In the second week of April this year, Batra cinema in Delhi's Mukherjee Nagar was running four shows of Main Tera Hero, starring Varun Dhawan, Ileana D'cruz and Nargis Fakhri every day. But there was no way of knowing that. Because the digitally printed mugshots of the stars were plastered over by blurry, poorly-scanned faces of sought-after lecturers and civil service success stories: the heroes of Mukherjee Nagar, the largest IAS ghetto in New Delhi.
The civil service in India isn't just a national obsession; it's a rite of passage for most twenty-somethings, who at least once in their lifetimes consider sitting for the tough, three-tier exam spaced out over 12 months. According to some estimates, around 5,36,506 candidates applied for the preliminary exam in 2012 alone.
Most aspirants end up in Delhi's Mukherjee Nagar, Rajinder Nagar or Jia Sarai - the famed IAS settlements of the city, known for their aggressive coaching institutes. With around 50,000 students in Mukherjee Nagar alone and more pouring in every year, this area of 398 acres (according to figures from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi) is where most aspirants land feet first from all across the country. With as many as 300 coaching institutes running classes for around 150 students each through the day, it is to the civil service exam what Kota's coaching industry is to the IIT exam.
Or that's what Ashutosh Kumar (name changed on request) believed 12 years ago, when he came to Delhi from the small town of Purnia in Bihar, propelled by his family's collective aspirations, along with his own desire for a challenging career. It took him two years to fully acclimatise himself to the dizzyingly competitive pace of Mukherjee Nagar. "I appeared for my first attempt without even realising how tough the exam was. It was only when I saw people around me studying for almost 18 hours every day, that I understood what it takes to clear it."
Seven failed attempts, a period of anxiety disorders and almost all of his twenties and early thirties later, he is now on his way to becoming a senior bank officer at the ripe age of 36. "I knew that this field takes its time. Once it's done, life is made. Also, after so many attempts, I couldn't have gone back to my family as a failure. It was about my ego too."
THE BIG FAMILY DREAM
The Indian family has been choosing careers vicariously through its children for years, but nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the civil service. Twenty two-year-old Shahid Aqubal's gaze is fleeting but determined as he explains how his father wanted him to become an IAS officer close on the heels of his elder brother, 28-year-old Ali Aqubal. Ali is two attempts old and has been preparing for the examination for the last six years.
He also helps in managing a popular coaching centre in Mukherjee Nagar called Prabha Coaching Academy. Known for its Pub Ad (Public Administration) classes, he thinks it's necessary to get proper guidance to clear the exam. "You need to know what subjects to choose and how to study. Initially I was taking coaching from the academy; soon I got close to Lohia sir (Atul Lohia, the lecturer who runs the academy). I have a lot of respect for him. He is now like my elder brother," he says while talking to two fresh-off-the-boat kids looking to join the classes from July. Recently back from a vacation in Mussoorie, where the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration is located, Ali wants to see himself there soon.
"We don't study all the time though. Sometimes we listen to FM channels on the radio, experiment with cooking different dishes and do Batrabazi." (A term for the heady debates that happen in the block surrounding Batra cinema, where students meet after their evening classes). "Mukherjee Nagar has that atmosphere. You can study in groups, exchange notes and debate on any topic. Everyone is doing the same thing. That's why students like staying at this place," says Ali. With two other siblings waiting to join him here soon, he is confident of making it in this attempt. "After returning from Mussoorie, I went straight to Lohia sir and told him that that's where I want to go. And he said he himself would come and drop me off."
WHAT THE HEART WANTS
In the petri dish that is Mukherjee Nagar, romantic relationships thrive more vividly than elsewhere. Popular for its focus on Hindi language tutorials, it attracts the most number of residents from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In this casually liberal milieu, very different from their home towns, most aspirants who live here maintain that no good comes out of a relationship at a time when all one is meant to do is study. But a cursory glance at a Facebook page called Mukherjee Nagar Confessions indicates otherwise.
Goaded by competition and hormones, betrayals and manipulation form the basic tenets for many relationships in a place marked by its overall air of steely determination. While some horror stories include those of girl students initiating relationships with the sole intent of exam preparation, other popular warning tales are of girls who end up as substitute house help for their significant others, cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. More often than not, the boys, once they've cleared the exam, choose to milk the lucrative marriage market, where the going dowry for an IAS officer is a little more than a crore, a sum that beats returning to their still struggling girlfriends.
All the colonies, however, are unwavering about the intensity and hard work that is required for an exam that needs at least three attempts on an average before you can clear it. Colossal course material that now requires candidates to know about the details of the God Particle or India's position in the Happiness Index, means that cramming 20 hours each day is not enough. Almost all students take time off by either accessing social media in the evenings, catching up on the latest blockbusters, or hanging around the chai shops and rollwallahs. Some are even open to occasional partying when the pressure becomes too much.
NO DULL BOYS AND GIRLS
I met a bright and enthusiastic group of aspirants at the Sagar Ratna restaurant in Rajinder Nagar for dinner and most agreed that it wasn't necessary to stay closed in a room for years to prepare. Nikita, 28, who is soon going to start teaching Psychology at Delhi University, is giving her final attempt at the exam inspired by her civil servant mother. This was the case with many students in Rajinder Nagar, who drew inspiration from their parents or relatives. Others like Abhishek, 29, from Bangalore, came disillusioned from the not-so-lucrative post-recession private sector.
The innate desire to transform civil society, fuelled by the everyday discourse of revolution that is meted out in the classrooms, is what most of these glassy-eyed students list as their reason to attempt the examination.
After the recent revision in rules, aspirants appearing from the general category are allowed six attempts till they turn 32; those from OBC are allowed nine attempts till they turn 35, while, the SC/ST candidates have always had limitless attempts till the age of 37. This can often push aspirants into a vortex of chasing one attempt after another.
Shielded in a cocoon of synonymous goals, Mukherjee Nagar, more than any of the other IAS colonies, makes it easy for time to pass by without having to step down from the safe step between the university and the real world. This is a reality that hits most students only when all the attempts are exhausted, and too many years have gone by. The customary recourse for most aspirants then is to either try for the state services exams or bank exams, like Ashutosh, or start teaching in one of the several coaching institutes in the city. The more enterprising ones start their own institutes.
BEYOND THE 'LIFE DREAM'
Amit Garg, who recently became the father to a boy and now teaches Reasoning and Data Interpretation at Vajiram & Ravi, went through a difficult phase when he realised that he had exhausted all his attempts. "It was my life's goal to become a civil servant and I was heartbroken when it didn't happen. Thankfully for me, I joined an NGO working with orphaned kids that made me aware of life beyond myself and soon I got a job as a lecturer. It's important to know that there are many other career options left."
While it's difficult to precisely point how these colonies came to be the 'garh' of IAS wallahs, it can be loosely attributed to the cluster of coaching centers that have spawned an ecosystem of their own in these settlements. Mukherjee Nagar is listed as a residential area, but is in fact a commercial space, with every second house used as PG digs for students, or as coaching centres. The monthly rents are anywhere between Rs 10,000-15,000 in Mukherjee Nagar and even higher in Rajinder Nagar, where most students have no choice but to pay through their noses for shabby kitchens converted into rooms for three, sometimes four people. Jia Sarai remains the more affordable option. Rooms are available as cheap as Rs 7,000.
Vikas Sudan, who runs a bookstore in Rajinder Nagar, says that he has seen the place transform in the past ten years.
"Rent is a good business for the locals. And a lot of food joints have come up too. Sometimes you can only see students cruising the streets till very late at night. It looks like a campus area," he says.
Mukherjee Nagar seems more radically transformed by this influx of mainly Hindi-speaking students from UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan; it's full of special food stalls offering litti-chokha (a typically Bihari dish). The BJP went as far as to get popular Bhojpuri star, Manoj Tiwari to contest the elections from the seat. When the other Bhojpuri star, Dinesh Lal Yadav aka Nirahua came campaigning for the actor-turned-politician, he had batches of students dancing wildly to his rendition of the famous Lipistik number.
I always felt my parents were trying to trick me into applying for the civil services by talking incessantly about Kiran Bedi. But meeting almost 50-60 aspirants over a week, seeing their dreams, watching them flounder, looking at the 'middle-aged' candidates (those above 32) talk passionately about the course material of each subject, and the revised 6th Pay Commission figures, genuinely made me reconsider the allure of the IAS.
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From HT Brunch, April 20
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