On Marks and Board Exams and Life


It was called agoge in ancient Sparta, the inhuman education and training regimen that little boys were subject to in order to make them  impervious to hunger, fear and pain, a regimen that included having boys fight boys to death so that the weak may be weeded out.

Or as anyone who went to school in the late 80s and early 90s in Bengal would say, school life.

Suicides were common, and so were heart-attacks and nervous breakdowns. Four successive days of two papers of a hundred each was considered to be perfectly humane because, how else, were children going to handle “the real world”? I came from a school, particularly notorious for what was just known as “The Pressure”, where most of us were made to fail in our maths half-yearly in class eleven, because and this was the stated reason, the class ten scores had given us whippersnappers an inflated idea of our intelligence and we needed to be cut down to size.

And if you thought the teachers were bad, you hadnt met the parents. Even today as I close my eyes I can see them. The thirty minute break between paper one and paper two,  and there they were, like heavyweight boxers in their corners after a bruising fight, sitting catatonic their heads to the side, one parent putting an ice pack on a head or stuffing yogurt down a barely moving mouth while the other, like Micky from Rocky, giving last minute sparring advice “Answer the objective type first” and “Don’t, no matter what you do, touch the short notes” and “Last time, what’s the length of the Nile? Oh-ho that’s Amazon you stupid boy”. Exam over, and they come out, some elated, some deflated, some with their heads in their air and some sinking into the earth, and parents swooping down from all sides, holding them by the forearms, “What answer did you get for Question 3a? Somnath and Sudipta got 5. What ! You got -32? ” Hot summer afternoons, corpulent aunties in sleeveless blouses, sweat streaming down their flabby forearms in torrents, copying “notes” using the backs of other aunties as tables, hounding the mothers of the “good children” with earnest queries like “Which coaching do you send her to?” And finally small boys and girls, with heavy bags weighing them down, being harangued publicly as they walk away towards God-knows-what at home, for doing “short notes” or for forgetting that when you remove the bracket and there is a “minus” before the bracket all the signs change.

Aah the memories.

Some of this performance obsession one could explain as the expression of middle-class insecurity in a state in the grip of generational despondency. Unless you were at the top of the class, or at least at the bottom of the top, you could not expect to become a doctor or an engineer, leaving only one option open, that of being a CPM cadre, to live a life of plastering posters on walls, playing carrom, roughing up opposition, and shouting “Inquilaab Zindabad” for the promise of a packet lunch of a banana, a toast and a half boiled egg at Brigade Parade Ground. Justifiably, parents felt terrified of what would happen if the report card had “Fair” or “Very Very Fair” written in the dreaded box (this was one place where fair was not lovely) and this terror of becoming the average seeped in through to their children, till they would forget what they were scared of except that they were scared of something.

And then there was something else.

The outlet afforded by sharing pictures of happiness in foreign locales through DSLR cameras on Facebook and envious “Liking” by peers was not afforded to parents of our generation, who stuck in joint families, middling incomes, high taxes, Webel color TVs and occasional visits to Puri or Digha, had only their children to show as monuments to their awesomeness. Easily measurable and totally ordered, marks  became the sole focus of one-upmanship (“My son got two marks more than your daughter”) and  “We push him hard because we love him”  the comforting narrative justifying the pursuit of happiness through the engendering of social envy.

Here’s the thing.

None of it mattered.

More than twenty years after I left school, I look around at those that shared my bench or my tiffin. And, in my most unscientific and mostly Facebook-friend-list-based study, I find it that almost everyone has done very well for themselves. They took different routes to get to where they are, some didn’t get to do what they wanted out of school (like me) or didn’t get into the college they wanted to get in, but everyone, almost everyone, made it to roughly the same place. Even there, the ones who did better than the others, weren’t necessarily the best in class, and that boy that almost always used to get hundred in Maths and never made a silly mistake and appeared on Doordarshan after “ranking” isn’t the guy who is driving the Audi or posting seven pictures of him and his wife having an expensive dinner at Cannes. I don’t know what it is that gets people to where they are—inherent ability, good health, confidence, luck, good choices, solid relationships, an MBA degree from a top school, or a combination of the above, but I know what doesn’t.


Which often makes me wonder, as I grow old and value the time I have left in this world that much more, what a waste it has been, the emotional energy expended obsessing about scores and ranks, hours lost trying to be a hard-drive of useless knowledge when I could have spent that time doing things of the kind I can never do again, and competing with people I was never really in competition with. And what’s even worse is that it has stayed with me, that terror, so that even today, decades after it ceased to matter, I still have intense exam nightmares, and I sit up straight wondering how the fear of exam-failure has become a part of who I am, and all for nothing.

I am not much the advising man, for I know little about life, or I would have perhaps done better for myself.

But all I want to say is that marks are good, and if you got a boat-full in your board exams, great and congratulations.

But if you have not, then let me tell you with the advantage of hindsight, that it won’t matter. Not in the long run.

The most important thing to remember is you have time on your side.

And once you have that, nothing else matters.

You will find your way.


34 thoughts on “On Marks and Board Exams and Life

  1. First, i guess 😀

  2. Very valid….however we find even masters degree entrances also provide weight age to board marks. In that scenario what choice do parents have unless they have a kid who is going to excel at a non-academic field like sports, music etc

    1. The choice that parents have is to say “f off” to those master degree entrances 🙂

  3. We have a tendency to put a number to quantify success. It was Marks in schools, AIR (JEE) in college, CTC in Jobs, Valuations in Startups.. Probably what explains why Sachin is the epitome of success for us Indians. We are attuned to measure success/accomplishment with any other yardstick.

  4. Burn baby burn May 29, 2015 — 7:01 am

    Big fan of your writing and being an alumnus of the same school a few years after you, I totally understood the stress. However, I would like to disagree with the conclusion that marks do not matter –

    1) in a country of a billion, where each class of each school has hundreds of students, or “pupils” as we were known 🙂 , how else will a potential college / employer distinguish you,

    2) as someone has already pointed out, now there is weightage assigned to boards marks in admissions to JEE / IIT / IIMs, so a good / bad marks range will potentially have an impact throughout your career (you can be successful now, but how can you say with worse / better marks you would not have been worse off / better off?)

    3) facebook feeds – the source for the conclusion, is tainted by survivorship bias – the posts you see are from the guys who have something good to post, of course if someone from school is shouting slogans at Brigade Parade ground, he won’t be posting it on facebook

    4) a reason behind the success of a lot of people from the 1980s and 1990s is the economic boom seen in the 2000s where the rising tide has lifted all boats, those people have reached middle management levels and have disposable income generating cushy jobs with foreign beach holidays every year, but now, with a huge expansion in capacity across IIMs / IITs/ schools, and not enough (good) jobs to go for everyone, 10 years later might be a different scene altogether.

    What I’m trying to say is that marks does matter, but agree with you that it is not the only thing that matters.

    What do you think?

    1. 1) My point was “it doesnt matter if you dont get into the college you wanted”. There are many ways out and more or less everyone finds their way out to where they want to be in life.

      2) Look at point one.

      3) More or less all my friends are on Facebook. The bias isnt survivorship, it’s “who I know”. Out of them, there are only few who are at the Brigade Parade level and yes even they are on Facebook

      4) Since that is something for the future, I cannot comment.

  5. You’re the first person on the internet to make me glad I failed my board exams.

  6. Fantastic post GB! 🙂

  7. A very thoughtful critique of the academic rat race focused on scores that infests India (..and other Asian countries; and coming soon to the USA). Being one of those who did well, I find that all my classmates whom I beat are doing well for themselves – and wish them all well for they are my childhood friends and compatriots.

    However I do have a bit of a counter view : marks may not matter, but the ability to focus on a goal, put in hard work and treat the whole enterprise as an intellectual endeavor and learning adventure in trying to reach excellence is an important skill for children to develop.

    The board exams are also the time when children of all socioeconomic backgrounds are measured with the same yardstick with the possibility that someone from a weaker background who does well opens the door to a brighter future than his/her family can afford. That is the raison d’etre of standardized testing – to surface the inherent talent in a society.

    Also if Facebook status updates are a measure, how do you know that the topper is not doing something worthwhile that does not pay well, such as being a teacher, or has a lot of family responsibilities thrust on him due to his success or simply does not wish to show off what he has?

    1. Very well said. Marks may not matter, but even in my opinion the grind does matter. The ability to focus, forsake pleasures and push yourself acts as a template to be used later on in life, if required. Also in some cases excellence is better if it is measureable. Else there is a tendency for the lazy ones to settle for mediocrity and then claim it does not matter anyway.

  8. I dont want my child to be rahul gandhi ! I want my child to range anywhere between 85 % to 99 % in board exams. I will put her in company of people i want her to emulate. Creativity and quality of education is important. We loose so much of our time learning things in english. The recall, memorization and retention is poor in 2nd language. There is no good solution to this yet. NIIT & khan academy etc has good courseware. Wish they translate in indian regional languages too. Learning by doing is another thing i wish she gets to do. Labs in schools should change. Sports are important for health, social developement etc. I wont send her to a/c school with no sunlight exposure. Many schools in kolkata are not implementing smart classes though it costs 150 per head per month. I will organise & group up parents to force schools to do this !

    1. Irritated Monkey June 16, 2015 — 10:05 am

      I feel sorry for your kid. She/he should be allowed to chose whatever she wants and also to set-up her own performance goals.

    2. sophoclesspeaks June 26, 2015 — 9:47 am

      @sunnyhasblog – I 100% support you! Very balanced way of bringing up kids… they can make better choices as they grow up but it is upto us to ensure that they remain focused and have allround growth and that we can provide the right, inspiring, supportive, competitive and safe environment for them. We don’t have to be monsters and drive them to suicide but let us not pussyfoot about it and ensure that they get enough marks to pursue the best of whatever they want to be. it is upto the parents to be judicious and provide the right impetus to their children to succeed. Marks might not mean anything at a much later stage in life but please understand that marks are the primary criterion on the basis of which your children get admission in colleges and/or higher education institutions. One doesn’t have to be fiercely marks oriented but One should not undermine the importance of good marks also.

  9. The examination nightmares continue to hound me, and I will turn 40 this year. Agree with you totally….well written

  10. I scored quite high for SSC and was under a lot of pressure to do well in HSC. I experienced lot of anxiety. Eventually became depressed about whole situation and had to see psychiatrist. Anyway it’s fairly big story..
    At that time I decided I won’t let this happen to my future generations and now I’m happily living overseas. But that experience hasn’t left me like Arnab. I haven’t done any formal study for some time now just because of that horrifying experience.
    We don’t really know how many students in India end up having problems like anxiety, fear, suicidality etc
    Something needs to be done about this
    I really wish I can have all that time back and do things I really enjoyed. I was a bright student with a lot of hunger for learning but education system just ruined me. And I still regret it. Fortunately I came to Australia and now having quite decent life.

  11. “hours lost trying to be a hard-drive of useless knowledge when I could have spent that time doing things of the kind I can never do again”…Simply outstanding..completely echoes my own thought process 🙂

  12. I didn’t get through JEE. Remember overhearing or neighbours saying, my life was over (jibon sesh, chardike honours graduate ra fya fya kore ghure berachchhe). Sadly I almost belived them 🙂

  13. Debasish Choudhury May 31, 2015 — 3:45 pm

    Arnab, I completely agree with you, and can relate to what you have written. I was only a shade above that fair-and-not-so-lovely category, but now when I see, the class toppers aren’t too far ahead of me in the rat race.

    Yes, marks do not matter.

    But Arnab, coming first in the rat race also does not matter. It does not matter whether you drive an Audi or a Wagon R. It does not matter whether you dine at Cannes or Peter Cat.

    You may disagree with me, but I think what actually matters is whether you have a smile on your lips when you go to bed. What actually matters is whether you are equally eager to go to work every morning as you want to come home every evening. What actually matters, Arnab, is how many people are going to cry when you die. For sure, the Audi salesman or the Cannes waitress are not going to be in that league.

    1. Debasish Choudhury May 31, 2015 — 3:48 pm

      I understand that your article was targeted at the people to whom the recently declared examination results mattered, but I have become too old and senile.

  14. Loved the post. Having studied in a school in South Kolkata where the sight of moms queuing up for hours in the sweltering Kolkata heat , moms exchanging notes, moms going through school notebooks & rebuking kids as soon as the poor kid stepped out after spending the entire day at school – are few of the many things we have grown up seeing and could very well relate to ! Having found my passion in a certain sport which I wanted to take up as a profession ( and ofcourse I finally couldnt ! ) in school I was a notch below the ‘fair’ category-probably ‘fair-and ugly category’ you could say ! In fact, there were people in school , as well as in my family who used to find it difficult to believe that I was giving sports more importance than academics ! I did not particularly make my family proud of the marks I got, or the empire of lies I had built up every time results would be declared ! I But after all these years I realize , not to brag about myself in the least, I am doing better than most of my classmates who were way ahead of me in the rat race in school- Which I believe proves more than anything else that marks really dont matter. Its all about which route you take to reach where you are ! And this is exactly what I feel about the rat race in the corporate world as well- we keep slogging for long hours, at times working overnight, and on weekends, and let go of our personal space, family time, health and what not—all this just to meet some impossible deadline set by a client who probably wont even look at my email before next week ! After having spent about 7 years in the corporate world, I have indeed realized that we should not let anything become larger than life— When we grow older, when we will not have some of our loved ones around us, when we will be not in a shape to do a lot of things we are capable of doing now , we would realize how trivial and unimportant all this madness was !

  15. In India one has to compete for everything, including jobs and career progression. Naively our parents believe that marks are the criteria that makes you win this competition. That may be true to some extent. But later on, we discover that it is mostly the soft skills – how well you can sell yourself, how well you can network etc. get you ahead.

  16. Arnab excellent observations Many thanks for sharing your ideas with us Great work!!

  17. Inspiring indeed and well timed. But you can’tt ignore the system when you have to live with the system. As a 40+ working woman who has fought up her life using marks, I would advice my child to stay in the top bracket. Staying there gets you admission in good colleges/ universities. You can get a glimpse of life there that you will definitely not get at a mediocre college studying with mediocre students. After that your life is yours to mould. You need and entry into the world and high marks will offer you that entry. It’s not that life will end with a low marks, it will only get more difficult.

    1. Irritated Monkey June 16, 2015 — 10:10 am

      If someone has really fought for her life, she’d afford to send her kids to top 20 US/UK universities that are far better any Indian counterparts and provide balance education and freedom of choice.

  18. Lets give political angle to this 🙂

    I visited hospital and saw a burkha clad pregnant woman. She told receptionist that she was pregnant with 4th child. Such 3rd – 4th children should be taxed heavily.

    These people demand admission in schools on ground of proximity to residence etc. Look at the old schools like frank anthony, st james, pratt memorial etc. The nearby minority locals force schools to give admissions.

  19. virtual philosopher June 3, 2015 — 3:30 pm

    Well written article. I agree with a lot of it. I went to the same high school as you and can relate to a lot of those experiences. It is a bit sad that the same model is being implemented by immigrant parents from Asia in the US now. Just drive by a Kumon franchise or visit a magnet school fair in sciences if you do not believe me.

    SPHS taught me to hate academics. I came to the US for my undergrad work and fell back in love with sciences and academics in general because I could decide what I wanted to study and how within the framework of a liberal arts education system. I went on to get a Ph.D. and now make a living doing sciences.

    What is the barometer of success after all? My most successful friends (financially speaking) are the ones that looked beyond the sand box and became entrepreneurs. Bengali parents see this day in and day out as they are driven out of their old neighborhoods by people with less education than them. Yet they strive to emulate the same formula that has by and large failed them. These folks are due for some serious introspection.

  20. 300000 parents, 200000 teachers and 90 domestic helps disliked this post.

  21. People who made it really big I think had lot of passion and energy to try different things and definitely luck.Unfortunately the guys who scored perfectly in board exams were too tired once they got into a college or a job.They were really burned out to try anything new

  22. Marks marks everywhere, but not one which matters eh! I agree with you. My marks in 10, +2, commerce degree did not matter finally. I write code for a living and that is a statement to the things I learnt through these mediums. The marks did not matter, but things I learnt and am still learning allow me navigate through the murky waters of the universe.

  23. I agree with the picture you paint, especially since I was the “topper” early in my life in one school, and then became one of those playing “catch-up to the top” when I reached the second school before my secondary exam. I remember other parents hounding my own parents about which tuition teachers I went to and what guide books I followed.

    However, I want to dispute the quality of your data sample. The “informal survey” through your Facebook friends list relies on a biased sample of those who might be regular on Facebook or in touch with you. In my case, I know that the folks from the second school are all doing well, whereas the rare person from my first school I meet is almost always not a big shark in the pool. Sometimes getting past that golden 750 mark barrier meant being eligible for admission into a place with bigger connections and a much more active alumni, rather than fight it out in a different pool of applicants/students.

  24. Loved the piece. But you are spot on about the underlying economic malaise and insecurity that drove this — here’s the situation in UK today according to Guardian (and we can all agree that UK is in continued throes of economic insecurity as its world-superpower status steadily recedes): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/09/aspirational-parents-children-elite?CMP=fb_gu

  25. Good article. Not just marks, in my days, my teachers were like “Collect more certificates from elocution, quizzes, so on and so forth” I remember having a carefully maintained file that included certificates from anyone like T Ward Mumbai North to Chinmaya Mission to Marathi Mandal of Bombay north.

    Also, the marks thing was so prevalent. When I saw “3 Idiots” 6 years after graduating as an engineer, I wished Hirani had made this film before I went into Engg 😀

  26. You couldn’t be more correct than this. I must tell that I have been blessed with awesome parents. My mother, till date, haven’t seen any of my schools, institutes that I had been to, though see kept a vigilant eye. I wanted to be a professional football player and I did all that should be done to achieve it, bunked school, trained so hard that no energy would be left for study. In short, I was the guy who never had any promises in the academic field. I am thankful to my parents for accepting it without any complain. I guess that’s one answer to your question : what does it take ? After every examination is over, I never looked back to question paper and I got support of my parents in that too. But then came my own personal realisation and changed gear, and not surprisingly I have a successful academic background and position. So, probably the answer to your question is strong determination, and of course not to compare yourself with your peers all the time. I am following the same strategy with my son. I am trying to shield him from the unnecessary, artificial, bogus indicators of a successful life.

  27. Susmita Chakravorty July 20, 2015 — 10:49 am

    Yes, I went to the “same school”. But I had terrific parents, who did not care about my marks. You know why? Because they were Happy people. They did not need my marks to make them happy. I was prviledged. I hope that as parents we could do the same for our children that my parents did for me.

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