They call it a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I’m talking about suicide, which has become a deadly epidemic in India, striking students in particular. Government figures say over 26,000 students have killed themselves in the last three years. That’s one suicide every hour. Failing at an exam is cited as the most common reason.
Varun Subhash Chandran, the young UPSC aspirant who hanged himself in New Delhi on Sunday, didn’t even make it that far. He killed himself because he was four minutes too late to the examination hall in Paharganj, and the authorities wouldn’t let him in. What makes Varun’s story even more heart-rending is that he had reached an exam centre in Paharganj well in time, only to find that it was the wrong one. The young man didn’t belong to the city; he’d been here only six months for coaching and to sit for the exam. For all we know, it was his first visit to the area.
We can only imagine his desperation, his frantic dart to the other centre. On enquiry, the police found that Varun had repeatedly begged to be allowed to take the exams, but was told that rules were rules. The exam hadn’t started. It was scheduled for 9.30 am. Students are supposed to reach the hall between 9 and 9.15. There’s a grace period of four minutes. Varun reached at 9.24 am. “Rules are okay but sometimes they should be relaxed for a better cause,” he said in his suicide note.
I couldn’t agree more. This is not an easy time for our young. India’s rigid social norms are increasingly clashing with the aspirations of its youth. Combine that with the stress of a crucial examination, and it’s a lucky few who can breeze through.
Exams bring out the worst in most people anyway. Who doesn’t know or remember the anxiety brought on by a school or college final? The rapid heartbeat, the dry mouth? Or worse, the feeling of inadequacy, the sense of gloom and doom? The pressure is significantly more intense when it comes to a professional exam, like the entrance to the UPSC, IIT or IIM. It’s the future that’s at stake here, that of the candidates and, more often than not, of their families.
In Kota, India’s coaching capital, where students from across the country come to cram for medical and engineering entrance exams, 45 students killed themselves between 2014 and 2017, unable to stand the strain. It’s not difficult to see why. Most of the students live in cramped hostels and spend every waking hour studying. Many are poor, with working class parents who’ve invested everything they have (and more) for the kids to be there. Not getting into the course of their choice is just not an option.
Some people think suicide is a sad choice for the selfish. It’s not; it’s an act of hopelessness by someone who’s exhausted looking for solutions. In most cases, it is a series of incidents—ranging from a financial crisis to depression—that build up to push a victim to his breaking point. We don’t know what broke Varun. But we do know it was unwarranted. Death cannot be decided in four minutes.