Home » How “SHE” Became an IAS Officer by Surabhi Gautam at TEDxRGPV (Transcript)

How “SHE” Became an IAS Officer by Surabhi Gautam at TEDxRGPV (Transcript)

Surabhi Gautam

Here is the full transcript of IAS officer Surabhi Gautam’s TEDx Talk: How “SHE” Became an IAS Officer at TEDxRGPV conference. An alumni of RGPV, Surabhi Gautam was born in an orthodox village of Madhya Pradesh. She recently cleared UPSC Civil Services Exam securing All India Rank 50.

Listen to the MP3 audio: How SHE became an IAS officer by Surabhi Gautam at TEDxRGPV


Namaste! Today as you see me as a package of success when my bio says that I have cleared the top prestigious exams and interviews of India. My friends, let me tell you not more about my successes but more about my rejections, my failures and my determination, my willpower that made me to get those successes.

So my story starts from a small sleepy village of Madhya Pradesh with a population of barely thousand people, on the month of rainy August, a small girl was born in an orthodox Brahmin family — a family that was giant and joint with 30 plus members – it was not an event for them. There was nothing that worth celebrating happened that day when I was born, only two souls on earth were happy. Obviously, they were my parents, and for rest of them it was a normal affair.

Twenty-five years down the line, same girl, same village and the whole family was welcoming her with garlands, BANG BANG slogans like ‘gaon ki beti kaisi ho, Surabhi Gautam jaisi ho’ and what not. What made things to become so different for her?

My dear friends, let me tell you how things changed not only for me but also for my parents, how all the perspectives got changed slowly, slowly, steadily, steadily.

I was in a joint family. In a joint family, you know nobody gets – no children – no child gets a separate attention. So we all were treated equally. Life was OK. We were happy. I got admission in my village school. That was Hindi medium – Madhya Pradesh Board School.

In 5th class, something good happened with me that I remember till date. I got 100 out of 100 in my Mathematics paper. 5th class was a Board class. So my teacher called me and she said, “See, I have never seen anybody scoring full marks, that in Mathematics, that in Board exam. You have done this. So I think you are going to do something good in studies.” That was the day when I felt appreciated and recognized and I had given this clear message to universe that in future all I’m going to do is to be a studious girl, because with studies comes recognition. With studies will come appreciation for me. Otherwise in this family I’m not going to get this at all.

So I started to focus more on studies. But my heart — it always wanted to diversify. I wanted to do everything. I started to try my hand at painting, sketching, drawing. I started to do embroidery also. I was busy with my, you know, village priest and all the pujas and all the Ramayana ayojans and everything. And I was not noticing the pain — the pain that was creeping in my body.

I started to feel the pain in my joints and my elbow and every joint of my body. And after sometime I was bedridden. My parents took this decision with their meagre resources to take me there. We went there at a place called Jabalpur. And the doctor said that your daughter has this rheumatic fever. What happens in this disease is – there are viruses always present in air. Now and then they attack the body of children and they create pain. And when it becomes serious, what happens — they attack your heart and they disturb the semilunar valve. And in some cases, it leads to death also.

It was a shock for them. But then they asked that “What can be the possible treatment?”

As a treatment, doctor suggested that she should be given the dose of antibiotic and that antibiotic was penicillin. There is some problem with penicillin. What happens? As soon as it enters the body, it gets solidified when it comes in contact with air. So it was again a problem, because I had to be injected with penicillin in every 15 days. And not every MBBS doctor was ready to do this, because it can also lead to death in some cases. So in village, in every 15 days it was also difficult to get a skilled doctor to inject me with the confidence that I will not die.

Well, life was going OK, OK. There was a problem of electricity in my village. So I had to study in kerosene lamp. I had other problems. There was no tuition. School situation was also very bad.

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Then the second best thing of my life happened. It was the 10th class result. My 10th results came and I again scored 100 out of 100 — this time not only in mathematics but also in science. And my percentage was good enough to place me in the state merit list. Well, I became a pseudo celebrity of my village. I was in news for quite a week and the newspaper interviewer came to me. And he started to ask me questions: how you did this? You know, this is a great achievement and all. And at last he asked one question: “Surabhi, what do you want to become when you grow up? You know, what is your career choice?”

Well, I was not knowing what a career is. All I was knowing that “OK, I am good at dancing, so I can be a dancer. I can be a singer too. I can paint also. But a career? I told him, “Sir, I do not — I cannot recall anything. I cannot answer this question to you.”

He said, “Come on, you have to answer this. You have got a place in merit list.”

Suddenly, a word flashed in my mind out of nowhere. And I said, “I want to be a Collector.”

Well, he got the headline for the next day. And I was damned.

Next day, the news came: “Collector banna chahati hain Surabhi”

This news changed, you know, course of everything for me after that. Everyone was coming to my home with the sweets, to my parents and they were saying that, you know, “Gautamji, aap ki larki kuchh achcha karegi.”

I was enjoying all that limelight but I was not knowing how to be a collector, what a collector is and how important he is for society. Well, I went into 11th [class]; I took Mathematics and I forgot about all these things. Yeah, I wanted to correct something that was wrong in my village, that was wrong with my education, that was wrong with the situation of my village, that there was no electricity, there was no proper hospital. So I wanted those things to be on right place. But through collector or not through it, I was not clear.

Well, I passed 12th and I got APJ Abdul Kalam Scholarship for securing maximum marks in science stream. So again, one more pseudo celebrity status. And with all this status, I came to this big city of Bhopal, in this very college and took admission for Bachelor of Engineering. This decision of my parents to send me from the village to a big city for higher education was a big decision, because I was the first girl from my village to go out and study.

So it was not only I who was studying here; it was the whole village along with me. If I will come back, the hopes of all other girls, the door for all other girls will close automatically. So I had to perform here anyhow.

Well, the first day of my college was the worst day of my college, to be frank, because what happened — when I entered the college, there was chemistry lab that was going on. I entered the class, and the madam was taking lab. She asked me, “OK, you go and do titration. Titration? In my village, there was no lab. I do not know the meaning of titration in Hindi. So I was standing there blank.

Again, I looked at ma’am. She asked me, “Go there and pick up the test tube.

First time in my life, I’d seen the test tube and I took that and it broke. And I was like, oh my God, what I have done!

Any how I was hiding behind something so that ma’am should not notice me. And I passed one hour.

Then the next class: Engineering physics. Introductions were going on and everyone was standing and fluently answering — giving their introduction in English and I was freezing in my seat that when my turn will come, what am I supposed to do, what will I say. I do not know English at all. I’m from a Hindi medium school; how will I introduce myself?

I was stealing words from everyone’s introduction and anyhow I jotted down the words and gave my introduction. And I thought, OK this has passed. But the sir was not patient enough. He asked me one more question. He asked me: “OK. Tell me the definition of Potential.” OK, the basic question of physics. I have got APJ Abdul Kalam scholarship for securing maximum marks in PCM. But I had to answer this in English and I cannot frame a sentence – a single sentence in English. So I just stood there and I kept mum.

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Teacher came to me and he said, “Are you really – have you really completed your 12th? Have you really passed it? You cannot answer this very basic question of physics.”

Only I knew how much I loved physics. I’m not answering this, not because I do not know physics. It is because I do not know English. But this all was going on in my mind only. I was not able to speak anything.

Well, I came back to my room and I wept, you know, I cried. I just wanted to pack my bag and go back to my village, no more higher education, nothing else. This city is not meant for me. This college is not meant for me. These people are not meant for me.

I called my parents. That day they played the role of Jambavan – the role that Jambavan played for Hanuman, reminding him all of his great past that, no, you can fight, no you can fly. They told me that, OK, you come back, but see, you are closing the door of all other girls of your village. So you had to take up a decision.

Well, I picked the point and I decided to fight and I decided that by the end of this semester, I’m going to be fluent in English.

Well, I took my engineering books. I jotted down all the spellings and everything. I pasted them on my wall, and all my walls were colored with the spellings and I was always on the revision mode. And it went deep inside my subconscious mind that, you know, my dreams also were in English alphabet, with all the characters.

And in first semester I topped — I topped not only my college but I topped the whole university and I got Chancellor scholarship for that.

That day — that day I had this belief that if you really want to achieve something anyhow, you know, you do not have any means, because when I wanted to improve my English, I was not able to take coaching and I was not having any English medium friend. So I was totally unarmed. But I do not know how the universe conspired and I finally was able to give a TED Talk even in this platform.

Well, the college passed and I completed my college when I was twenty and half, so you need 21 years as minimum age for UPSC exam. So meanwhile I wrote GATE exam, ISRO exam, BARC exam, SAIL exam, and PPSC exam. And after six months, I wrote IES exam. And my dear friends, I qualified all of them.

Well, the first call letter that I got, that was from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Department of Atomic Energy, Mumbai.

So I was very excited. OK, I’m going to give this highly — you know, touted as one of the most — the first interview of India. So I was about to appear in that interview. I consulted some of my seniors about how it can be, how should I prep up for it. All I got was negative feedback: See, Surabhi, in whole of our life we have never seen anybody qualifying that interview. OK, you want to go to Mumbai for fun, then go, but don’t have this expectation that you’re going to do anything there.

Well, this — all this negativity, I appeared in interview and I was the first scientist to whom I was knowing as a scientist in my life. So I qualified that interview and I shifted to Mumbai and I became a nuclear scientist. Well, I wrote IES exam meanwhile and it takes one year for the results to come. After one year the result came. And I was AIR 1, not from any IIT, not from any NIT, I was from UIT and I topped the exam. I was the first lady in India to top Engineering Services Exam and my marks were maximum marks in history of UPSC till date.

So finally after becoming a sarkari officer, I resigned from BARC and I joined Indian Railways through Engineering service and I went to Secunderabad for Railways training. I was getting salary. There is no financial problem. You know, I was getting respect from society. So I didn’t want to study anymore, no hard work, so all party was waiting for me. And I was very excited: OK, life is now going to be a smooth ride, no more hard work, no more sacrifices and all; I have done enough.

Well, I joined Railways and I was thinking to enjoy. I was trying hard to enjoy and be happy. But I was not happy. And I was not knowing what is wrong with all these things. So I called my mother and I asked her: “Why is it happening with me? Why I am not enjoying all this?”

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She said: “Do you remember your 10th class interview? Have you ever read that piece of paper again that you said you want to be something or you wanted to do something for your village and all those things. Was — this struggle was only for a sarkari job or a good salary, or was this something — for something else also?”

Well, I really recalled and I read this interview again. And I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve read it. And I decided to prepare for civil service examination. Well, this examination, I want to say, is one of the toughest exams, of not only India but of world. [indiscernible] aspirant appear for this and mostly it takes four/five attempts for them to clear. Students in Delhi, if you will go there and see, they are giving their 24 hours every day and preparing for this exam. And I was doing the job of Railways, was deciding to prepare for this exam. I was hardly getting three or four hours from my training to prepare for this exam. I could not take leave in training also.

So the decision was going to be very tough decision for me, but with all those things I decided to go ahead and I started my preparation. I was mostly on train roaming for railway training. So I got a Tab and I downloaded all the things, so I started reading online. I read in mobile, I read in my Tab and I was mostly on, you know, stealing mode. I was stealing minutes from hours.

And sometime I felt frustrated. I felt like giving up. Again I called my mom. She was a continuous mentor for me. So I called her, I said, “See, even after becoming a sarkari officer, I have to do again all these things. Life is so miserable for me. I was never enjoying when I was a child. And today also when I’m an officer, I’m not enjoying. I’m only doing studies and I don’t know where it is going to lead. Am I going to qualify it or not? I’m not sure but still I am again studying, studying all the time.

She said me one thing: “See, you are 23. When I was 23, I had three children. The youngest of them was 10-months old. I had a family of 30 plus members to whom I had to cook meal. Then I had a job 10 kilometres away from our village, to next another village, so I had to go and do that also. And then I had allergic skin, so for that I had to visit doctor and I have to cover my body all the time. So I had all these problems but I never complained. You, on the other hand, do not have any social responsibility, family responsibility. All you have is your dream. All you want is to prove for yourself, because for others you have already proved. Now this is your task. You have to do — and you are saying life is difficult at you. You need to change your lenses, beta”.

That day I stopped complaining mostly, at least with her and I was totally on a mission mode. All my scarcities, I converted them into my luxuries. The more I struggled, more strong I became. And finally I got All India Rank 50 in this coveted exam – civil services examination 2016.

To summarize: At last I believe in these words. These words truly tell my story. And I also want to convey these words to you also.

There is no substitute for hard work and there is no shortcut to success.

And my own four lines that I wrote — I want to say: Jo nahi mila hain, uska gam jo karti; Jo ani mila hain, uska gam jo karti, hasil marking mein fidyo nahin sabarti. Kismatse larkar pana bhi to jeed hain, Kismatse larkar pana bhi to jeed hain, ye batein mujhme jidyo nahi ubharti. Mujhko bhi gam hota tha na milne ka, lekin kudhse wada tha chalne ka. Mujhko bhi gam hota tha na milne ka, lekin kudhse wada tha chalne ka, kadamong ne jitna na pa, utna kam hain. kadamong ne jitna na pa, utna kam hain, yahi rahasya hain manjil se milna ka, yahi rahasya hain manjil se milna ka.

Thanks for being such a patient and such a good audience. Thanks TED and thanks to everyone.

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