HOPING AGAINST HOPE
As I begin to write this article, the electoral results for five major states have trickled in. A few parties have reaped massive benefits while the long and extensive preparation of many others has been rejected forthright. Certain strategies have succeeded while a few equations have failed. Power has strengthened new hands while defeat has weakened experienced veterans. This turning of tables, every five years, is precisely what leads to the deepening of our democracy. Quite like our lives, fellow civil service aspirants. We churn, we mould, we break, we transform – just the way our political leaders do – touching new highs and tracing new lows, in the process deepening our knowledge and building our character. The only difference is that for us, every single year is a new beginning, a new possibility – battling through which we may either emerge victorious or vanquished. The choice is completely ours.
I entered the proverbial darkness of the civil service tunnel in 2012 but was lucky enough to find light within a very short span of time. I use the word ‘lucky’ because that is what I truly believe it was. At that point, the level of my knowledge was limited and the extent of my understanding was constrained. Many others had prepared a great deal better than I had. They’d put in efforts which I couldn’t have possibly matched and had spent hours burning the midnight oil. And yet here I was, basking in the glory of having obtained a rank in the late 500’s, happy to have crossed the line beyond which there was supposed to be happiness, joy and fulfillment. Four years down the line, I am still in the race, trying to outdo what I’d accomplished back then and attain a better rank. Starting from scratch, over and over again, has become the mantra of my life. However there certainly is something that I have learned. A single bout of success is enough to give you experience and numerous, consecutive failures are sufficient to lend you wisdom. Therefore, I am going to use this platform to share the outcomes of both, with you.
- Before I made the cut–
We all go through the grill, don’t we? Seeking help from those who are supposed to know better, searching relevant material on the internet, grabbing every book we can lay our hands on, recklessly purchasing bundles of notes from coaching institutes, motivating ourselves by hunting down topper’s videos – in short, doing everything within our capacity to clear that one exam which bestows as much prestige as opportunities. Nevertheless, let me assure you that none of our scholarly ‘collections’ (abridged or otherwise) are of any help when it comes to facing the war of UPSC. What matters are the little battles and how well we fight them. If I could go back, I’d advise myself to quit the pursuit of trying to be an opinionated intellectual and focus on the basic texts instead. Pick up the NCERT’s, read ‘The Hindu’ religiously, follow it up with self-made notes, use one book for each subject as a reference guide and immediately get down to writing practice. It isn’t about how much you’re able to finish in the first go, it is about how much you are able to revise and retain in the second, third and (if possible) the fourth go. The government isn’t looking to hire people who are masters of a specific trade. Neither is it looking for those who are jacks of every trade. All it expects is for you to be a well-read person with a heart for detail and a head for analysis. That takes cultivation. Be just that and you’re in.
- When I made it–
Life does indeed change and how! Suddenly, everyone was a relative, near or afar. Every place I’d ever set foot in, claimed that I’d been their student; every person I’d ever met, professed that I’d sought tips from them. My success, in whatever limited way it’d come, had many fathers – each one, trying to take as much credit as they could. I was invited to speak at various forums and everyone who came my way, seemed to sing eulogies to my intelligence, achievement and merit. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t gratified. I was. But once the fifteen minutes of fame were over, real life began. At this juncture, I must admit that training (despite whichever service you are allotted) is one of the best parts of your life. The three-month foundation course is the hub where spokes from different services meet. You get to learn multiple traits of physical, mental, psychological and spiritual well-being which enhance your abilities and curtail your drawbacks. Ultimately, you transform from just another cog in the wheel to an individual brimming with poise, conviction and confidence. Nevertheless, here are a few tips I’d suggest you bear in mind-
- Do not join training if you plan to appear for the exams further. Balancing both, as charming as it may sound, is not an easy job.
- Do not expect much in terms of perks and privileges, in the initial stages. Everything will come, eventually. Creating a hue and cry about how you’re ‘entitled’ to certain benefits only reeks of an entrenched sense of privilege.
- Always keep in the mind ‘why’ you joined the service and not ‘how’ you did it. If you focus on the latter, dissatisfaction would come swooping down.
- Do not let high-handedness breed in you. Humility and politeness are the best techniques to have your way.
- Learn. The civil service exam is an entry point, not a finishing line. Hone your craft, teach yourself new languages, keep an open mind, read extensively and learn whatever you can, wherever you can and from whomever you can.
I can sound utopian and indicate a ‘happily ever after’ story but frankly, there won’t be one. You will continue to face multiple difficulties and at times they will appear insurmountable. There may come a point when you’re disgruntled with the monotony of your job. However, during these times – remember where you started, grasp where you are and determine where you want to go. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the only way to walk through the quagmire without sinking to its very bottom.
- Life ever since–
Since my selection, I’ve given three attempts to this exam. Once, I was unsuccessful in the prelims and twice, I couldn’t make it through the mains. The assertion that it is easier for those who are already in service to sail past the shores of UPSC is gravely erroneous. The moment you sit for prelims, you are as good or as bad as anyone else. The only advantage you doubtlessly have is the level of your preparation. The amount of hard work you have put in. Being an amateur or a veteran doesn’t count. What counts is your dedication and your spirit. What most of us don’t really understand is this – The civil service exam is not about passing or failing. These are the words we conveniently use to quantify our endeavors. Like black and white. But these aren’t the only colors, are they? Nobody passes or fails at this exam. You either do better than others or they do better than you. Your performance is relative, not absolute. I totally understand how it feels to face people who’d imposed their trust, their expectations and at times even their resources on you. I also know the suffering one experiences when efforts go unrewarded and labor goes unrecognized. Everybody around you is moving forward in their lives while your life appears stagnant, like a pool of water without inlets or outlets. Nonetheless, what we fail to fathom is one simple fact – When we first appeared for this exam, it did not guarantee success but it did guarantee hope. It assured a growth of consistency, patience, intricacy, determination and strength. Aren’t you today a stronger person than you were a few years ago? Aren’t you better able to deal with difficult situations than you previously thought you could? Haven’t you learnt to slog on despite the obstacles which come your way? Haven’t you gained in life what you have possibly missed out in the exam?
As a final piece of advice, I’d only say- Fight. Fight as hard as you can. Try to win this war. If you do, help others who are still caught in the trial. If you don’t, let go and move on. Have no regrets. This isn’t the end. This isn’t the only war. It will never be. There are many, many others. Waiting for you to take a lead. To jump right in. I promise you, when you’re seventy, retired, playing golf with your friends or simply sipping a margarita while watching a sunset, you will know that what you learnt in these crucial years did not go waste. If you still have doubts, recall what Longfellow, the 19th century poet, quite vociferously stated –
Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
PS– I am going to be making my final attempt this year- sixth and the last. Whether I succeed or I don’t is immaterial. What matters is whether the process leaves me bitter or better. I choose the latter.