Did you ever copy during exams? When I say copy, you know I mean cheat. You know that because you also remember the phrase “no copying!”, said in shrill voices throughout school. In middle school, I started drawing visual summaries of long chapters on single sheets of paper to help in last- minute revision. When some of my classmates saw them (kids I had known from way back when we went double-double to the bathroom), they got this sly expression—the equivalent of a finger gun salute. When I understood what the expression meant, I was filled with indignation at being misunderstood in this way. I was a highly literal-minded (not literary minded) and insufferable child who thought “copying was wrong”. More importantly, I was extremely chicken. Then I moved to a huge school where no two students sitting next to each other got the same paper during the exams. The entire CBSE examination board was giving us that sly finger gun salute. I was once again filled with indignation. Only briefly this time, before education made me give up in life.
Every examination was about how many supplementary sheets you had taken. One girl in my class sometimes took as many as 10 extra sheets. I also began to take pride in memorising and writing three-page answers to truly meaningless questions in business studies. After school, I have spent very little time thinking about copying.
Copying a.k.a. cheating remains top of the mind for lots of people though. A few years ago, a university close to home decided that CCTVs were the sure-fire way of preventing people from copying. However, they couldn’t organise CCTVs in examination halls across the city, so they sent men with video cameras to roam up and down the aisles instead. When I finished laughing, I asked my college lecturer friend, who was telling me about this innovation, “So you don’t have invigilators, you have the equivalent of wedding lunch videographers?” He nodded, grinning.
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To some minds, technology would seem to be the answer for all question papers. People have stopped being shocked that whole states have taken to shutting down the internet to prevent copying. In the last week of September, Rajasthan shut down internet services “to enforce law and order and to prevent copying” when 1.6 million young people wrote the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (Reet). But when people wanna cheat the Reet, they are gonna cheat the Reet.
A bunch of prospective teachers has been caught attempting to cheat using what the police say is a fast-moving item called the cheating chappal. Yes, the Bluetooth-enabled chappal is apparently a size-7 step for mankind. Or something. It took three people to explain how this chappal works for me to understand. Maybe you will be quicker. The chappal has most of an entire phone (and a Bluetooth device) embedded. The cheater wears a hidden earpiece into which someone off-site whispers answers, as if they are Tom Cruise’s handlers in the early phase of the Mission Impossible franchise.
Like most innovations in footwear, cheating chappals filled me with mixed emotions. The Bluetooth-enabled umbrella from Kerala, home of next-gen umbrella tech, had straight up made me feel like I had had a sadya. The chappal was more like the fake belly I read about in Gita Aravamudan’s 2014 book, Baby Makers: The Story Of Indian Surrogacy. Aravamudan reports in the book that couples who want to conceal that they are having a baby by surrogacy often buy prosthetic bellies in increasing dimensions and fake a pregnancy to extended family and neighbours. In parts of Gujarat where commercial surrogacy boomed, the fake belly business boomed too, she wrote.
Horror movies tell us what the world is frightened about currently—video tapes (The Ring), apartments (Bhoot), divorce (Aatma), children (every other horror movie). The Internet of Random Things You Use To Cheat With also tells us what the world is frightened of—being shamed for infertility, failing an exam that 1.6 million people are competing in, and so on.
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As the brand-new report by economists Reetika Khera and Jean Drèze, Locked Out: Emergency Report On School Education, shows, we have many things to be frightened of on behalf of children. After surveying 1,400 students from classes I-VIII in 15 states and Union territories, the report concluded that the school shutdown has had “catastrophic consequences” for underprivileged students. Only half of the children surveyed could read more than a few words. It’s going to take years for the damage to be repaired. And people who don’t say things like “if these (SC/ST) children get educated, who will work in our fields?”
The report is scarier than anything Ram Gopal Varma at the height of his powers could have come up with. Scary enough for me to think that anyone who wants to attempt an examination should be given chappals and Bluetooth and mobile phones. And cake. Because examinations should be to check (like the survey) if the educational system has been doing its work. Not to see if you have the sheer physical stamina to fill in 10 supplementary sheets with words that mean nothing.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.