It's crunch time for India's brightest

An intimate portrait of the lives of three high school girls from different strata of Indian society.

Ankana Daga is an Indian ninth-grader who shares many of the same tastes, interests, and habits as bright kids anywhere in the "globalized" world. She teaches roller skating, studies classical Indian dance, reads John Grisham, swaps Celine Dion CDs, and has a crush on Brad Pitt.

She also scores above 90 percent on crucial tests at Delhi Public School, one of the most competitive in India. Since third grade, she has subscribed to The Times of India. She studies three languages, including Latin - other subjects include physics, chemistry, and higher math.

For years, India was seen as not quite East, not quite West, not a Soviet satellite, not an American ally. But today the world's second-most-populous country is opening, developing nuclear weapons - and demanding recognition as "a great power."

Yet one test of "greatness," as Mohandas Gandhi pointed out, is how a nation educates its next generation. Here that test extends especially to daughters, whose schooling has always played second fiddle to sons. Changing attitudes and access to learning are felt most acutely by girls; today they are the top scorers in schools all over India. And their hopes, ambitions, and prospects for success embody the aspirations of this Asian giant.

Ankana herself hardly thinks in such grandiose terms. She would rather discuss involved theories about popular culture - why "Titanic" is overrated, why the Backstreet Boys and Hindi films are "so fake." In keeping with the northern Indian Punjabi culture of living life to the fullest, Ankana moves effortlessly from parties to homework to after-school science projects - despite an intense competition that by now for her is routine.

Her grandmother was an illiterate girl from the traditional princely desert kingdom of Rajasthan. But Ankana is part of the growing upper- middle class of English-speaking urban India, the India most often projected to the West. For her, the sky is the limit.

Moreover, in Ankana's generation and economic class, Indian women make choices they've never had before: about when or if they will marry, living abroad (most want to), a career. They don't think of being "allowed" these choices. They just make them. In fact, if you are an American earning more than $50,000 a year, Ankana may more likely be a neighbor of yours one day than a less accomplished US girl across town.

"These girls are more confident, much more clear than we were 20 years ago," says Neerja Jawa, Ankana's physics teacher. "They are very different. They've grown up thinking of many possibilities. We used to believe things unquestioningly, blindly. They don't. The reason is TV and media."

Still, nothing in emerging India is so simple. India's female literacy rates are improving somewhat, and stubborn patriarchal traits are being challenged. But to understand Ankana's place in India, it's worth examining the cultural context: Educationally, socially, and financially Ankana is in an elite strata of Indian society. Only between 0.5 and 1 percent of India's current generation of students will graduate from 12th grade and go to college. Ankana is likely one of them. She sits at the top of a national school system that is highly selective and not very forgiving. US schools, by comparison, are relatively generous; they leave room for experimentation and failure and stress remedial education. Most offer large doses of liberal arts and humanities; and there are some 3,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States to choose from.

In India, however, students who lose a year, or fall behind even a semester, may not be able to make up the work, or they may be forced to abandon career plans that require a college degree.

A selection machine

India today has 214 universities, up from 30 in 1950. But only about 5 percent of all 12th-grade graduates will find a seat in those colleges.

"India's education system is a selection machine," says Krishna Kumar, a leading educator at Delhi University. "In a chaotic country, this system supports a coherent functioning of the economy by throwing out aspirants who can't make it. It's just like that."

The biggest moment of selection in any Indian student's life is the 10th-grade test. The all-India government exams are a hurdle every student must surmount. Not scoring well shuts many potential doors - not just key 11th- and 12th-grade math classes, but perhaps study abroad, certain jobs, and even certain lives. All students and parents know the importance of the exam. They dread it and prepare for it. When a student is at about the eighth grade, parents from south Tamil Nadu to upper Punjab start turning off the TV and closely monitoring their offspring's study habits.

"The board exam makes you," says Vyoma Jha, one of Ankana's five best friends in ninth grade at Delhi Public School. "The cutoff is 87 percent, and we are all aware of that. I'm going to study hard. But I'm not going to stress. If you study too hard, everything gets jumbled in your head."

For Ankana, there is not too much to worry about. She is talented, and her background - her school, neighborhood, and family - are powerful supports.

It helps, for example, to have a genial physician for a father, a patient mother who runs a skating rink - and to live in Vasant Kunj. Vasant Kunj is not a wealthy suburb like the Scarsdale-style, farm-house communities outside Delhi. But its comfortable apartments reflect an upper- middle class mindset and pocketbook. Most adults have cars. There is tennis for kids, and a new culture of private gyms. Doctors, architects, civil engineers, and professors casually talk about relatives who live in the US and Great Britain, and most people have at least one relative in that category. Families hold birthday parties for kids at nice Delhi clubs. Residents know the connections, the sacrifice, and the right schools that it takes to succeed.

By the standards of what is sometimes called the "liberal West," the Daga family would certainly be considered "enlightened." It is the kind of family that "likes to sit around and talk at night, usually about everything," as Santosh Daga, Ankana's mother, puts it.

Both parents hail from Rajasthan, where village girls are married by age 15. But the cosmopolitan Dagas retain few patriarchal views. Neither parent is bothered if their daughter, "marries early or late," says Mridul Daga, aka "Dad." "We will let her choose. We just want her to be happy." Ankana, who speaks rapid-fire English with precision and confidence, says, "OK, we talk about our crushes with friends, but marriage is something beyond my conception right now."

Dating on the sly

Dating in India is still fairly frowned upon, even in cities. But it is on the rise. At DPS, dating is done on the sly, Ankana says. Students bring casual clothes to school, then "bunk" the day - stay out, and come back to school and change back into uniform. Mainly, they do so to be popular, she says:

"Being cool means wearing shabby clothes; you have to have Nike shoes. You have to be seen as slightly rebellious. For example, carrying water bottles [Indian parents send kids to school with water] is considered highly stupid.

"Being popular means using abusive language, being on the negative side of the teacher, and having boys after you. We all have crushes. I like David Duchovny and Brad Pitt, and I still like [Indian film star] Sharruk Khan, even though he's not good looking from any angle."

But the qualities of cool aren't going to help anyone in navigating the academic rigors of a school like DPS.

What DPS most excels in is test preparation, all leading up to the 10th-grade exam. The school gives three major exams a year that require two weeks of study so concentrated that some students plan their weeks to the hour. When Ankana returned from summer vacation, for example, her first activity was an algebra quiz. No problem. She had spent her vacation finishing the entire math syllabus for the next semester.

If tests are a mainstay at DPS, computer science is a speciality. By Grade 2, every child is familiar with the keyboard and screen, and can run Windows software. They take computer science class at Grade 5. They are expected to master HTML by Grade 7, programming in Grade 8, and advanced databases by Grade 9. DPS is a prime feeder school for the newly famous Indian institutions called IITs, or Indian Institutes of Technology.

IITs have captured the imagination of the Indian public - since their graduates often have the pick of American high-tech companies, or local corporations here. A high ranking Indian government education official says that Indian kids today can all "go to an IIT and work abroad, or at corporations that have fountains out front, green lawns, and Western salaries."

The reality is less rosy. To apply to an IIT requires a special, more rigorous computer-study track for students in 10th through 12th grade. Each year, some 400,000 students apply to IITs; yet the IITs themselves have room for only 3,500 students.

Students who forget this competitive world have only to look at the large mural on the wall in the main foyer outside Ms. Chona's office: A copy of what looks like a 19th-century Delacroix, of a tiger who has leaped ravenously on top of a horse.

Ankana's circle of class friends - known as "the group" by her teacher - are above-90-percent scorers. They are as "globalized" as she, and don't conceive their world as Darwinian. They go to films together, hold mock fashion shows, tell ghost stories.

The 'X-Files' generation

They have a highly calibrated, highly refined system of deciding what is acceptable and what is not. Anything hyped is out. Ankana shivers in disgust when something comes up - like Hindi films or music - that she doesn't like. TV shows like "The X-Files," and "Friends" are in. So too, for some reason, is WWF wrestling, which Ankana says everyone knows isn't real, "but we love pretending it is, I can't explain it. My parents hate it."

Watching cricket was a major pastime, but not after the team scandals of the past year. Music is the biggest single topic, though it must be Western music.

Her group has changed slightly over the years: "Some people have been excluded for being rude or mean or egotistic, which only means we talk to them less," Ankana says.

Ankana and her friends all share a desire to go abroad. Not only is foreign study a status symbol, it is an aspiration that takes on almost an ontological thirst. From an early age, the girls are exposed to the idea of living abroad. Parents raise the subject regularly, urging the girls to prepare themselves.

At Ankana's house, the preparations are well under way.

What's hot and what's not in Ankana's world

Thirteen-year-old Ankana and her friends at Delhi Public School are among the country's elite secondary students. Here are some of their likes and dislikes.

IN

John Grisham

Shabby clothes and Nike shoes

Celine Dion

"The X-Files" and WWF wrestling

Achievement in school

David Duchovny

OUT

Backstreet Boys

Post-scandal cricket

Hindi films and music

Water bottles that parents give you to take to school

PART 1: TODAY

Everything's in place for Ankana Daga. Hard work, a top school, and an upper-middle class upbringing position her to take advantage of the opportunities opening up for India's women.

PART 2: TOMORROW

Shraddha Patil shares a one-room home with seven family members. Academic promise may not be enough to ensure success. But she, and others like her, represent India's greatest potential for change.

PART 3: FRIDAY

The first girl in her farming village to reach the 10th grade, Anita Chaudary wants to be a doctor. But her ambitions are light-years ahead of her rural schooling.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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