In 1961, Hemchandra Pradhan topped the equivalent of today's Secondary School Certificate exam, but his score is so low by today's standards that he would have found it difficult to get admission in the city's top colleges.
"It was prestigious to get on to the merit list but education was not commercialised as it is today. We relied on school teachers and focused on learning," says Pradhan, 65, now centre director of the Homi Bhabha Institute for Science Education in Deonar, run by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
Studying at the MH High School in Thane, Pradhan, the son of a railway employee, cherishes the dedication of his teachers. "One of my teachers, N Panditram, used to take us to meet authors such as NS Phadke and Acharya Atre so that we became motivated to learn Marathi better."
Pradhan, who always had an excellent academic record, went to his teachers' houses for special coaching, as was the norm. Special coaching meant clarifying doubts, solving question papers and group study before and after school. There was no fixed fee and no teacher would claim credit for any student's success.
Although there was no parental pressure to top, there was planning as well as ambition. "Those who were good at mathematics would choose papers like higher mathematics so that they could score well. Sanskrit was also a good option if you wanted to score," says Pradhan who used to study for seven to eight hours during the school's preparation leave. However, scoring was never the only goal. "We did not study for exams; they were merely a way to evaluate how much you had learnt. Today, learning has taken a backseat, while scoring is the priority."
Pradhan also had an idealistic father who left his job to join the freedom struggle and a mother who was a dedicated primary school teacher. He worries that today's parents push students for every extra mark to ensure they get admission into a good college.
This is because the institution matters, easing the way forward. Pradhan understands that due to competition and escalation of marks, the focus on higher scores is inevitable.