New Delhi: How does a student who has spent years in preparation for the tough Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) handle the final moments before the test? That too, when his preparations have been disrupted and the exam rescheduled repeatedly in the midst of a global pandemic?
For 19-year-old Vineet Shukla, the feeling was a combination of fear and anxiety. “The constant postponement was jarring. I wanted the exam to take place in October-end with proper arrangements and planning. Now, I am feeling both scared and anxious,” he told ThePrint before appearing for the exam Saturday.
Vineet lives with his parents and a younger brother in a three-room house in Jhandapur, Ghaziabad. Three years ago, at the age of 16, he had decided what he was going to do with his life — he wanted to take the JEE, hoping to qualify for IIT Bombay and the computer science and engineering (CSE) course.
Vineet said he lives in an area where everyone lives in his or her own world, and no one dreams big. “But I want to contribute in a larger way and hope that I can motivate others too,” he said.
After school, he dropped a year to fully concentrate on the preparations for the JEE, and has been studying for 10-12 hours daily. But then circumstances far out of his control threw a wrench into his plans — first came the Northeast Delhi riots in February, due to which his coaching centre in the capital’s Laxmi Nagar area shut down, and then Covid-19 hit India and forced a nationwide lockdown.
“Thankfully the syllabus was over, so I was going only to take tests,” he said.
The JEE and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Tests (NEET) for medical aspirants kept getting postponed due to the pandemic, till the Narendra Modi government decided to hold both exams in September. Students objected, citing the rising cases of novel coronavirus across the country, but the Supreme Court finally gave its blessing to go ahead with the exam.
Vineet said he studied for more than 15 hours a day in the final few days before appearing for the JEE Mains.
On 5 September, ThePrint followed Vineet from Ghaziabad to his exam centre in Rohini in Northwest Delhi and back to chronicle what the day was like from a student’s perspective.
Steve Jobs, the Joker, Bhagavad Gita and water
The Shuklas’ three-room house has water seeping through the walls, but that doesn’t seem to affect the family. Vineet has a room to himself to help him concentrate in his preparations, and he has surrounded his single bed with motivational posters of people ranging from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to the Joker, the fictional villain in the Batman fictional universe. One of the quotes reads: “Once you become fearless, you become limitless.”
He also keeps a copy of the Bhagavad Gita on one side of the bed. “I read this when I get stressed or anxious,” he said.
But taking the JEE Main at a time when India was reporting more than 80,000 Covid-19 cases daily meant that Vineet turned to the Gita ever so frequently.
One wall of the room is adorned with medals and trophies, to provide more motivation, and on the side of his desk is a mug full of water. “At night, when I feel sleepy, I sprinkle some water on my face to stay awake,” he said.
But the night before the exam, he struggled to sleep. “I went to bed at 10 pm but only managed to sleep at 2 am,” he said, adding that he called up his older cousin in Allahabad for reassurance.
Though the exam was only at 3 pm Saturday, Vineet decided to leave his house at 10:45 am, as he was allowed to enter the exam centre at 1pm, and he wanted to be the first to arrive.
‘Unfair to students, lack of arrangements’
Vineet was one of the students hoping that the JEE would get postponed again due to the worsening pandemic situation, and had wished the Supreme Court would rule in favour of postponement. “Where was the hearing? They dismissed the case in four minutes. This was unfair to the students,” he said.
The IITs and other institutions had insisted the exam could not be postponed further because they wouldn’t be able to finish the syllabus otherwise. However, Vineet said, “I don’t think anybody would’ve missed a year if the exams were postponed. There have been instances in the past when the exams were held later and it was adjusted in the academic calendar.”
But Vineet’s father Arun Shukla, who works in a factory in Ghaziabad, was glad the exam was being held as he was worried that his son would end up with another gap year. And yet, the lack of arrangements and preparations perturbed him, as did the cost he had to incur to take his son to the exam centre.
“Public transport such as the metro is shut. And each car was asking for nothing less than Rs 2,000, which is no small amount. It takes at least four days for me to make Rs 2,000,” he said.
Before Vineet left for the exam centre with his father, his mother Ranju Devi checked if he was carrying a sanitiser and told him to keep his mask on at all times. She saw him off to the car and wished him luck.
On the way and back
On the way to the exam centre, the nerves got to Vineet — he asked the car to pull over and threw up. But he was less worried about himself and more about his parents. “I hope it’s not Covid, because if my parents get it, the treatment is very costly and they cannot afford it,” he said.
Once at the exam centre, Arun thumped Vineet’s back and wished him the best for the paper. The father then sat down for his nearly five-hour wait, only saying: “I hope he does well. He has dropped a year for this. I expect a lot from him.”
It rained heavily for three hours as Arun Shukla waited patiently in the car. Vineet got out at 6 pm, told his father the exam went well, and expressed confidence that he would qualify for the JEE Advanced, which is scheduled on 27 September. Vineet turns 20 on 20 September, so he hopes qualifying for the Advanced will come as his birthday gift.
The journey back to Ghaziabad took more than the two hours than it should have because of rain and traffic. And as the father and son entered home, there was no electricity.
“That’s why I want to be an engineer — to give my family a better life,” said Vineet.