A Day in the Life of a Girl in Madurai, India

By Adithi Jayaraman, 9th Grade
Kent Place School, Summit, NJ

Imagine a life in which your identity is determined by a simple score on a test—a life in which assessments and schooling consume your childhood; a life in which the tiniest sign of nonchalance is frowned upon. This describes the life of R. Umabharathi, a high school girl in Madurai, India. Her life was hard for me to imagine, as my childhood in America has been a happy and relaxed time of self-realization and my parents would remind me that “the score doesn’t matter, it’s the work that counts!”

Madurai is an ancient city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. This busy city has a population of 928,869 people. Umabharathi attends 10th grade at Capron Hall Girls Higher Secondary School, an all-girls, private boarding school. Her mother, Baby Shakeela, is a domestic helper and her father, Rajkumar, is working in the Middle East as a water deliverer. Umabharathi’s family belongs to the lower socioeconomic status tier of the community. However, coming from a poor family does not impede her from striving for a different life. This can be seen in her average day.

Umabharathi awakes around 4:30 a.m., even before the luminous sunshine can enter her room. You may wonder why so early? Before going to school, she spends time reading the Bible and studying as well as attending to normal morning tasks, such as brushing her teeth and getting ready for school. At 7:25 a.m., she finishes her studying and leaves for school, which starts at 8 a.m. Since she takes the public bus, Umabharathi always makes sure to give herself plenty of time; as all Indians know, the public buses are always crowded. In India, crowded does not mean that every seat is taken or a few people are standing in the aisle. Crowded by Indian standards is entirely different. It means people are literally hanging out of the door and holding onto each other’s hands to protect themselves from falling off of the bus. Being stuck in the middle of a public bus in India seems like a predicament pulled out of a nightmare, but Umabharathi has to face this terrifying, lethal risk every day.

At school, she attends the morning assembly where she and her classmates pray— a daily ritual in many private and public schools in India. After the assembly, Umabharathi and her classmates rush through the halls to their first of many classes of the day. As 10th-grade is the most critical year of Indian schooling, Umabharathi has a fully packed schedule. She takes classes in English, math, Tamil (an ancient language spoken by most people in Tamilnadu), science, history, computers, music, sewing, and drawing.  She loves science class, which correlates with her future goal of becoming an eye doctor. She does not enjoy math class, however. In her classes, she sits alongside 51 other students who make up her section. There are usually 3-4 sections in each grade (total of 150-200 students). Surprisingly, private schools have a significantly higher student population, compared to public schools in India.

In class, Umabarathi takes copious notes while her teacher lectures her and her classmates. Lecturing is the most common style of teaching in India, but as new strategies and exercises are introduced into the teacher education curriculum more teachers are becoming more interactive with the students. In fact, Umabarathi remarked that her science and English classes were quite interactive.

After attending a few of her classes, she has a little break. During the break, she socializes with her friends. This is her favorite part of the day and one of the very few times when she can talk with her friends. However, she lamented that she absolutely hates it when her friends show off, perhaps a universal annoyance. After the break, she dashes to her next class. As mentioned before, the 10th-grade year is extremely important for students in India. Every day is devoted to the students' 10th-grade board exam preparation. This exam is the equivalent to the SAT or ACT, and their futures are essentially decided by this one exam. The exam covers a large range of subjects, including English, mathematics, science, and social sciences. Umabarathi’s goal for the test is to score a 450/500 or above, which is a 90% or higher percentile. Given the importance of the test and the tremendous amount of information that the students need to know, schools around India, such as Umabarathi’s school, devote all of the school day to preparing the 10th-graders to succeed on this exam. In preparation for the exam, Umabarathi’s teachers give her class a test every single day and an incredible amount of homework. Students also take monthly and quarterly tests, as well as midterms and finals. This excessive amount of work provides the reason for Umabarathi’s late night and early morning studying sessions and creates an unfathomable burden for her to carry.

At 5 p.m., she leaves school, taking the public bus and walking home from the bus stand. However, she faces some disturbing challenges on the way home. She told me that random men on the road would come up to her and tease her. Unfortunately, this type of threat happens to too many girls in India. In fact, the National Crime Records Bureau of India calculates that “a crime against women is committed every three minutes.” Even though India has shown major improvements in women’s equality, the nation is still a long way from fostering a safe environment for all women.  

Umabarathi usually reaches home between 5:45 and 6:00 p.m. Once she gets home, she quickly washes her face and grabs a snack. She hurriedly eats her snack and starts her night of homework and studying. With a late end to the school day, she has very little free time. Her homework and studying consume the majority of the evening and night. At 8 p.m., she eats dinner; when she is finished, returns to her studies.  She studies until 10:30 p.m., then says her nighttime prayers and goes to sleep. This marks the end of Umabarathi’s day.

Umabarathi is no ordinary high schooler. Despite coming from a lower income family. Despite not being able to see her father for several consecutive months. Despite having to endure numerous setbacks. She faces her demanding life head on. She reaches for the stars and never looks down. She soars through the skies, handling the worsts of storms and never walks away from a shining light or a dead end. She is R. Umabarathi. Unstoppable. Invincible. A high school girl in India.