NEW DELHI — A couple of columns ago I listed the main causes and methods of self-inflicted death in India. Unfortunately, that article went to press just as India's high-school exam season started up, and thus omitted one of the biggest and most interesting trends in subcontinental suicide: Nerdicide.
Your mental template of this phenomenon was likely pressed in the home of a first-generation immigrant household. Or maybe from AP blurbs datelined Yokohama. In any case, you know the plot: A hardworking child of professionals, let's call him Tojo, is raised at his desk studying math and science. He spends his childhood and adolescence competing with half a million other Tojos for 200 slots at some ultra-competitive state university. Tojo, already hydraulically pressurized by his Rising Asian Nation's Culture of Achievement, begins to experience the psychological bends as exam time nears. Tojo is fully expected to crack the 98th-per-centile, and make family, neighborhood and country proud. Anything less is a disgrace.
Then young Tojo cracks. He jumps, swallows or slits. He commits nerdicide. He never even kissed a girl.
Nerdicide is hitting India in a big way, another little discussed dark side to the eight-percent growth clip everyone keeps talking about. Back in the old days of Soviet-mentored Indian socialism -- before Ajay dreamt of becoming a software engineer, before he had centerfolds of billionaire NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) on his bedroom wall, before India's seven technical universities were ranked alongside MIT -- nerdicide barely existed here. You had to visit first- and second-generation Indian immigrant communities in Michigan to find it.
But now that Harold and Kumar are going to White Castle, the center of Indian nerdicide has shifted back to the Hindu motherland, where every middle-class family wants its fair share of those New Economy duckets, and where contributing to the India Rising project means passing those engineering tests with flying Whites, Greens and Oranges.
So far this exam season, I have, without even trying, counted more than a dozen exam-season suicides. Most leave simple notes apologizing for not acing their tests; some claim they can't deal with the stress of preparation. Some write nothing before they, as the Indian press likes to say, "take the extreme step". Only the timing makes the cause obvious.
One Delhi couple was actually at the police station reporting their missing nerd-daughter when they returned home to find their nerd-son hanging from the fan. I was unable to follow-up on the daughter, but this may very well have been India's first Sibling Nerd Suicide Pact.
The government has begun an outreach program to help parents understand and lessen the stress of school exams, but this party's just getting started. Nerdicide is a toxic byproduct of rapid economic growth in a country this smart and this competitive. When rural Russia leapfrogged a generation of development to achieve economic might in the 20th-century, millions of peasants died; when hi-tech India does it in the 21st, thousands of studious teenagers are going to perish. There's no stopping it. It is one of the costs of India's superpower project.
To understand the severity of India's nerd crisis -- and why Washington had better keep cranking out those H1B visas -- open up a copy of The Asian Age, a major Indian daily published out of Hyderabad. Like many newspapers, The Asian Age has a "teen-youth-fun pages" type of supplement called "The Age", a tabloid pullout full of shopping fluff, celebrity gossip, teen advice, and the like. But before all that is a two-page spread called "Examine Yourself," which looks like the chalkboard in Stephen Hawking's Cambridge classroom on pop-quiz day.