Listen to these four girls: on the Panapakkam suicides

Panapakkam is a rural town in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district. Last month, it was in the news when four adolescent girls disappeared from their school, leaving their bags behind. Their shoes were later found beside a sizeable well into which they had apparently jumped in order to end their lives. They were students of Class XI. This is precisely the grade level at which a vast number of India’s adolescents feel seriously unhappy and resentful. If you consult a typical textbook on adolescent psychology, you will find such emotions to be common. The text will probably dwell on identity, self-worth and petulance. Teachers are taught about these common symptoms, and those who learn them well enough to discuss them correctly get through their B.Ed. (Bachelor of Education) examination without much cramming. When they become teachers, they soon realise that passing the B.Ed. examination is a lot easier than dealing with real adolescents — boys or girls.

A poor record

The Panapakkam girls are reported to have been scolded by a teacher for their poor academic performance and told to call their parents. The girls decided to avoid that ordeal and embraced death instead, thereby displaying another familiar characteristic of the adolescent mind, namely, its preference for camaraderie in taking a decision. As a nation, our record of dealing with adolescents is rather poor. To be an adolescent means that you don’t feel comfortable with what all is going on around you, but older people don’t find it easy to deal with you. This is partly because adolescent behaviour is often prickly and petulant. The larger reason, however, is that adolescents live in an ideal world and measure everyone, including parents and teachers, by their utopian standards. This is not merely an emotional response to an imperfect world; it is also proof of their fully developed logical capacity. By defying the adults surrounding them, adolescents develop their own identity as individuals. This is not easy, so they depend on their peers to plan and decide. Their private fantasies are mostly benign and transformative. We can say that adolescent dreams represent a nation’s wealth. In India, this wealth is mostly burnt up in preparation for examinations. Ignoring or oppressing adolescents is not uncommon in other countries, but India’s case is somewhat extreme. Over more than a century, our system of schooling has honed its tools to oppress and defeat the adolescent. The tool used to subdue the rebellious adolescent mind is the Board examination. The term ‘board’ has acquired connotations of terror for the young on account of the darkness into which it pushes them before some are let back out into normal light and further education. Boards of examinations maintain a tight secrecy over how a young student will be marked and declared either ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. Social history is rife with instances of unwarranted failure and opprobrium of family seniors. The matriculation examination is part of family lore in every part of India. Fear of failing in it and thereby closing all doors to a worthwhile future figures in many autobiographies written during the colonial period. Examination mania is instilled into the young mind from the start of primary schooling. Popular understanding of education, which is widely shared in political and official circles, equates learning with performance on tests. The nationwide industry that specialises in offering help in passing examinations and entrance tests makes no distinction between cramming, cheating and learning. The Class X examination continues to ‘fail’ millions every summer.

The Class XI hurdle

If an adolescent successfully survives the Class X examination, his or her ordeal enters a more complicated phase, involving choice of subjects for the higher secondary examination. The Panapakkam girls who chose to end their lives were studying in Class XI. We do not know how they individually came to choose the subjects to study in this fateful class. For a vast majority of students moving into Class XI, the choice of elective subjects is made by their parents or senior siblings and teachers. Subjects are seen as tickets to the future. Some are regarded as solid tickets for a coveted future while others are seen as bogus tickets, carrying the risk of life-long stagnation. These are, of course, stereotypes, but they persist as currency of practical wisdom in a blind market controlled by Boards. No principal, teacher or parent dares to demand openness from a Board about its procedures. A tight cover of confidentiality is maintained to conceal the abysmal quality of the marking system, question papers and the evaluation process. In the case of girls, school-related anxieties get compounded by older, entrenched anxieties associated with gendering. Family and kinship fuel the apprehensions that girls internalise early childhood onwards about their matrimonial future. Educating a daughter is often perceived as an investment towards her marriage. The fear of being viewed as a poor performer at school adds to the stress at home. Teachers usually have scant awareness of a student’s state of mind. When they ask students to bring parents to school, they assume this will create additional pressure to encourage harder work. This simplistic logic carries great risk, as the Panapakkam incident shows.

Assessing the Boards

The state of education being what it is at present, it is unlikely that the voices drowned in the well at Panapakkam will be heard, but an effort must be made to do so. Boards responsible for the examination industry must realise that that it is no longer useful to install helplines to provide just-in-time advice for a 16-year-old in despair. The entire Board examination system and the culture associated with it constitute an endemic problem. Plenty of ideas for reforming the Boards and the examination system they govern have been given over the years. Some of these ideas have been put into practice here and there, as isolated steps lacking a wider frame of reference to curricular reform. The National Curriculum Framework, 2005 insisted on coherence between reforms in curriculum, examinations and teacher training. This perspective continues to pose a challenge to an institutional structure marked by rivalry and turf wars.


1) Resentful

Meaning: Feeling or expressing bitterness or indignation at having been treated unfairly.

Example: “He was angry and resentful of their intrusion”

Synonyms: Aggrieved, Indignant

Antonyms: Satisfied, Contented

2) Dwell on

Meaning: To keep thinking or talking about something, especially something bad or unpleasant.

Example: In his speech, he dwelt on the plight of the sick and the hungry.

3) Petulance

Meaning: The quality of being childishly sulky or bad-tempered.

Example:”A slight degree of petulance had crept into his voice”

Synonyms: Peevishness, Bad temper

4) Cramming

Meaning: Completely fill (a place or container) to the point of overflowing.

Example: “The ashtray by the bed was crammed with cigarette butts”

Synonyms: Stuff, Pack

5) Ordeal

Meaning: A very unpleasant and prolonged experience.

Example: “The ordeal of having to give evidence”

Synonyms: Trial, Tribulation

6) Embraced

Meaning: Accept (a belief, theory, or change) willingly and enthusiastically.

Example: “Besides traditional methods, artists are embracing new technology”

Synonyms: Welcome, accept

Antonyms: Reject

7) Camaraderie

Meaning: Mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.

Example: “The enforced camaraderie of office life”

Synonyms: Friendship, Comradeship

8) Prickly

Meaning: (Of a person) ready to take offence.

Example: “She came across as prickly and generally difficult”

Synonyms: Irritable, Irascible

Antonyms: Affable, Easy-going

9) Petulant

Meaning: (Of a person or their manner) childishly sulky or bad-tempered.

Example: “He was moody and petulant”

10) Utopian

Meaning: Modelled on or aiming for a state in which everything is perfect; idealistic.

Example: “A utopian ideology”

Synonyms: Unworldly, Non-materialistic

Antonyms: Materialistic, Real-life, realistic

11) Merely

Meaning: Just; only.

Example: “Gary, a silent boy, merely nodded”

Synonyms: Only, Purely

12) Peers

Meaning: Look with difficulty or concentration at someone or something.

Example: “Faye peered at her with suspicion”

Synonyms: Squint, Look closely/earnestly

13) Benign

Meaning: Gentle and kind.

Example: “His benign but firm manner”

Synonyms: Kindly, Friendly

Antonyms: Unfriendly, Hostile

14) Burnt up

Meaning: To have a bad fever.

Example: “You’re burning up!” she said, touching his forehead.

15) Oppressing

Meaning: Keep (someone) in subjection and hardship, especially by the unjust exercise of authority.

Example: “A system which oppressed working people”

Synonyms: Persecute, Abuse

16) Honed

Meaning: Sharpen (a blade).

Example: “He was carefully honing the curved blade”

Synonyms: Sharpen, make sharper

Antonyms: Blunt

17) Subdue

Meaning: Overcome, quieten, or bring under control (a feeling or person).

Example: “She managed to subdue an instinct to applaud”

Synonyms: Conquer, Defeat

18) Rebellious

Meaning: Engaged in opposition or armed resistance to an established government or leader.

Example: “The rebellious republics”

Synonyms: Rebel, Insurgent

Antonyms: Obedient, Law-abiding

19) Connotations

Meaning: An idea or feeling which a word invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

Example: “The word ‘discipline’ has unhappy connotations of punishment and repression”

Synonyms: Overtone, undertone

20) Rife

Meaning: (Especially of something undesirable) of common occurrence; widespread.

Example: “Male chauvinism was rife in medicine”

Synonyms: Widespread, General

Antonyms: Scarce, Unknown

21) Opprobrium

Meaning: Harsh criticism or censure.

Example: “The critical opprobrium generated by his films”

Synonyms: Vilification, Abuse

Antonyms: Praise

22) Lore

Meaning: A body of traditions and knowledge on a subject or held by a particular group, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth.

Example: “The jinns of Arabian lore”

Synonyms: Mythology, Myths

23) Cramming

Meaning: Study intensively over a short period of time just before an examination.

Example:”Lectures were called off so students could cram for the semester finals”

Synonyms: Study intensively, Revise

24) Vast

Meaning: Of very great extent or quantity; immense.

Example: “A vast plain full of orchards”

Synonyms:  Huge, Extensive

Antonyms: Tiny

25) Coveted

Meaning: Yearn to possess (something, especially something belonging to another).

Example: “I covet one of their smart bags”

Synonyms: Desire, be consumed with desire for, crave

26) Bogus

Meaning: Not genuine or true (used in a disapproving manner when deception has been attempted).

Example: “A bogus insurance claim”

Synonyms: Fake, Faked

Antonyms: Genuine, Authentic

27) Stagnation

Meaning: The state of not flowing or moving.

Example: “Blocked drains resulting in water stagnation”

28) Persist

Meaning: Continue in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.

Example: “The minority of drivers who persist in drinking”

Synonyms: Persevere, Continue

Antonyms: Abandon, Stop

29) Conceal

Meaning: Not allow to be seen; hide.

Example: “A line of sand dunes concealed the distant sea”

Synonyms: Hide, Keep out of sight

Antonyms: Reveal, Expose

30) Abysmal

Meaning: Extremely bad; appalling.

Example: “The quality of her work is abysmal”

Synonyms: Very bad, Dreadful

Antonyms: Superb

31) Entrenched

Meaning: Establish (an attitude, habit, or belief) so firmly that change is very difficult or unlikely.

Example: “Ageism is entrenched in our society”

Synonyms: Establish, Settle

Antonyms: Dislodge, Superficial

32) Kinship

Meaning: A sharing of characteristics or origins.

Example: “They felt a kinship with architects”

Synonyms: Affinity, Sympathy

33) Apprehensions

Meaning: Anxiety or fear that something bad or unpleasant will happen.

Example: “He felt sick with apprehension”

Synonyms: Anxiety, Angst

Antonyms: Confidence

34) Scant

Meaning: Barely sufficient or adequate.

Example: “Companies with scant regard for the safety of future generations”

Synonyms: Minimal, Limited

Antonyms: Abundant, Ample

35) Simplistic

Meaning: Treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are.

Example: “Simplistic solutions”

Synonyms: Facile, Superficial

36) Drowned

Meaning: Die through submersion in and inhalation of water.

Example: “A motorist drowned when her car plunged off the edge of a quay”

Synonyms: Suffocate in water, Inhale water

37) Despair

Meaning: The complete loss or absence of hope.

Example: “A voice full of self-hatred and despair”

Synonyms: Hopelessness, Desperation

Antonyms: Hope, Joy

38) Endemic

Meaning: (Of a disease or condition) regularly found among particular people or in a certain area.

Example: “Complacency is endemic in industry today”

39) Rivalry

Meaning: Competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.

Example:”There always has been intense rivalry between the clubs”

Synonyms: Competitiveness, Competition

40) Turf

Meaning: Force (someone) to leave somewhere.

Example: “They were turfed off the bus”

Synonyms: Throw out, Remove,

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