28 May 2022

Becoming An IAS: Trials And Travails Of An Aspiring Civil Servant

For the student from the Hindi heartland, the civil services remain the peak of redemption from their mundane existence, and life away from home in Delhi preparing for the exams to their transition to adulthood.

Aspiring for IAS
Aspiring for IAS Shutterstock

As another cycle of preparations to become an IAS officer begins, with the Prelims around the corner, what is really notable is that nothing much seems to have changed from the 1990s or even earlier. Delhi has always been a big centre for IAS preparation, and for many aspirants, those three most sought-after letters -- I, A and S -- continue to define the rationale for getting admitted to DU, JNU or any other Delhi-based university, especially for students from other states.

In the 90s, watching the Madhuri Dixit-starrer Ram Lakhan at Batra cinema hall in Mukherjee Nagar, they would suddenly experience pangs of guilt and paroxysms of pressure: "What am I doing here when I should have been preparing for IAS?" During the interval, they would remind themselves it was the last movie they were watching -- the next one would be only after they had cleared the IAS exams. It was rare, but if a girl -- who could not tell IAS from IPS -- happened to be taking interest in any of them, he would find himself torn between parental expectations and love interest. His predicament would be resolved when he would pledge to himself in the wee hours that love must give way to parental expectations. Formidable was the power of the three-letter abbreviation!

Why did they wish to be in the IAS?

Nobody -- barring a few sporty, muscular types with a fancy for guns, shooting, horses or for setting the world right -- wanted to join any of the numerous other central services or even IPS. Those who had been thrashed by mohalla bullies while growing up -- also fancied themselves in khaki, with a baton in hand and a pistol by the side -- and revenge uppermost on their minds. They often imagined thrashing the bully left, right and centre -- the bully lying semi-conscious on the ground, beseeching mercy. Power of imagined poetic justice! But it was obviously not the dominant feeling. Almost everyone wished to be an IAS officer for motivations that could really be complex.

They aspired to become IAS because it provided escape velocity from insignificance to salience. From nobody, one could be somebody in life and everybody in the life of the nation. If successful, these three letters could open a cornucopia of possibilities in a land where possibilities are mostly condemned to remain still-born. The promise of a red beacon -- that rotating and flashing light affixed to the top of a white Ambassador car to attract the attention of passersby and pedestrians -- was the single-most powerful driving force. It drove aspirants to work day in and day out to clear one of the most challenging competitive examinations invented by homo sapiens. In some cases, it could be simply a girl who set aspirants' hearts aflutter. "There was nothing really the matter with her, except that she had one of those little feminine ailments from which pretty women frequently suffer -- slight anaemia, nervous attack and a suspicion of fatigue," says Maupassant, about such girls. IAS aspirants set their sights on them, wrote their names wherever their names could be written and started distinguishing between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles in the run-up to becoming IAS. Urge to right the wrong, to get posted in the hills or coastal cities, to get the better of arrogant neighbours, to become new zamindars, to serve the motherland, to wallow in affluence and influence and so on and so forth -- these were other driving forces for students to become IAS.

Those who did not aspire to be IAS

Even in 1980s -- which was still the high noon of the steel frame -- there were oddballs who did not crave to be IAS officers. A few of them fancied themselves as honest but wanted to earn lots of money -- IAS was clearly not their call. They would clear SAT and GATE and whatever it took to go abroad, earn some degree and get employment in UN agencies or WB or IMF or some teaching assignment. Subsequently, they would marry and divorce and remarry and re-divorce and eventually choose to spend life with a dog-pet whom they would give a Greek name like Meraki. Some of them were grim realists who knew it was futile to waste time on a mirage so they would clear banking and other objective-question based examinations and would be the first to get "settled".

The more far-sighted ones, gifted with razor-sharp intelligence, understood the potential of NGOs with eminent international sponsors which promised international travel, money, glamour, alcohol, bragging rights, entitlement and a sense of self-righteousness. The smartest ones were local Delhiwallahs,, who pursued commerce. A few also understood well that academics at DU did not involve much competition. All it required were mediocre credentials, joining the right faction and right camp of university professors and becoming their sycophant. It did not matter whether one had any sense of history or of literature, or not. There were also those at Delhi School of Economics, who knew that a recommendation from one of the professors could open the gateway to Yale or Princeton, from where they could land a job in the IMF or World Bank, which could subsequently give their parents back home bragging rights. To them, these were potential brownie points to be scored over their friends joining IAS.

Here, an interesting aside: When Coleen -- the Englishman -- joined Hindu College for BA in Philosophy, he wanted to know the salary of an IAS officer for the simple reason that all his friends would continuously talk about it. When he learned the basic salary was INR 2,200, he was flummoxed. He could never figure out why his friends would crave a job with such a paltry pay package when they had already been spending ₹1,000 at the hostel per month. After making inquiries, understanding the political culture of India, its feudal soil, marriage market, omnipotence associated with IAS and how it ruled the nation, he himself felt gravitated towards becoming an IAS.

Becoming an IAS

For those pursuing humanities from the Hindi heartland, it typically started in first year itself. Waseem Uddin -- more into Shayari than history, laidback and friendly -- was our batchmate at Ramjas. His brother Naseemuddin had cleared IAS in 1988. In the company of Waseem, we rushed to the Gwyer Hall hostel to experience the aura around him. He took us to the legendary canteen run by Panditjee. Over meetha samosa and shahi toast, we talked about this and that. Manish -- ever on the edge and ever impetuous--asked him for recommendations of the books we should be reading in History and Sociology. Not meaning to discourage us, he smiled and suggested a few novels and advised us to strengthen our expression. Manish wanted some talisman, some panacea to which he apparently had no access. He returned disheartened and the rest of us began reading Immanuel C.Y. Tsu for the naked western imperialism in China.

After the initial brouhaha, the goal of becoming an IAS would be put on the backburner with more immediate and urgent priorities claiming energy and attention. But the goal would never recede into the background. IAS was war; graduation years were intermediate battles. What aspirants needed was not to let their guards down. They had to keep acquiring "knowledge" and cultivate the attitude that could help them crack the IAS written examination and interview. In order to ensure that, they would buy the syllabus of CSE, and mark topics which featured in the first year syllabus too so that piercing attention could be given to those topics. Cultivation of attitude involved feeling confident, but how to feel confident was easier said than done.

Personality development

Personality development in India does not come through family upbringing or school education but through books on personality development sold at kiosks on railway platforms. These come in many hues: How to become successful?/ Seven Steps to Success/How to Feel Confident/ Right postures and Correct Gestures/ Speaking with Confidence/ Speaking Fluent English/Entering into the mind of Interviewers/ Spirituality and Personality Development/ Personality Turnaround in 100 days/ Yoga se Hoga Vyaktitva Vikas and so on and so forth. All they told to credulous readers was that confidence is intangible but it is not inborn and it could be cultivated with right attitude. And what is this attitude? It is the orientation and it is of two kinds -- right and wrong.

Right orientation leads to right results and wrong orientation to wrong ones. But sometimes wrong orientation could also lead to right results and that is confidence. None the wiser, students left more confused than confident, these books would invariably remain non-starters. From the study table, these books would go to the bookshelf and subsequently to the closet, where they would gather dust and wrestle with moths, pathogens and termites for the rest of their existence. Their pages would go pale threatening to go unhinged. Exasperated, students would someday sell off these personality development books along with newspapers to junk vendors who were pejoratively called kabadis.

Letters from home

Meanwhile, letters from home written on those grey inland letters would arrive with unfailing regularity. Grey outside, its content too would have lots of grey. After usual formalities, parents would remind their sons and daughters about their mission, lest they should forget. In between, they would write how their neighbours had grabbed their land and only by becoming IAS officers could they bring those recalcitrant neighbours to their knees and senses. If parents were abreast of current affairs, they would remind their wards how a Boris Becker or a Steffi Graf -- on the back of indomitable grit and commitment -- were able to win one Grand Slam after another, and that if those Germans could, why not they. Towards the end of the letter, they would remind one more time about the mission which must not be lost sight of. Then they would cite the archer extraordinaire Arjuna and his ability to focus on the eye of the bird. Those letters would suck joy out of life. Receivers of letter would suddenly become serious and would redouble their efforts in mugging up notes and preparing for IAS. They would also start visiting library even though the books languishing on those dust-filmed shelf would not contribute anything to the knowledge or wisdom of budding scholars.

First-year results and IAS dreams

First-year results often came as the first reality check. It was never easy scoring a first division in humanities at DU and even 55 per cent was considered a decent score. But parents in Bihar and Assam where a distinction was par for the course, would have none of it. Those having scored between 50-55 per cent knew that their performance had left a lot for their parents to desire. Parents would write letters of dismay and despair; IAS aspirants would write back promising renewed vigour and commitment. For a few days, they would spend less time with friends and more time with books under the influence of age-old aphorism that books are best friends. But sustaining the momentum would not be easy and soon after, they would take to smoking, alcohol and masturbation more frequently and more vigorously. The second-year results were likely to be worse than the first year's, and it would be the second reality check. But it did not mean they would be allowed to give up on the IAS dream.

Preparing in right earnest for IAS

After graduating in high-third or low-second division, they would take admission in post-graduation in order to retain by now single room in the hostel which provided some privacy and unlimited opportunities for sexual fantasies, to continue availing DTC bus facility, to spend a few more years in Delhi. Some of them would take admission in Campus Law Centre but none of them would attend classes. The first task would involve choosing the second optional subject. Some would choose Anthropology because it had a short syllabus; some opted for Public Administration as materials on it were easily available. Some would go for History because it could help in General Studies as well. Yet others would go for Hindi Literature for inscrutable reasons. General studies would have common, usual suspects -- D.D. Basu's Indian Constitution being one.

Rajesh Singh had rented a two bedroom flat at Mukherjee Nagar. In order that he could prepare without a bother in the world, his father had sent him a servant for cooking and other daily chores, whose name was Mantu and whom Rajesh's friends called Mantua. One day Rajesh asked him in chaste Magahi, "Arre Mantua, wu piyarka kitabiya de" (Give me that yellow-cover book). Mantua smiled, "Bolhu na ki DD Basu chahi" (You better say you are looking for DD Basu).

Meanwhile, pangs of unemployment would start stabbing IAS aspirants. Running from pillar to post including Jawahar Book Depot inside JNU campus, they would gather books and notes and what they called materials. They would start studying for Prelims and Mains. Some of them would join coaching institutes, where they would come across girls. Boys would remain boys. They would start fantasising about eternal marital bliss after both of them cleared IAS. Between girls and boys, girls are invariably more realistic, more concrete and more driven.

Benedict Anderson and the imagined community

Benedict Anderson calls the nation an imagined community because "the members of even the smallest nations will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion". Craving for IAS could or could not come true. Most of the aspirants eventually fall by the wayside. And yet communion that this craving creates between someone from Palghat in Kerala and someone from Ramghat in Ayodhya is very, very real.