NEW DELHI, India -- Prashant Vyas, a chemical plant manager, has spent most days over the past three months assembling puzzles, stringing beads and filling in coloring books with his 3-year-old son, Sumant. Sometimes they even recite poems together. It is not for the fun of it. It is a grind.
Vyas saved vacation time to stay home so he could prepare his child to pass entrance tests for kindergarten. Before bedtime, he and his wife, Alpana, rehearse answers to questions that might crop up during interviews with admission committees. "I teach my child from morning to evening," says the father. "There is no other way."
As India turns toward a more open economy, competition for places in elite private schools has intensified. More families have money to invest in education as a passport to prosperity. More of them aspire to the lifestyles they see on satellite television. The process exacts a heavy emotional cost on children and their parents. It also speaks volumes about the mind-set of India's growing middle class.
Just over half the people in this densely populated nation can read and write. State schools are overcrowded and underfunded, to the point that teacher absenteeism is as much a problem as truancy. So, each winter, thousands of urban middle-class and upper-class Indians embark on a high-stress odyssey to get their toddlers, barely out of diapers, into a reputable private school. Entry into kindergarten at age 3 or 4 guarantees a child a solid education at an English-language school until age 18, enhancing his or her chances for admission to a good university in India or abroad.
Demand for the dozen so-called "tag" kindergartens in New Delhi outstrips the number of available slots by almost 20 to one, leaving children and their parents at the mercy of schools that judge their potential in a matter of minutes.
The process begins in late fall, when schools distribute application forms. Nervous parents line up in schoolyards at dawn. (The wealthy sometimes send domestic helpers at 5 a.m.) Competition even for the forms can get ugly: Some schools do not publicize their application dates, and parents in the know closely guard the information so their neighbors will miss the deadline. If that fails, according to local lore, parents have been known to intercept acceptance letters addressed to neighbors.
In interviews a month or two after applying, admission boards ask parents about their child's strengths and weaknesses, the family's daily routine, the parents' work and values. How would they react if a classmate bullied their child? Do they wish their child could be better at something? What? How have they dealt with a recent problem at home?
Then, typically in 30 minutes, a team of teachers assesses a child's potential. Motor and analytical skills, observation, concentration, comprehension and maturity are rated through activities such as stringing beads, connecting dots and coloring. Often children answer questions about a story they hear, or are asked to summarize it.
Some children weep after being separated from their parents. Others refuse to perform in an alien environment. Shy children are widely believed to be at a disadvantage, a source of anxiety for many parents. By March, most schools finish their selections.
Some families apply to as many as eight schools. "It's torture for the child," says Mohan Ghei, whose son, Akshay, is interview-weary. After so many admission tests, the 4-year-old has lost interest in drawing and displays none of his old enthusiasm for school.
In many homes, worries begin when children are still in preschool. The parents of 4-year-old Ritwik Wakankar put him through three nursery schools in two years. "In the first two schools, he wasn't learning anything," says his father, Nitin, who refers to the nursery schools as "preparatory" schools.
Convinced that they could not count on a nursery school to prepare their son for kindergarten admission, Wakankar and his wife, Manjusha, have been teaching their son since August how to tell fruits from vegetables, distinguish modes of transport and sort shapes. Despite all the prepping, "we have had many sleepless nights," says Manjusha.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that demand for child therapists is skyrocketing. "Kids are overburdened with expectations," says Neelima Misra, a psychologist who works in private schools. "Parents want their children to achieve their own unfulfilled dreams."
Playhouse School, a nursery school that caters to middle-class families in New Delhi, recently started workshops designed to help parents cope with the elementary-school entrance process.
Other nursery schools are catering to parents who expect an academic curriculum to ensure admission at a top school. Rote memorization is the order of the day, with teachers reinforcing success with sweets. The pressure prompted one 3-year-old, according to his parents, to start biting his nails.
Private schools say they discourage families from coaching their toddlers, and do not favor precocious kindergartners who can already write.
But parents are desperate for their children to shine in the admissions interview. Last year, the Vyases' oldest son, Sumedh, was rejected by six of eight schools, including their first choice. "We were very depressed," says Alpana Vyas. "After enduring the process, so many questions remain unanswered. Until today, we don't know the criteria they use."
After a certain point, neither do the schools. Given the crush of applicants, "I don't know if we're choosing or eliminating," says Anjali Arora, kindergarten supervisor at Sadar Patel school in New Delhi, which received nearly 2,000 applications for 80 places.
"It's a numbers game," says the director of elementary school admissions at Vasant Valley, a highly desirable school on the outskirts of Delhi. "In no way can we say that the 90 children we selected are the only ones right for the class." He asks not to be quoted by name.
By U.S. standards, the cost of a private kindergarten is a bargain -- $275 to $600 for a year's tuition, depending on the school. But in India, where the median household income is $480, it's prohibitively expensive for most.
Most private schools ask applicants their household income and other financial details, though they do not offer scholarships. Many schools are believed to accept candidates on the strength of their family name, or the amount of money in their bank accounts. "The rich can always negotiate with the schools," observes Wakankar, a government employee who earns about $400 a month.
Schools deny accepting bribes, but many institutions receive donations from parents soon after their children are accepted. "If a family is willing to help the school, I don't see any problem with that," says Rashmi Agarawal, headmistress of the elementary section of the Modern School. "Schools need facilities."
The number of private schools in urban areas is growing, but not fast enough to meet demand for quality education in English. That's why, back at home, Vyas is trying to interest young Sumant in a late-afternoon lesson. The boy, still drowsy from a nap, is not eager. He curls up in his grandfather's lap and refuses to budge.
Pub Date: 2/12/99