More than half a century ago, in 1971 Gulzar directed a film called Mere Apne. It was a commentary on the social conditions facing the young in the late 1960s, namely, unemployment and hopelessness. I was one of those millions. With an MA degree halfway done and with no clear idea of what I was going to do in life by way of a job. There weren’t many options then. The government and the public sector were the largest employers. The private sector wasn’t trusted by potential employees and, in turn, the employers didn’t trust anyone enough to give them a job unless they came highly recommended — not by their teachers but from acceptable social circles. That’s why a song from that film went what is today called ‘viral’. Its key line was “BA kiya, MA kiya, jo kuch kiya aiwein kiya”. Aiwein in Punjabi means pointless, or in Tamil, chumma, or justu only. Both terms denote futility.
At that time my family consisted largely of bureaucrats and lawyers. So we had a genetic inclination to obstruct and argue. In keeping with family tradition, after finishing my MA in Economics, my father said “Right, ok, now you enrol for a law degree and sit for the civil services exam.” I did both. With great commitment and application, and effort and hope. In the event, I failed at both and thereby hangs a tale. Not only did I lose a girlfriend, I started constantly humming the tune of the song I mentioned above. The lyrics were apt and the tune catchy and together they captured my situation perfectly.
At that time my family consisted largely of bureaucrats and lawyers. So we had a genetic inclination to obstruct and argue.
I didn’t actually fail in the law course. It was taught so badly and examined even more badly that I told my father it was nothing more than a driving licence and dropped out after two years. The classmates were mostly other duffers like me and the exam could be passed even by us after reading case law for three days before it. The five questions came from a set of 20 cases and if you knew those, you got your 40 per cent. I should not have dropped out, but, as it turned out, the legal profession’s loss would be journalism’s gain. It was the only profession those days that welcomed misfits more warmly than even the legal profession.
As to the civil services, I worked hard — on strange subjects like British history and British constitutional history. If you ask the fellows who cleared the exam between 1952 and 1985, half of them will tell you they had chosen these subjects even though they were not history graduates. These were ‘scoring’ subjects, like Chinese! Can you imagine? Chinese? In the 1970s? But that’s how the exam was oriented. Very few chose their graduation subjects. But I was one of those, cocky and stupid, who did. My MA degree was from the Delhi School of Economics, which, until the mid-1990s, was among the world’s ranking institutions. They taught the latest stuff and, as students, we thought no end of ourselves. Even the girls treated us with respect. But pride always goes before a fall.
I passed the written exam and was asked to attend the interview. It lasted all of ten minutes as I was the last chap to be interviewed before lunch.
I had done well in the interview as was expected, at least by me. But when the results came in May, my name was not on the list. It was disappointing, but not the end of the world. The marks list, when it arrived, showed that in the written exam I got less than 20 per cent in the two economics papers — and over 60 per cent in British history and British constitutional history which I had studied, like lakhs of others, from a guidebook! When I told my father this, he had only one question: why didn’t you study economics also from the guidebook? Touché.