“Once Upon An IAS Exam” by K. Vijayakarthikeyan

There are some books which you feel like reading almost at one go. One such book is a delightful, light read titled, “Once Upon An IAS Exam” by a doctor turned bureaucrat called K. Vijayakarthikeyan. But before speaking about his book, let me provide some context to the setting of the story. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is clearly one of the most prestigious occupations in India as the bureaucrats rule the country, following , of course, the directives set out by their political masters in our democracy.

Selection to the IAS and its allied services like the Indian Foreign Service ( IFS) and the Indian Police Service ( IPS) is based on an extremely  competitive examination conducted each year by the Union Public Service Commission ( UPSC). To give you some idea of the numbers involved, I read in this website ( appropriately perhaps) called Clear IAS.com that in 2016,  over 11, 35, 000 candidates applied for the preliminary examinations, from which about 4, 59,000 were called for this exam. Subsequently, 15,400 or so qualified to appear for the Mains, only 2961 got through and were called for the final interview. Ultimately  a mere 1209 ( out of the original 11,35,000) were selected not just for the IAS but for all the 24 Central Services.

As you can imagine, there is a great deal of prestige attached to getting into the IAS. I suspect that Dr. Vijayakarthikeyan has based this story on his own experiences and that of his friends, when they were striving to get into the IAS. I shall not be surprised, though it is only my guess, that the author has created Vishy in the book based on his own character. Of course, Vishy is a Mechanical Engineer by qualification, while the author is a qualified medical practitioner who chose to totally shift careers and enter the Civil Services. I understand that he is currently the Commissioner of the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation and the youngest officer to have held that post so far.

But let’s get back to the book. Vishy is devastated at 25 after he has failed in his attempt to qualify for the IAS. Like thousands of others who share a similar fate, he decides to give it one more shot and enrolls for coaching at the Great Minds Coaching Centre, (the one adjacent to Super Best Coaching Classes!!) I enjoyed the author’s often tongue in cheek writing style, which is so easy to read, simple yet effective! He traces the ups and downs in the lives of a bunch of students at Great Minds, young men like Vishy, Vinod, Ashok, Madhan etc. They all have one burning ambition: to crack the prelims., get to the Mains and triumph in the final interview to enter the hallowed portals of the IAS. Vishy is under pressure from another source. His girlfriend Rithika, who works in an IT company, is waiting for the day that they can get married. She is a source of strength to him though often he does not fully appreciate her value.

The author very deftly captures the coaching class staff, the teachers, the students and their  characteristics as also the environment there with its intense competition. He weaves into the story different facets of the coaching classes which really has become a major industry!!

All in all, I would recommend this book strongly to anyone looking for a light read about a topic that is so relevant today as thousands of students, who are aspiring Civil Servants,  battle it out to reach their ultimate goal. I am sure the book will particularly appeal to the youth who face such problems and can relate very well to the characters in the book.


Malini Vs. Melanie: Part IV

Sethuraman loved to relax in his favourite easy chair looking out of the balcony. This evening he was disturbed. A cow rummaged at a pile of garbage on the road, mainly banana leaves with strands of dried flowers after the recent festival. Normally he would have grumbled about the lazy road cleaners but today he was quiet. Your Mellie and our Sean make a lovely couple. We will be related soon, Seth.” Mrs. Hansen’s words echoed in his head, hurting him like poison-tipped arrows. He felt strangely lethargic. He didn’t shout, as he usually would, when a passing dog sniffed at their gate and let loose a long stream of urine to make a puddle nearby. “Brazen” and “Running wild” was how that old fool Kalyanaraman had described her. The searing pain that hit him in his chest left him breathless. The last straw was that idiot of a driver asking if she was still at home or had run away with someone!! His daughter Malini, the apple of his eye! He broke out in sweat, clutching his chest as another bolt of pain pushed him back when he tried to get up.
The next thing he remembered was gaining consciousness in a hospital bed. There was an air of sterilized silence about the place. Crisply uniformed nurses swished past working with quiet efficiency checking the various tubes that fed him precious blood and medicine. “ICU- Intensive Care Unit” read an illuminated sign above the door. Why was he here? Where were Kamala and Malini?

Continue reading “Malini Vs. Melanie: Part IV”

Malini Vs Melanie, Part II

Malini’s parents were relieved that her Company would arrange transportation for her.  “I am happy but be alert!! Make sure you sit next to another girl.  Stay awake. Don’t doze off,” warned her mother. Her parents insisted on seeing her off at the appointed place only five minutes away from her house. The bus drew up. Her mother hugged her as if she was leaving for good and not to work. She looked nervously at the faces staring down at her, sniggering at the sight.
“Amma, Appa, I don’t want you to come to the bus stop ever again. It was highly embarrassing for me,” she said that evening. “We won’t come every day,” said her father. “We only wanted to see the arrangements made. After all, you are our only child.” She then told them about her first day at work. There was so much to say about her new colleagues, the wide choice of food in the food court, the gym, and the beautifully done up glitzy high-tech office. It was such a wonderful place!
She didn’t tell them the jokes at her expense. When she was getting off, a guy said, ” O.S. Malini, your Mom hugged you when you boarded the bus. Let me hug you when you get off! Will you say, “Oh, yes!, Malini?”  Many laughed and one shouted, She won’t. She’s oh, no! Malini!.”
A few weeks later work pressures made her return home much later than scheduled. It was raining that night.. Approaching her bus stop, she saw two figures sheltering in the doorway of a grocery store. Her parents were waiting for her, with an extra umbrella, though she had called to say she would be late. Malini was angry with them when others noticed this, but something also tugged at her heart. Amma would have insisted. Appa would not have let her go out alone! 
On the first day of training, Manny, ( his real name was Mani) their Voice & Accent Coach who perpetually wore shades even in the office, advised them, “You must not only speak like the Americans, you must learn to think like them, indeed behave like them. Here, we want you to think of yourselves as being Americans yourself with American work names. So Krishnan, you will be Chris. Malini, you will be Melanie!
Four of them formed a team at work. Sally, a chirpy girl from Shillong, had two years experience in the company. The green-gray eyed Sean O’Malley was more experienced than Sally. The other two were Malini, and Krishnan, another newbie like her.
Sean sat next to her at work, often talking about life beyond the office. She remained distant and he shrugged his shoulders. His smile was attractive though, she thought.  Sean Victor O’Malley sounded very Irish. Some ancestor may have been Irish long, long ago. The closest he had been to Ireland was when he had gone to Bengaluru International Airport to see off his aunt when she migrated to the UK.
Soon, Malini found herself terribly attracted to O’Malley who was everything she wasn’t. He in turn had never come across anyone like her before. A database error brought them closer. Some clown keyed in her name as, “Melanie O’Sethuraman,” listed just after “Sean O’Malley.”
Sean smiled, “So the secret is out! There is good old Irish blood in you, Ms. O’Sethuraman.” She burst out laughing thinking what her parents would have to say. 
Over the years, her clothes, tastes in life and all about her changed. At first, her parents were shocked, “Her clothes are getting shorter and her work hours longer,” her father told her mother. ” Can’t you advice her to dress properly. I  tried once and you saw what a scene she created, even threatened to leave the house for ever!”
“These are new times.Things are not like the old days. Besides, her colleagues are not like yours in the Government. Most of them are young and some of the stories she tells me about them…” she trailed off knowing she was getting into dangerous territory.
She continued brightly, ” Don’t worry! Her behaviour has been impeccable! No whisper of any scandal. Besides, her emoluments have grown so rapidly. She is getting far more than they we ever imagined. Remember, we are much better off than we were a few years ago!”
” Money is not everything!” snorted her husband.
In more ways than one Malini, in a manner of speaking, enjoyed being Melanie.
She often remembered her first date with Sean.They were at a party at a pub where he DJ-ed from time to time. Sean held her close. Each new experience was exhilarating. Malini thought she would faint in his strong arms. Her mother’s irate image briefly flashed in her mind but this was swept aside by ecstasy as his mouth found hers. His searching hands blocked out all thoughts from her mind except for one. She wanted him to do this and more.
They became a twosome after that. She went out with Sean after work and on weekends for parties, to the movies and to discos. She told them at home that the workload had increased substantially. She initially felt guilty lying to her parents but was carried away by what she was experiencing for the first time. Her new-found freedom was indeed heady. Besides, almost all the girls at work were paired off with one guy or another. The forbidden fruit, about which her father had warned her, had turned out to be quite delicious! 
The years flew past. Sethuraman had now retired. Fortunately, Malini was doing extremely well at work. He remembered how he had opposed her joining that BPO firm. Since then, she had got promoted twice. These days he couldn’t recognise her, his own flesh and blood.
It was about time he got her married, he thought. To a boy from their own community, of course.
His wife complained, “When will you arrange for your daughter’s marriage? After she becomes 30? I am worried that it may already be too late.”
” Don’t worry! We must get the right boy. I have someone in mind!”
“Naturally he should be of our own caste. Maybe in the IAS. Shanta’s son-in-law is from IIT. Ours should be from IIM after IIT, ” said his wife.
She smiled, dreaming of their relatives and friends admiring their accomplished son-in-law.
Ramalingam, his friend’s son, a doctor in the UK would make a perfect match for Malini, felt Sethuraman.
From childhood, he had fawned on anything British. He often dreamt of Malini living in England with her husband.
He told her, ” Imagine us visiting you in London! We would watch a cricket match at Lord’s and have the legendary strawberries with cream at Wimbledon!” She sighed knowing what would come next. Getting carried away, he wondered if there was any possibility of his son-in-law getting knighted some day or was that asking for too much?
” Do you know there is a Lord Bilimoria and a Lord Desai of Indian origin? Seen them on TV debates. Some day, could there be a Lord Ramalingam? You could never say in this day and age. He is doing extremely well in his profession. You know Balu’s boy. You could contact him through your Bookface.”
” It’s Facebook, and I will not contact him just because you know his father!”
“You can see what he now looks like. You last saw him many years ago!”
 If Ramalingam was knighted, would his Malini become Lady Ramalingam? How wonderful! Would they be required to curtsey to her or was that reserved only for Royalty? He had seen this on the courts of Wimbledon. On television, of course. To be precise, on the large-sized Sony Bravia that Malini had bought after her first promotion some years ago. 
His wife shattered his dreams, “Are you deaf or pretending not to hear? I have been calling you for the last 10 minutes. Smiling to yourself, acting as if I didn’t exist! Who will remove the junk you have left on my dining table?.”
He was compelled once again to shelve his dreams. 
Meanwhile, Sean made the first big move, “We should get married now. No point skulking around, meeting like fugitives any longer.”
She sighed, “I would love to, but how do I tell my parents? I can’t bring myself to talk to them. You know how they over react!”
Despite their constant nagging, in her own way, she loved them. They treated her at 24 as if she was still in middle school. She half expected Appa to ask if she had studied her portions or Amma to ask if she had washed her hands on coming in from outside.
Late one evening, when she was with Sean on his bike a car stopped next to them at a traffic signal. Someone in the car stared at her open-mouthed. Her heart sank. This was Govindan, a family friend who often played chess with Appa. She locked eyes with his, daring him to say something. He didn’t. Sean chose that moment to kiss her before the traffic lights changed. He liked to do these things, saying, “We love each other. Who cares what anyone thinks?”
She feared the worst but no one at home spoke about her being seen with Sean.
“I must have wronged Govindan. He isn’t that bad after all. I guess he too was young once!!” she told Sean a few days later.
“I wouldn’t be too sure. He looked a slimy sort. If he creates any trouble, I can take care of him! ” he assured her.
His confident smile chased away her fears.
However, later at home, seeing Govindan talking earnestly to Appa she wondered, “What moves is this chess player making in my real life game?”.
Part III of ” Malini Vs. Melanie” will be published on Tuesday, January 31, 2017.

Malini Vs Melanie: Part I

As as she grew up Malini had often envied friends with more liberal parents. She liked the way they dressed, their glossy hair flowing down to their shoulders while hers, shining with oil, had to be tied tightly in a long plait. Her friends enjoyed Western music which her father considered utterly decadent. “How can this be called music?” he barked when she listened to a popular hit. “Some noisy, mad fellows yowling!”

Continue reading “Malini Vs Melanie: Part I”