The Puritan Topper

This was an idea that sort of got ingrained in my head at the turn of the millennium – around the time I was transitioning from school to undergrad. That you would be a topper if and only if you led an otherwise diligent and disciplined life.

For starters you needed to be a nice person (among the things this entailed for a potential topper was to liberally share notes and clarify people’s doubts when called upon). You weren’t allowed to have any character flaws. You weren’t supposed to get distracted with things like hitting on someone or being in a romantic relationship. You would talk to, and be polite with, people of the opposite sex, but “nothing more than necessary”. “Bad habits” like smoking and drinking were out of the question.

These were just the necessary conditions. On top of this, of course, you had to work with single-minded devotion towards becoming the topper. You needed to be diligent, be rigorous with all your assignments, study more than anyone else and all that.

I don’t know how this view of the “puritan topper” got formed in my head. Maybe it was pattern recognition based on the profile of people who used to top in my schools (this was after I had all but given up on doing well academically, apart from entrance exams), especially in undergrad.

I’m also wondering if this image of the puritan topper had something to do with my own giving up – while I might have had the enthu to work hard at academics and do well, this sort of a puritan lifestyle that I had come to associate with toppers (I didn’t smoke or drink, but being nice to everyone all the time was well beyond me) seemed rather daunting.

In any case, this image of the puritan topper didn’t last long. At IIMB, for example, there was this guy who lived a few doors away from me who spent most of his time drinking and hardly any time studying, but aced all exams. Another guy quickly found himself a girlfriend, but continued to top. Suddenly, I found that “normal people” could be toppers as well, and that my view of the puritan topper had been formed mainly on a small number of data points and didn’t hold.

Yet, the number of years that this puritan topper image stayed in my head means that it’s one that has been hard to shake off. A couple of years back, for example, the all india topper in the IIT-JEE, while talking to the press, expressed tribute to his girlfriend for her support. While it’s normal for a class 12 person to have a girlfriend, this comment sort of threw me off – it didn’t fit my mental image of the puritan topper.

Sometimes it is possible to form an irrational belief based on a small number of data points, and irrespective of the number of data points you see to the contrary, it becomes hard to let go of these beliefs. And that makes you more irrational. But I guess, there’s no logic to a lot of these beliefs. Maybe as Rory Sutherland puts it, it’s all “psycho-logic”.

JEE Results

Exactly ten years ago, they used to give a sum total of 3400 ranks for IIT-JEE. Typically, to get an engineering branch at one of the “big 5” IITs you needed to be in the early 2000s or better. Back then, there were ~40 people from Bangalore who made it to the merit list (I’ve forgotten the exact numbers but if I remember right, at least 30 people from Bangalore JOINED some IIT or the other). About 1.2% of all successful candidates back then were from Karnataka (for IIT/JEE purposes Bangalore = Karnataka since there are no other centres in the state).

JEE results for this year came out yesterday. Most of the second page of today’s The New Indian Express is spent in giving footage to people from Bangalore who got a rank. This year, they gave out 13,100 ranks, of which 58 were from Bangalore – 0.5% of all successful candidates. And you have the New Indian Express which puts the headline “City Students crack IIT by the dozen”. Yeah, five dozen out of thirteen kilopeople is worse than three dozen out of three kilopeople. But anyway…

Back in my days, there was one decently established factory and a couple of fledgling factories in Bangalore. The established factory (a small scale industry by national standards) had 100 students, of which over 30 got ranks in the JEE (and about 20 actually joined IIT). Today the same factory has some 500 students. And surely not more than 58 of its students could have cleared the JEE! And then there are several other factories in the city. Don’t know if any of them have done significantly well.

Madness. Sheer madness. I had written about this before.

Postscript: I must admit there is a small bit of hotteuri (stomach burn) at the amount of footage toppers get nowadays. Back then, it was an advertisement by the coaching factory in all major English dailies in the city, and little else.

Postscript2: This post might sound like one old thatha sitting in his armchair and ranting. It is meant to be that way.