The last show at INOX multiplex at Virugambakkam in Chennai ended around 1 am. Two hours later, on a narrow street behind it, A Gomathi, 17, begins her day. She doesn’t dream much while asleep, for around three hours every night, till 3 am. But her every waking moment is spent dreaming of only one thing: becoming a doctor.
Last year, Gomathi topped Class 12 at her Jaigopal Garodia Government Girls Higher Secondary School in Virugambakkam, scoring 93 per cent marks in the Biology-Mathematics stream. She had aced Class 10 too at her school, with 95 per cent marks. By now, she had hoped to be enrolled to become a doctor. However, she wasn’t among the successful candidates in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical and dental courses, results for which came out on June 4 — among the many students in Tamil Nadu who failed, and who fear the CBSE-oriented test puts the nine lakh-plus students like them taking Class 12 exam from the state board every year at a disadvantage.
In September last year, S Anitha, 17, of the state’s Ariyalur district had committed suicide when she failed to clear NEET after having scored 98 per cent marks in Class 12. Recently, another 17-year-old, Pradeepa, who had scored 94 per cent in Class 12, killed herself, in Tiruvannamalai district, after NEET failure.
Gomathi tries not to think about this as she squats on the floor in her 400 sq ft, two-room house, beneath a large portrait of B R Ambedkar. The photograph was a gift at her wedding, smiles mother A Malathi. As Gomathi studies uninterrupted till 7.30 am, Malathi says she will keep her company, and “Ambedkar will be watching over her”.
Ambedkar shares space on that wall with half-a-dozen portraits of actor Ajith. All those belong to Gomathi’s elder brother A Manikandan, a B.Sc computer science student who is a fan of the actor.
For the next four-odd hours, in a sweltering room cooled by only a fan and lit by one bulb, as Gomathi fights sleep, tiredness and often boredom, her father R Anbazhagan, her grandmother and Manikandan sleep in a thatched-roof cottage next door.
Says Malathi, 42, “Gomathi has been following this routine since Class 10, except for 40 days of coaching provided by the state government in April.”
Anbazhagan works with a private TV showroom as a cleaner and earns around Rs 7,500 a month. “So we can’t afford to pay Rs 45,000 for NEET coaching,” Malathi says.
Parents of Tamil Nadu state board students like Malathi believe that because of this, their children can never breach the gap to NEET. Political parties in the state have questioned the decision to not take into account Class 12 results, as used to happen earlier in the state, but bank on just entrance tests for medical admissions, where children with coaching can score. With the introduction of NEET, the quota kept for Tamil Nadu in the state’s medical colleges — as well as a government quota in private medical colleges — has also ended.
At 22, Tamil Nadu has the most number of government medical colleges in the country.
At the peak of the anti-NEET protests in the state following Anitha’s suicide, the state government had announced NEET coaching centres for underprivileged students. A one-month programme was run in April this year as part of this, at nine centres. Around 3,000 students were part of these camps. Gomathi attended one such centre near Chennai, along with 400 students from 12 different districts.
In the days leading up to this year’s NEET, held on May 6, Gomathi knew there was something afoot — with protests, TV debates, and political discussions on. But, she says, she kept her mind focused on what she had to do. “I know that I may not clear NEET next year too, as I don’t have coaching. Still, I have to give it a try. Who else will try for me?” she says.
Around 7.30 am, Gomathi gets up from the floor, packs away her books and heads to the kitchen to help her mother with chores.
But the talk keeps returning to NEET. This year her score was 90 out of 720, six marks short of 96, the cut-off for Scheduled Caste students. The family is Adi Dravida. But that can’t be her benchmark, Gomathi says. “I won’t get a medical seat unless I score better.” Low marks would mean a seat only in high-paying private colleges — not an option for her.
However, she wonders, why the entrance exam asked her things she had “never learnt”. “I just cleared Class 12. You ask questions from what I learnt all these years,” Gomathi says.
Around 8.30 am, Anbazhagan leaves for work. He mostly skips breakfast so as to reach the shop as early as possible. Once in a while, when he has time and can rouse himself after a day’s work, Anbazhagan makes black coffee for Gomathi while she is studying.
As brother Manikandan leaves for his college, the private Meenakshi College of Engineering, around 9 am, Gomathi smiles wistfully, “He is lucky, he doesn’t want to become a doctor.”
Unlike him, Gomathi doesn’t have a favourite actor either. In fact, she says, while they stay next door to the multiplex, she has never been to a cinema theatre. Neither has she gone to malls or even Marina Beach. “I have seen the beach from the bus,” she says.
Her first visit to Chennai’s emerging neighbourhood, Anna Nagar, 6 km away, was when she went to write the NEET exam. Outside Chennai, she has gone to Mamallapuram, once, when in Class 5. She is not sure if she has ever seen the gates of IIT-Madras.
As the house grows quiet again, Gomathi goes back to studying. She will go on till evening, with just a lunch break in between. Most of her study material, stacked on a chair, deals with Biology. Physics and Chemistry make up the rest of the 12 textbooks.
The three-hour NEET exam has 180 questions, all multiple choice, including 90 from Biology, and 45 each from Physics and Chemistry. Gomathi says the NEET coaching provided by the government also focused on Biology. “But only 10 out of 180 questions from what we learnt at the centre came.”
Plus, she wonders, why the multiple choice questions. “Don’t writings and critical analysis help give an original answer? Shouldn’t they test that, ask my interest in becoming a doctor? Why is the government selecting MBBS students thus?” she asks.
Two students of her school who managed to clear NEET with the help of coaching also couldn’t get a medical seat, Gomathi adds. “Does all the rote learning and tricks that coaching teaches you for good scores in NEET help a doctor? Does it help a doctor do critical surgery? If the state board syllabus is at fault, why do CBSE students too need coaching?”
It’s 3 pm, and looking on at her daughter, Malathi says, “She never asks for jewels or costumes, anyway we couldn’t afford to….” Apart from the books, she adds, her daughter’s possessions include four sets of salwar-suits, two sets of school uniforms, and a new cellphone.
For the past five years, Gomathi had been getting an annual scholarship of Rs 1,800 from a private trust. “After Class 12, we decided to leave it to her to do what she wanted with it. She bought a phone. That is her only source to get information on admissions,” Malathi says.
Anbazhagan returns home late, as does Manikandan, after hanging out with friends. The TV is kept shut as Gomathi continues her studies. She says she will be up till midnight.
But she doesn’t grudge any of that, Gomathi says, nor the sleep of only three hours, nor “not having any other dreams except NEET”. What the 17-year-old wants is answers to a few more questions: “Why not provide us equal opportunity before forcing us to compete with CBSE, ICSE students? If the Prime Minister came, I would tell him, ‘I will prove myself but give us equal education before you make us write a common exam’.”