This is Aparajita (AIR 40, UPSC-CSE 2017).
I haven’t done a lot of public appearances or interviews because I have no special life-altering third-eye opening sort-of Jnana to impart. A lot of other top rankers out there may have much better academic advice to relay than I. I do however have a unique journey like everyone else, and here I’m sharing whatever it taught me.
I must warn you at the beginning of the article that it’s going to be unapologetically long and I’m assuming it won’t be too difficult a read, because by this time UPSC has taught us the importance of Patience as a virtue. Also it is strictly not for educational purposes so read it as you would a story, because we’re all but stories in the end.
So once upon a time, I was born in a middle class family belonging to Banaras – The land of serpentine lanes, the city of temples.. and now our honorable PM’s constituency. My parents got married very late, and it was thus decided that theirs would be a one-child family. Being the only child, and being the eldest in the line of cousins, I was highly pampered by the entire extended family. Even though my parents maintained high discipline in the house and never conceded to any of my unreasonable demands, they always tried to give me the best of everything they could.
Despite this, I’ve grown up with memories of guests sitting in my living room asking my parents in hushed tones “Ek hi baccha aur vo bhi ladki ?”, which was followed by my parents dismissing such brazenly indiscreet questions in the most politest manner possible and with a smile so accommodating that I wish every girl was lucky enough to have such parents.
During the initial years I studied in a Hindi-medium school because my Nana Ji (maternal grandpa) believed that, Hindi being my first language, I should have a decent command over it. Later on again on his insistence, I was shifted to a Krishnamurti Foundation India school, the schooling-pattern of which advocates that every child has his/her own strengths and judging children solely on the basis of academics can be cruel to their psyche. They don’t believe in undue academic competition, classes often take place under the shade of the grand old banyan tree, nature walks are popular among both the teachers and the students and very few people are chasing after a 90 percentile in their score cards.
Naturally, such an environment gave me a sense of freedom and my brain-waves were always tuned to the frequency of what they say is “Following one’s heart”. Again, it was my Nana who put the bug of civil services inside my head, at a very young age of 8 when I wasn’t very civil myself. Fast forward a few years and things changed. I was graduating as a Chemical engineer from BIT Mesra, and was soon to start my job. By societal yardsticks I was a good kid with a stable future ahead. By my own yardsticks I was purely miserable – I had never been very fond of my grad subject, had applied for GATE and had also taken CAT once (because all my friends were doing so). Akin to a sheep, I was going with the herd – a version of myself I didn’t particularly enjoy being.
Anyhow, job started. For the first time in my life I had a salary account, clearly in my head I was very very rich. The work oscillated between Mumbai as the head office and other Plant locations and my final posting was as the Dy. Manager (Environment) in a small plant in North UP. Being the only female employee in the whole plant (there wasn’t one even in the HR department ) brought me face to face with many harsh truths and I was compelled to come to the conclusion that in order to change something for the better one must not only have the drive and the knowledge but also the necessary resources that can be deployed with promptness. This propelled me to give a serious thought to the civil services, and as a lucky coincidence one of my colleagues who was also an aspirant at the time (Sushil Riyar – Now he’s serving in the IDAS) provided the guidance to kick-start my preparation.
Therefore I tendered my resignation after over a year at my company and after spending 2-3 months at home I came to Delhi. However, the atmosphere in Old Rajinder Nagar really put me off-track. The commercial web of coachings, the sempiternal greed of brokers, the incalculable number of shops selling incalculable number of yellow page-bound handouts threw me for a loop. Therefore I decided I won’t be joining a coaching for GS but having decided on history as my optional in which I didn’t have a background, I joined Baliyan’s classes. Every evening for three months we would stand in a line to get our identity cards checked. Sometimes the queue would extend outside the building and continue along the road. Comically enough, it was a sight to behold and could make a layman wonder whether free food was being distributed somewhere near the building.
After standing in the queue for several minutes, we would be allowed entry in the classroom where we would sit crammed up for about 2 and a half hours taking notes, listening to people asking really absurd questions(which happens in every class, I’m sure) and in-between relishing Mister Baliyan’s prophecies, one of which was that within half a century, India and Pakistan would be reunited. As soon as the class would get over and Baliyan Sir would exit like king after addressing a “Sabha” of commoners, we would rush to get out of the narrow exit and cause a commotion. However, the thing that upset me the most is that the Aloo Tikkis and Golgappas in Delhi were highly overrated (Believe me, I’ve tried almost everywhere and Banaras serves much better chaat ..and man, who puts pomegranate seeds over Aloo tikki anyway?!). Anyhow, to escape the hullabaloo of the locality, in the mornings I would go to the American library at CP and watch Mrunal’s videos I’d saved offline, or read something else. An year later when they enforced a time limit of four hours on the members, I had to settle for the libraries in Old Rajinder Nagar itself.
One may evening as I was revising NCERT physical geography, the final results of 2015 were announced. Artika Shukla (who also belongs to Banaras and who happens to be from the school from where several of my friends have studied), had achieved the fourth rank. I was slightly proud, and slightly inspired (It happens when someone you know, or you’ve heard of, clears the exam). I doubled my pace, yet the 2015 attempt was still highly disorganised. I couldn’t systematise my preparation and flunked the preliminary exam by 3 point something marks. I was miserable and highly scared at the prospect of investing another year to the preparation cycle. My parents were largely supportive and so I decided to give it another go.
Come 2016, I cleared Stage-1 and was ready for Stage-2. I was pretty confident that I would sail through mains. Now I tend to keep a bit aloof so I didn’t have a very big sample space of people to consult before the written exam. Of the few people I asked, some told me that attempting a few questions properly is a better idea than attempting all the questions in an average manner. I am admittedly bad at time-management, so I hid behind that defeatist cover and readily took that advice. I could hardly finish 16-17 questions in the test series and was scoring decently so I didn’t even try to work on this aspect – a mistake I own fully. Another problem that I was facing was a serious lack of concentration (I’ve had trouble concentrating since childhood). I tried to meditate and that worked to a certain extent but I didn’t keep up with that as well so the issue persisted and I had to pay a heavy price for it while writing my optional Paper 1.
It so happened that in the school just adjacent to where my center was, the annual function was underway and the sound was loud enough to distract me. I inaugurated the paper with maps and took 50 minutes to finish it – that made me panic. I won’t go into the details, but I attempted 6 questions instead of five. A lot of you may wonder where did I get the time for it to which I’d have to admit that in my haste and panic I did not keep a track of the number of questions I did. I just kept looking at my watch every couple of minutes and writing the answers as one would write his/her will if they knew they had only 2 minutes to live. They were highly compromised on the quality-front, the handwriting was barely legible and it’s embarrassing to admit but in the last question I had attempted I’d written about half a page for each 15 or 20-marker. Only when my paper was taken away and I’d left the classroom did the gravity of the blunder I’d done dawned upon me. Had I realised it in even a minute before submitting the paper I could have crossed the answer I was not satisfied with, but it was too late. I have a habit of attempting question from the back and thus the questions at the beginning I always attempt last which meant the 6th question was attempted best but since the first five were to be checked, that ruined my chances further. I spent the break crying and completely sabotaged Paper 2 as well. I knew I wasn’t clearing mains when I came back.
Figuratively speaking, the period up to the results was the emotion of anxiety transformed into actual time. I had filled the form for 2017, but as it happens with several aspirants, I couldn’t bring myself to open the books. The results were as expected. I had failed Stage-2 this time, by 14 marks. However this failure changed something in me in a way which was cathartic. I became brutally honest with myself and finally faced the truth, that I was fully responsible for failing and in fact, I deserved it. Up till that point I was avoiding my flaws and was trying to “make it to the list somehow” which meant that I wasn’t honestly working hard. The fact that my parents didn’t raise a finger on my sincerity and pushed me to take another attempt made me feel deeply ashamed of myself. I made a silent promise to myself that I won’t let my parents down this time.
Full-fledged preparation for Pre 2017 started in mid-march. At this point I would like to tell all those who have failed in prelims more than once – Please don’t blame yourself.. Pre is tough. At least for me, it was always very very tough. There is just too much to study, and there’s no dearth of sources. Say you’re happily reading CCRT or Nitin Singhania for Art and Culture, but 15 days before the exam you’ll be bombarded with handouts from Vajiram, GS Score, IAS Baba, Insights on India and you won’t know what to cover and what to leave. Same goes with every other subject. The havoc the innumerable number of handouts create in a student’s life is highly understated. The veritable mental Pao-Bhaaji can be frustrating and exhausting and it made me want to run faster than Usain Bolt into nothingness.
Moving on – Immediately after taking both the papers of the Preliminary exam on June 18th, I googled for the answer keys from which I calculated a total of 98-100 marks in the first paper. I couldn’t have qualified for mains with such a score. All my hopes were dashed. My friends were getting over 115 with these keys, and I was probably the only one going to fail, I thought. Another year of hard work down the drain. Waterworks started and just wouldn’t stop. Helpless, I asked my mother what would I do if I failed yet again – I had no job, no income, and 2.5 years of gap. I told her I felt so lost I wanted to kill myself. She started crying too..how painful it must be for a mother to see her child lose one battle after another. My parents told me they’ve never doubted my capability and that I don’t need to worry for a thing as long as they are alive.
When the results came, the good news was that I had cleared Pre. Bad news was that I had wasted one precious month loitering about the house and cribbing as to how I wouldn’t be clearing. I request all of you to please not waste time because you feel you may not get through based on the answer keys of the coaching institutes, especially the ones which are too keen to publish them within an hour of the exams getting over. You let that crucial time pass and you fall behind the others – take my word for it. Anyway so I went back to the phantasmagoria of Rajinder Nagar and joined ForumIAS’s test series for mains. They were just starting out, so I’d naturally assumed there would be sincerity in the initial year of operation, and I was more or less right. For history I joined GS Score’s test series. In a few articles here and there I have already mentioned that I had trouble with structuring my answers and managing my time. Even though I took only 8 tests for GS and 4 for history, I did improve a little on both these fronts. 28th October arrived very fast and the the next few days passed quicker than the speed of light. I breathed a sigh of relief, for the reason that barring one question each in GS-2 and GS-3 and a 20-marker in Paper 1 of my optional subject, I had managed to cover the questions albeit in a “Jaise-Taise” manner.
Almost satisfied, I went back to Banaras. My days began with a steaming hot cup of Adrak wali chai with my parents and with Mohammed Rafi, Lata, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt playing in the background. Rest of the day was spent carrying out my filial duties and catching up on news about the extended family that I had missed because the Mains examination did not allow me long telephonic conversations with my mother or father. Sometimes I would cook something which my parents happily ate in the name of the progress of my culinary skills, no matter how bad the end product tasted. At other times I would read, or paint. I mostly kept away from the guests who were usually exasperatingly curious about when I would finally clear this exam..and if I’m unable to, why don’t I get a job and get married.
So the first few days passed nestled in the safety and comfort of my home, until one morning when my mother (who’d been struggling with sleepless nights for the past few days) complained that she just couldn’t breath and that she felt her heart was sinking. We desperately called up several hospitals and begged them to send us an ambulance with oxygen support but every single one of them told me ambulances weren’t available and that I should make my own arrangements, while my mother gasped for breath. An uncle who is a doctor, arranged a vehicle somehow, and we took Ma to a nearby private hospital where the attendant told us in a very nonchalant manner that there was no vacant bed in the ICU and that we’d have to take the patient somewhere else. Again, after making a call to a few doctors we knew, suddenly a bed in the ICU was available out of thin air. My Ma was finally admitted after a 3-hour delay into the ICU and was kept under observation for a 72-hour period. We were told she had suffered a bronchial spasm coupled with a heart attack and that chances of her recovering were a mere 32%. The same evening when she was awake and I went to see her in the ICU, she (being a professor and the Principal of a degree college who was accustomed to going to work daily) asked me to call her colleagues at work and ensure that all the administrative work was being carried out on time. She made it through, but was shifted to the cardiac care unit for supervision where she became totally listless, kept objecting to her being called “Patient no. 4”, and told me to take her home. We stayed in the hospital – Days were spent buying medicines, injections etc and at night before sleeping I would set three alarms for 1 AM, 3.30 AM and 5.30 AM to go check on her in the CCU. Mostly she was awake and would smile from beneath her mask when she saw me. In the coming few days many people came to meet her in the hospital. Dressed in the blue hospital gown, she would sit up straight and converse with them with a poise only she had and a smile so charming which made the fact that she was in a hospital, seem like a hollow lie.
On 29th November she was discharged but even at home she needed the oxygen cylinder and every 2-3 hours I would check her pulse and the dissolved oxygen levels in her blood. In the initial two days she improved but then slowly her appetite decreased further, she needed the oxygen mask more often and couldn’t complete her sentences without falling out of breath. My father would watch TV with her, and I would cook her things like Makhaane ki kheer
because she was sick of eating moong daal ki khichdi . She’d eat a spoon or two, smile and tell me I’d prepared it well, but she couldn’t eat further because she suffered from perpetual nausea. We decided to re-admit her into a hospital – a government-run this time.
On December 11th, we reached the hospital at 11 AM but being true to the reputation of a Govt. hospital, she could only be formally admitted by 2.30 PM. She hadn’t eaten anything so I tried to feed her juice but she threw up. She told us she was feeling very weak..my father re-assured her she’d be completely fit soon. At 4.30 PM I went home to get clothes and duvets for the night’s stay at the hospital. While on my way back and stuck in traffic, I got a call which said that she had suffered another heart attack..a massive one this time. I remember wanting to get out of the car and running to her, but the hospital was at the other end of the city. I felt helpless sitting in the car which refused to move given the traffic. I made frantic calls to my father who was too stunned to understand the chaos around him. By the time I reached she was being given injection after injections. When I rushed to her crying, she was only half-conscious but when she saw me she agitated to remove all the tubes attached to her body. I told her to be strong this one time and told her that Papa and I were there all the time by her side.
She looked at me helplessly and I felt angry at myself because I couldn’t help her in any way possible. By the time they shifted her into the ICU again, shehad lost her pulse. They tried to revive her but they couldn’t. My father and I kept looking at the monitor in the hope that her pulse would return. It didn’t. I ’d lost my beautiful, kind mother, and my father had lost his loving wife and best friend. A big part of whatever gives life to us, perished for both Pa and I permanently, never to return. Life has changed much.. and today everything I see reminds me of her, and how in every single breath I wish I could see her smile, listen to her voice or could get her lap to rest my head on as I often used to do. I won’t have her around to see the milestones of my life and that pains me like shards of glass poking through the lungs. The only consolation is that, being her daughter I have a bit of that perfect woman in my own self.
Days passed but by this time, I had pretty much resigned to circumstances. My appetite reduced notoriously, I was spending my days gazing into the wall and when I went to bed I wished I wouldn’t wake up the next day. I was now ready to welcome failure with open arms and this time I was recklessly indifferent to the possibilities of the future. The written examination’s results came on January 10th. I had cleared, but hardly anything could get much of a reaction out of me. Interview was scheduled for March 22nd, and though I acted as if I was concerned (to keep up appearances), I was least bothered. By mid-February however, It occurred to me that I hadn’t taken any mocks and meanwhile I also hadn’t filled the form for next year because I was too drained to be sucked into the vapid whirlpool of UPSC again. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – I began to panic. I was severely under-prepared so I decided to leave for Delhi on February 25th. I went to attend a few mocks most of which didn’t go great.
One of them was a particularly distressing experience because It felt like I was visiting a shrink who was doing a psychoanalysis on me, rather than giving me anything concrete as to how I could optimise my marks in the interview room. I consider myself to be a fairly confident person but I came back home confused, not knowing what to do next. My self-worth had more or less shattered, but my friends assured me there was still enough time and I was bound to make it (I’m a little lucky in the Friends’ department). Also since many alumnae of my college have previously landed an under-100 rank in this exam, a good-humoured senior reminded me how I ought to get a double-digit rank, because I had a legacy to keep. Meanwhile I also chanced upon a Telegram group where I found some wonderful people I could discuss probable questions with and I can’t thank my stars enough, for my confidence-level shot up faster than any SpaceX rocket ever built. I studied whatever I could in that short span of time and regular self-assurance was the only fuel I ran on, for the next few days.
March 22, AN session. I got up, listened to the morning AIR news, talked to my father, like a total non-professional at saree wearing I put on the ensemble I was supposed to wear, and headed with my friends to UPSC where my fate would be decided. We filled out the documents and were led to a colonial style round waiting hall, where most of us lingered around the tables allotted to us, in groups of four or five. For a while I talked to other fellow table-mates, ate the chocolate I had brought with myself, and then looked around to observe other candidates and estimate their percentages of nervousness or confidence. To calm my nerves I drank 4 small cups of vending machine-tea while waiting, and as a sign of obeisance to my future panel, I kept standing so as to not crush my saree and leave a poor first impression when I enter the interview room (Yes those are the kinds of thoughts that cross your mind in those final moments). I was the first one to go. Mr. Bhim Sain Bassi was the chairman. The interview went phenomenally horrendous (You can find my interview transcript on Mrunal sir’s website). I came out feeling useless and told my friends(who were waiting outside all this while), that I may not make it to the list but I might as well give them a treat because at least I’d be out of this vicious cycle soon. Whoever I narrated the interview to, asked me what my back-up plan was (I had none). When I went back home my days were spent in anticipation of the result amidst the speculations fuelled by “Insider information”. To keep myself distracted I set a goal of reading one novel per day and from morning to night I remained engrossed in the stories. There’s perhaps no two companions more suited for me than solitude and books. Even though I was getting very little sleep, it helped immensely in calming my nerves and controlling my anxiety levels.
On April 27th, when the results came out, I found my name on the first page. I was thankful not for a comfortable rank, but for the fact that I won’t be unemployed here on. As I write this, over a month has passed since the results were declared, and in that short period there’s been a marked change in the attitude of the people around me. My father whom I still sometimes catch unawares gazing at Ma’s portrait hung in the living room, has a reason to be happy, and he’s been entertaining calls and guests since. Every single day I am humbled with the number of emails and messages I get from my batch-mates and former colleagues, telling me how proud they are of my achievement. My driver bhaiyya makes sure he opens the door for me. Suddenly relatives I didn’t know existed have been bombarding my phone with calls and texts. Nowadays I’ve been hearing more of “I thought you’ll be busy” or “I didn’t want to disturb you” and it makes me sad when people have to think twice before approaching me.. Some have started addressing me as “Ma’am” more frequently (No I don’t enjoy it)..Then there are also people who, with renewed vigour have taken it upon themselves to worry more about my marriage than my own father. A few co-aspirants have pinged me asking for that “Special ingredient” in my preparation strategy that worked for me, and have been disappointed to find out that there is no such magic formula.. I’ve done nothing extraordinary – I’ve just been consistent with whatever ordinary things I’ve done, but people expect me to have a “selling-point” and they refuse to believe when I say I don’t have any.
My friends thankfully, haven’t changed one bit and they make sure I have my feet firmly on the ground at all times, though they’ve become highly refined at pulling my leg more often than not.
As for myself, I feel “normal”/“regular”…I can’t find better words to explain it. Perhaps I can’t locate where the much talked about “Cloud Nine” is. So many things have changed fundamentally yet the days are progressing in a changeless manner – which is perhaps the most surreal thing about life. Most of my time is spent traveling and meeting old friends, reading or sleeping. It’s smouldering hot right now in my city, so while at home, an inveterate laziness and ennui has taken over me. Sometimes I get up to decide the number of sarees/suits I will take with me to Mussoorie, but soon I get lazy and banish that thought, thinking to myself – “There’s still time.”
In the past couple of years (and especially in the past few months) I’ve come closer to the realisation that we control very little of what’s going on around us…we’ll be tossed and turned by life’s course and we’ll land wherever it takes us. As observers the quicker we learn to let go of our egos and our rigid ideas as to how things should be, the better we learn to swim swiftly through the currents and reach ashore.
Trying times are a good teacher, and help us prioritise the correct set of people – Parents always come first (or next only to God, if you’re a believer), good friends are the biggest blessings, and the rest of it is just noise. I’ve also identified two sets of people — Those with immense grit who don’t let the circumstances overpower them and go through the grind with a motivation inspired by the success of people around them, and then those who let emotions like jealousy get the better of them and turn bitter.
It’s our choice and ours alone which set to belong to – whether we choose to fight the adverse circumstances or become pawns to it. As is the case with this exam, this time over as well many of my friends whom I was expecting I would attend the FC with, haven’t cleared. Most have told me to fret not, because they’ll work harder this time and we’ll catch up next year in Mussoorie. Even though disappointed, they’ve handled the result with dignity and maturity because they know how success and failure are the two sides a of the same coin and they understand very well how precarious this exam can be.
It’s no secret that the civil services examination makes you work very hard. But what the onlookers don’t see is the way it tests the mettle of your character time and again. To its credit, the preparation permanently alters the way you see and approach things and puts you on a life-long learning curve. If you’ve worked for it with honesty, and if your stars are perfectly aligned you’ll be in, but if they aren’t – try again. Despite everything, the exam is not the end, but only a part of the larger scheme of things in life..it’s definitely not the parameter to judge your abilities.
Those who’ve cleared can make themselves useful to the larger population via this medium, and those who haven’t will find other ways (may be better ones) to be productive. Either way, don’t let it consume you..don’t let success get to your head, and don’t let failures pull you down.
Be your own master. Show it who the boss is. But whatever you do, and wherever you are, never forget where you came from and give it your all to leave this world a better place than when you arrived here.
The end goal is always to become a better human, no matter if you’re a ranker or you’re not. The path to success may be riddled with sacrifice and pain, but in the wise words of Thanos : “ The hardest choices require the strongest wills.”
I’ll leave you with that thought.
Wishing you patience, much happiness and victory