The year was 1969. I was a student in St Stephen’s college in Delhi, 21 years of age. At that time, Delhi was essentially a bureaucratic city. (Some would still call it that, but that is beside the point.) Most of us, with strong bureaucratic backgrounds, had our eyes fully set on entering the civil services. The attractions of foreign countries and the many perquisites that went with the job made the Foreign Service the first choice, with the IAS a close second.
In those days, we had only two chances to attempt the examination and the age limits were 21 to 24 . For the IPS, however, we could appear for the examination at age 20. My father, a Railway officer himself, had set his eyes on my entering the IAS. He induced me to appear for the IPS examination a year earlier so that I could get familiar with the UPSC system. I was then an MA final year student, specialising in ancient Indian history.
I qualified for the IPS interview. My father and I walked from Rouse Avenue, now Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg, to Bengali Market, crossing the main railway lines leading to New Delhi station. I was trembling with fear, cursing myself for having been foolhardy enough to listen to my father and attempt the examination. I had always been a shy and reserved person and was mortally terrified. However, when I actually reached the UPSC and sat with other equally nervous candidates, I felt a sudden surge of confidence and I was absolutely on top of the interview.
The objective was, however, the IAS and, in those days, when anyone aspired for the civil services, one always thought of S Rau and his IAS Study Circle. My classmate and dear friend, Ajay Prasad, who later became a central government secretary, and is now, unfortunately, no more, had already studied under Rau for the previous year’s examination and was awaiting his results.
Rau was verily a legend. Year after year, the best in Delhi and other places flocked to him. Year after year, a sizeable number of his students cleared the examination with several in the first 10. I,too, applied for admission. He had a terrace and a couple of rooms in hotel Palace Heights in Connaught Place in Delhi. He called me for an interview. I went there with my usual trepidation. I entered a small room and saw a diminutive man, crouched over a typewriter. This, I thought, must be Rau’s secretary. But it was the man himself, not the huge, aggressive giant I had visualised. He was soft spoken and his spoken English was just ordinary. I don’t recall our conversation, but he quickly admitted me into his Circle.
Later, he told Prasad that he rated me very high and thought I could make it to the first 10. Not that I believed him, I did not have confidence in myself. But, lo and behold, the results of the IPS examination for which I had appeared as a trial for the main examination, appeared soon after, and I finished, to my utter surprise, in the top five.
Unlike the zillions of coaching institutions we find today, scattered all over the country, Rau did not have a standard method of teaching. He was more an adviser than a teacher. His strength lay in the fact that many outstanding students had passed through his Study Circle and he learnt from them as much as he coached them. He had a very good sense of what UPSC examiners were looking for and he had an unparalleled capacity to communicate this to his students. He did not have a big institute to support him with a plethora of distinguished college teachers. He was just Rau, a one-man show.
As I recall, he even did his own secretarial and clerical work. His knowledge of the English language was incredibly poor. Later, after my examinations, I spent time in his office correcting his books. He did not try to teach us the substance of various subjects. He told us how best to answer questions in the examination. At that time, we had only essay-type questions in all our five main papers, five questions to be answered in three hours. One of the things he told us was not to display too much detailed knowledge as the examiners were looking for generalists, who can quickly read, assimilate and present issues.
His interview training techniques were distinctive. He studied the psychology of the candidate before deciding how to coach him. In my case, for example, he decided not to put me through mock interviews, as he felt they would sap my confidence. Each of us, after the interview, had to come and present to him and other candidates the questions asked, answers given, the attitudes of the members of the interview panel.
I scored well again, as he had anticipated, finishing once more in the top five and also top of all students in Rau’s Study Circle that year. He was overjoyed and hugged me. At the same time, he did not fail to tell me that I may have finished higher still but for the horrible suit I had chosen to wear for the interview. A unique person, a legend in his lifetime amongst us civil servants of the past, that was Rau.