By David Goldblatt
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents
Waiting to sit the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) in Gaya
It is eight o'clock in the morning and already nearly 1,000 people have gathered in front of the gates of a big military school outside Gaya, a small town in the centre of the north-east Indian state of Bihar.
Families are laying out their picnic breakfasts, the paan and snack sellers are doing a brisk trade, old men seek out what little shade there is, teenagers mill around; but they are not here for a fete.
They are here, because today is exam day; to be precise the Joint Entrance Exam (known in India as the JEE), and all across India another 400,000 students are waiting to sit the first of two gruelling three-hour exam papers.
As the clock ticks towards nine and the queue to the exam room swells, I meet two hopefuls from a working-class neighbourhood in Gaya called Patwatoli - Prianka Raj and Narayan Prasad.
Prianka has spent years preparing for the JEE
Both of them have been studying and preparing for this moment for years.
Prianka has devoted her late teens to maths, chemistry and physics, while Narayan left home for a year to study more than 1,000 miles away in a crammer in Rajasthan.
I wish them both luck and watch them and all the others stream into the school, while their relatives settle down for a long, tense wait in the harsh sun.
What makes students flock to the JEE and put in the long hours of study it demands?
The JEE is the gateway to India's scientific Oxbridge - the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs. There are now 11 IITs in India, but even with a recent expansion of undergraduate places, fewer than 2% of students sitting the exam will gain entry.
Even Harvard, the most selective university in the United States, accepts 10% of its applicants.
The odds are against them, but the opportunities and rewards on offer are extraordinary.
Are the pressures to enter the IITs damaging students' love of learning?
IITans, as the graduates are known, have either founded or run global companies like Vodafone, Sun Microsystems, Infosys and the management consultants McKinsey. Others staff the upper reaches of India's new software and industrial corporations.
Perhaps, most amazing of all, in the late 1990s, more than 10% of start-up companies in Silicon Valley were run by Indians - nearly all of them IITans.
The idea of establishing a number of elite institutions for scientific higher education was first proposed in the run-up to independence, and then championed by India's first Prime Minster, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru's vision of India was of a nation revived and rebuilt by science and technology, powered by the building of gigantic dams and atomic energy, connected by new transport infrastructures and developed by industrialisation. All of these projects required the creation of a new scientific elite - and the IITs would deliver them.
In an act of architectural convenience and immense symbolic charge, the first IIT was established in 1950. Kharagpur is near Calcutta on the site of the Hijli Detention Centre where the British had once held political prisoners fighting for independence.
Over the next decade four more followed, lavished with support from both the Indian and foreign governments.
In sharp contrast to the Indians' primary school system - which has been starved of funds, riddled with corruption and highly politicised - the IITs' success has rested on both their generous budgets and their autonomy.
Enshrined in law, and protected from much external interference, the IITS have concentrated on building up an exceptional body of staff, research and teaching programmes and an ethos of hard work and excellence.
Families wait anxiously to see how the students got on
I visited one of the new IITs, recently opened in the state capital of Bihar, Patna.
It is not much to look at.
The first year's intake are studying in a building whose stairways open to the elements and where weeds choke the old polytechnic buildings around it. But if you spend just a few minutes in the classroom, the seriousness and the focus of the student is tangible.
Some of the weaknesses of the IITs are tangible too.
There are just five young women in a year group of around 100 and nearly every young man I question plans a future in commerce not science, in the USA not in India.
The dean of IIT Patna has his worries, too, wondering if the endless cramming and studying is bringing him the most inventive students and whether their love of leaning has been blunted by all those late nights with books.
Will Narayan succeed?
When at five o'clock the students in Gaya begin to leave the exam room their sense of exhaustion is clear.
Some kids screw up their exam papers and hurl them angrily into the dust, others seem to shuffle sheepishly to the sidelines, and few seem exultant. The inevitable price of such fearsome competition for such exalted prizes as a place at the IITs, is the disappointment of the many.
Catching up with the Patwatoli students, Narayan seems crestfallen and even Prianka, normally irrepressibly confident, is shaken.
"We will see on 25 May," she tells me curtly, the day the exam results are published.
You can hear how Prianka and Narayan did by listening to Crossing Continents: Bihar, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 27 August 2009 at 1100 BST and repeated on Monday, 31 August at 2030 BST.
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