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Jitendra Jain’s Chasing 33%, a novel about a struggling teenager who falls victim to our flawed schooling system, is sobering counterpoint to the hype surround board exams and college admissions in our country. It is an apt and well-timed portrayal of a boy’s life as it unfolds in the context of competitive school exams, which can make or break one’s future.
By chronicling the life of a 16-year-old unnamed protagonist from Dergaon in Assam, and his two other friends, Maggie and Swadhin, who are all sitting for their Class 10 board exams, Jain takes us through the meaningless interpretations of “winning and losing”, which some of the schools are busy force-feeding their students.
As the author writes in one of the chapters: “At times, I think we should do away with schools as well, if all that they teach is how to obey and how to pass. There are millions of children in this country. Everyone is different. So, why have the same style of education? Why have the same subjects? God created human beings so that they can live. But we are not living! We are either winning or losing. Schools should not decide winners or losers just based on scores in exams.”
Here again, the emphasis is on the irrational way students are judged on the basis of their scores. Jain, through his novel’s hero, says, “I didn’t understand why students were evaluated based on exams. Why did we need to be evaluated at all? Lakhs of students appeared for their Board exams every year. Not all of them passed the exam. Did that mean they were all failures? This concept of rubber-stamping people as failures based on scores in Board exams was the biggest piece of illogical shit ever created. In fact, Board exams are crap, if you really want to know the truth.”
In addition to traversing the life of a teenager who has no plans to chart the known routes, Jain carefully posits our fractured education system against the background of an equally haywire world, fighting political turmoil at one end and battling societal evils at another.
Jain writes: “At times all that required was an appeal for a bandh and people observed it without even knowing the cause of the bandh.”
Reflecting on the decadent state of society, the protagonist, while trying to knock some sense into his neighbour Mr. Ghosh’s head, who is prepping for the arrival of his tenth child and deliberately wants it to be a boy, says, “Don’t mind, but what if your next child is also a girl? You are still living in the eighteenth century. Your daughters will take better care of you as compared to a son. They already are.”
While the author does manage to salvage the protagonist with a sort of an epiphany about not fearing being judged, which comes to him towards the end of the novel, as he pronounces, “To hell with education. To hell with others’ views. What was important was what I thought of myself.”
At the same time, the stories unfolding around our unnamed hero are all imbued with tragedy: like that of his elder brother, Shreyansh, who, in spite of a willingness to study, has had to abandon further studies; of his non-Assamese father, who is trying hard to make ends meet; and of Mrs Ghosh, who passes away while giving birth to her tenth child.
But the theme of the book is more specific. It underlines the immediate need to revamp the education system in India. Jain through Chasing 33% skillfully and articulately makes a statement about how the hullaballoo related to exams and scores is making learning a drab and joyless enterprise.