Student walking past posters displaying 1st rankers for various coaching institutes in Kota
Noida, July, 2023. It’s 10.30 on a murky Monday night. The roads are marooned, traffic snarls have become deafening, dark clouds look menacing, and an anxious mother is unnerved by continuous rumbling. “I don’t know if the help has closed the windows of his room,” wonders the doctor who takes me to a room on the second floor of a building. She opens the door which has a partially-torn poster that reads ‘enter at your own risk’, reaches out for a switch on the left, and screams in anger. “I told you so many times to replace the bulb,” she shouts at her husband who has just returned from work. “But you are so stubborn.”
The rumbling continues outside, and it starts to pour heavily. “Get a bulb and fix it now,” she continues with her rant, takes a smartphone out of her pocket, and turns on the flashlight. “This is my son’s room,” she says. The small space is filled with a musty smell. “He used to call it a ‘den’,” she adds. “Here’s his study table,” the mother affectionately points towards the extreme corner. The room is in a mess. Two soiled T-shirts, a blue denim, a hand towel, and a few notebooks are scattered across the bed.
The study table is plastered with sticky notes. Some are reminders about maths’ coaching timing, some have a few motivational words scribbled like ‘hustle’, and then there are a cluster of equations and formulae jotted down on bright fluorescent sheets. “The room is always in a mess, but this is how he loved it,” she continues. “Please don’t touch anything on his table,” comes a stern warning. “We don’t do it, and we don’t want anybody to do it.”
Meanwhile, the husband obliges, and the room gets illuminated after 10 minutes. The father drags a chair, adjusts the backrest height and sinks into it. The innocuous act, though, provokes his wife. “Why are you using his chair?” she seethes. “You won’t touch any of his things. Nothing at all,” she howls. “Is it clear?” she asks. The husband tries to calm her down. “I am sorry. But let’s not fight,” he pleads.
For long, quarrelling was almost a daily ritual for the couple. Though the intensity had come down considerably over the last 12 months, at times, they flared. In fact, the last time when the duo engaged in an exacting war of words was when their son expressed his inability to continue with his gruelling engineering coaching. It was last January. The boy didn’t join a college, took a break for a year and joined a coaching class. “He wanted to become a doctor, and you forced him to prepare for IIT,” the mother vents her frustration. Her husband defends himself and justifies his act. “He had my genes, he was good at maths and computers,” he says. “I knew he could easily crack IIT.”
A few months into coaching, there were clear and visible signs that the boy was not able to cope with the intensity. He would have frequent anxiety attacks, he started flunking in mock tests, and also skipped online classes. There would be days when he wouldn’t interact with his parents, and wouldn’t play the guitar. Music, his mother emphasised, was something that he loved most. He was in his school band, learnt the instrument for six years, and was planning to start his own music group. “But then you said that he wanted to become a doctor,” I asked out of curiosity. The idea was not to offend her, but to dig deeper into what the child wanted to pursue in life.
The answer was in unintentional conditioning. She wanted him to become a doctor, would take him regularly to hospitals so that he could get a hang of the profession, but the poor child’s heart was in guitar. “He was a big fan of BTS,” she says. “But I never pressurised him.”
Pressure, nevertheless, kept mounting. It had been two years since the boy was out of school. He couldn’t clear the engineering exams in the first year, some of his friends did, and some were allowed by their parents to live their dream. It means a life without the looming shadow of JEE and medical. One of his friends, in fact, had gone abroad to study music. Also read: Why is the UK questioning the relevance of arts courses?
Back in India, the second year was do-or-die for the young lad. Almost cut off from his social circle, he used to spend hours either on coaching or locking himself inside the room. “He stopped seeing his friends,” recalls the mother. “He once confided that his friends made fun of him and branded him as a failure,” she says, adding that her son was under tremendous pressure. “But all of us have to handle pressure,” says the engineer father. “He couldn’t.” A doting mother aggressively defends her son. “It has been a year,” she exclaimed. “And you are still so disgusting,” she said. “Don’t you have a conscience?” she fumed. “He was our son. Stop insulting his intelligence,” she pleads. For the next 30 minutes, both kept arguing.
Meanwhile, in February last year, the son mustered courage to verbally take on his father. “I can’t do this. Please let me pursue music,” he implored. His father, though, exploded in anger. He went to his son’s room, pulled down all the posters of BTS hanging on the walls, and broke the guitar by banging it on the floor. The young lad was devastated. “I gave you the best school, best life, best food and all the money to spend,” he started furiously scolding his son. “All I wanted was just one thing,” he reprimanded. The son kept mum, his mother didn’t utter a single word, and the father kept howling.
An hour later, the couple again had a fight. This time, the wife wanted to inject some sense into her husband. “Please let him study music,” she requested. “It has been enough. Please let us give back his life,” she continued. The man remained emotionless. “They got an easy life. We struggled, studied hard and made a mark,” he said. “He is just a failure.” Also read: Deconstructing ancient worlds to build our own: The case of education
A year later, in Noida, the doctor talks about success and failure. “You failed. I failed. We are failures,” the mother suddenly collapses on the floor, and starts sobbing inconsolably. “He will never come back,” she stares at her husband. “He is gone,” she starts howling. Her husband tries to console her. He too breaks down. It has been almost two and a half hours that the couple has been in the room of their son who committed suicide last June. The boy left a one-line suicide note: I am sorry. I failed both of you. The mom opens her photo gallery on her phone and shows the note. “We failed him. He didn’t fail,” she says in a choked voice.
I didn’t know what to do, how to console, how to make them feel comfortable. After a few minutes, I take their permission and step out of the room. As I walked down the stairs, I could still hear her cries. Meanwhile, it had stopped raining. I took a cab, but the smiling face of the 20-year-old boy kept flashing in front of my eyes. His parents are in his room, but the chair is empty. He will never come back. (Disclaimer: The identities of the couple have not been disclosed to protect their privacy)