The examinations for the written papers for the Central Services were conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in September 1956. We had the option to take three subjects out of a list of several, apart from English General Knowledge that were compulsory. I had chosen my core subject Chemistry, British History and International Law. Histories and Law were supposedly scoring subjects. It helped that I was fond of History from my school days.
International Law was a new subject for me, but I was able to grasp the essentials within a short time and felt confident of doing well in it. International law is divided into three parts, War, Peace and Neutrality. A review of UPSC question papers for the IAS and allied services showed that the questions were in two sections, Section A for War and Section B for Peace and Neutrality.
Candidates were required to answer five out of ten questions, with not less than two questions from each section. Since Section B contained at least two questions from Peace, it was quite possible to complete the answers without touching Neutrality. Considering the large volume of information on a wide range of subjects we had to memorise to pass the examinations, it seemed the prudent to do. All the candidates I knew who had opted for International Law thought likewise. I studied the subject in full but when I shortlisted the topics for final study, I left out Neutrality.
I joined other examinees in the examination hall of Morris College (renamed Nagpur Mahavidyalaya after independence) for the paper on International Law feeling, like them, well prepared for the forthcoming test. We reached out eagerly for the question papers distributed by the invigilators to get on with filling up the answer sheets without further delay. But our smug confidence was shattered when we scanned the question paper in our hands. Unlike in the previous years, the question paper was broken into three sections one each for War, Peace and Neutrality. We were asked to answer at least one question from each Section. The hushed tension in the examination hall was palpable. Nervous glances were exchanged across benches. There were sounds of sighs and under breath cursing. Some of the examinees looked resigned and a few that included me, took up their pens to begin the process of completing the task. When we emerged from the hall after handing over the answer sheets there was general disappointment and a feeling of having been cheated. Some of the candidates decided to opt out of the examination altogether to appear for the examinations again next year. I had no such intentions. Luck plays a large part in competitive examinations. I didn’t wish to stretch my luck any further. I sat for the remaining papers with determination to minimise the effect of poor performance in International Law.
When the written examinations were over my focus shifted to getting ready for the Personality Test conducted by UPSC, in case I qualified in the written examination and was called for the test. Up to 1956, candidates had to earn pass marks of 35% in the Personality Test for being selected to the Central Services, irrespective of their scores in the written examinations. The Personality Test was, therefore, immensely important. My classmate Vidyadhar Chandorkar, who had inspired me to appear for the competitive examinations, made three attempts to clear the IAS examinations but couldn’t make the final list despite getting good marks in the written papers because he couldn’t get through the Personality Test.
In those days, we did not have prelims and finals as they have now. The list of candidates who passed the written examination was not published. The final list of candidates who got through both written examination and the personality test, was published once and for all. The only way to know whether one passed the written papers was to get the call for the interview. Also, it was then the practice to send mark sheets to individual candidates. Those who failed the written test got their mark sheets as soon as the correction work was completed, while those who were finally selected got theirs after the results were declared by the UPSC. So, when some of my friends in Jabalpur got their mark sheets, I knew that the countdown had begun. I would eagerly await the post and, as each day passed and more of the wannabes got eliminated, my hopes increased until only two of us were left in the field. The other man’s name was Ramakant Shukla.
One day, I learnt from one of our mutual friends that Ramakant had got a new suit stitched in a hurry and left for Delhi for his interview. The implication was that I had missed the personality test. Ramakant was a classmate of BG Dhande, my friend and colleague in Mahakoshal Mahavidyalaya. Dhande had told me that he was just an average student. In our interaction with him we had found him to be more of a braggart than a genuinely capable candidate for IAS. Therefore, I was surprised as well as very miserable that I had not been able to outperform even a candidate like Ramakant. I cursed myself the whole day long as a failure. Coming back to my rooms in this state of mind, I ruffled through the day's post casually until I saw the envelope from the UPSC. Thinking that it only had the mark sheet in it, I opened the envelope indifferently just to know where I had faltered but I had a pleasant surprise when the call letter from UPSC emerged from the envelope. I had to go to Indore for the interview. That started me thinking. How come Ramakant went to Delhi when I was called to Indore? Ramakant was nowhere to be found to clarify. The mystery was solved several months later, after my interview. Ramakant wanted to hide after he got his mark list because his bluff had been called.
I was preparing for my trip to Indore, exploring my options for staying there when a colleague advised me to consult PN Kavthekar, Asst. Professor in Sanskrit, who belonged to Indore. Kavthekar told me to give up my search as he would arrange for me to stay with his family. His father was the accredited astrologer to the royal house of the Holkars. The interviews for Central Services and IPS for the central region were arranged in Indore because Public Service Commission of the new Madhya Pradesh state was located there.
I first travelled to Nagpur and from there proceeded to Indore for my interview. I had to go to Itarsi on the Delhi route, then to Khandwa towards Bhusaval and take the MG line from there to Indore.
IR had started a new AC Deluxe Express, with chair cars, between Delhi and Chennai. It had stops both at Nagpur and Itarsi. This was a novelty I was keen to try out. So, I took the new train up to Itarsi and proceeded to Indore, reaching there a day before the interview. I first went to Kawthekar's place, where his family made me feel at home. Next, I went to report at the venue of the interview and came to know that the interview board would be chaired by a senior member of UPSC called Sri Kanungo instead of the Chairman. When I mentioned this to Kawthekar’s father, he told me that Sri Kanungo belonged to Indore. In the afternoon, I had a good look at the city. It was neat and clean when compared to both Nagpur and Jabalpur. The next day I was one of several candidates assembled for the interview.
In those days, there were few coaching classes for the IAS, and none to teach us how to face interviews. We depended on our own intuitions and tried to learn from the versions of those who had succeeded – or failed. Not all these versions were dependable though, as the narrators often added colour to boost their egos. However, two versions remained in my mind and helped me to face the interview to some extent. One was from a successful candidate, Anand Verma, who joined IPS and later attained fame as chief of RAW under Indira Gandhi, and the other from an unsuccessful candidate, Prof. Agnihotri, who taught English at Mahakoshal Mahavidyalaya (MMV).
Anand was an alumnus of my college, the College of Science Nagpur. He had just returned from his interview and visited our college to meet some of his friends, who were then my classmates in M Sc. At that time, I had no plans to appear for the IAS exams. Anand told us that he had appeared for the competitive examination a year after his graduation. When he presented himself before the interview board for IPS, one of his interviewers asked Anand what he was doing during this period.
“I had joined the army”, Anand replied promptly.
The member expressed surprise and asked,
“Why is there no mention of your working in the defence services in your bio data?”
“I mean, I had joined the army of the unemployed” Anand clarified.
“Oh” exclaimed the relieved member, as others in the room chuckled at the tongue in cheek response.
Professor Agnihotri taught English in MMV and one of his subjects for IAS was English literature. One member of the interview panel had asked him,
“What do you know about Shakespeare?”
“What do I not know about Shakespeare?” Agnihotri had replied, exuding confidence.
As luck would have it, that member was well versed in English literature. He floored Agnihotri with a few searching questions.
From these exchanges, I concluded that you could get away with smart, tongue in cheek responses, provided you had the wits to answer the consequent reactions, but misplaced overconfidence could land you in trouble.
Several candidates were interviewed before my turn arrived. As each candidate emerged others would crowd around him to find out the trend of the questions they were asked. None of them had spent more than 10-15 minutes with the board. When I walked up to the door to be ushered in, I felt expectant but relaxed. After making me feel at home, the presiding officer asked me,
“Mr Ramarao, where do you come from?”
I sensed that the question was aimed at my family and/or community origins, but I made up my mind to divert it and said that I was coming from Nagpur. As I expected, the next question was,
“How did you travel?”
Sensing an opportunity, I mentioned the new train. As if on cue, the member from Railway Board wanted my opinion on the new train. That gave me a chance to wax eloquent on the great progress made by Indian Railways, music to the ears of the Railways member. But the presiding officer returned to the original query, rephrasing it to ask,
“What was it like to belong to one state and grow up in another?”
I replied, truthfully, that it gives one a chance to see other cultures, learn other languages and broadens one's vision. The answer seemed to go down well with the board. The chairman then asked me if I had found time to look around Indore and what I thought about the city. Recalling that Indore was the hometown of my questioner, I eulogised the city in glowing terms. Bulls Eye.
Now, it was time for politics. In the recent elections to the Kerala assembly, communists had emerged victorious and EMS Namboodiripad had been sworn in as the first communist chief minister in the country. One of my interlocutors asked me,
“What do you think about the new government in Kerala?”
“I am happy about it” I replied.
He almost jumped out of his seat.
“Are you a communist?” he barked.
“No” I replied coolly, enjoying his dicomfiture.
“What makes you happy?” he snapped.
“I am happy because for the first time we have a party in power in a state that's different from the one in control of the central government, and this opens up the possibility of testing our constitution.”
The chairman nodded in approval and the tension dissolved. The IPS member wanted to know how I would tackle the dacoit problem if I was selected for the IPS and posted to Morena or Bhind, the two dacoit infested districts of Madhya Pradesh. I have been asked this kind of question in other interviews too. Perhaps it is meant to test if you tend to approach problems with premeditated solutions.
It reminds of me of an episode in the movie Reach for the Sky based on the life a Second World War Royal Air Force hero Douglas Bader. Bader’s hat is damaged when he falls off his motorbike accidentally on his way to the recruitment office. His recruiting officer asks him smugly,
“So, you fell off your motorbike. Then how do you expect to fly an aeroplane?”
“I expect to be taught, Sir” replies Bader, evenly.
From watching the scene, I had learnt that each situation needs to be examined before deciding the next line of action. My reply to the police officer’s question was nuanced accordingly.
“I will study the situation there and then decide how to proceed, Sir” I replied.
A few more general questions and it was over. I looked at my watch as I came out. I had spent 45 minutes with the interview board. Anxious faces awaited my return. They all thought I had been taken to the laundry, so they were surprised when I came out smiling. The next step was a discussion session for which we were divided into groups with six in each group. One of the guys in my group, whom I knew from Nagpur told me in strict confidence that the candidate who opened the discussion on the given topic earned extra marks and said he was keen to take the initiative. I didn't ask him for the source of his information, nor did I believe him. So, I allowed him to take the lead. Not that it did him any good, because he did not make the final list.
I was quite satisfied with my performance and decided to leave the outcome of my efforts in the hands of the All Mighty. I need not have worried. When the results were published in May 1957, I found myself within the first 120 in Central Services list and the first 15 in the IPS.