'Kota is good if you are good' and 'Kota can make you or break you' are two cryptic statements Kota students often offer to explain life in their world.
Anjali Puri reports from India's coaching capital.
Even more than the pungent aromas from its marketplace, what makes Kota seem so much the dystopian analogue of a university town is the disconnect between its two parallel universes: Sprawling coaching 'campuses' and street after potholed street lined with narrow low-rise boarding houses called 'residencies', some with Dickensian interiors, where most students live.
This topography was not accidental.
As A K Tiwari, administrative head of Bansal Classes, recalls, coaching companies preferred to do what they did best, coach, and not get involved (except in a limited way) with the messy business of housing students.
They also wanted to give "Kota society", as he calls it, a stake in the coaching sector -- a stake society seems to have claimed with alacrity and not a little greed.
Thus, behind the slim facade of one "Dev Residency" teenage girls swot in 56 single rooms leading off from narrow, dark corridors, their "warden" a 26-year-old cousin of the owner who looks at you with blank incomprehension when you ask if there is fire evacuation plan.
Sumit Chaturvedi, owner of a ritzy hotel in the heart of coaching country, and a former boarding house operator, admits cheerfully that most hostels have brazenly flouted building regulations, that virtually anyone can run them, and that the business was lucrative enough to pay for his hotel.
District officials mention public health issues emanating from "residencies" like outbreaks of jaundice and dengue, and put the blame on lack of municipal oversight.
Kota's boarding house culture means children as young as 16, none of whom go to school (they are nominally enrolled at what Kota calls "dummy schools" where they only show up for board exams) are required to structure their own lives after they exit from intensive six-or-seven-hour long shifts at coaching institutes.
"Kota is good if you are good" and "Kota can make you or break you" are two cryptic statements Kota students often offer to explain how life in their world is a surreal blend of regimentation and perfunctory supervision.
It is also a world redolent with small-town conservatism and moral preaching.
Boarding house wardens, coaching institutes staff -- and sometimes even students -- casually criminalise heterosexual relationships in their conversations, as well as common teenage transgressions like drinking or smoking.
At Allen, no less than a counsellor tells you that suicides occur, not over academic pressure, but when there is "opposite (sex) attraction".
Posters on its premises, prepared by the same counsellor, graphically suggest that if students follow the 'right track' of 'sacrifice, love with study, concentration, patience, respect teachers and parents' they will get to a professional college, and if they take the 'wrong track' of 'birthday party, cyber cafe, movies, market visit, and friendship' they will land up back home.
Such moralising and guilt-tripping almost seems to mock recent official moves to get Kota to be a kinder and gentler place.
Coaching companies usually feted by officialdom for being the district's highest service tax and income tax payers, have been called to meetings in Kota and Jaipur after a stream of negative press reports over the suicides.
For the first time, a collector has circulated a note flagging, albeit in words that seem carefully chosen to not upset Kota's cash cow, invidious practices such as the streaming and shuffling of students on exam performance and the doling out of sops and incentives to high-fliers.
It asks for counselling for students that is 'substantial' not 'symbolic', for recreation like sports and trekking, for a holiday on Sunday, for smaller class sizes.
Is anyone rattled? Only a little, it seems. "The word 'suicide' is found not only in Kota, it is found in every part of society, spreading like flu," says a clearly uncomfortable Naveen Maheshwari, director of Allen, attempting to explain why the bulk of the students who committed suicide were enrolled with his institute.
He promises some practices will be rethought, but also asks sceptically, "What is the link between class size and suicide?"
In similar vein, Tiwari says, "Parents send their children here to study, not to go trekking" and Maheshwari of Career Point asks, "If we did not regulate ourselves, why would people keep coming to us?"
It will clearly take more than a few tragic deaths for Kota's coaching empires to lose faith in the efficacy of their business model.
Image published only for representational purposes.