Neeraj sounded excited on the telephone. He said, ‘I’ve cleared the written test for getting into the NDA, bhaiya. The SSB comes next and I need your help.’
This happened just a couple of years after I had opted out of the OGs (Olive Greens – an euphemism for those in the Army) because of reasons that only the medical fraternity would understand. Jhansi is a small town and my selection in the CDSE for a commission in the Indian Army had created quite a lot of ripples then in the early eighties. Joining the Army had caught the imagination of the youth of that small town that gave the world Rani Laxmibai, Major DhyanChand, and writers like Vrindavan Lal Verma.
Not that people hadn’t joined the Army before me… it is just that my selection became a sort of catalyst for people yearning for this life and career. Or maybe it was because I had come back into the civil arena and joined the local college… whatever the reason, the truth is that I had become a sort of consultant for those dreaming to join the forces.
I told Neeraj to come anytime. It was as if he was waiting outside the front door, for the bell rang in less than 10 minutes. But then, Jhansi is a small place where one was able to cycle to from one end to the other in less than half an hour.
‘I’m here,’ announced Neeraj.
‘So I see,’ I replied and asked him what it was that he really want to ask me.
‘I’ve heard that the Services Selection Board is more like a rejection board for people coming from small towns,’ he said, ‘is that really true?’
I said, ‘No. But yes, it is true that more students from bigger cities get selected and that is because they…’
Neeraj interjected and gushed, ‘They’re more connected.’
I paused for a while and said, ‘If that were the case, we would never have had one of the best armies in the world. So, connections do not matter.’ I told him that what really matters is right combination of intelligence and personality traits. But this sounded like the complex stuff that they keep writing about in self-help books and he was quite expectedly confused.
‘Let me explain,’ I said and then recounted something that happened with me during my SSB.
I was a weakling
‘You would not know this,’ I said, ‘but I was the school debate champion. I was also the winner in chess, elocution, and writing competitions. In the final year I was the student editor of the school magazine.’ I paused and waited for Neeraj to ask me what I wanted him to ask. Expectedly, he blurted out, ‘You were a champ! Now I understand why you got selected. I stand no chance.’
I smiled and told him he was a dolt if he thought that way. ‘The truth is all my certificates meant that I was no good at outdoor sports. I was never an athlete. I was, in my own eyes, a weakling,’ I said, ‘and when I reached the SSB Centre, I literally shivered in my pants.’
Yes, I remember the moment quite vividly. There were twenty of us at the railway station waiting for the MCO to hand us over to the team that was to take us to the Centre. Nineteen hefty fellows who were talking excitedly about jogging shoes, gym instructors, and all those alien things that I had never done in my life. I retracted a couple of inches into myself but then one of them noticed and asked, ‘Which game do you play?’
‘Chess.’ There was silence. No one spoke. Then one of them said, ‘Oh my God… I always wanted to learn this game.’ We became friends. They all liked me because of my non-sporty leanings and soon I had made nineteen friends. It did not occur to me that they probably felt I was no major threat to them.
‘So the first lesson, Neeraj,’ I said, ‘is that you must tell what you really are and you’ll make good friends. This helps in the SSB.’
‘Yes, and even I didn’t know this would help. But it did. The SSB goes on for three days and it is your friendliness or usefulness as either a thinker or a light-weight guy that makes everyone else call you as a member of their team during group tasks there.’ But this wasn’t all that I wanted to tell Neeraj through this example. I told him that even during the individual obstacles, I stopped after attempting just the first three.
‘What happened? You still have two out of your three minutes left,’ shouted the smiling Group Testing Officer or GTO there.
I made a gesture of helplessness and said, ‘Can’t do any more.’
‘Come here,’ said the GTO and I thought this would be my final moment here and I’d be asked to collect my railway warrant and leave. But he gently asked, ‘Are you hurt?’
I told him that these were things I had never done in my life… and that this was precisely the reason why I wanted to join the Army. The GTO smiled and waved me to sit. I had admitted that I was a weakling… and that I had faith in the Army that they could transform me. The GTO later in the day said, ‘You admitted you were not strong enough. Don’t worry, the IMA will take care of that,’ and after a pause he added, ‘if, of course, you do get through the other tests.’
I am not from Delhi
The next day we were with another testing officer and were having tests like military planning, group tasks, group discussions, and public speaking. Sometime during the day, a group of other senior officers strolled to where we were. Someone whispered, ‘He is a Colonel and is probably the board president.’ I was suitable impressed and nodded. The rest of the aspirants were helping me wherever they could and used to form a protective circle around me wherever physical obstacles were encountered. This was the power of friendship that I was experiencing there.
‘Well, Neeraj, it was all the magic of friendship. Never underestimate friendship. And never fail your friends,’ I told him and the continued with my story.
So the Colonel and his entourage came to where we were and began chatting with the nervous 20, as he jokingly called us after just a minute.
‘Relax guys,’ he thundered, as if that thundering would ever relax us, ‘OK, let me just get a brief intro from you all.’ The Army isn’t the place where anyone sitting anywhere can just rattle off anything. We were asked to start from one end and the intros simply bewildered me.
The first guy said, ‘Sir, I’m Piyush Jain from Delhi. I’m from Modern there and love playing tennis and squash.’
The second one went a step ahead and said, ‘Sir, I’m Sudhansu from Bangalore and I have won the south zone shot put title. I am in the state swimming team and I love watching war movies.’
‘Great,’ remarked the Colonel with a benevolent smile and asked him, ‘have you heard of Montgomery?’
He was silent but I raised my hands.
‘Yes, you answer, son.’
‘He was a British army officer and was also nicknamed Monty and the Spartan General. He fought in the Second World War and commanded the Allied Forces after the Battle of Normandy’
The intros were going on… and to my horror, everyone was from a town that was known and much bigger than Jhansi. I was ashamed of belonging to a small town. I didn’t want my turn to come. But I was the twentieth person and my turn did come.
‘Yes, you Field Marshal Montgomery,’ said the Colonel, ‘where are you from?’
There was a war going on inside me… and one voice almost convinced me to forget Jhansi and just say that I was from Delhi. The urge to pretend to be something other what you are is strong when you are barely out of your teens… and you come from a small town. The voice said, ‘Don’t worry. They are not carrying your details here with them. They wouldn’t know. This is your opportunity to impress them. Say you’re from Delhi and you just might be selected.’
‘And what did you finally say?’ asked Neeraj. His eyes were wide open, seeped as they were in the drama that I was recounting. He was at a stage when anything I would say would go deep into him and make an impression that will be difficult to remove.
I said, ‘I got up and said: I am from Jhansi. It is a small town… and the Colonel stopped me right there. He told me that Jhansi was a town he was proud of because he was posted there for many months and loved its association with Rani Laxmibai and the hockey wizard.’
The Colonel went on after that, ‘Jhansi, for sure, is a small town… but a town which is big in history. Remember that always, Field Marshal!’
The Colonel and his entourage went off… and we went back to our testing schedule.
‘And then you were selected?’ said Neeraj.
I laughed and said, ‘No, this was not the last of my tests with honesty and straightforwardness. Even during the president’s interview, the colonel asked me to tell him all about the Farakka barrage.’
‘What do you know about the farakka barrage?’ the Colonel asked.
I had read a few books on how to tackle interviews and remembered one of them recommending the bold approach where you just answer convincingly. I weighed the Colonel’s question carefully and decided that though I did not know the answer, I would try and lie my way through it convincingly. Another voice inside me said: ‘Forget the convincing part. You don’t know the answer. Just say you don’t know and face the truth.’
This time I listened to my subconscious voice and said, ‘I have no idea sir. Though I can guess it is connected to some river in some way.’
‘Good, I like the way you admit your ignorance. No one like pretenders,’ said the Colonel.
‘Well,’ I said to Neeraj, ‘we all know that I was finally selected. But what I want you to know and understand is that it always pays to place the facts as they are and admit ignorance. The SSB is all about the army trying to find out what you really are… and if you are the sort of person they want, you’re in. If you’re not, you might still be able to slither in but you’ll just be another miserable officer trapped in a job you’ll never like.’
Neeraj went away… extracting a promise from me that I will have to give him some success tips on how to tackle the Psychological tests, the WATs and the TATs. I said, ‘Come any day. We’ll sit and practice the tests together.’
04 August 2013
Featured image credit: Appleseeds