Life in India

The Ridiculous SSLC Board Exam Topper Circus

The Culmination of the Highest-Pressure Year of Growing Up is an Absolute Farce

By the time Std.9 was over, all energies of the Universe was directed at making us cram our everlasting lives out preparing for those final two “boards” weeks. The tension and stress was unbearable. Forget sports and so-called extra-curricular activities, even sleep had to be put aside in preparation for the coming war. All imaginable arrangements and a long list of accessories including Black Coffee, tuition classes, special classes, answer guides, textbook guides, previous question papers, question banks, model tests for model exams, coaching classes, memory tests and so on were put at our disposal for excellence in SSLC to be achieved, in addition to countless offerings to countless Gods. The pressure was enormous with thousands of eyes looking upon us, waiting like vultures to tear us apart with rank-related queries like “Oh, you are in tenth no? You will get a rank, right?” People would whisper “Shh he is in 10th!” as I passed them on the road. And I am sure even without the rank-frenzy, the pressure on today’s kids will be many times of what we had endured 15 years ago. Such was the pressure that it took all my willpower to keep the focus on the cute girls in my class. But still, looking back, I hardly remember anything at all about the exam days other than those expectations weighing down upon me like a wet blanket. It was so unbearable that I wonder how I survived at all. But once it was over, the long and even more agonizing wait for the results started, screws getting tighter with each passing day.

Success. 3D. Finish


And the Results are Out!!

Nothing could beat the frenzy of the “results day”. This auspicious day which would fall on the 26th/27th of May every year and was the most important day in the life for any 15/16 year old in Kerala those days. The frenzy would start at around 3 in the afternoon when the education minister, no less, would give a press conference declaring the results officially open! As SMS alerts or websites did not exist yet, newspapers were the only source to know these results, resulting in a mad scramble for these special evening papers, causing mass deforestation every May. Heartbeats would skip, fists would pump the air, tears would flow, laughter would echo and jubilation would occur in some homes, celebrated with crackers, Laddus and Biriyani while heartbreak would happen in some others, some of which would resemble funeral homes not because of failure, but because the “Rank” was missed. Yes, the heroes of the day would invariably be the three or five people who scored the most in the state, the coveted “Rank Holders”, the people who topped the state. Their moment of glory in the sun had arrived! To have your “Name and photo appear in the newspaper” (പത്രത്തില്‍ പേരും പടവും വരുക), today a part of the Malayalee colloquial vocabulary as a synonym to “become famous and achieve everything in life” can trace its origins to the SSLC Results Circus. It is known that we make heroes out of everything and anybody on levels far more than what they deserve, and these kids were no exception. It almost seemed that these “toppers” were some kind of war heroes who did some outstanding service for the country or something for this totally personal achievement. In fact, we were hammered and hounded saying SSLC is “the most important turning point” in our lives when in fact, it was nothing more than another end-of-year examination.

The Great Topper Felicitation Media Circus

The media hype and glamor associated with state toppers, ranks, and rank holders ridiculously bordered the absurd. As soon as the results were declared, reporters would scramble to outrace each other to reach the “Rank holders” first and get their “exclusive” interviews. The entire thing would turn into a media circus complete with Newspaper and TV channel interviews, minister and celebrity visits and a parade of countless felicitations and receptions and trophies and medals which would turn a Miss Universe winner green with envy. All kinds of freebies and presents would be showered upon them, including half an hour free “air trips” and trips to Ooty. For the 5 or 7 people under the arc lights, lakhs were deliberately made to feel like losers and were looked down upon even though they might have done their best on their own rights. But unless you were (are) a “Rank Holder” you are worthless and as Orkut says (said), “No Donuts for you!” Back to the circus.

As soon as the results were declared and superstardom for a day achieved, the kids would be briefed on proper interview etiquette by everyone around. Soon, mike-wielding reporters arrive with cameramen in tow, and the celebrations would begin. Some soundbites:

Reporter: “How do you feel right now?”

Rank Holder: “Wow! It is a dream come true. I did expect a result but…. I would like to thank my school, principal, parents, teachers, (some) classmates and lucky pen.”

Reporter: “What are your studying methods?”

Rank Holder: “Oh nothing, I don’t really study all that much. I study whenever I get time from all my extra-curricular activities ranging from Taekwondo and Fencing to captaining the school football and drama teams. I just flip through the textbooks once a while and totally chill out on the exam day, because you shouldn’t have tension, you see.” Mom chimes in: “We never tell him/her to study. It is all natural, you know.”

Re: “What are your future plans?”

RH: “I always wanted to become a <Engineer, Doctor, Civil Service (IAS), Pilot, Scientist, Astronaut…> to serve society better. Now I can achieve that.”

Re: “What are your hobbies?”

RH: “Reading, Stamp Collection, Dancing, Singing, hanging out with friends…”

Re: “Could you sing a song for us?”

RH: *Blush*

Re: “What do you read other than studies?”

RH: “Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Shakespeare, Naipaul…”

Re: “Who is your favorite film star??” (#facepalm)

RH: “Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwassaa…nger, James Bond, Sharukan and Mohanlal.”

Re: “Do you want to say something to your juniors?”

RH: “Studies are not everything. You should also play and enjoy life.”

The kids will still be clueless. “I always wanted to be a doctor. Now I can be one“. Well, don’t you have to clear the medical entrance and get into a Medical College first? How will a board exam rank make you a doctor?

The interviews would not stop at just the rank holder, but go on to siblings, parents, grand parents, the paperboy and the family dog. Cameramen would be falling over each other to get the best angle shots to be telecasted as BREAKING NEWS!! that evening. No matter even if they scored 95%, the “non-rank-holders” would be tossed by the wayside, ignored and even rebuked. No condolences, no “well done”s, no pats on the back or “you did the best you could”s. Because in this country coming second is as good as nothing. Though I was somewhat above average in studies I was far from scoring a rank and I knew it. I tried to make people understand that but no one would listen. Disappointment was written large on everyone’s faces after coming to know that I had scored ‘only‘ 90% in my SSLC exams, and I was forever cursed to live with the ignominy of having let down everyone who opened the newspaper on May 27, 1997, expecting my grinning face to be plastered all over the front page.

The Legacy of the Rank Holders. Where Are They Now?

Looking back at it all, I can only laugh at all that nonsense. Has anyone checked where all those celebrated “Rank Holders” of yesteryear have reached today? Did they turn out to be the Desi Einsteins, Teslas, Armstrongs or Dr.Bernards for all that they were celebrated for? Hardly. Some have of course reached great heights like Saudabi, while others might have found it useful to put it as an achievement in their matrimonial or LinkedIn profiles, but most of them have melted into the crowd. In the run of time, with their “mugging brilliance” rank-scoring talents being of no use in real life, the “rank holders” would have ended up as just another worker in front of another computer monitor in another random cubicle next to another far lesser grade holder, while many others faded away as run-off-the-mill professionals or housewives, most of the time rank-holder girls are married off as soon as they finish college, their “ranks” only good enough to attract parents of prospective grooms in the arranged marriage market. And many others might have ended up falling into obscurity reaching nowhere in life, some gone astray in celebration of their newly found adolescent freedom of college life, their glory and celebrations long forgotten like a light at the end of the world. Some even feel their rank-holding legacy “a burden and a curse”. At the same time, those who scored second and third class might had discovered competencies of the non-studious kind within themselves that might have taken them to far better avenues in life, past the erstwhile cream of the class of 1997. It would make good study to take up the lives rank holders of the past three decades and see where they have reached today, to showcase the hollowness of the entire topper-celebration-circus bullshit. I do know some real life examples, please do let know in the comments if you know of any.

Isometric Office Cubicles
Can you spot the Rank Holder?

Toppers and the Future of Generations

It almost seems the reason why “board” exams exist is to gauge how much mindless mugging up a 15-17 year old’s brain can do and to examine if the examinee is adept to progress ahead to write more pointless exams in the future to become victims of higher studies, for instance, B.Tech Victims. But, this is all long forgotten and “boards” today exist for the sole purpose of gratuitous displays of pomp and vanity. Now, barely after a couple of weeks after the great event of the results and all the thunder following it, all will be forgotten and the “rank-holders” will have to rub shoulders with ordinary folk in colleges, as unfortunately there are no “rank-holders only” colleges. The more intelligent will work on securing admission to a premier college by preparing more for entrance exams, as again, there are no quotas for rank-holders.

Though the ranking system has been replaced by the “grading” system today, the madness continues unabated as deluded people still push their wards to become the “topper” in class, partly because they are convinced that is the only way for the kids to have a future, and partly because they can gloat about it in their social circles. What goes unnoticed in the melee is the lives of students. Is there a point in cramming for board exams aiming at that topper rank? What difference does it make in the future except that you can brag about it? You will be fine as long as you secure enough to get into some good college, right? No.

This child is not asked for help with her Math problem.
This child is not asked for help with her Math problem.

It pains me to see the plight of all those kids going through exactly what I did, put through by parents who went through the same shit! Do they even think of all that stress eating those children away, making them depressed and unhappy? What memories will those children have of their school life and childhood, of twelve of the best and most glorious of their years spent in single-minded pursuit of some momentary glory that holds no real value? What social skills will those kids have? What will they learn that will really help them in later day-to-day life? How will mugging up Shakespeare’s stupid poems and solving meaningless equations full of ridiculous Tan – Sin – Cosine things help them? They will never learn how the world really works and how to take advantage of it, because studying for Ranks gives zilch knowledge on the much-needed street-smartness required to survive in our country. When they leave the warm nest of their parents’ protection and step into the cold, hard, real world and face the real problems of the real life, they will only be able to only gape helplessly, their equations and formulas useless, their textbooks offering no solutions to the adversities they face. This topper mania has destroyed generations of bright and talented young people of our country, churning out millions of close-minded, glorified coolies, clerks and paper pushers as the British wanted two centuries ago, and we want that to continue without a break! This grade-rank-topper mania is destroying the childhoods of today’s kids. It did affect mine and others of my age, sure, but never on the level of what is seen today. And people willingly push their children to go through all that pain they did! Incredible. Is this what they want their children to become? Do people want their children to become THEM all over again, what they are right now, trying to push them to become something they are not and will never be? It is all futile, I tell you.

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Mullapudi Srinivas

Well said…

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