In all the articles we have been writing about UPSC aspirants and the examination, one thing is clear—it requires utmost dedication and concentration from aspirants.
Poonam Dalal, who is currently serving as Assistant Commissioner Income Tax, New Delhi, is someone who has appeared for the examination four times and eventually cracked it. She has also authored a book titled ‘Ancient and Medieval India,’ a book for UPSC aspirants.
Her journey is a wonderful example of perseverance, besides proving that even life-altering changes need not be a deterrent to achieving a dream and becoming successful.
In this interview with The Better India, Poonam tells us her life story and how she came about to writing the Civil Service Examination.
Right after passing out of school, Poonam decided to take up a diploma in teaching and upon completing that, at the age of 20, she landed her first job as a primary school teacher.
While teaching was mentally satisfying, she was not ready to make it her career. She subsequently wrote the Bank Probationary Officer (PO) exam and cleared it. Following this, she took up the role of a relationship manager in a bank and continued working there for three years.
At that time, she felt that the UPSC was beyond her reach.
“I was 23 and believed that the UPSC examination was for others who were serious academics. I always thought that I wouldn’t be able to clear it. Looking back, I regret not having adequate information because if I did, I would not have waited until I was 28 for my first attempt,” she says.
More stepping stones
An ambition never dies. All it needs is one spark to get re-ignited.
Poonam’s spark came after three years in the banking role when she decided to write the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) Combined Graduate Level examination.
It must be mentioned here that these exams are conducted on a large scale, and more than 50 lakh candidates appear for them.
“I managed to do fairly well and secured an all India rank of 7. I joined the IT department as an Inspector and was posted in Delhi.”
It was during a conversation with her fellow aspirants during the interview for the SSC exam that the idea of appearing for the UPSC exams struck her.
“The other aspirants who were there for the interview were also preparing for the CSE, and that was when the thought struck me that why not me, and I started preparing for it,” she says.
Her first crack at CSE
At the age of 29, she finally found the confidence to attempt the examination. In her first attempt, while her score in the main paper was only average, the interview score was good, and she managed to secure a position in the Indian Railways.
While she was happy, the IAS bug had bit her, and she gave another attempt, and this time, the results were the opposite of the first.
“I got a very good score in my mains and unfortunately managed only 140 in my interview stage. The results came as a shock,” she recalls.
In between all this, Poonam also appeared for the Haryana Public Service Commission (PSC), which she cleared, and joined the Haryana Police department in 2011 as Deputy SP.
At the time, she felt that she had to be content with this position, as she had exhausted all her attempts. As it turned out, she was wrong. In 2015, the NDA government gave one additional attempt to candidates who appeared for UPSC CSE in 2011.
“While I was keen on making this attempt count, it came as a great challenge and opportunity as I was out of touch with preparation. Additionally, I was nine months pregnant at the time of the prelims, and by the time the mains happened, I had a 3-month-old son. But as luck would have it, I got my best rank under the most challenging circumstances,” she recalls.
Preparing with an infant in tow
As she had delivered her son via a c-section, Poonam was on complete bed-rest. Despite this, she managed to continue studying.
“With my baby in hand, I remember attempting the exam with confidence and a sense that no matter what happened, I would be fine. I had a job to fall back on, and my priority was to ensure that I did my best for my child. I had realised that I just needed to do my best and leave the results to whatever happens,” she recalls.
Despite all the challenges and being out of touch with preparation for almost 1.5 years, she managed to secure an All India Rank of 308.
“The most important lesson I learnt during all my attempts was that no two exams can be the same. There is no guarantee that a person who topped an exam one year, will do well in another attempt or year.”
Drawing an analogy to playing cards, she says, “You cannot always have the best cards in hand, what you can however do is aspire to play your best with the cards that have been handed out to you—this is exactly what I did.”
During this time, Poonam was living in Gurugram with her husband and in-laws, but during the days when the exam was scheduled, the family would move to a hotel in Delhi.
“My in-laws, husband, son, and I would leave early in the morning, check in to the hotel, after which I would go for the paper. During all this time I would have to wake up early, express milk for my son and then leave home. I was only able to manage because of the steadfast support of my in-laws and husband.”
She had to come back during the lunch break to ensure that he did not miss out on a feed.
“All other aspirants would use that time to study and cram while I rushed back to my son. I did not, at any cost, want to compromise on that,” she says.
An essential piece of advice that Poonam leaves me with is to not to be shy in seeking support—remember to communicate what you want; whether to your partner, parents, or even in-laws.
“Believe in yourself, and you will surely achieve all that you have dreamed of,” she concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)