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Desperate to Make the Grade

In one of India's poorest regions, a driven 17-year-old dreams of someday working at NASA.

By Somini Sengupta in Patna, India

Anupam Kumar, 17, is the eldest son of a scooter-rickshaw driver. He lives in a three-room house made of bricks and a tin roof, where water rarely comes out of the tap and the electricity is off more than on. The home sits on a narrow unpaved alley in Patna, a city in northeastern India, one of the country's most destitute corners.

Anupam is good at math. He has taught himself practically everything he knows, and when he grows up, he wants to work at NASA and investigate whether there is life in outer space.

"It's becoming very important to explore other planets because this planet is becoming too polluted," he says with deadly seriousness. Next door to his house, pigs rifle through a pile of garbage on an empty lot.

His mother, a savvy woman with a sixth-grade education, cools him with a palm-frond fan. His father, who made it through 10th grade, flashes a bemused smile. "He has high-level aims," he says.

For now, Anupam's sole obsession is to gain admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology. Known as I.I.T., it's a network of seven elite colleges established shortly after Indian independence in 1947 that produces a yearly crop of tech wizards.

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of getting in. Of 198,059 Indians who took the rigorous admissions tests in 2005, 3,890 got in—an acceptance rate of less than 2 percent. (Harvard accepts 10 percent.)

Anupam does not know anyone who has attended the institutes, nor do his parents. But they all know this: If he makes it, it would change his family's fortunes forever. "I feel a lot of pressure,'' he says. "It's from inside.''

Gray At 17

A voice in his head, he says, tells him he must do something to rescue his family from want, and that he must do it very soon. The constant stress is making his hair gray. That's why Anupam's mother forces him to wash his hair with henna, a traditional Indian hair-dying technique.

In Anupam's story lies a glimpse of the aspirations of boys and girls in India today. Since phasing out government ownership of most industries and beginning to embrace free-market capitalism in 1991, India has built one of the world's fastest-growing economies. It is quickly becoming a global technology powerhouse, even as it continues to battle severe poverty at home.

More than half of India's 1.1 billion people are under 25, and for all but the most privileged, adolescence in this country can be a Darwinian contest. To be average, or even slightly above average, is to be left behind. "The new generation feels more pressure than my generation,'' says Anand Kumar, 33, who runs an I.I.T.- preparatory academy in Patna, and is not related to Anupam.

At 7 one morning, with the sun already blistering, Kumar, drenched in sweat, drills nearly 600 students, almost all boys, in calculus. "Find the domain of the following function,'' he repeats into a scratchy microphone. His young charges furiously scribble in their notebooks.

Before Anupam was born, his father had wanted to teach. His mother had wanted her husband to do anything other than drive a rickshaw. But Patna offered few options, and her three children came quickly. Anupam's mother told her husband, "At least our children will do something big."

At home, the television could be blaring, the music could be on, the lights could have gone out, but Anupam would be studying, his father says. "How he concentrates, how he focuses his mind, I really don't know,'' he muses.

Anupam's education has been spotty, as it is for many in a country where public education is often in disarray. He enrolled in a small neighborhood private school, then a government school in ninth grade. But most days, like many children, he skipped school and studied at home because he figured it would be more rigorous.

Six-Hour Exam

In the spring of 2004, studying by himself, Anupam failed the I.I.T. entrance exam; it is virtually unheard of for anyone to pass it on his own. Since then, under Anand Kumar's tutelage, he devoted himself with the intensity of a monk.

Last May, Anupam took the exam again, a grueling six hours of math, chemistry, and physics. The week before results were published, Anupam bubbled with optimism, even promising that after graduation, he would install a proper roof, then dig a borehole so water could be drawn right at home. As soon as possible, he would like his father to stop driving a rickshaw.

In June, sitting at his tutor's house, Anupam learned the results. He made it into the institutes, with a rank of 2,299. He started classes in mid-July, with his aspirations intact.