From a distance, the area looks just like any other chaotic Dilli (Delhi) mohalla. Cramped lanes, chai wallahs (tea vendors) busy attending to customers, garbage spilling from eateries onto the pavement, an FM radio keeping passersby entertained, and dust poetically settling on parked vehicles.
But as you step further inside, you find yourself amidst a sea of people in their twenties, armed with their bags and books, rushing to and from their classes. For most, the ultimate (and common) eventual destination is Uttarakhand’s Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, for which they are rigorously preparing.
Welcome to Old Rajinder Nagar (ORN), a place where Union Service Public Commission (UPSC) aspirants with starry-eyed dreams flock year after year from across the country to crack one of the toughest competitive examinations.
ORN is a different world in its own, filled with stories of hope, broken dreams, dejection, romance, and innate desires to change the country. Pay close attention and you will almost be able to see the hidden vulnerabilities, hear the silenced fears, and feel the suppressed emotions.
This West Delhi neighbourhood has an array of top coaching institutes, 24×7 libraries, study material on every subject, PGs where you can wake up beside like-minded people, and an ideal atmosphere of discipline.
Despite this, among the thousands of aspirants, only a handful make it to the ‘interview round’ or even the prelims. And yet, ORN holds a special place in the hearts and minds of aspirants.
Capturing the essence and experiences of civil service aspirants, The Viral Fever has recently released a show called ‘Aspirants’, which stars Naveen Kasturia, Abhilash Thapliyal, Sunny Hinduja and Shivankit Parihar, It follows the journey of three friends who end up at different junctions by end of their preparation.
The Better India spoke to three aspirants who talk about various aspects of life at Rajinder Nagar, from looking for accommodations to dealing with stress, finding study groups, taking care of financial expenses, and tips to make ORN a fulfilling experience.
Manoj, who moved to Rajinder Nagar in 2018, gave three attempts, wrote one Mains, and qualified for CAPF in 2019 as Assistant Commandant (AC) exam conducted by UPSC. At present, he is waiting to officially join his new posting.
The 25-year-old’s primary motive to move from his hometown in Ahmednagar (Maharashtra) to ORN was to make the most of the coaching institutions. He joined Vajiram and Ravi for General Studies and IMS Mathematics (optional). The best part for this civil engineer, who hails from a small town, was experiencing a liberal milieu. People from all walks of life and regions made an impression, often leaving behind several learnings.
“My first year went by in the blink of an eye, with the coaching classes leaving me with no time to explore anything else. I came here with a lot of fire inside me to crack this exam, but without proper guidance, I was lost. It takes a lot of patience to slog every day for at least 7-10 hours without any holiday. You have to motivate yourself constantly to get out of bed and go to the library and study. Next year, I consciously took efforts to visit eateries in the area serving varied cuisines, and made more friends. I learned to follow the mantra of minimum sources (study material) and maximum revision. After reading a book, I would solve several test series ahead of Prelims and Mains,” he says.
When asked what tips he would like to give to emerging aspirants, he emphasised on accepting struggle as part of your routine. The sooner you do this, he adds, the better. “Avoid complaining about the pressures put on you by relatives and other aspirants, it will get you nowhere. Another important thing to avoid is any stress associated with relationships. Don’t break up while you are here, either do it later, or before moving to ORN. Do not miss classes as your parents are putting their hard-earned money for you to avail the best services. Finally, unwind your day by indulging in cooking new dishes or listening to the radio. If you do not crack UPSC after 3-4 attempts, move on, for life is much more than this.”
Mumbai-based Priyanka Barve says it is vital to identify the reason behind moving to Rajinder Nagar. When she moved there in 2015 after completing her graduation, her reason was discipline. She gave two attempts before pursuing a Masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently working at an NGO as a programme specialist in soft skills.
“My senior had given me a clear picture of ORN’s atmosphere. She warned of the lows and benefits in advance, so when I was unpacking my suitcases in a PG room, there were no surprises. I found people who were as serious, responsible and friendly as I was, and this made my journey pleasant,” she says.
Finding a house that is both hygienic and budget-friendly may be hard, but if you start hunting in advance, you will find what you need at a price range of Rs 10,000-16,000, she adds.
Coming to the “rape capital of India”, she was relieved to see aspirants walking around in the area post-midnight and chilling at tea stalls. She was also happy that libraries and stationery shops were open round the clock.
It took her nearly three months to set her routine as per her classes, study hours and roommates’ convenience, after which her days began to run like a well-oiled machine. She would take a 30-minute break to relieve stress.
Getting a mentor or someone who has the experience of attempting the examinations also helps, says Priyanka. “I got a mentor in my second year, who shared her learnings and mistakes. On days when my spirit was on the verge of breaking, a friend’s assurance or the smiles of other aspirants helped. I opted for a dabbawala service to get homemade and healthy food. These small comforts kept me going.”
According to her, ORN is not a prerequisite to cracking UPSC, but the atmosphere can surely help in developing an unwavering determination, perseverance and resilience that is needed to crack this exam.
Unlike Manoj and Priyanka, coaching classes did not help much according to Prasad.
“I took classes before my first attempt, but soon realised that I was following what my teacher had said without using my own thinking. As told by them, I kept on reading notes without focussing much on my writing practice, which turned out to be disastrous. Fortunately, my optional subject teacher helped me in my preparation.”
Another mistake Prasad made, which he also notes is a common one, was listening to different people at different stages. This only confused him further. He judged himself for not catching up with the syllabus or scoring what others were scoring. When others asked him for notes or any other help, he would offer his assistance, wasting his precious time in the process.
Prasad learnt from his errors and took a different approach in the second year. First and foremost, he got rid of his fear of asking questions openly. “I would think my doubts are silly and people would laugh, only to realise later that others had the same questions. I learned how to say no when my peers came with a plethora of solutions or suggestions. However, meeting a person who cracked the Mains was life-changing for me. I learned so many things from his preparation strategies.”
Prasad is currently preparing for his fourth item in Rajinder Nagar.
Edited Divya Sethu