My Tryst with the Civil Services Exam-I: GS Book List

I have received numerous mails asking me to share my strategy for the Civil Services Examination since the results were declared. This is especially true of my fellow law graduates, many of whom are unsure about the rather risky optional that Law is. Since I received a lot of help from Riju Bafna (IAS, 2014) and Ashutosh Salil (IAS, 2010) blogs while preparing, I hope to continue the chain here. This is easier said than done. While there is plenty that I have learnt from my two shots at this exam, a foolproof strategy to successfully tackle it is not one of them. So I will do my best to make this post factual and only dish out “expert” gyaan that has worked in my case. Please notice the use of “MY”. Truth be told, this exam is about as random as it can get. Your chances depend not only on how you perform, but how your fellow aspirants do, what sort of frame of mind you were in while attempting it, the mood of the examiner while correcting your papers and (most importantly) how your half an hour long interview goes! So take this post with a large teaspoon of salt and do not treat it as anything more than a rough guide.

I did not prepare for Prelims GS and Mains separately. I used the same books for both. The book list here is comprehensive. You can, of course, choose portions out of it if you want to concentrate exclusively on Prelims GS for now. With CSAT becoming only a qualifying paper now, I don’t think it needs any specific tips. Practising plenty of mock papers should do the trick there.

ESSAY (Marks 151/250)

There is no specific preparation exclusive to Essay. A reading habit is a useful tool for this paper but is not an absolute must. What is actually important is to choose the right topic. This year was the first time UPSC wanted us to attempt two essays of about a thousand words each. The first set of essay topics was rather philosophical, while the second set was mostly factual. I prefer to write on topics where there is a factual basis on which I can build my essay. So I was in a bit of a quandary regarding the first set. Two of the options (Great power..greater responsibility, Words are sharper than two edged sword) were immediately ruled out as I could do nothing but make obtuse philosophical points here. I had absolutely no way to choose between the remaining two topics. I finally chose the Competition topic after jotting down possible points for each. There were some twelve separate sub headings that I could think of for it as opposed to only eight for the other. The second essay was on improving India’s performance in Olympics as I had, rather serendipitously, read an article on the topic barely a couple of days ago. This exercise of choosing the right essay took atleast 15 mins-time very well spent, in my opinion.

How you structure your essay is entirely upto you. For my first essay, I decided to look at how a skewed perception of the job market was leading parents to push children into already saturated professions. This harmed their intellectual growth and also made them susceptible to various social evils. Reference was made to coaching factories, the progressive deterioration in the Arts syllabus, a tendency to view achievement solely in terms of money earned etc. The second essay was relatively straight forward and needs no explanation. I ended both my essays by proposing solutions-the second essay was a completely solution oriented one. I am not too sure of exactly how much weightage the UPSC gives to the conclusion part, but it surely leaves a positive impression on the examiner if you don’t end on a note that is completely negative.

GS PAPER I (Marks: 111/250)

This was the paper I was most comfortable with. History and Geography are subjects that have been my favourites for a long time and for the most part all I did here was revise concepts that I was already comfortable with.

  • Indian Art and Architecture- Wikipedia
  • Modern Indian History- Satish Chandra for the Decline of the Mughal Empire, An Advanced History of India (Majumdar etc) is the best for a comprehensive look at early modern Indian history (Warning: It is very detailed), Bipan Chandra/Sumit Sarkar for the Freedom Struggle (Alternatively, S Bandopadhyay’s Plassey to Partition-though I found the book rather shallow), India After Gandhi and India: The Siege Within for post Independence. (Needless to say, these are all books that I had read long before I started preparing for the exam as such. I cannot think of a short book that can sufficiently explain this very important portion of the syllabus in the requisite detail. NCERT textbooks (old ones) are good for the basics)
  • World History- Revised from Wikipedia alone. Using the NCERT book as a base, started from the Seven Years War and ended with the current mess in the Middle East. This is a very time consuming part and if some prior familiarity with the topic helps a great deal. Vajiram’s printed module on this is good if you are pressed for time.
  • Indian Society- Did not specifically prepare for this. All of us have some idea about these issues anyway.
  • Role of Women, Poverty, Development etc- Vajiram’s printed modules were handy. Many of these topics were covered while preparing Economics for GS Paper III
  • Effects of Globalisation- Again general gyaan that does not require intensive preparation. Linked this with rural to urban migration. Googled up a few articles online
  • Social Empowerment, Communalism etc- The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani is an excellent primer to the notion of the Indian Nation-State. Also presents a robust defence of Nehruvian Secularism. If pressed for time, Vajiram’s notes are handy.
  • Geography- I referred to GC Leong, though NCERT is equally good. Looked up Wikipedia for information on Natural phenomena. Used to watch Geography related PBS NOVA documentaries on YouTube in my spare time. These are extremely interesting and are worth your time. The key to doing well in Geography is to know what to study. A subject that comprises barely a third of one paper can end up consuming a lot of time if you are not careful with your Leong. Basic fundae about permanent winds, climatic zones, pressure belts etc are a must. But do not spend your time reading up on types of wind erosion, the subtle differences between an anticline and a syncline or the predominant rock in lava. Do read up on specific terms that relate to common phenomena-for eg, temperature inversion, microburst, El Nino/La Nina and so. Be thorough with the Atlas as far as South Asia is concerned-both for economic geography as well as to answer questions related to climatic patterns(like reasons for belt of low rainfall around Vidarbha). This means studying the Atlas in such detail that you would be able to mark out all the physical features on an unmarked physical map of India. Increasingly, UPSC looks to be asking questions from historical geography too (like why so many battles at Panipat?). It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get your Atlas out when important names in history like Panipat, Buxar, Plassey, Assaye or Seringapatnam crop up. Try to relate their physical location to their strategic importance. The Atlas is also a very useful tool to understand cropping pattern in India. Some of them actually carry small maps listing the growing areas of major crops.

GS PAPER II (Marks: 104/250)

For somebody with an optional like Law, GS Paper II should be a piece of cake. Much of its syllabus is covered under Paper I of Law. I believe the same may be said of optionals like Pub Ad as well or GS Paper III and those with Economics as an optional. Yet this familiarity with the syllabus can be a major drawback if we lose sight of the fact that GS papers, by their very definition, are not meant for specialised gyaan. In 2013, I doled out a lot of law specific gyaan in what I thought was an easy GS Paper II. My final marks were a pathetic 51. So the major lesson I drew from that underwhelming performance was to ensure that I write for an examiner whose familiarity with the subject is of a different nature than mine. I avoided jargon completely and stuck to simply sentences.

This is a relatively easy paper to prepare as far as sources are concerned. Laxmikanth on Indian Polity is indispensable. Since I was anyway doing most of the polity part for my Law Paper I, I used this book very sparingly. For those who need help with concepts that are not adequately explained here, VN Shukla’s Constitution of India (edited by Prof MP Singh) is a great book to invest in. It is a standard law textbook but is thankfully free of all jargon. You can ignore the unimportant case laws and read it as one would read any other book. Do remember that it is a rather bulky book and doesn’t come cheap. However, as a guide to the Constitution, I would recommend it anyday.

The second must have for this paper is the Report of the 2nd ARC. There is no need to read (nor is it possible to) all of it. Just scroll down to the last part of all individual reports and you would find a succinct summary of the recommendations made that should do for your needs. Do look up the full text if you wish to understand the context of a particularly important recommendation. A large number of my answers drew from this Report.

I did India’s foreign policy entirely from the Internet. There are a number of excellent sources online that should suffice. For a quick summary, Wikipedia is often enough. Considering the dynamic nature of this part, it is best if you do not rely on some outdated textbook. I only looked up static concepts like Panchsheel, NAM etc from Vajiram’s Study Modules.

The Internet should also do for International bodies and salient features of the RoPA. I did not study the latter though.

GS PAPER III (Marks: 73/250)

This was the paper where I, excuse my language, screwed up. While I have no clue where I actually bungled up, I think it must be to do with my horrible memory for facts and figures. I do not remember quoting a single figure anywhere, for the simple reason that I cannot remember dry statistics. This was also a paper where I had to hurry up as I spent a lot of time on a couple of difficult questions and had to really push towards the end.

I used two different books for this paper. In 2013, I had used Dutt and Sundaram’s bulky classic. It took up a lot of time but provided me with a strong base in the subject. In 2014, I used Ramesh Singh. I, however, daresay that it would have been rather difficult for me had I not read Dutt and Sundaram the previous year. Agriculture especially is best done from Dutt and Sundaram. Newspaper reading is extremely important here. I frequently read the Indian Express and kept an eye out for economic developments. I used Vajiram Module for topics like Infrastructure development that were covered in a bit too much detail in the standard books.

There is no book as such for Sci and Tech. Coaching material that you can pick up from ORN or Ber Sarai can at best cover only a portion of the syllabus. You need to be up to date with recent developments in this field. I dedicated a whole day in November to this part and read up everything I could find on the Internet about recent scientific developments.

Disaster Management was from the ARC Report. Security challenges was done from Vajiram module and the Internet. The South Asia Terrorism Portal has a great amount of info on terrorist activities in this region that you can sift through. The remaining outlying topics were again done from the Internet.

GS PAPER IV (Marks: 83/250)

Again a performance not quite upto the mark. It was a rather similar story in 2013 as I secured only 78 in this paper. Maybe my distaste for purely opinion based philosophical papers is the reason.

I used the material recommended by Gaurav Agrawal (IAS, 2014) on his blog. Read up 2nd ARC Report on this as well as the Vajiram module. Used the Internet for views of thinkers and philosophers-mostly Greek and Indian. All my answers in the Case Study portion were usually overly idealistic and included some reference to the Indian scenario. Referred to Roy Choudhury and Subba Rao’s book and found it pretty helpful.

I will write about preparing for the Law optional in my next post. Feel free to add in your comments, corrections and suggestions here!

Last Flight of the Day

I took a late evening flight into Calcutta sometime ago. Thanks to a delay, it was well past 11 PM by the time the aircraft started its descent. The flight was half empty and most of the passengers-a motley group of Marwari businessmen, Bengali travellers and a few foreigners had spent the two hour flight dozing. The pre-landing announcements rudely interrupted this siesta. We pulled back our seats, closed the tray tables and opened the window shades. The lights were dimmed as we awaited landing.

It was then that we saw a sight most of us see. We had been flying over pitch darkness for all this time but as the plane broke through the clouds and turned left we could suddenly see tiny pinpricks of light. Flashes of lightning lit up the clouds around us. A few thousand feet below us, the broad band of the Ganges was visible as it snaked its way through the towns of South Bengal. The carpet of lights below was separated by the broad span of the river as it executed a series of tortuous loops. As Calcutta grew closer, the lights kept growing in intensity till we could see the river reflected in their glow. I suddenly realised that everybody in the plane was looking at the same thing. Nobody spoke a word, not even the children. It was again dark as the plane turned north over the East Calcutta wetlands, extended its flaps, lowered its landing gear, shuddered a bit in the monsoon winds and came in to land with a great roar.

The moment was over. People scrambled over each other to leave as numerous mobile phones beeped with missed calls, messages and whatsapp updates. But for a few minutes, some three thousand feet over the Bengali countryside, we had all been just awestruck humans-surprised at the unexpected beauty of a muddy, polluted river from the far off Himalayas running its course through tiny lighted spots of human life at the edge of a bustling metropolis.


Life, elsewhere

Growing up as a nomad can be very distressing for most kids. Imagine having to give up on your friends, a school that you had gotten used to, a house that seemed rather homely-and move to a whole new city (town in most cases) with an alien language and no friends around.

In such cases, one tends to seek solace in things that are not as ephemeral. You learn to observe way more than what a normal child would. For much of my childhood, it was the rain that distinguished one town from another. Like the sort in Kharagpur. It was a rather large bungalow with a veranda that ran all the way in the front. Many a late summer afternoon have I spent there watching the Bengal monsoon break upon the colony. It is not gentle or noiseless. Streaks of lightning rent open the sky, rain pours down with a roar till it gushes off the side of the roof and flows towards the roadside drain cutting gulleys of its own throughout the garden. And then when it is all silent, frogs croak contentedly near the huge water puddle while birds swoop down to pick off the bugs partying too hard in the grass post rain.

Living in a railway colony, it was hardly surprising that trains were such a constant presence in our lives. For one, we travelled way more often to way more obscure places than most people did. Railway talk was de rigueur. For me the most fascinating part was when I would sneak off to the railway embankment and wait for the trains to show up. Mostly it was a ‘boring’ goods train carrying wheat from the fields of Western UP to the FCI godowns or cement from down South to North Bihar. But occasionally the star performers would make an appearance. Early in the evening the high tone whistle of the crack Vaishali Express would sound as it came tearing in from Barauni towards New Delhi. In the late afternoons it would be the Sayagraha Express to Raxaul. Like all good Bihar bound trains, it would have people packed in to the rafters with a thick crust on the roof as well. While going to school in the mornings, I would fervently pray for the level crossing gates to be shut so that I could see Chauri Chaura Express trundle in. The evenings spent jaywalking along the old metre gauge tracks or watching the gateman brew his endless cups of tea remain deeply embedded in memory.

Railway life taught me something else too. Along with the Army, it is one of the most diverse organisations in India. It was perfectly normal to have a dozen languages being spoken in the same railway colony. Kharagpur, an out and out railway town, had a Bengali speaking Sardarji as its MLA for the longest time. His voters were an oddball mix of Bengalis, Hindi speaking people from Chhatisgarh, a few Marathis from Nagpur, a huge segment of Oriyas and Telugus with a generous sprinkling of Anglo Indians. One ended up sampling all of their food, picking up a smattering of their languages and learning a lot about their customs. Durga Puja was big, not surprisingly for a Bengali town, but so was Christmas and a variety of North Indian festivals. Poori Tarkari, Dosa and Kobiraji chop competed for the position of preferred breakfast options. It is impossible for a railway man to be parochial, communal or narrow minded. The more closely you see a fellow human, the more you realise that he is just the same as you are. The hate that so often convulses India has its roots in a blind devotion to one’s own caste, community and region. If only people travelled and met a few more of their fellow countrymen, things would have been very different.

An Ode to Nalsar

That the Nalsar bubble would not last for ever was known pretty well. That it would burst (relatively) so soon was rather unexpected. Unlike many others, I have never had a reason to curse this place. I loved my time here and enjoyed doing whatever little I did. Having changed cities and schools way too often for my own good, it was a welcome change to hang around a place for this long. What is really surprising however is the amount of mush that is being displayed by people you would not expect it from. Most say it is because they will miss their friends here. I think the reason is something else. In Nalsar, your life followed a set pattern. Way back in 2008 I could predict with a reasonable amount of certainty what my life would be like half a decade down the line. How much variation could you bring into a routine of classes, internships, trips back home and the occasional party anyway? Say what you may about change being exciting, people generally prefer to just relax and let things continue the way they are. This will not be the case for many of us now. It is this disruption in routine that makes people wear batch t shirts, cry after flash mobs and upload emo pictures.

Equally saddening for me is the move away from Hyderabad. Over the last decade, I had grown to love the city and can claim with a reasonable amount of truth to have become a Hyderabadi. All that must change now.

I must confess. I am really going to miss college for all that it has given me. The person who leaves in a couple of days is very different from the chap who came here five years ago. Many years down the line, I shall hopefully remember a place 2.8 km from Shamirpet village as what educated me and changed my life forever. 

Oh Monsoon

The Indian seasons are just like the country. They always overwhelm you. The long dusty days of summer get almost unbearable by June. Monsoon watch becomes the country’s national pastime as the IMD trots out wildly erratic and almost always wrong predictions with a +/-4% error range.

Meanwhile way down south over the Indian Ocean, winds are being whipped into a frenzy. Attracted by the hot low pressure zone created over North India by the unforgiving sun, these winds blow northwards, picking up tons of moisture along the way. While India sizzles, these winds shower their munificence over the Indian Ocean islands as well as the Andamans. The imperious Arabian Sea branch, laden with water vapour, breaks upon the West Coast in spectacular fashion with a deep rumbling thunder and frothy sea waves providing the special effects. It however runs straight into the mighty Western Ghats. Pregnant with moisture, it deposits most of it over the Konkan and Malabar coasts before it can overcome the hills. The more sedate Eastern branch sneaks its way through the narrow Bay of Bengal as it approaches the Coromandal coast. Coastal Andhra and Orissa are drenched and so is Gangetic West Bengal. Blowing across the plains of Bangladesh, it gets channeled into Meghalaya hills where Cherrapunji and Mawsynram receive record breaking rainfall year after year. The two branches meet over Central India and proceed to take on the Indian heartland.

There is more drama yet. The Monsoon is preceded by a couple of dusty sand storms that remind Delhi-ites of just how close the ever expanding Thar Desert is. There is hardly any rain but servants and housewives are sent scurrying to pick up the drying laundry lest the wind blow the briefs and vests away. The humid nights only serve to further piss off the already half-crazy Northies. This is short lived however. Thunder and lightning accompany the rain as towns, villages and cities are drenched for days. The trees heave under the force of the rain as people negotiate huge traffic snarls, overflowing gutters and washed off roads. As the winds reach the Himalayas, the mighty Indian rivers breach their banks and cause untold misery to millions.

Monsoon holds many lovely memories for me. The joy of munching pakoras as you watch the rain. The “rainy-days” in schools across the country. The paths that the flowing water cuts through your garden. The fresh smell as the rain unlocks a thousand pores on what was till a week ago,  a patch of yellowing grass. The wet patch that appears after a lengthy downpour on your ceiling. The countless chirping insects that create a racket all night. The stars that look ever more numerous as the rain cleans up the atmospheric dust. The occasional hailstorm. The howling wind that beats on the window shutters and carries the rain into every nook and crevice.

The Monsoons fill one with a zest for life. They give life to a country that just cannot do without them. And cannot be imagined without them.

Into the Cauldron

My relatives decided that I must be mad, or atleast slightly cracked in the head, for deciding to go to Titlagarh in the month of May. For those unaware, Titlagarh in Western Orissa is widely considered to be one of the contenders for the hottest inhabited places in the country. Summer temperatures above 50 degree celsius are frequently reached and the blazing loo makes sure that it feels much more. But I have lived in the 46 degree heat of Delhi and the 44 degrees of Hyderabad. I have even managed a 45 with 90% humidity in Bhubaneswar (an astounding 162 on the Discomfort Index). How bad could then Titlagarh be? There was only one way to find out.

Arrival, at 5 30 in the morning, was normal-even slightly pleasant. In the east, the sun is out early; especially in summer. This was no different. Even the concrete hulk that the railway station was, looked (and felt) fine. I decided to go get some shuteye before taking on Father Heat himself in the afternoon.

The first inkling of trouble was the knock on the door of my comfortable airconditioned room. “Abhi se naha lijiye..dopahar mein paani boil ho jaata hai”. Ridiculous I said. Of course the water gets pretty darned hot during the summer, but all you need to do is to leave the tap on for 10 mins and then all is well. There was no way I was letting go of my lovely sleep by having a bath at this non-bath-like hour.

Soon, it was 11. My plan was the check out the heat at this hour and then again around 2 when the sun would be at its merciless best. Attired normally in cotton clothes and having drunk plenty of water, I ventured out onto the road. The first thing that hits you, even before the heat, is the utter loneliness. Titlagarh is no village. It has a population of close to a lakh. But not a single soul was to be seen anywhere. No birds, no animals and certainly no humans. The next thing you realise is that the back of your neck is on fire. While you cover it up quickly with the collar, suddenly the full blast of the loo is in your face. Dry and dusty, it feels like being slapped around with the hot bottom of a frying pan. There is little humidity, so you do not sweat (actually you do, but you never feel it as it just evaporates within milliseconds). Sun stroke is possible in 10 mins, likely around 30 mins and almost certain in less than an hour. The head warms up to an extent that you can feel the heat radiating out of your crown. One cannot keep his eyes open. The strong glare makes it impossible. I had had enough. I was soon gulping down another bottle of water. Time spent outside: 13 minutes.

This was certainly no common Delhi-heatwave. Why though? There is little substantial vegetation around Titlagarh, partly due to the soil and partly due to deforestation. In addition, the town is surrounded on almost all sides by bare, smooth hills-almost like giant pebbles. There is no substantial body of water anywhere close by, nor is the river really a river. As the wind blows in from all sides, the hills block its path and funnel it through their gaps and crevices. The hot rock increases the temperature of the already warm wind many notches. The air temperature may be around 50 but the wind makes sure that it feels around 70. The terrain is excellent for retaining heat and one could feel the earth just letting out steam till midnight.

I never did my post noon trip. The bath did not work out either. Apparently, the man was serious about the boiling water business.

Calcutta Golpo-I

Amitav Ghosh acts as a trigger for long forgotten Calcutta memories. Inspite of my great love for the city, I can hardly claim to be a resident. The two years that my family did live there, I was far away in Hyderabad. There were the occasional vacations and the visits of course but little else. It is a testament to the City’s almost magnetic hold on me (and most East Indians in general) that I still consider it almost-home. It is the Eldorado of my subconscious.

The first thing that hits you in Calcutta are the crowds. There are just an awful too many people. You step out from the grand red Howrah Station and there they are, milling about. Very few of them are Bengalis. Mostly dirt poor migrants from Poorvanchal, they come in droves to their promised land. You can see them pulling their trolleys along, sweat dripping down their face as they race through the twenty odd platforms of the station. Yet there is an element of order in this chaos. Stroll across to the vegetable market in the subway leading upto the ferry (“launch”) ghats and you’ll see a mass of people going one way or the other depending on the time of the day. There is no pushing or shoving. I spent an hour walking in the opposite direction and not once was I yelled at or cursed. The violence that one associates with a crowd in North India is oddly missing in Calcutta.

For a kid nothing could be more fascinating than Calcutta’s modes of public transport. The buses are unlike anything in Delhi or Bombay. Painted in garish colours, with a wooden floor and with seats that would gladden a Spartan Utilitarian, these buses rule the Calcutta roads. The fuel guzzling old monsters belch out thick black smoke that hangs over the Maidan on wintry mornings. It is impossible to imagine any of them as new-ever! Then there are the ferries. A bit out of favour after the opening of the second Hooghly bridge, the launches (as they are called) were for close to a century the lifeline between Calcutta and its twin across the Hooghly. The overcrowded boats and the Colonial ghats (Armenian, Princep, Outram) saved thousands of Calcuttans from the long jaunt across the Howrah Bridge. One of my happiest childhood memories is of taking the launch to Garden Reach or Babughat from the Howrah Station Jetty. The view as the launch took on the curve after Vidyasagar Setu was wonderful, especially in the evenings with the sun shining brilliantly over the river.

My favourites are however the trams. Much maligned and now almost condemned to extinction, the trams were a wonderful thing to all of us non-Calcuttans. There was a day (till 1993) when you could hitch one right opposite the Howrah Station and have it take you all the way up to Kidderpore for nothing more than 25 paise. Slow and very noisy, especially over cobbled streets, the trams are almost always full. Their distinctive clanging bell can be heard before they are visible in the maze of vehicles. Taxis reluctantly abandon the track as the ancient machines rumble on, swaying and lurching all the way to Park Circus, Esplanade or Dharamtala. Even today, one can take the Kidderpore-Dharamtala service and watch the tram as it passes through the crowded streets, crosses the Adi Ganga bridge, moves on to the Maidan (providing arguably the best view of it) and finally negotiates the crush of Esplanade with the Ochterlony Monument looming in the background.

More Calcutta reminiscences to follow some other day.