The Most Important Test Malayalis Are Least Prepared For

What’s the most important test Malayalis are least prepared for?

It’s the question I’m asking myself at 8.39 A.M. on a Monday morning as I stand in front of the bus stop. Even after 12 months, I’m still surprised at just how punctual St. Raphael is as it swings around the bend in the road and comes to a stop at my feet, door swinging wide open.

I jump in, push my way past youngsters in school uniform and think:

10th and 12th Board exam?

No, that can’t be. Parents start worrying about their children from 9th Grade onwards. There’s tuition, extra classes at school, shifting to the better school with better academics…

The youngsters spill out as the bus pulls into Thrissur Road, forming a pool of maroon and white shirts that diffuse towards the pavement and autorickshaws. The remaining passengers claim seats they believe they’d deserved all along due to seniority and regularity of travel. The fellow sitting next to me is skimming through an accounts book…

Chartered Accountant (CA) Exam?

No way. I had roommates who studied for CA. Many entered as fresh faced 18-year olds and left a decade later to reunite with wife and kids, either with a certificate or a good enough job instead. Chartered Accounting took years of preparation.

My mind quickly jumped to the other possibilities as the bus zoomed past coaching institutes…

Bank Coaching? Civil Services Examination?

Nope. The first one is increasingly a fall back option for the horde of engineers who’re emerging from colleges every year only to discover they’d been lied to by everyone in life and that a B.Tech degree had as much value as Zimbabwe’s currency, for basically the same reason.

I decided what the criteria for my question should be. It should be a single/series of tests/examinations that are attempted by a significant percentage of Kerala’s population, with the least amount of adequate preparation.

So that ruled out Civil Service exams as well, since anyone attempting them would reasonably dedicate at least a year or two for preparation.

As St. Raphael slowed down meters away from a traffic signal showing red and a timer flashing the numbers 8, 7, 6… I leapt out, slammed the door shut and jogged to the pavement.

Medical entrance exams also took a complete year of preparation, not to mention most candidates repeated for a full additional year before getting a seat.

It has to be a test that is of great influence, something that shapes their life. If passing that test gets you a mediocre job, it doesn’t really count. It also has to be a test that people in Kerala aren’t really preparing for. Which means something that takes up less than a year of coaching. The shorter, the better.

So, what’s the test that has most impact on your life if you are an aspiring Malayali, but for which you will spend the least amount of preparation?

As I climbed up the stairs to my workplace, the answer was obvious. Five letters.

IELTS.

IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is a standardized test for non-native English language speakers. In other words, almost anyone who wants to study or migrate abroad, needs to take this test to prove their proficiency in English.

Over the course of the past year, as an IELTS trainer, it’s dawned on me just how important an exam this is for people in Kerala.

An IELTS coaching center is a cross section of Kerala society. You will find nurses, mostly female and mostly young, but some male and some with more than a decade of experience. There will be youngsters in jeans and slim fit shirts, rubbing unruly beards and ruffling uncombed hair as they try to write an essay.

Unlike other exams, IELTS does not discriminate. Not in terms of age, gender, occupation or capability. You will find doctors who earned seats in government medical colleges sit next to diploma holders who work in the Gulf as storekeepers. There will be a college teacher sitting next to a girl who’s probably her daughter’s age. And almost always, there will be at least a couple of couples, either sitting together or throwing encouraging glances at each other from across the room. Some other ladies will be thinking of their husbands abroad, who’ll call them in the evening and insist on speaking in English despite the awkwardness, just so they can practice.

Grandmothers are recruited to take care of new born children. Jobs are abandoned bravely, sometimes from foreign countries. All so that men and women can spend three to four hours in an institute every day, preparing for an exam that will total three and a half hours.

Why?

Because IELTS is the only thing that separates them from a dream life. If you get an MBBS seat, you still have to pass exams for the next five years, not to mention apply for an almost compulsory postgraduation degree after that. If you get an engineering seat, you still have to graduate without supplementary papers and find a good job.

But if you get the required “scores” in an IELTS exam, you’ve changed the course of your life. There are four modules in IELTS. Reading. Writing. Listening. All of which are one-hour exams conducted back to back. And then 20 minutes for a Speaking test where you have a mock interview.

3 hours and 20 minutes. Do well, and you can apply for PR in Canada, meaning within a few years you’ll be a citizen of a developed country.

3 hours and 20 minutes. Do well, and you can study Diploma in Engineering from Singapore, where you can earn from part time work and be guaranteed a job after graduation.

3 hours and 20 minutes. Do well, and you can work as a nurse in England or Australia or Canada, for a pay that’s multiple times higher, in a hospital that’s vastly more organized and hygienic, with a work schedule that’s much less hectic so that you can spend more time with your family.

And here’s the sad part. The reason for the second half of the title of this article, that I’m writing after a year as an IELTS trainer.

The vast majority fail.

The vast majority fail to get PR, and either immediately give up, or slowly let their hopes fade after a few more attempts, until they make peace with their financial, professional and social situation, or pretend to.

The vast majority are quietly enrolled in Engineering and Arts colleges after one to three attempts by parents who either criticize them or become convincingly critical of the demerits of studying abroad.

The vast majority return to their shifts at the hospital to work long hours for less pay and occasionally wonder what could have been. A mental exercise made all the more painful due to the periodic visits by those who did make it and have now returned on holiday to talk about life abroad.

In this article, I’ve hopefully convinced you about the What?

What is the most important test Malayalis are least prepared for?

I believe the answer is IELTS.

And now in the second article, I’d like to try and explain the Why?

Why is IELTS the most important test Malayalis are least prepared for?

The answer is one I’ve sought for almost a year. Ever since I started realizing that the majority of students studying for the exam don’t pass, I’ve wanted to understand why. Why are so many people failing at something that is so crucial to their progress in life? What can be done to change this terrible trend? Why hasn’t anything been done to change it yet?

I’m not sure I have the right answers to any of these questions. But I’m absolutely certain that all across Kerala, our relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues…. are all searching for the right answers. And most aren’t finding them.

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