Ambuj Kumar Kunal, 32
From Daraunda, Siwan
Now an IAS aspirant in Delhi
Ambuj Kumar Kunal has a clear goal: earn “respect” in his village in Bihar. Even if it means living 900 km away, in a tiny room, up an unlit tunnel-like staircase in a run-down building in Nehru Vihar, north Delhi. With a flimsy mattress, dust-covered books and an ’80s box-shaped TV for company, Kunal has been preparing for civil services for the last 11 years.
In August 2004, Kunal left Sahrara, his village in Daraunda, Siwan district of Bihar, for Delhi with Rs 10,000 in hand. He enrolled in two IAS coaching institutes — one for Hindi literature and the other for English — in Mukherjee Nagar, north Delhi, for six months, after which he studied by himself as “it was less expensive”. Over the next decade, he attempted the UPSC exam four times, stumbling at the Mains each time. Kunal has now exhausted all attempts available to a general category candidate like him, but has still not given up his pursuit of earning “respect” back home in Sahrara.
He is now preparing for the State Public Services Commission (SPSC) exams. “I am 32 and can sit for these exams till I am 35,” he says. “If I can’t make it even then, I will teach Hindi in a government school. I have an MA in Hindi from an open university in Allahabad and a BEd from CCS University in Meerut through their study centre in Ghaziabad,” he says.
Kunal’s father was a primary schoolteacher in the village and his two brothers are with the Railways, one is a station master in Jamnagar, Gujarat, and the other a goods guard in Anara, West Bengal. A cousin is with the BSF and another relative with the SPG of the Prime Minister. “I want to be like them,” he says.
He never thought of applying in the private sector, Kunal adds. “Bihar has no industry. Children there don’t get to hear of the private sector, so they do not aspire for it.”
His own childhood in Sahrara was one of struggle. Every day, he would walk 3 km to his Hindi-medium government school in neighbouring Tiara village. “But on most days, the teachers wouldn’t turn up. Sometimes, ex-students taught us. The entire village pitched in money to hire a Sanskrit teacher, each family contributing Rs 5 to pay Rs 3,000 a month to the teacher,” says Kunal, who later did his intermediate and BA in Hindi from Rajendra College, Chapra, before heading for Delhi.
Having grown up in Sahrara, a village that wasn’t electrified until six months ago, he says he got his “first shock” when he came to Delhi and realised how life ran almost entirely on power. “Back in my village, I always bathed in cold water. But here, I saw people heating water with immersion rods and geysers,” he laughs.
Kunal speaks passionately about his village that has a population of “667 people to be precise”. He knows because he did a headcount for the 2011 Census. “The teacher who was supposed to do it asked me to fill in.”
Kunal says the Rs 10,000 he brought when he first came to Delhi lasted him three months. “I spent only on rent, books, and food. I still spend the same, but while my first room rent was Rs 1,600 a month, I now pay Rs 7,000,” he says, adding that his father sends him Rs 10,000 a month.
He says that after all these years, he still feels like an “outsider” in Delhi. “People here talk to you only if you have money or if they have some vested interest. My only friends here are from Bihar and UP,” he says.
Kunal’s decision to keep a low profile also comes from “the way Biharis are treated”. “Anyone who does something wrong is instantly dubbed a ‘Bihari’,” he says, blaming the attitude on the poverty in his state. “For one Bihari IAS/IPS officer, there are probably 50 Bihari labourers. As the majority of Biharis outside the state end up doing menial jobs, the state’s people are considered inferior and are viewed with suspicion. Like Lalu Prasad steals fodder, the poor Bihari, they think, is likely to steal petty cash,” he says.
So, is Lalu to blame for the negative image? “I used to think so. But someone told me it’s always been this way. However, as crime shot up during Lalu’s rule, the negative image stuck. Though things have improved during Nitish Kumar’s rule, the state has a long way to go,” he says.
Kunal has only voted twice — for the BJP in the general elections of 1999 and for the JD(U) in the 2000 Assembly elections — as he “could not find time to go back home and vote”. But he is watching the elections. He is unhappy with Nitish Kumar, saying the JD(U)’s development agenda has excluded his village. He says local JD(U) MLA Kavita Singh did not provide electricity to his village till just a little before the elections. “Power is available only for five-six hours a day. The MLA’s own village, only 5 km away, is so well lit,” he says, adding that he wants the BJP to win this election.
He is also upset that the Bihar SPSC exam has been held only eight times in 25 years, unlike in other states such as UP, which, he says, hold their exam every year.
However, Kunal insists, he never felt the need to “fit into” Delhi. “I never learnt how to speak English. I only enrolled in an English coaching institute to clear the English paper, which I did,” he says.
This, despite the “UPSC exam discriminating against Hindi-medium candidates”. “They use Google Translate to translate English words into Hindi. In my last Mains exam, ‘steel plant’ was translated into ‘steel paudha’,” he says.
Kunal, who spends about eight hours a day studying, also often dreams of returning to his village. “My uncle is a primary schoolteacher in Panchvahaar, a large village of 8,000 people. When I go to the village and identify myself as masterji’s nephew, they escort me. All I want is that kind of respect,” he says.