That was decades ago but seems like it happened yesterday. The year was 1977, a post-graduate in English Literature had very little job opportunities, except to keep appearing for bank examinations or take a lottery chance in the Civil Services Examination, then known as ‘IAS and Allied Services Exam’. I also decided to try my luck.
Arduous preparations started, about 15 hours of dedicated work every day, visiting Ernakulam Public Library every alternate day. Many would have mistaken me for a part-time library employee! The examination center was University College, Trivandrum.
General English and the vital General Knowledge papers were done to my satisfaction, but Indian History paper hit a speed-breaker! Questions were tricky and at the end of the examination, I came out feeling very depressed. Many other candidates shared a similar feeling, but that was no consolation.
Back in the hotel room, there was a feeling of dejection, hopes seemed dashed, frustrated about a lackluster performance. In Competitive examinations, not only every answer but every line counts, for even a single mark can make a world of difference. Then a sudden thought arose, to visit Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
The Temple was an awesome edifice in granite. The time was evening, around 7 PM, a lone watchman at the entrance directed me to the adjacent cloakroom to deposit my shirt. (Nowadays the Temple is surrounded by armed security personnel, because of the discovery of immense treasures located in various Temple vaults.) After removing my shirt, my hotel room key was handed to the attendant separately for safe keeping.
The sight of the reclining deity was an awesome experience. During those days there were no jostling crowds, no separate queue for Darshan, everybody could pray to their heart’s content, and receive Prasadams from the sanctum sanctorum directly. I narrated my examination woes to the Lord and sought divine intervention for success.
Prayers over, the only satisfaction about the evening was that the Lord had been sufficiently appraised about my need for a job and the tough examination that I had faced, a few hours back. The Lord appeared deep in transcendental meditation, and a petty devotee stood in front of him seeking a job!
I proceeded to the cloak room, collected my shirt, and walked back to the hotel. Enroute l finished dinner. Back in front of the hotel room, I realized that I had forgotten to collect the room key, that had been entrusted separately to the cloakroom attendant! So, I rushed back to the Temple.
The entire place was deserted and dark, except for a sole electric light at the entrance of the Temple. The time was well past 9.30 PM, the cloakroom was locked, and nobody was to be seen! I stood at the Temple entrance for a long time, not knowing what to do next. Suddenly, a person appeared from a nearby lane and queried why I was standing alone? I explained my predicament, and he pointed to a granite parapet and told me to sit there, saying that the attendant might have gone for a late-night movie.
There I sat on the footsteps of the Temple, renewing my entreaties to the Lord. Pleas were reiterated repeatedly, supplications were stressed again and again, it seemed even to me a courtroom drama. The lone devotee on the footsteps trying to reach out to the Divine Lord, meditating deep inside the granite Temple.
Maybe it was well past 12.30 AM, a lone figure was coming towards the Temple from the far end of the road. Maybe it was the attendant, yes it was, as he neared, he grinned saying ‘you have come for the keys”. I collected it with relief, prayed fervently once again, and returned to the hotel.
I had given up all hope of making it, so started preparations for the next year’s examination. A few months later, one day, around 12.30 PM, I was deeply engrossed in listening to the cricket commentary of India’s tour of Australia in 1977-78. During 1977-78 tour, India was visiting Australia after more than 10 years. An exodus of star players, most notably the Chappell brothers (Ian and Greg) and Dennis Lillee had switched over to the World Series Cricket tournament organized by Kerry Packer, which meant that Australia had to field a team without their top stars. The situation was so desperate that they had to induct former captain Bob Simpson out of retirement to lead the side. Simpson was 41 years old, at that time, and the last Test he played was in 1967! India, on the other hand, boasted of stalwarts like Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Viswanath in the batting line-up. The bowling wing had spin wizards Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi and Chandrasekhar, supported by the pace bowling of Madan Lal and Amarnath.
It was the 03 February 1978; the 5th test match was being played at Adelaide. 03rd February happened to be the birthday of Bob Simpson, and he went on to get exactly 100 runs before getting caught by Viswanath of the bowling of Ghavri. Australia won the match by 47 runs and the radio commentator was wishing Bob Simpson a happy and memorable birthday. Just then I heard the familiar sound of mail being thrown by the postman on the portico. I saw three letters lying on the floor. Picking them up I kept it on the table and went to hear the final portion of the commentary. After the conclusion, I went to the table to check the mail. Two were some pamphlets, the last one was a long brown cover, on top it in blue ink was stamped OIGS (On India Government Service). At the left-hand bottom corner was another stamp that indicated the dispatcher as UPSC, Dholpur House, Shahjahan Road, New Delhi – 110069. I inwardly jerked, why this letter from UPSC? I opened the cover to see a few pages folded lengthwise. On opening I saw with shock the interview call for the IAS. Numbed with disbelief I rushed to my mother who was still in the Pooja room and blurted the news. We both hugged and joyous tears freely flowed. I simply could not believe it; how did I qualify for the interview? It suddenly dawned on me that it was only Sree Padmanabhaswamy’s miracle. A thankful and tearful prayer rose from my lips.
The battle was not over. At New Delhi, to attend the interview, seeing the swanky crowd from Delhi and Bombay, their stylish swagger, twisting their dialogues in English and Hindi effortlessly, made me wonder as to how to cross the next hurdle. The interview was a casual talk of about 30 minutes, got a little flustered when it was over, so stumbled to the wrong door to exit, and the Chairman was kind enough to guide me to the proper exit door. The medical examination got over at the Willingdon Hospital (now known as Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital), but with another distressing news that due to detection of Colour-blindness, I stood medically disqualified for Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS). What to do, setbacks expected and unexpected, was happening, in this civil service exam lottery?
Awaiting the final selection results was very stressful and there was a philosophical resignation to accept the inevitable. After all, only about 750 candidates would clear the final lap and just 120 would make it into the much sought after IAS. During those days the IAS results would be announced first and only after about two weeks the IPS & Allied Services. There was a daily visit to the Press Information Bureau (PIB) situated on Warriam Road in Ernakulam, for they would get the information first. When the IAS results came, I realized that it is not easy to translate dreams into reality. The person-in-charge at the PIB office was very understanding and sympathetic, he told me to be hopeful and await the Allied Services result list which was expected anytime. I stopped visiting the PIB office as I felt embarrassed, what if I did not make it at all? Indian History paper was still at the back of my mind, as also the fact that, just about 750 candidates, across India, would make it into the final coveted list. One evening, while casually passing by I stepped in, and the officer-in-charge, excitedly enquired why I was not to be seen, the results had come about two days back! My heart started beating wildly, the tension was unspeakable as I scanned the many names, in the list. At last, I stumbled on my name, pretty high in the list, my God, it was totally unbelievable! The PIB official was the first to congratulate me. I rushed home to break the news to my parents and sister. It was a moment of great joy for everyone. That night was a sleepless one, as the Indian History paper still haunted me. The Lord had indeed done some miracle, perhaps he had substituted my paper itself, who knows? Another thought came, who was that person who told me to sit in front of the Temple? Was it the Lord himself? Such instances happen in novels and films but in real life.
Next day, I proceeded to Trivandrum, to pay obeisance and thank the Lord for his unbounded munificence.
I joined the Indian Revenue Service (Customs & Excise) and during my 37 years of service life, I had on many occasions come to Trivandrum on both official and personal work. The first place to visit always has been the Temple of Sree Padmanabhaswamy, to pay my respects and eternal gratitude to the Lord. I have also never forgotten to sit on the very same magical stone parapet, that changed my life. Even after retirement, the practice continues, whenever I come to Trivandrum, the very first visit is always to Lord Sree Padmanabhaswamy, and then sit on the stone parapet for some time. The Lord still refuses to tell me the secret of the Indian History paper!