The declaration of UPSC-CSE 2016-17 results gives me a certain nostalgia as I relooked my own journey; of how marvellous and yet how challenging the ride was. Inevitably therefore, I reflected on its trail.
For many, the CSE journey began in college; some even in school. For me, it was my dad’s constant prodding that made me take up the UPSC gauntlet, right after college, in 2009. Of course I did not succeed that first time I gave the exams, having dreamt instead of becoming a philosophy professor in Oxbridge or some Ivy League university.
But that failure proved to be a damning indictment of my overconfidence, and a clarion call. I decided to focus my studies from that point forth, even renting a room in Rajendra Nagar, to “crack” this mother of exams. And then something struck again. Before I gave the 2010 prelims, my father almost died from acute kidney failure, with the recovery process itself a miracle; and not long after, I suffered from – of all possible diseases – swine flu.
Fortunately, I could give my prelims exam without any dysentry or related hassle. Then, several months later, the result was declared. Yes, it was my father who woke me up to tell the good news. But that was just the first hurdle crossed. Success was still miles away, and my father, as his manner was, took the moment to scold me, reminding how, despite all my limitations, God has granted this wonderful opportunity to succeed. Listening to his counsel for a change, I began preparing extra-hard – harder than any intellectual muscle I ever had to pull, before or since. And within a month from the exam, I considered myself well-prepared.
Alas. I was diagnosed with a nasty dengue fever a month from the Mains exam date. First swine flu, now dengue. Whoever conspired to make me so sick at such critical junctures! But I continued my preparations anyhow … till I collapsed inside the washroom, three days into the fever. Revived with ice and a bunch load of medicines, thanks to my father being a doctor who could handle such crisis, I remained committed however, knowing very well this was a chance of a lifetime.
And then the exams came. I gave my General Studies papers with relative ease. Essay paper went well too, as did the qualifying English paper. And then, came my Second Optional – Geography (yes, ours was the last batch to have 2 optionals). My morning paper went quite well, and I knew that if the afternoon paper went just as well, I’m through.
As the afternoon question booklet was distributed, and I took at glance at all the questions, my face irrepressibly beamed. For I knew all the answers. Surely I now have a very good chance to become an IAS officer, I told myself, smiling uncontrollably as I began my write. But that is when things became dicey.
In all my previous papers, I timed my answers in such a way that all of them would be completed just 4 or 5 minutes before the bell, so I would have time to do a quick revision. I could follow this method consistently in all previous cases, having practiced time management ad nauseum before that, knowing all too well the importance of not just knowing, but presenting well what one knows within the time one is allotted. For UPSC exams are themselves race against time, much like life itself.
But then, something happened. As I finished my paper, and I looked at my watch, I realized something was amiss. There was still over 30 minutes left! 30! What did I miss? So I did revision once again, checking whether I attempted all the questions. Satisfied that I did, I then began whiling my time away dressing my answers up so the invigilator could read more properly, humming a tune all the while. I then looked again at my watch. Just 4 minutes left. Hmm. And then I glanced at the question paper again.
Wait, I ruefully pondered, this question in Section B is not familiar. Did I attempt that? As I checked my answers, and rechecked it again, I realized, in great horror, the harsh truth: I haven’t answered a 60 marker question! In an exam where even a single mark counts, where even one mark can decide whether one gets IAS or some other service instead, this realization shell-shocked me completely. My cheeks grew red and expressions ashen, my thoughts were jumbled, my face contorted as I tried to shout out in despair. How can I miss a 60 marker question in the most important of my life’s exams?!! I looked out the window, which was on the 2nd floor; and jumping off became truly tempting. I tried to pen the answer again, but my hands shook uncontrollably, and the bell was but seconds away. I did not know what to do. I was lost. A gone cause. I had my chance. And now I failed to cash it, all because my mind prematurely counted the chickens. And then, yes, the bell did ring.
The long metro ride back home was cold and all so painful. What will I tell my family? My father? As I reached our house, and entered the living room where the entire family gathered in prayer and waited, I could finally burst forth the pent-up tears. The floodgates opened, I could not control myself as I realized the gravity of what just transpired. My father tried to console, but it was of no use. A very good friend of mine, an IDES officer who himself gave the exams with me then, and was staying with us, compounded matters by his continued jesting. “Unlike the rest of us, Lal”, he jovially teased, “you are no longer in the IAS race! You may still be in the race for some other group A service, but certainly not the IAS anymore!”
And then, I got a call from an uncle, whose son himself gave the Mains exam (and who would go on to become an IRS officer). Lal, how much marks do you expect to get anyway? he quietly asked in between my sobs. Then we counted the marks I expected myself to get, and lo and behold! If I did really, really well in my second optional, Philosophy, I suddenly realized, I still have more than a snowball chance in hell to make the IAS!
Strength thus renewed, my spirits returned, and I resumed preparations. And when the time came, I did my Philosophy papers extremely well. And then, at long-last, I got the long-awaited interview call – yet again, awoken to it by my father, the shortlist coming as it did while I was in another blissful siesta.
Then, a couple of days before the personality test, I began coughing blood. I was rushed to the hospital, which diagnosed an internal bleeding situation. Getting promptly medicated and recovering sufficiently enough for the exam, I returned back, with much hope. And then, on that bright April morning, on April Fool’s day of all days, I, my mother and our house helper, took the autorickshaw ride to UPSC office. It was my IAS interview, the moment I waited for so achingly long.
And as they say, all became history since, getting an All-India rank beyond my expectations, and at the age of 23.
Now as I look back at the entire journey, through the bouts of illnesses and even the low of missing a 60 marker question, I realized that it was providence all the same. I do not yet know how fate will reveal its face, or in what way; but these well-nigh insufferable paths, navigating through the tightest ropes of life, gave me the confidence that God meant me to do some good in this world. I would like to believe that in the past 7 years of my career so far, the good things outweigh the bad things, and that I will continue to do so, in greater degrees and starry heights, in the coming years.
Both in civil service and elsewhere.