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She also scores above 90 percent on crucial tests at Delhi Public School, one of the most competitive in India. Since third grade, she has subscribed to The Times of India. She studies three languages, including Latin other subjects include physics, chemistry, and higher math.
For years, India was seen as not quite East, not quite West, not a Soviet satellite, not an American ally. But today the world’s second most populous country is opening, developing nuclear weapons and demanding recognition as "a great power."
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Her grandmother was an illiterate girl from the traditional princely desert kingdom of Rajasthan. But Ankana is part of the growing upper middle class of English speaking urban India, the India most often projected to the West. For her, the sky is the limit.
Moreover, in Ankana’s generation and economic class, Indian women make choices they’ve never had before: about when or if they will marry, living abroad (most want to), a career. They don’t think of being "allowed" these choices. They just make them. In fact, if you are an American earning more than $50,000 a year, Ankana may more likely be a neighbor of yours one day than a less accomplished US girl across town.
"These girls are more confident, much more clear than we were 20 years ago," says Neerja Jawa, Ankana’s physics teacher. "They are very different. They’ve grown up thinking of many possibilities. We used to believe things unquestioningly, blindly. They don’t. The reason is TV and media."
Still, nothing in emerging India is so simple. India’s female literacy rates are improving somewhat, and stubborn patriarchal traits are being challenged. But to understand Ankana’s place in India, it’s worth examining the cultural context: Educationally, socially, and financially Ankana is in an elite strata of Indian society. Only between 0.5 and 1 percent of India’s current generation of students will graduate from 12th grade and go to college. Ankana is likely one of them. She sits at the top of a national school system that is highly selective and not very forgiving. US schools, by comparison, are relatively generous; they leave room for experimentation and failure and stress remedial education. Most offer large doses of liberal arts and humanities; and there are some 3,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States to choose from.
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A selection machine
India today has 214 universities, up from 30 in 1950. But only about 5 percent of all 12th grade graduates will find a seat in those colleges.
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The biggest moment of selection in any Indian student’s life is the 10th grade test. The all India government exams are a hurdle every student must surmount. Not scoring well shuts many potential doors not just key 11th and 12th grade math classes, but perhaps study abroad, certain jobs, and even certain lives. All students and parents know the importance of the exam. They dread it and prepare for it. When a student is at about the eighth grade, parents from south Tamil Nadu to upper Punjab start turning off the TV and closely monitoring their offspring’s study habits.
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Both parents hail from Rajasthan, where village girls are married by age 15. But the cosmopolitan Dagas retain few patriarchal views. Neither parent is bothered if their daughter, "marries early or late," says Mridul Daga, aka "Dad." "We will let her choose. We just want her to be happy." Ankana, who speaks rapid fire English with precision and confidence, says, "OK, we talk about our crushes with friends, but marriage is something beyond my conception right now."
Dating on the sly
Dating in India is still fairly frowned upon, even in cities. But it is on the rise. At DPS, dating is done on the sly, Ankana says. Students bring casual clothes to school, then "bunk" the day stay out, and come back to school and change back into uniform. Mainly, they do so to be popular, she says:
"Being cool means wearing shabby clothes; you have to have Nike shoes. You have to be seen as slightly rebellious. For example, carrying water bottles [Indian parents send kids to school with water] is considered highly stupid.
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The reality is less rosy. To apply to an IIT requires a special, more rigorous computer study track for students in 10th through 12th grade. Each year, some 400,000 students apply to IITs; yet the IITs themselves have room for only 3,500 students.
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