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'I had been disqualified from India's rat race'

December 29, 2009 18:35 IST

A foreign education is commonly considered an option for the already well-educated or the well-heeled. Few consider it an option for those who are perhaps not suited to the Indian education system. Maybe it should be.

Aruni Mukherjee hails from a middle-class Bengali family in Kolkata. He wasn't a topper in school, but he went from struggling to make the grade in school to graduate from the University of Warwick with a BA (Honours) in History and Politics. He shares his journey to UK school and university despite his lack of scholarly achievements.

Not many people appreciate the grindings of life faced by a teenager in Kolkata (and perhaps the whole of India).

A person with average intelligence and minimal panache for burning the midnight oil learning about minerals in the London basin (or was it Paris?) quickly finds himself falling further and further behind in the Indian rat race that begins in Class IX. I was a mediocre escapist who at the age of 15 did not spend his evenings after school attending 'Additional Mathematics' tuition, although I did tell my parents I was going there when I left the house.

To the dismay of my rapidly diminishing circle of 'friends' (the size of your friend circle usually depends on the 90 plus figures on your mark sheet), I used to play cricket instead. Soon I discovered that I was the oldest amongst my group of to-be Sachins, since other boys in Class IX definitely could not (and did not) excel in class and enjoy life at the same time. I felt horrible when the half-yearly exam results were announced and I had done poorly in most subjects. So you see, it's not like I didn't care. It's just that I wasn't good enough to survive this rat race.

Like the scores of weaker wildebeest who are too tired from their trek across the masai mara to evade the snapping jaws of the crocodiles while crossing rivers, it was soon dawning on me that I was not meant to be selected as one of modern India's survivors. My parents were obviously disappointed with their son not treading the beaten path as well as they may have hoped. Perhaps they wondered how it could be so difficult for me, when other children seemed to have no trouble with this lifestyle. Perhaps they lamented the fact that I was not destined to be a success. To their credit, they never spelled out their disappointment. But I felt like a failure, as if my life wasn't worth living as it was so obviously going in the wrong direction.

It's not like I was passionate about sports or music or had any other interests. The one thing that obsessed me in the late 90s was the school stories written by Enid Blyton in the 1950s. The books such as the Naughtiest Girl and St Clare's series described the world of my dreams. The boarding school life that the books so vividly depicted became the only thing for which my heart skipped several beats. We had just had a computer installed in our house and little did my parents realise that it was later to prove to be one of the most momentous occasions in my life. My dreams were given eyes as I feverishly started browsing the websites of the leading public schools in Britain.

At this point I was simply exploring -- the thought of actually being able to study there had not yet occurred to me. But the world that this exploration frenzy opened up for me had me mesmerised, and I became ever more certain of giving it a shot. I ordered dozens of prospectuses which arrived in fat A4 envelopes to the utter amusement of my parents. At this point they didn't realise that I was more than just window shopping. I had found the first piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my life, which had been higgledy piggledy for so long. As with many middle-class dreams, mine too were detached from reality. The fees at the schools I was salivating over were in excess of GBP15,000 a year, more than just petty cash for a household whose total annual income did not exceed GBP4,000.

My parents had looked after my future well. They had in place insurance policies which would pay out a lump sum when I would reach the age of 18 or 21. However, I had thrown them off track with my wild ideas -- it was unfair of me to even contemplate asking them for such unimaginable sums, that too for school education. And even if I did ask, where would they find such sums from? The situation was hopeless. Yet I decided not to worry about the details (albeit the devil resided within them) and apply anyway. Mind you, all this was happening without my parents having the slightest inkling. For all they knew, I was doing what other teenagers in other houses were doing -- playing online games, visiting inappropriate websites and chatting on the rapidly sprouting chat rooms. I had narrowed down my search to two institutions -- Brighton College and Brentwood School -- both eminent, historic and eye-wateringly expensive institutions of excellence.

For the latter, I was e-mailed a question paper (for the entrance cum scholarship exam) which I could complete and submit online (which I promptly did, ignoring my Class IX annual exam studies). For the former, a question paper was posted to my headmaster for him to arrange a timed exam for me. And this was when the penny dropped as far as my parents were concerned. What infuriated me most was the fact that my parents did not take me seriously. With hindsight, I understand why they thought I was on a wild goose chase. I would have behaved exactly the same way had I been in their position. My father was insistent that I focus on my 'real' life which was unfolding before my eyes with me
headed for a poor result in my Class IX final exams. My mother shared my pain but was helpless amidst the monetary straitjackets that my dreams came attached with.

It is often said that nobody understands a child better than its mother. This may be cliche, but it's true. My mother had a crystal ball through which she could see me standing in the queue for admission in a third-class college and then a puny
job and finally witnessing my life sinking within the abyss of irrelevance and oblivion of being one amidst the hundreds of millions of India's nameless nobodies. If there was one person who felt hopelessly helpless at her inability to contribute towards the betterment of her son's future, it was my  mother. The one thing which my parents did not do was hinder my efforts. They allowed me to sit the Brighton exam, and off went the papers.

The teachers at my school who knew about my efforts were unsure whether to ridicule me or pity my craziness. The Class IX final results came, and predictably they were terrible. I got 27 per cent in the 'Additional Mathematics' paper which was obviously a fail. I was promoted to Class X 'with warning'. I cried profusely and promised my parents
(untruthfully) that I would work harder in Class X. In reality I was praying to God to do something so that I wouldn't have to spend even a day in the damned Class X. And then came the responses from afar that I had been checking my e-mails five times a day for.

Brighton was impressed -- they offered me a scholarship, Brentwood was even more impressed -- they offered a more generous one. I had called out in pain, and India had scoffed at my inadequacy. But England had answered. How did I do so well? For starters, the British syllabus allowed students to choose subjects across streams. For example, I wanted to study History, Politics, Business Studies and Information Technology -- an impossible combination for Class XI and XII students in India. I sat the scholarship papers in History, a subject which I enjoyed. Of course I didn't get the highest mark in History at my school in Kolkata (memorising 900 pages was not my forte). But what the British
schools wanted was a passion for the past, a keen eye for research and a skill to present the facts around the central argument of the historian (ie not book learning). Of course there was an anti-climax in this whole fairytale.

What was left of the fees even after the scholarship was still not affordable for my parents. My dreams for a new life had been dangled in front of my eyes only (it seemed) to be snatched away ever so cruelly. I needed an angel. And I found one -- the most unlikely character ever to have played that role. My uncle is loud, opinionated and often angry at what he perceives to be other people's incompetence or downright dishonesty. Sometimes I can't believe this quintessentially boisterous Bengali man worked as a successful engineer in Atlanta for 30-odd years. Sensitivity (at least outward demonstration of feelings) is not a trait I often associate with the man even to this day.

There were many children in my generation in our extended family. But for some reason he always took an interest in what I was doing with my life (which was not much until now). I remember by coincidence he was visiting India in 2001 when all this drama was unfolding. One day he took me aside and asked me the same question. I remember breaking down and crying uncontrollably just as I had done on several occasions in front of my mother (who had comforted me and silently loathed her inability to catapult me out of this nightmare). I remember my jethu shifting uneasily in his chair, not knowing how to react or console me. We didn't discuss this issue again and he left for the US shortly afterwards.

A few weeks ensued without event, and then an e-mail pinged my father's inbox. "Laltu (my father's pet name), your son has gone through a lot to win a scholarship in England. He can't tolerate the life in Kolkata and I feel he will excel if we fulfil his wish. Therefore, I shall take responsibility of his education at Brentwood. I am not asking you, just letting you know. Dada."

The bombshell this e-mail had dropped in my house was unimaginable. My mother was quietly elated, but put up a sceptical face on the outside since she did not want to take anything for granted until it materialised. My father was initially hesitant to accept such a generous gift from my uncle, but he never opposed his brother. As far as I was concerned, I was too overwhelmed with unparalleled happiness to even contemplate thanking my uncle for the hand he had extended to a drowning person.

I felt I could jump from my terrace and still survive. Why wouldn't I? I had wings. I did not sit in a Class X classroom. I did not attend another tuition. I did not turn over the 451st page of my Life Science book (the Class X chapters). I did not read another line and re-read it with my eyes shut in order to memorise it. I vividly remember the confusion and
wonderment in the eyes of my classmates when it was announced that I was leaving Kolkata for England -- I was beaming since it was so evident that none of them had even contemplated such a thing for themselves. Nor did they need to, they were doing well anyway.

I had been disqualified from India's rat race. I was deemed unworthy of the honour bestowed upon the brightest of India's students -- that of perhaps attending an IIT or IIM. I had been banished henceforth from the echelons of India's elite. I was the scruffy mongrel in a beauty pageant for poodles. But no matter, I shall make it where I had always dreamt to be. When I was deemed not good enough to succeed in India, England had given me hope. I was useless in India, but perhaps I could find some use for myself in lands further Westward.

The passport papers came and went to the Indian government, the visa papers came and went to Her Majesty's government, and on August 31, 2001, I found myself inside Dum Dum Airport for the first time in my life, about to board the British Airways flight to London Heathrow for my first plane journey. A new world beckoned, my dream beckoned; I could hear the rustling of the trees that adorn England's greenest hills, I could feel the chill of an English autumn from thousands of miles afar. This was my chance, an opportunity that was to be the making of me. I had goose bumps and spine tinglings through out the entire 10-hour flight.

Ahoy  Britain, I was coming.

Aruni Mukherji