The latest UPSC Mains results are out and the interview process starts in a few days. My days of UPSC glory are finally over. New winners will emerge in a few days and the flood of marriage proposals ( which my family had to tide over) will dry up. So, time to go back to my own interview one last time (first time on the blog though).
My interview was taken by the panel of Ms. Arundhati Ghose. Yes, the same Arundhati Ghose of the " Not Now, Not Ever" fame. On August 8, 1996, she made this statement and became a hero of the nation. I remember reading about her then and wondering about diplomats for the first time. Needless to say, ever since I found out that she is a member of the UPSC, I was praying to clear the mains and be interviewed by her panel. The intensity of my prayers increased once I actually cleared the mains. All this despite the fact that she had the most fearsome reputation for stress interviews and at times, of virtually throwing out the candidates if they did not meet her standards. She doesn't waste time, I was told. Here is one such horror story that was narrated to me:
The candidate had put "gardening" as one of his hobbies. The first question was to name the botanical names of 5 plans in his garden. He couldn't. Ms. Ghose took him out of the room to the potted plants outside and told him their botanical names. Then, she told him that the interview was over.
I don't know if this was true or not. But I know of other people (first hand accounts) who actually trembled in front of her. One candidate was so nervous that he picked up papers from the table ( which did not belong to him, but to Ms. Ghose) while leaving when the interview got over. There are lots and lots of such stories.
While my sympathies were with these victims, in my heart I knew that these people really did not deserve good marks. If you can't stand pressure in an interview, how will you take it when you are posted as a senior police officer or a district magistrate or an ambassador later in your life? Anyway, I wanted her panel. No matter what the marks. If the circumstances were any different, I could even have asked for her autograph!!!
Anyway, the day of my interview arrived. I was at the UPSC waiting hall and was informed that the table at which I was designated to wait belonged to some other panel in the morning session. My heart sank. There were 3 other people with me for the same panel. I was going to be the third candidate to be interviewed. Later, only 2 of us cleared. One lady was already in some other service and she continued with it. One person probably went back to prepare for next attempt ( he was the first to be interviewed).
The interviews were to start at 2:00 PM. At 1:55 PM, a peon came to our table and said, "madam ka panel hai" (You are with The Madam's panel). There was no mistaking who The Madam was. You can't imagine the number of heartbeats my heart skipped. Wow! All the other people waiting at other tables heaved a collective sigh of relief. Apparantly, nobody wanted this panel. Except me.
First man went in at 2:00 sharp and came out sweating at 2:30. He made a mess of it. Ms. Ghose was very unhappy with him. The reputation was coming true. The lady candidate was next in. She went in at 2:35 and came out at 3:05. She spent half her interview trying to justify some triviality in her form. I was next at 3:10 PM.
There were 5 people on the panel. Lets call the members M1, M2, M3 and M4. Sitting right in the middle was Ms. Arundhati Ghose (AG), smoking a cigarette ( Marlborough Lights, my guess). I wished her first (being the chairperson, as well as the only lady member there) according to protocol and then the other members collectively. I waited to be asked to be seated and took my seat when she asked me to.
She put out the cigarette and scanned my resume form (standardised UPSC format).
AG: Mr. Kumar, you passed out of IIT recently.. oh no, in 2002. This is April 2004. What have you been doing all this time?
VK: Ma'am, till November 2003, I had been preparing and appearing for the successive stages of the civil services examination. After that, I joined a telecom software startup started by some of my friends from IIT Bombay here in Delhi. I am there in an..
AG: Wait. Why are you speaking so quickly? Are you nervous? Just relax and take it easy. Speak slowly.
VK: Yes ma'am, I am nervous. This is my first, and hopefully the last, interview ( smiles, trembles inwardly but doesn't show it).
AG: Good, so proceed. What did you do at this startup?
VK: Ma'am, I am there in an informal capacity and do not draw any salary except the expenses and I help them out in any way possible. But by and large I deal with initiating contact with foreign telecom companies who might be interested in buying our software. I find out the companies, look for a key person, initiate contact, see if they would be willing to buy something. Once I get something positive, I hand it over to my Boss.
AG: So, you actually talk to these companies.. the foreigners?
AG: Have you succeeded somewhere? Which country?
VK: Ma'am I initiated the first deal that we made, in Brunei.
AG: Okay. You have given IFS as your first preference, despite your father being in the Police. Why?
VK: There are 2 reasons ma'am. Firstly, I have always wanted to represent India. To have that India tag on me. There is this feeling of pride I can't explain. And secondly, I see more and more challenges ahead for the IFS in an increasingly globalised world. It seems exciting and I want to be where the action is.
AG: What is the biggest issue in the US presidential elections?
VK: Lots of them actually. Afghanistan, Outsourcing…
AG: No, the biggest issue.
VK: The Iraq War?
AG: Yes. Now, can you update me on the Indo-US relations?
(VK launches into an answer explaining things and bringing the Indo-Pak-US triangle into focus).
AG: You were talking about pride. But this is the government, you would have to do as your boss tell you to. Right?
VK: Yes, ma'am.
AG: Now, suppose you are in an Indian Embassy in some capacity below the rank of Ambassador. You get a direct order from Delhi, which you think is contary to our National Interests. Would you still carry it out?
VK: As you said ma'am, I probably would have to.
AG: (adopts a very nice tone) No! You must never do that. You should try and talk to the Ambassador and get him on your side. Once that is done, you can negotiate with New Delhi.
VK: But ma'am I was assuming that all this had been tried before. The order can not come out of the blue. The matter must have been under consideration for some time and I would have discussed it with the Ambassador already.
AG: Even then, you must not give up. The only guiding principle for you would be India's National Interest. Nothing else. If you think something is wrong, refuse to carry out the order. The national interest must never be compromised.
VK: Yes ma'am. I'll try my best to do that.
AG: Okay, you mentiom science fiction as your hobby. Name a few writers.
(VK names a few)
AG: All this fiction is fine, but has any of it ever come to reality?
(VK says yes and names a few things)
AG: Do you stay updated with science facts as well?
AG: Tell me about the Mars Mission.
(VK proceeds to talk about it. Can not name the vehicle. Discussion ensues around the table on the name and ends when Ms. Ghose brings it to an end)
AG: Okay, enough. Now the others can ask questions.
M1: You say listening to music in one of your hobbies. What kind of music?
VK: All kinds, Sir. Depends on my mood. I listen to pretty much everything.
M1: Even classical?
M1: Name some kinds of music.
(VK names 12-13 genres or so and is interrupted mid-sentence)
M1: The criminalization of politics is such a big problem. Why do criminals win elections?
VK: Because the elections are never fought on those lines. No matter what the national media says, down in the constituency, the issues are extremely local and mostly based on caste equations and local politics. So, unless there is a big wave, everything national is actually very local. Criminal backgrounds do not decide voters' choices. Except perhaps the urban few, who do not vote anyway.
M1: So, what is the solution?
VK: Perhaps to stop them from contesting. Stricter legislation to prevent them from contesting and a more transparent information system. At the same time, efforts need to be continued to educate the people about the importance of these reforms.
M2: Mr. Kumar, what is this BPO thing? How does it work?
VK: Business Process Outsourcing Sir. (explains the BPO phenomena)
M2: Do you thing it will last?
VK: For the short-term, yes. But other developing countries will start catching up. Besides, there is the issue of growth of the BPO company and the professional growth of people working there.
VK: An individual whose only skill is to answer calls would probably find it hard to find another job 5-6 years down the line. Not all of them can become managers. Besides, there are pressures of the lifestyle.
M2: You mean the health hazards of people in call centres. Elaborate.
VK: Only yesterday, there was a report in newspapers about a study that found the incidence of stress related disorders, drinking and ( pauses, looks at Ms. Ghose, who had lit a cigarette a few minutes ago, and smiles)… smoking.
AG: (burtsts out laughing).. what did you say?
VK: Smoking ma'am. People working in call centres have been found to be more prone to smoking and they obviously expose themselves to the related health hazards.
(AG laughs some more and puts the cigarette out in an ash-tray which resembles an agricultural field growing cigarettes)
M3: You are a chemical engineer from IIT Bombay. Why did you opt for Philosophy and Public Administration?
VK: Philosophy because I have always been interested in the subject matter. My father named me after Swami Vivekanand and I have been reading material on Indian Philosophy ever since I started reading. Public Administration because I thought that if I have to do administration in life, I might as well learn something about it. Plus, the guidance was easily available.
M3: If a foreigner, during your posting abroad, asks you about the sociological impact of schools of Indian philosphy on life in India, what would you say?
VK: I'm sorry Sir, but my study has been restricted to the content of these philosphies. I have't studied their impact.
M3: But you are interested in the subject. Would you continue reading more on the subject?
VK: Of course Sir. I find the subject fascinating.
M4: Mr. Kumar, a little while ago, while discussing Indo-Pak relations, you mentioned that India need not comment on every little thing that happens in the world. I say, we have no need to even talk to Pakistan. Do we have something in common with them. I say nothing. Nothing at all. Do you think there is anything we have in common with them?
VK: At least 2 things Sir. Firstly, the common history we share. We were practically one country barely 50 years ago. And… (interrupted by M4)
M4: No. We have no need to talk to them.. (repeats the same question again after a long monologue)
(VK starts answering again, and is interrupted again, M4 starts the same monologue)
AG: (sounds very angry and upset with M4) Enough M4! This is his interview. Why don't you shut up and let him speak? Vivek, you answer the same question to me and ignore him completely.
VK: As I was saying ma'am, firstly there is the shared history and heritage. And secondly, both countries have claims on Kashmir. And no matter what we say, it keeps coming up again and again everywhere. It is an issue that we do share, though uncomfortably.
AG: You have held several positions at IITB.. Election Officer, Placement Representative etc. You have also won a few awards from your hostel for "organisation". What is all this?
(VK explains the positions held at IITB and the awards from Hostel-3).
AG: Any last questions (looks around at all members)?
M4: May I ask one last question?
AG: Sure. Go ahead.
M4: You played hockey for your hostel for a while. What is the future of India hockey.
VK: Looks reasonably bright to me, Sir. At least the prospects are good. Youngsters are coming up, sponsors are also pitching in. Coaching seems to have improved.
M4: Do you think Dhanraj Pillay is good enough for the Indian team. Should he play?
VK: Well Sir, he is the most experienced and he is absolutely fit. He is the best player we have…
M4: No no.. just say Yes or No. Should he be in the team?
AG: Okay. The interview is over. You may leave Mr. Kumar. Thank you.
(VK thanks her and all the members and walks out without turning back)
I went straight to the waiting room and sipped some cold water. Phew! Time? 4:05 PM. I had lasted over 50 minutes!!! Incredible!
The conversation is more or less exact. But of course, some approximations have been made. I have also forgotten a few points. The highlight of the interview for me was the fact that she actually asked a member to shut up and let me speak. And the fact that she could understand the joke I tried about smoking being bad for health.
It was such a relief to know that it was over. I was swamped in the waiting hall by other people and the next candidate.
I came out of the UPSC campus and walked to Rajasthan House where my uncle was staying.
I analysed my performance to be worth atleast 200 marks (out of 300). This was one hell of a satisfying interview. I didn't sweat. My voice didn't shake. I made Ms. Ghose laugh several times. She asked a member to shut up for me. And… she was explaining things to me as if I was already in the IFS. Surely, that couldn't be a bad sign.
As it happened, I got 225 in the interview :)
She has retired now. I am in the service. A lot of my prayers were answered around that time.