My name is Rajiv Dandotiya – Dandu Bhai for friends. I am writing this article today from Copenhagen, Denmark where I work as an Assistant General Manager in a drilling company – Maersk. This is the story of how I went from studying in a government school in Rajasthan, sitting under a tree to earning a Ph.D. from a European University. This is a story about the IIT-JEE – how it taught me the meaning of Learning and thereby, made me who I am today. And it is a story of my Board Exams. But most importantly, it is the story of how I achieved my dreams by never giving up.
I did my schooling from government schools in Samod and Dholpur in the state of Rajasthan. The teachers would hardly ever come to school. Many students would take tuitions and, memorize lessons and somehow pass the exam. I was never able to bring myself to do this. We never knew about engineering colleges or what it really meant to learn something. At the end of every school year, we would sell our books and buy some cricket balls with the money. That was what the value of learning was for us. Most schools in the area were just like mine.
It is of no surprise that I got poor marks in my school leaving Board Exams – 39%. Even at this level, I was 5th in a class of 60! I was given grace marks in Chemistry. I still remember when I went to seek blessings of my teachers after the Board Exams, someone said, “Pair to aise choo rahe hain jaise merit main number laye hon” (“It’s not like you passed because of your merit!”). One of the most disheartening things about my Board Exams was that the students going for private tuition were favoured in practical exams. I got lesser marks than my friends as they were favoured because they took private tuitions from teachers ascribed to set the scores.
My school education left me disinterested in further education. We were also financially distressed. After passing out of 12th in ’95, I started helping out my father in his factory. It was a tough time. It is very hard to run a small business in India. The business closed down after a couple of years. Left with no other option, I started exploring if I could get admission to any BSc course. But I found out that I was not eligible for any of it because of my low score in the Board Exam. When I approached coaching classes to train myself for PET Rajasthan, they also turned me down for the same reason. Desperate, I asked our bookseller if there was any exam where my Board Exam results would not make me ineligible. He suggested applying for the IIT-JEE. I asked him to give me the set of books for this exam (just like we used to get one for every class in school). He gave me three books – M.L Khanna, Gupta & Gupta, and O.P Agarwal. Thus began my journey to IIT.
In my school, I had never really learnt English. This meant that I had to learn English first to read these books. So, I bought a dictionary as well. While the JEE is available in languages like Hindi, it is very difficult to prepare for JEE in Hindi alone. And yet, most students coming from my background do not get a proper English education. In spite of these problems, I really started enjoying my studies. I realized for the first time what it meant to understand concepts and solve problems using first principles (and not by memorizing). I felt glad that I had not memorized up everything during my school days. My mind was unpolluted, like a clean slate. Some problems would take a day to solve, but I liked that better than looking up for the solution. I also got access to some old coaching materials from Brilliant’s and that was also a turning point for me.
In the year 2000, I cleared the JEE Screening. Some people had made fun of me earlier – how can a person who barely cleared the Board Exam even think of going to IIT (in my native tongue: “PET main pass hone ki aukat nahin hai, chale hain IIT main pass hone”)? But my parents and elder brothers always stood by me. I was able to clear the JEE Screening in 2000 and this made me realize that I was on the right track. During this time, my elder brother was taken severely ill and my mother had to be by his side all the time to take care of him. His sickness made our financial condition even worse, but I kept preparing for the JEE while helping my father in his business and doing all the household work and cooking simultaneously. It turned out that the cooking skills I acquired then helped me during my education in Europe much later.
In 2001, I reappeared for the JEE. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of marks because of a mistake in reading one of the questions, and I could only manage a rank of 3453. I could not get a seat in IIT. But by now I knew I could clear the JEE with much better rank. My brother called me from the hospital and encouraged me to re-apply. I had also become an expert in the JEE. I knew that if nothing else, I would be able to give coaching classes for Engineering entrance examinations to other students. I was even approached by a coaching institute in this regard. Even though I had not gotten a seat in IIT so far, JEE had made me a far better student with good career prospects.
In 2002, I took JEE for the last time and this time, I got a rank of 1758. I still remember the counselling in IIT Bombay that year. I was desperately trying to hide my Board Exam results, hoping to not get rejected because of them. My counsellor looked at them and was not sure whether I could get admission in IIT. After consulting with his colleagues, he let me be admitted and I got admission to a 5-year Dual Degree program in Industrial Engineering & Management at IIT-Kharagpur.
The people who used to taunt me were praising me now. I had also left so many talented friends from my school days far behind. Most of them are now running small shops. By the grace of God, my brother too got better. But I soon realized that the obstacles posed by my Board Exam numbers were not all over. During my Third Year in IIT, I saw the job postings from well-known companies in India. They had a minimum cut-off of 60% in Boards. I realized that I would never be able to get these jobs. I also decided that I want to be a real engineer and not just do some boring IT job. Hence, motivated and encouraged by my IIT batch-mates, Chintan and Anish, I applied and got internships at IIT Bombay and at RDSO (Indian Railways), Lucknow. My project on the latter became the basis of my BTech and MTech project, and I was awarded the best project for the same by IIT Kharagpur.
While I had not expected to get any job after graduating from IIT because of my Board results, I was surprised to get an offer from a company named Force Motors at Pune. I was selected from 600 candidates and I had a special interview loop and offer from them where they directly admitted me into the management cadre. However, I felt like I could achieve even more with my life and decided to get a PhD from Lulea University in Sweden – one of the four Universities across US and Europe that offered me a scholarship. Over here I finished my PhD in only 3.5 years. We came up with a solution to a tricky problem in maintenance decision making and this solution has helped achieve significant cost savings in the mining industry in Sweden. We were given an award for the same by the Swedish Centre for Maintenance Management and I felt elated at being able to use my engineering knowledge to solve problems in the real world.
The critical thinking developed while preparing for the JEE gave me the versatility to work in domains as different as Railways, Aircraft, and Oil and Gas. I was impressed by the focus on applying engineering to practical problems during my PhD program in Europe – something that we did not see much in IIT (leave alone school).
Even after all these years, my fondness for the JEE has remained. I have looked up the current JEE papers for fun. And I have been sad to see the changed pattern. Objective questions are much easier than subjective ones. After all, the correct answer is lying just before your eyes, just waiting to be guessed. And I have wondered why has JEE been made objective only?
In the last few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion around IIT-JEE. What should be the format? Should Board Exams play a role? Do people who clear JEE really become good engineers or scientists? What happens to people who do not get through the JEE?
In my opinion, Board Exams are equally or more elitist (as compared to JEE). How many of our Board Exam toppers come from small villages like Samod? Getting admission in DPS RK Puram (to ace the Board Exams) may be harder than getting admission in Bansal Classes (to clear the JEE). While there is no easy answer to any of these questions, I believe that providing greater weightage to Board Exams will certainly not solve the problem of JEE becoming an exam for the elites. It may actually make it worse. At least, the old format allowed students like me to come up. Will the new format do the same?
Every year I go back to my old school back in my village and meet students there. My message to them is always that you can do anything. You just need to have confidence in yourself and the perseverance to see your potential through. Just remember that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
P.S: The Story is compiled by Joydeep Sen Sarma. Find more about him here.