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Depressing bestseller

Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat; Rupa Publications; Price: Rs.195; 296 pp

Undoubtedly Indian society owes a debt to IIT graduate and former banker turned acclaimed novelist, Chetan Bhagat whose books have attracted countrywide attention. During the past decade, he has written four novels on contemporary themes, which have resonated with the public, particularly the country’s estimated 100 million urban youth. Until Bhagat arrived on the 21st century literary scene, an English language book or novel which sold 3,000 copies was acclaimed a bestseller. According to news reports, all of Bhagat’s novels (Five Point Someone (2004), One Night @ the Call Centre (2005), The Three Mistakes of My Life (2008) and 2 States: The Story of My Marriage (2009)) have sold in hundreds of thousands. To this list add his latest oeuvre Revolution 2020 which reportedly received advance orders for 2 million copies.

But while Bhagat has brought the freshness and energy of youth into Indian writing in English with appealingly contemporary storylines, at another level the amazing popularity of his novels is a depressing indicator of the extent to which education and public expectations have been dumbed down in our times. Revolution 2020 is awash with trivial and awkward dialogue which is often downright corny. Moreover if you’re looking for social context, credible characterisation, interpretation of motivations and insights into the human condition — essential ingredients of the accomplished novelist’s craft — you are reading the wrong author. All you are likely to get is a simple tale told in the style of a Bollywood movie with over-painted characters, stagey situations, childish dialogue and a rain of italics to draw attention.

Revolution 2020 has two narrative strands. One is a love triangle which follows the lives of friends Gopal, Raghav and Aarati growing up in Varanasi. Although this city steeped in myth and history offers rich opportunities for context and character-shaping influences, it is dismissed in one paragraph as a habitation “which some call beautiful, holy and spiritual”. According to Bhagat, middle class children raised in this sacred city of vintage temples, burning ghats and discarded widows, are completely unaffected by their environment, and are more interested in tiffin and chocolates, the subject matter of the entire first chapter.
The second narrative strand is the rags to riches story of Gopal, the only son of a retired widower school teacher, whose burning ambition is to enroll his offspring into an IIT. Therefore, like most aspirant middle class youth, Gopal is sent to a cram school in Kota to be coached for the country’s IIT-JEE (joint entrance exam), written by over 300,000 youth vying for 3,000 seats in the IITs.

Here too, Bhagat had a good chance to honestly detail the hard grind and grudging social lives allowed to youth sent to study there. But in true Bollywood style, Gopal is a paragon of virtue, interested only in Aarati, the spoilt girl (daughter of the district magistrate) he left behind. Predictably, she becomes enamoured with Raghav, a brilliant student — the third angle of the love triangle — who gets a JEE rank and sails into the local BHU. Distracted by his irrational love for Aarati — a quintessential tease — Gopal doesn’t secure a high enough rank for entry into any of the IITs or even NITs (National Institutes of Technology), and returns to Varanasi just in time to see his father die of disappointment, and Aarati pairing off with Raghav.

This is where Revolution 2020 takes a refreshing turn. Dispirited and threatened by moneylenders owed a debt by his deceased father, Gopal meets an events manager who introduces him to Raman Lal Shukla, a member of the state legislative assembly. True to character, the MLA senses an opportunity in a disputed 30 acre plot of land inherited by Gopal, for starting a private engineering college. Shuklaji arranges the transfer of the entire plot to Gopal through the simple expedient of kidnapping Uncle Ghanshyam’s nephew, forcing uncle to transfer his share of the property to Gopal. Next, municipal officials are bribed from Shuklaji’s ample hoard of black money to convert the agriculture land into commercial property, a trust is constituted, UGC (it should have been AICTE) inspection officials are bribed and hey presto, the GangaTech Engineering College is open for business!

Again, in his anxiety to get on with his love story, the author muffs an opportunity to detail the deep corruption in the Union HRD ministry and its handmaidens — UGC and AICTE at the Centre — and the state education departments. The convoluted process and hoops that private promoters of much-needed education institutions are made to jump through by the neta-babu kleptocracy should have been detailed in the public interest. Instead, Bhagat leaves it all to Shuklaji who is a covert partner in this enterprise, to present a fait accompli.

But wait, the great love story is not over. Raghav becomes a crusading journalist who investigates and exposes Shuklaji’s de facto ownership of GangaTech. But so great is Shuklaji’s power that Raghav loses his job and starts his own newsletter named Revolution 2020.

Inevitably, beneath his cynical exterior Gopal nurses a heart of gold. While giving value for money at this college swamped by farmers and small-towners’ children, through a typically Bollywood maneouvre, he arranges for Aarati to fall out of love with him and marry Raghav, who enters politics as the district magistrate’s son-in-law. The end?

Not quite. Gopal’s story is narrated to Chetan Bhagat as Chetan Bhagat, the well-known author. Why? Because for an unstated reason Gopal needs Bhagat’s benediction. In the last sentence of the fully italicised epilogue of the novel, the author gives it to him: “‘You are a good person’, I said.”

Revolution 2020 is certainly a page turner. I turned its pages very fast, but only to get away from the trite, banal and corny dialogues which consume 80 percent of the novel. To his credit, Bhagat has chosen a relevant subject — pervasive licence-permit-quota raj — which enables only cynical and corrupt carpet-baggers to promote private education institutions desperately needed for the country’s huge youth population. But instead of availing the opportunity to explain how and why the neta-babu kleptocracy is destroying Indian education, he glosses over this heinous crime against the public and devotes most pages of this high potential novel to puerile puppy love. That so many million readers appreciate such dialogues is a depressing commentary on the learning outcomes of India’s youth.

Dilip Thakore

Misplaced complacency

Reaping the Dividend — Overcoming Pakistan’s Demographic Challenge edited by Michael Kugelman and Robert Hathaway; Woodrow Wilson Centre; 183 pp

There is a perception, usually prejudiced, among most non-Muslims that Islam opposes family planning because it wants its adherents to outnumber the ‘infidels’. That a Muslim can legally have four wives reinforces this perception. The truth of the matter is that some of the most populous Islamic nations, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Iran, and even smaller ones like Morocco and Tunisia, have been successful in stabilising population growth rates. Conservative religious leaders in these countries, the mullahs and imams, were persuaded by political leaders that the use of modern contraception is in the larger interest of their congregations.

One major exception to all this has been Pakistan, a country of 185 million people and the sixth most populous in the world, after China, India, USA, Russia and Indonesia. Pakistan’s population (West Pakistan, as it was then called) was just 35 million when it became independent in 1947. It has increased a mind-boggling six fold since then, while India’s has tripled in the same time.

The Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Centre is one of the world’s premier think-tanks, which convenes seminars and invites scholars from all over the world on subjects concerning the current state, and future well-being of the planet. Reaping the Dividend — Overcoming Pakistan’s Demographic Challenge is the outcome of a recent conference at which several Pakistani demography experts presented papers. They included Zeba Sathar, Pakistan’s country director of the Population Council; Shahid Javed Burki, a former finance minister; Mehtab Karim, one of Pakistan’s foremost demographic researchers, and Saba Gul Khattak, member of the Planning Commission.

Michael Kugelman, programme associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, has written a masterly introduction, summarising the papers presented in the book. He begins by citing a speech delivered on July 11, 2010 — World Population Day — by Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani: “All hopes of development and economic prosperity would flounder if we as a nation lose the focus and do not keep the population issue in the spotlight.” Similarly, Pakistan’s first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, acknowledged the importance of curbing his nation’s exploding population — then growing by over 3 percent annually — and launched a family planning programme in the 1960s.

However, after reading Shahid Javed Burki’s insightful paper, this reviewer came to the conclusion that  Pakistan was perhaps so overwhelmed by a series of setbacks that a successful population policy was really not feasible. “Migration of one kind or another has played a more important role in the country’s development than is normally the case for developing nations,” he writes.

According to Burki, the first migratory wave took place just before and soon after the partition of the subcontinent when some 14 million people moved in and out of Pakistan. A second large migration involved around two million Pakhtun workers streaming into Karachi to take part in the construction boom, after the city was declared the new capital of Pakistan. Karachi became a volatile and violent mix of Sindhis and Pakhtuns, following which 4-5 million Pakistanis migrated to the Middle East, where they came under conservative Wahabi influence, particularly in Saudi Arabia, thereby contributing to the rise of the malevolent Taliban in the late 1990s. Finally, millions of Afghan refugees flooded Pakistan after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

This reviewer’s grouse with what is an outstanding and revealing book, that needs to be read not just by Pakistanis but everyone interested in population issues, is the title, which gives the impression that burgeoning numbers can be interpreted as a positive factor and create a ‘demographic dividend’. Such complacency is misplaced, in relation to India and Pakistan. A demographic dividend is only possible if the extra numbers can be provided quality education and jobs commensurate with that education, which is certainly not the case in these two countries. On the contrary, population growth has resulted in bringing hordes of poorly educated, dissatisfied and unemployable youngsters into society — a sure recipe for trouble, if not revolution.

Rahul Singh

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