What you see in Kota is in some ways, the new India. You know – the India that inspires adjectives like “aspirational”, that likes to think it is suddenly and overwhelmingly young, that eats at Domino’s and wears Hush Puppies and Whatsapps nonstop. Kota is that country in microcosm.

On any given day in that city, you’ll find floods of boys and girls pouring from the five big coaching establishments there – but also from the smaller ones – many somehow locating bikes in vast lots filled with thousands of them and riding off, the rest simply walking. They move along avenues lined with enormous cutouts of star instructors (“sirs”) and littered with discarded leaflets. They head for messes where they have meal plans. They head for the mall for some R&R. Eventually, they head for their small rooms in the hostels that mushroom everywhere everyday, or in Kota residents’ homes. The conscientious ones then buckle down to solving problems – for that’s what studying amounts to, in Kota. Several hours of that and it’s time to get some sleep.

The next morning, there’s time for a hurried breakfast and then the flood flows in reverse: into the five big coaching establishments – but also into the smaller ones. Several hours of coaching, and it’s back to the start of the previous paragraph.

This was just the way Kota came to me. My first sight of students was late one afternoon as they boiled out of their classes; late that night I spoke to a few kids in their hostels; early the next morning I stood on a street corner as they rushed past me into their classes. And even though I was to spend several more days soaking in the Kota experience, I never managed to shake the thought that came to me, fairly or not, that morning on the street corner: at least two years of this merry-go-round! Those two paragraphs above, repeated several hundred times.

Kids' stuff

What must it do to these kids? And make no bones about it: these are kids. The more usual Kota student arrives in her tenth standard, let’s say 15. But often enough, she –well, more often he – comes even two years earlier. “Kids” is the word. So what must this Kota experience do to them?

But first, what is the Kota experience? In a word, coaching. That is, you join one of the Kota establishments for at least two years of intensive coaching, because you want to get into one of this country’s elite colleges – typically one of the IITs, but there are also medical college aspirants in Kota. And to get into one of those colleges, you have to do well in a tough entrance test.

Taking just the IITs, that test is the Joint Entrance Examination, or the JEE. The pattern of the JEE has been changing, but that’s not important here, because it hasn’t changed the imperative of coaching. What is important is to understand just how hard it is to make it through the JEE. This year, over 1.2 million kids appeared for its first phase, the JEE Main. About 200,000 of those qualified for the JEE Advanced. While the 2016 results are not yet out, in each of the last two years, about 27,000 were offered admission into the IITs.

That is, about one in every 45 students who take the JEE actually make it into the IITs. Call it 2%.

That number puts in perspective what kids in Kota go through, day-in and day-out through their years there. Parents must know these odds. Yet every year lakhs point their kids towards the JEE and tens of thousands send their kids to Kota. Why do they subject their children to this grind? Because they know just what kind of a ticket to fortune an IIT degree is.

The pressure tells. Last September, one psychiatrist in Kota was quoted in a report saying students there grow depressed because of “invisible pressure” from parents, and the challenges of the coaching class life. But as an interested observer, you don’t even need to hear from psychiatrists to get an idea of the pressure. If it’s not already evident from the merry-go-round itself, it becomes crystal-clear when you visit the city’s Radhakrishna temple, one of whose walls has become a place for students to pour out their angst in screeds short and long.

“I just want my parents for happy by Getting Selected in IIT” and “Plz help Me My God to get good JEE rank!” are typical. Then this long one in SMS-lingo blew me away:

“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. Mr 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.”

What makes a young lady scrawl on a temple wall “I sumhow feel dat im losing my past”?

That question has been on my mind repeatedly over the last several months, with regular news of student suicides in Kota. There were nearly two dozen in 2015, and the pace kept up this year. In early March, for example, 19 year-old Arvind Kushwaha hung himself in his room. On April 17, 16-year-old Vaishnavi Tiberwal slit her wrists and neck in her bathroom.

On April 28, 17-year-old Kriti Tripathi wrote a five-page letter to her parents and then leaped to her death from the top of a building. Kriti had actually got through the JEE Mains exam – whose results had been declared the previous day – but did not want to study engineering.

“You manipulated me as a kid to like science," she wrote to her mother in the letter. “I took science to make you happy,” she went on, echoing Pragya’s lines on the temple wall. Begging her parents not to do similar “manipulative stuff” with her younger sister, she asked for what she herself never got: “She deserves to be allowed to explore and choose among fields.”

And this tragic confession: “I’ve started hating myself to the extent that I want to kill myself.”

Was Pragya alluding to something similar, in feeling that she was “losing my past”?

Alarmed by tragedies like these, over 40 of Kota’s coaching institutes jointly launched a 24-hour counselling helpline last September. It’s still too early to tell if it has been able to help depressed students and prevent suicides. It might be worth checking if that temple wall attracts less angst.

But there are wider lessons from the Kota experience. As long as we have fewer openings for an apparently good education than there are aspirants for one; as long as such education is seen as the only way to fulfil aspirations that cannot be contained; as long as those things hold, we will have coaching classes. We will have the pressure-cookers like Kota.

And we will have suicides.