked up and we set off through the streets of Talwandi.

OVER COFFEE ONE DAY, a senior administrator at one of the big institutes recounted the story of a girl in one of their batches. (In Kota, you aren’t in a class. You’re in a batch.) After she did badly on a particular test, the girl turned up in the administrator’s office to discuss the paper, suggesting that perhaps there had been some mistake. She had answered everything correctly, so how did she get such a poor grade?

The administrator was able to pull up the student’s test paper on her screen and show the girl and her father, who had come with her, exactly how she had got—or, rather, not got—her marks.

But the girl said, “Actually, he’s not my father.”

“Then who are you?” the administrator asked the man.

He spoke up: “I’m a consultant guardian,” and handed over a card.

In a town where coaching has boosted all kinds of professions, it has also created a new one. Consultant guardians are folks who, for a fee, stand proxy for a child’s absent parents. Who better to take along to help argue marks not awarded, if you’re far from home, than a consultant guardian? The senior administrator told the girl she had no case, but if she still wanted to argue it, she needed to come back with a parent. A real parent.

Walking around Kota, I got a sense of the range of professions and enterprises, beyond consultant guardians, ancillary to the coaching business.

A signboard in Kota advertises coaching classes by HP Sir, one of the hundreds of teachers in this small city who prepare students for the IIT entrance exam. SAURABH DAS / AP PHOTO

Bike rentals? Check. Tyre puncture repairmen? Check. Roadside stalls selling “bread omlet”, “chaumeen”, “maggie noodles” and minuscule plastic cups of tea? Check. Do the same stalls also sometimes stock SIM cards? Check. Rickshaws with these words painted on the side: “Daily Up-Down Service to Allens, Bansals, Resonance, etc”? Check. Women collecting discarded leaflets off the roads? Check. Other stalls selling notebooks, loose paper, pens, pencils, erasers and forms for each of BHU, VIT, AIPVT, KIIT, AMRITA, WARDA, whatever those are? Check.

More obviously: hostels and paying-guest places? Check. Messes (“Monthly Diet Rs 2500, Mini Meals Available”), including “Aunty Mess” and “Caliber Mess”? Check. Textbook stores? Check.

Sign-making is clearly good business as well. Apart from the gargantuan hoardings featuring “MC Sir” and the like, somebody’s making a killing producing “To-Let” signs, like the one Sharma uses to attract customers. Everyone in Kota—or so you might think, given how many signs there are—wants to rent rooms to students. They crop up in unexpected places, too. There was one at Superior MRI Clinic. One at Karishma Beauty Parlour. One at Universal Mart. At Dr RK Sharma’s clinic. On a huge Talwandi mansion with semi-circular balustrades and a multicoloured mosaic facade. At City Cyber Cafe. At SK Ramchandani’s Orthopaedic Hospital. Even one at the mall.

THE KOTA COACHING CLASS PHENOMENON traces its origins to 1981, and to a dining table. VK Bansal (always “Bansal Sir”), then an employee of JK Synthetics who lived in the JK housing colony, discovered he was suffering from muscular dystrophy. As a degenerative disease, it would eventually leave him unfit for his job. He needed something else to do, but what?

Someone suggested teaching, which struck an immediate chord. Bansal began helping a seventh standard student from the area—an indifferent student—with his schoolwork. As Sachin Jha writes in It All Adds Up, his biography of Bansal, the boy “had broken into the stratified ranks of the top ten” in his final exams that year. “This was no ordinary feat.”

Neighbours noticed. The next year, two more boys joined Bansal’s fledgling effort. The year after that, there were 15 kids. At that stage, Bansal was teaching for free—and yes, sitting at his dining table. But the parents persuaded him to accept fees. One thing led to another, and before long Bansal was giving tuitions to IIT aspirants. In 1986, the first of these made it through the IIT-JEE and went on to attend IIT Kanpur. This too was no ordinary feat. The JEE has always been one of the most competitive exams in the world: in 2011, nearly 500,000 students took the test. Less than 10,000 got through.

Class in session at Bansal’s. INDIAN EXPRES ARCHIVE

By the mid-1990s, Bansal was teaching 150 students. Dozens were getting through the JEE, so clearly he was doing something right. In 1998, he upgraded from his dining table, Jha writes, “and started to take his lectures in packed classrooms”—first in his refurbished garage, and eventually in the flashy Gaurav Tower on Road No 1.

Needless to say, competitors had also taken note of his success. Allen has its roots in similar informal tuitions, starting with eight students in 1988. Career Point began coaching in 1993. Resonance came along in 2002. And in 2009, seven of Bansal’s star teachers broke away to form Vibrant.

All four are now in towers every bit as flashy as Bansal’s, with more on the way.

The numbers in those early years are almost laughable when you compare them to the present. Eight students? 150 students? Today, each of the big five has thousands of starry-eyed kids on their rolls. At Vibrant, for example, director Nitin Jain told me their enrollment had gone up from 2,500 when they started to 9,000 today, less than three years later. And of course, the days of a single teacher, like Bansal Sir, handling all his students are also long gone. Career Point, for example, lists more than 100 teachers (“Best & Most Experienced Faculty Team”) in its publicity material, with this portentous note at the end: “More Faculty Members are likely to join soon.”

The Bansal’s building in Kota. VK Bansal, or Bansal Sir, began coaching students for the IIT entrance exam in 1981 from his dining table. INDIAN EXPRES ARCHIVE

However you dice it, coaching is now big business. Plenty of folks in Kota do the math like it is on their fingertips, which perhaps it is. About 100,000 students come to this town every year to nurture their IIT and related dreams. Each spends about R80,000 on course fees, and a similar amount on room and board. Toss in some cash for incidentals, and we’re up to R200,000 per student per year. Multiply that by the number of students, and now we’re talking real money. Real to the tune of R20 billion.

Imagine that kind of money floating about in a smallish Rajasthan city. With a population of just over a million, this intake is like an annual windfall of R20,000 for each resident of Kota.

Faculty salaries are up there too. Ms Rungta’s institute, she told me, offers experienced teachers R2 million a year—only for them to get poached, she complained, with fatter offers like R5 million from newer places like ETOOS, a South Korean coaching conglomerate that started operations in Kota in May 2011. These are phenomenal salaries for young men and women just three or four years out of engineering college, which describes most of the faculty in these institutes.

The scale of poaching in coaching is apparent from the hoardings and brochures. AG Sir and NA Sir of ETOOS, who feature on Road No 1 hoardings, are both “Ex-Sr Faculty, Bansal’s”, while the adjacent SK Sir is “Ex-Sr Faculty, Allen”. Among 17 Career Point faculty members whose photos grace one page in the institute’s promotional booklet, 11 used to be at Allen. Vibrant’s brochure lists five stellar former students who were “taught by members of Vibrant Team in Previous Institute”. Allen’s leaflet has photos of 84 faculty; 40 are “Ex-Faculty Bansal Classes”.

Round and round we go; get hired, get poached, make more money, drive faculty salaries ever higher, but wear the Previous Institute as a badge of honour nevertheless. So when Allen uses the word “stable” in its brochure to describe its faculty team, you know why. You also wonder how accurate it really can be.

Nitin Jain of Vibrant shares my engineering alma mater, Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) Pilani (though he was several years junior to me). While I spent 20 years in industry after graduating, Jain stopped after two and started teaching at Bansal’s. In 14 years, “Ninja”—as his students called him—built a reputation as one of Bansal’s best physics teachers. So when he and six others left in 2009, it was a big blow to Bansal.

Chatting in his office on the first floor of the Vibrant tower, Jain spoke at length about faculty in Kota, explaining in an oblique way the constant ferment among the institutes. “The teachers here,” he said, “are of outstanding calibre. You can’t compare them to school teachers.” They need to be that good since they are teaching “students of the highest calibre”. So most of them are like him, graduates of the country’s best engineering colleges, BITS and IITs included.

But it’s not enough to merely hire such graduates. “We also have to keep working on new things,” he said. “We have to be innovative.” To that end, they follow mathematics Olympiads, watch lectures online at great universities like MIT, and are always on the hunt for new problems. This is how they differ from teachers in schools—“those guys are not knowledge seekers”—where the management does not invest in such things. But at Kota’s coaching institutes, said Jain, “our horizon is not limited to just books. We have to perform, or students will go elsewhere.”

Elsewhere in Kota, of course. Which is in itself a comment on the phenomenal growth of the coaching industry here. Until the late 1980s, Kota had chemical factories, Kota stone, textiles and that was about it. Not trivial, but perhaps without too much growth potential—and in any case, some of it was dying. Then Bansal Sir began coaching around his legendary dining table, and an industry was born. As it has come of age over two decades, a town has been transformed. Kota’s economy is now fueled primarily by coaching classes. Other things do happen here—for example, the government firm Instrumentation Limited has a large presence, and there are two fertilizer factories. But above all else, this is the coaching capital of the country.

Not that coaching doesn’t happen elsewhere. By now, classes like these are the great engines of education throughout India. If Kota’s institutions prepare you for engineering and medical entrance tests, elsewhere kids get coached as early as primary school—and the great demand for tuitions provides an excellent living for a growing class of teachers-for-hire. My bank’s “relationship manager”, for example, a smiling young MBA graduate tasked with looking after the banking needs of “Preferred Customers” like me, recently resigned from his job to start coaching middle-school kids in mathematics. Why, I asked? “The money’s better,” he said, simply. An establishment called Chate’s Classes used to blanket Mumbai with full-page ads featuring their various school-leaving exam toppers over the years, always with an exhortatory parable from the big man, Prof Macchindra Chate. Here’s a sample:

In Ravindranath Tagore’s poem, ‘Alice in Wonderland’: Alice soaks beauty of the nature while merrily wandering. She abruptly stops at some distance, since there are two pathways in two different directions. She is confused to choose the correct path. Suddenly a cat arrives. She asks the cat the query she has. ‘Which way you want to lead?’ the cat asks. Alice says, ‘I haven’t yet decided.’ The cat reply’s ‘Then follow any way, it doesn’t make any difference.’ Same is the case with many students.

Peculiar stuff? Undoubtedly. But the very fact that Chate could afford to showcase his head-scratching koans in enormous newspaper advertisements suggests how much money there is in coaching. Kota’s breakthrough was to concentrate much of this business in one town.

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO SPEND TWO YEARS or more in this city? At Bon Appetit, a cafe in the Bansal’s building (a sign proclaims: “When She Says ‘Dutch’, She Means You’re Cheap”), I met Aniket and Romil, young men eating a mid-morning snack off partitioned thalis. They were doing their “13th”—a Kota innovation that allows students who don’t pass the IIT entrance exam after their 12th to spend an extra year in Kota and try again.

“Classes go from eight to two every day,” said Aniket. As a cafe attendant spooned a pile of rice with peas onto his plate, Romil piped up with “but we get six to seven hours of homework every day too”. The homework is the famous Bansal Sir innovation, Daily Practice Problems (DPP) sheets in each subject: some 10-20 problems to be solved for the next day. Aniket showed me the previous day’s mathematics DPP sheet, which covered something called “Monotonicity”. Trying to solve it, he had been up till past midnight.

“It’s mental torture,” Romil went on, and as if this was a double act, Aniket piped up with: “We don’t even get any time for sports!” As if on cue, they rose and excused themselves. “Class!” said Romil, smiling apologetically as they rushed off. He had not finished his rice.

That night, a friend arranged for me to meet three female students at their nearby hostel. Sixteen years old and in the 11th at Vibrant, all three were busy working on that day’s physics DPP sheet, involving waves, when I interrupted. “The load is such that we have to work most of the day on our problems”, said Sonali, the most talkative of the three, who was wearing pink pajamas. “But it’s OK, because we know what we’re here for.”

Why had they chosen Vibrant and not, say, Bansal’s? They thought that over for a few seconds and Rushika answered: “As you know, six to seven good Bansal’s faculty left to start Vibrant”—the others nodded; she meant Nitin Jain and his colleagues—“and my brother told me Vibrant is better.” But Sonali had a pertinent observation: “I’ve seen Bansal’s problem sheets, they are much easier than ours. It’s better that the sheets are hard.”

“But not too hard!” said Rushika. “I have two or three friends who found it so hard here, they got depressed and went home. As you know,”—Rushika had a way of assuming I knew things—“we are so far from home and we miss our families.”

The third girl, Isha, interjected: “We have no time to miss our families, we are so busy with work!”

Rushika said: “But I miss my family!”

A few days later, I met Prathamesh, who had just left Kota. When he joined Bansal’s, he was assigned, based on how he had performed in their entrance test, to a “batch” labelled “K6”. According to him, this allotment reflected Bansal’s assessment of how he would do in the IIT-JEE. His set of entering Bansalites was split into batches labelled from J1 (the highest rankers) to J10, then K1 to K10 (the lowest), with about 60 students in each batch. K6, thus, was not far off the bottom. Based on your performance on monthly review tests, you shuffle up or down the line. By the end of his 11th standard, Prathamesh had done well enough to rise to K1.

The 12th brought new students, new batches, new labels: descending from A1 to A10, and then all the way to D10. “I got up to B5,” said Prathamesh, blinking modestly, “and that was pretty decent by my standards.” Still, at some point in that second year, he realised the IITs were not for him. He left to study economics in Mumbai.

“Plus,” he said, “I can now pursue my real passion—theatre.”

But why these batches? They serve to focus the best coaching on the best prospects. The teachers with the most experience and the finest reputations—“the stars”, Prathamesh called them, probably the ones on the hoardings—teach the higher-ranked batches. If you’re an ambitious sort and you’re slotted in one of the lower batches, the review tests offer you a route to better teaching. But since your scores are cumulative, as the months and tests go by, it becomes progressively harder to move up the scale.

Later, I spoke to Hardik, who was at the time studying for an MA in literature in Delhi. In 2006, he had spent several months at Bansal’s at a time when the batches went P1 to P5 and Q1 to Q5—he was a Q5 student. (For another take on how coaching has grown, compare 10 batches in 2006 to Prathamesh’s mention of 20 and 40.) He never performed well enough in the review tests to rise from that nadir. “The batch system made us feel terrible about ourselves,” he said. Some teachers would say: “Q5 ho to kisi kaaran ke liye ho” (“If you’re in Q5, there’s a reason for it”), and “IIT har kisi ki bas ka nahin hai” (“Not everyone is fit to be at IIT”).

The senior administrator at one of the big institutes who I spoke to hinted at some of all this as well. “Kota is for kids who like competition,” she said. “These big city kids? They are spoiled. That’s why they like to come here to prepare for IIT.”

The competition, the relentless hours, the taunts, the homework, the pressure, not to forget the veneration lavished on the few who pass the IIT exam: all this hangs in the air, perceptible even to a visitor wandering around Kota. The setting shapes so many lives to such a great extent that two Kota students, Harsh Agarwal and Nitish Rajpurohit, wrote a novel about their experience that is widely available in the city. Life in a Nutshell, let me be frank, is no Hemingway or Seth. The writing is truly execrable. It sports the familiar ISBN barcode on its back cover, but on closer look you realise the number printed below is not an ISBN code but a cellphone number. (I dialled it and had a nice chat with a friend of the authors.)

The book is so bizarre, so bad, that it is actually very good.

More important, it fills in the outlines of student life in Kota that Prathamesh, Rushika and my other interlocutors sketched. In it are the DPP sheets, the batches, the review tests, the long hours, the homework, the pressures. And, also, the occasional phrase or passage that serves as a telling exclamation mark.

The Kota institutes, protagonist Kshitij observes, are “rank-factories”. What Kota itself offers, above all, are “problems”. Of a friend in his 13th who is addicted to computer games, another friend observes: “His parents forcibly send [sic] him because they had a lot of expectation from him.… What we are watching now is his rebellious self.” And so Kshitij notes: “A new face of Kota was unveiled to me … how parents send their unwilling children in their expectations and their lives become hollow from inside.”

Yet there are highs: “I felt real love for studies the moment my results were good enough. It’s like a chain reaction. You study hard, you get good rewards, you get motivated by the success and feel confident, you again feel like real hard work and the captivating series goes on ... I was literally on cloud nine.”

AS WE STROLLED through the gathering dusk, Mr Sharma pointed discreetly to small clusters of mostly male students. “Look at them! What do you think they are doing?” To me, they looked like so many other young men, shooting the breeze on a crisp January evening. “No, no! They are waiting! It’s all corruption!”

But waiting for what?

“Girls!” Sharma exclaimed. “If you wait just half an hour, you’ll see them. They come to meet these boys.”

We didn’t wait. Walking on, Sharma pointed out a hostel, his voice so low that I had to lean closer to hear him. “That’s where the girl came from, and she walked over there”—a low house with a “To-Let” sign—“and from there, she and the boy went to Bihar.” Another girls’ hostel: “Stand here any morning at five, you’ll see rickshaws stopping and boys getting out and going in.” Elsewhere, it’s the girls who get out and go into boys’ hostels. So said Mr Sharma.

At the temple where our wandering eventually took us, Sharma said mournfully: “They come here too. After all, what does it take? Give the caretaker R50, and even a religious place like this becomes an adda for corruption.”

I didn’t know about that. But it was a peaceful, clean and colourful temple, with several students—boys and girls—sitting around and talking quietly. I took off my shoes and entered a narrow corridor to do a short parikrama, a walk around the idol.

What was in the stretch of corridor behind the idol came as a completely unexpected eye-opener.

The walls, on both sides, were covered with graffiti. In Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, English and several other tongues, these were student appeals to divine help. A sample:

* “Just want IIT I love my Dad and Mom.”

* “Help! Me Nikhil Raj.”

* “Oh God I know that I have all the abilities to clear IIT-JEE w/ best possible rank. All I need is your blessings.”

* “Plz help me, I just want my parents for happy [sic] by Getting Selected in IIT.”

The longest of these was in large black letters, starting at eye level and reaching the ground:

Dear God! Pragya here. I wd juz lyk to request you to be wid me now and forever. I came to Kota as an IIT aspirant but now, I sumhow feel dat im losing my past, I wud juz lyk you to show me light along the way thru IIT. My parents and friends and relative’s hopes for me are never ending and I cannot disappoint them at any cost. Plz help me concentrate on my studies. Thz the peak time IF NOT NOW THEN NEVER. I need to fare gud in boards too. Plz guide me and my friends in our respective aims. Plz keep me and my family and friends and relatives happy. Take care of the strangers too. Thanking you for whatever you give me, I wudn’t have been better nyways. Seeking your blessing.

Outside, Mr Sharma greeted me with a smile and resumed his tales of student tenants and corruption. I was distracted, though, by the mental image of a young lady squatting to scribble sms-style on a wall: “I sumhow feel dat im losing my past.”

THIS IS A PLACE FOR NAMES—for the different courses at the various coaching establishments: Bull’s Eye, Acme, Nucleus, Sterling. Nurture, Enthusiast, Leader, Achiever. Micro, Nano, Mega, Googol. Vikaas, Vipul, Vijeta, Vishwaas, Vishesh, Vijay. Foundation, Fresher, Target.

This is a place for slogans: “Where Education Moulds Personality and Education is a Culture”; “Where Creative Minds Shape Their Dreams”; “A Guidance For Your Bright Future”; “Where Faith Counts the Success”; “Class With a Rewind Button”; “Providing a Solid Foundation”; “Bringing the Smiles of the Future”; “Now Any Dream Can Become a Reality With Us”; “The Passward [sic] for CRACKING IIT-JEE”; “Thinking Minds in Action”.

That last belongs to what I suspect is yet another coaching spinoff: a “Parenting Consultant” enterprise named “iBigWonder”, complete with its Apple-style prefix.

Then there’s the feature that, along with attractions like “Best Faculty” and “Open Sessions” and “Doctor in Campus”, both Career Point and Allen claim for themselves: “Indiscriminate Teaching”.

This is a place for endless sheafs of notes and books that make hay off the coaching juggernaut. I came away with Bansal’s last 12 entrance tests bundled into a book. With Er VV Joglekar’s (man of the above-mentioned “passward”) enticingly named “Magical Short Tricks on Trigonometry”—who doesn’t want short tricks?—which turns out to be one more large collection of solved problems. With notes from Bansal titled “Solution of Triangle”, “Permutations and Combinations” and “Probability”.

That last one features an early few lines that, to me, signal the pitfalls of education that focuses relentlessly on solving problems, rather than on concepts and encouraging thinking. “If the probability of a certain event is one,” it says, “it doesn’t mean that event is going to happen with certainty!” And to go with that: “Similarly if the probability of certain event is zero, it doesn’t mean that the event can never occur.”

As anyone with a basic concept of probability will confirm, this is absurd. In probability, one means certainty, zero means no chance—period. This is fundamental to any understanding of the subject, and to more advanced mathematics that builds on these foundations (and then explores exceptions). For it to be so effectively undermined is like teaching a student that the sun doesn’t necessarily set in the west or rise in the east.

This is a place for claims made on publicity brochures. Vibrant got 672 students into IIT in 2010, 822 in 2011. Allen had 276 in 2010, 218 in 2011. Resonance: 1,652 in 2010, 1,816 in 2011. Bansal’s, perhaps befitting the pioneer in the field, makes no claims on its handout.

Then there’s Shubham Mehta, a Kota student who ranked second in the country (“AIR-2”, for “All India Rank”) in the 2011 IIT-JEE. Coaching classes are, naturally, quick to advertise their successes. So you will find a photograph of “Our Ambassadors of IIT-JEE 2011” in the Allen building, among whom is Shubham. But you will also find a large “Victory 2011” photograph of students on a wall in the Resonance building, among whom is the very same Shubham.

This is a place for schools. When students come to Kota to work towards the IIT exam, they still have to sit for their 12th Standard board exams. For that, you can enroll in a school at home, or in one of several Kota schools. Rushika, for example, was officially a student at A’s Saint Steward Morris Convent School in her hometown, Bhilwara. Her two friends were enrolled in two Kota schools, but neither could tell me their names.

A student studies in his room at one of the many hostels in Kota that serve the coaching industry. SAURABH DAS / AP PHOTO

Puzzled by this stuff—that Rushika was enrolled in a school hundreds of miles away, that her pals could not remember their schools’ names—I walked one morning into one such school, in Talwandi. A man ushered me straight into the principal’s narrow office. From behind a desk that seemed to fill the room, he told me all I needed to know: annual fees R35,000, admission guaranteed as long as you are admitted to one of the coaching institutes, attendance required once a week.

“Once a week?” I asked. “But even once in two weeks is OK with us,” he replied (“chalega” was the word he used).

“Dummy” schools, of course: everyone in Kota knows about them. Kids enroll not to attend, but only so they can take their board exam. At dinner one evening, a friend told me that the Talwandi school I had visited has 40 or 50 students per class until the 10th. In the 11th, enrollment suddenly swells to 500 per class. Dummy students, too.

This is a place for a certain confidence, an awareness of the place coaching has occupied in modern India. “Coaching has come about because there was a demand for it,” Nitin Jain told me in his Vibrant office, and he’s only one of several in Kota who speak this way. “If people see it as a burden on students, there’s only one way to get rid of that burden.”

And what is that?

“There need to be equally attractive alternative career options.” Alternatives, that is, to engineering and medicine.

And what happens when the format of the IIT-JEE exam changes, as it will probably do in 2013?

“No problem, really. The philosophy is here. The infrastructure is here. Adapting to any other exam is not an issue.”

BUT FINALLY, THIS IS A PLACE—as the protagonist, Kshitij, observes in Life in a Nutshell—for problems. (“The thing which the city had most to offer – PROBLEMS.”)

At Vibrant, for example, several glass-fronted cases displayed the solutions of recently-held review tests. Thus it happened that I puzzled over this problem chosen at random: “If P and T are second-period P-block elements, then which of the following graphs show correct relation between valence electrons in P2 to T2 (corresponding molecules) and their bond order?”

And this answer, also chosen at random: “They resolve their centre of mass with same time period in same sense of rotation (CW or ACW) so that CoM remains stationary.”

And another question that involved “initial milli-moles” and “final milli-moles”.

None of these made more than minimal sense to me. But these and thousands more problems are generated every day, in every one of these coaching institutes, in several different subjects, for a myriad of classes and books and notes and discussions and test papers and sample test papers and DPP sheets and even the obverse of G Joshi Sir’s blue-gray leaflets that gather dust on the side of Road No 1 in Kota.

How does this happen? Who thinks up these problems? Who works out the solutions? Does solving a two-year-long (sometimes three-year-long) stream of problems constitute learning?

Does it even matter, if you get into IIT?