For nearly three years, Gamini Singla withdrew from her friends, skipped vacations, and avoided family gatherings and celebrations.
She stopped binging on takeout, going to the movies, and distanced herself from social media. In contrast, in her family’s home near the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, she would wake up at dawn, pore over textbooks, and study for up to 10 hours a day. She crammed in, did mock tests, watched YouTube videos of achievers, and read newspapers and self-help books. Her parents and her brother became her only companions. “Solitude will be your companion. This solitude allows you to grow,” says Ms. Singla.
He was preparing for the country’s civil service exams, one of the toughest tests in the world. Possibly rivaled only by the gaokao, China’s national university entrance exam, India’s Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams funnel young men and women each year into the country’s vast civil service.
One million candidates apply to sit the grueling three-stage exam each year. Less than 1% make it to the written test, the second stage. In 2021, when Singla took the exam, the success rate was the lowest in eight years. More than 1,800 came for interviews. Ultimately, 685 men and women qualified.
Ms. Singla placed third in the exam, along with two other women, a first in the history of the exam. He qualified to become part of the elite IAS (Indian Administrative Service), which primarily runs the country through collectors from India’s 766 districts, senior government officials and managers of state-owned enterprises. Successful candidates can choose the state where they prefer to work.
“The day my results came in, I thought a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I went to the temple and then I went dancing,” says the 24-year-old.
In a country where good private jobs are limited and the state has an overwhelming presence in everyday life, the job of a civil servant is coveted and powerful, says Sanjay Srivastava, a sociologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). ., University of London. A government job also comes with a number of perks like loans, rental subsidies, travel and vacations at reduced prices.
Likewise, civil service is highly attractive to people from small towns. “Joining the private sector can be quite easy, but moving up requires cultural capital. On the other hand, getting into [the] The civil service is itself a cultural capital,” says Mr. Srivastava.
Like most of the other applicants, Ms Singla graduated with an engineering degree, a computer engineer who also interned at banking giant JP Morgan Chase. And like the others, she had her sights set on eventually becoming a bureaucrat. On a trip to the local government transportation office to get her driver’s license, she saw a bureaucrat there and made an appointment with her, seeking her guidance. (She got it.) “The journey is very difficult. It takes a long time and the stakes are high,” she says.
Ms Singla’s story of relentless resistance and monastic sacrifice at an age when many have no idea what to do with their lives offers insight into India’s brutal examination system: endless study, family involvement, finding ways to save time and avoiding any distractions and a near total withdrawal from the world. “There are moments of frustration and exhaustion. It’s very mentally draining,” she says.
Singla followed what seemed like a marathon training plan. To take care of his health and endure the journey, she went on a diet of fruits, salads, nuts and porridge. To make sure she didn’t waste time, she would jump “200-300 times” in her room after every three hours on the study table instead of going outside to exercise.
Free time needed to be used wisely, so I read self-help books. She took dozens of online mock tests to test his skills. How do you answer, for example, 100 questions on an objective general knowledge test in two hours? “When I heard videos of [previous] toppers, I realized that everyone knows the answers to 35-40 questions, and the rest are calculated guesses,” says Ms Singla.
Since one of the key exams takes place in the winter, I would try to “get out of my comfort zone and experience a cold and unpleasant environment” by choosing the “coldest room with less sunlight” for the mock tests. She tried on three different jackets and chose the one that felt most comfortable. “I’ve heard of applicants talking about their inability to write in their heavy, ill-fitting jackets. So it’s all worth it,” says Ms Singla. “You’re doing your best in every way.”
The marathon also became a shared experience with his family. Ms Singla’s parents, both government doctors, enthusiastically joined. Her father, she says, read at least three newspapers a day—”newspapers make up 80% of your test preparation”—and flagged important news to speed up her daughter’s current awareness. Her brother helped with the mock tests. Her grandparents simply prayed for her success.
No effort was spared to ensure that Ms. Singla was not disturbed. When construction work on two buildings in front of her house created a scandal and blocked the sunlight, her family demolished a room on her terrace to create a quieter and better-lit place for her to study. To protect her from curious relatives who wondered why her daughter was missing family functions, her parents “stopped socializing and avoided family gatherings so she wouldn’t feel left out or isolated.”
“They are part of my journey. They traveled the same path. It is [the exam] a family effort,” says Ms. Singla.
Ms Singla belongs to India’s privileged middle class who face fewer obstacles in their dreams of joining the bureaucracy. But the exams have also created a path of upward mobility for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their families sell land and jewelry to send their children to training schools in big cities, says Frank Rausan Pereira, who produced a popular current affairs show on state television that became a hit with aspiring civil servants.
Pereira says that most of today’s aspirants come from small towns and villages in India. He spoke of a young official who was the son of a manual garbage collector, someone who cleans human and animal waste from buckets or wells; it is work done mainly by members of low-caste communities, and who studied at home, passed the exam, and joined the prestigious foreign (diplomatic) service.
“I know applicants who have been preparing for 16 years after failing the exam more than a dozen times in as many years,” says Mr. Pereira. (Applicants have six attempts up to the age of 32; some disadvantaged caste groups can take the exams as many times as they want. Applicants can take the exam for the first time on their 21st birthday.)
Ms Singla says that becoming a civil servant gives her a “great opportunity to make a real difference and impact many lives” in a vast and complex country. She has written a book on what it takes to “pass the world’s toughest exam.” She has chapters on ‘How To Make Sacrifices’ and ‘Dealing With Tragedies Outside Of Your Control’ and ‘Coping With Pressure From Your Family’ among other things.
Ms Singla told me that she sometimes thinks she “forgot how to relax.” She is enjoying the training and traveling across the country to prepare for her first assignment in the districts. “Life will get hectic,” she says. “And it will be hard to relax again.”
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