For as long as she can remember, Puja Sharma has had a “craze” for a government job. And a spot in the Railways is her “ekdum dream job (just my dream job)”.
A year ago, that “craze” is what brought her to Patna from her hometown Jamshedpur, where her father works as a carpenter. “The pandemic has shown the difference between private and government jobs. Government jobs are stable, they get you respect. I want that. The study environment in Patna is more serious and I am hoping I can focus more here,” says the 25-year-old, who has appeared for the thrice exams.
The eldest of three siblings, she is among hundreds of aspirants who have been gathering at the Kali Ghat by the Ganga every weekend to firm up their preparation for the competitive exam.
The mock tests at the ghats were started over two months ago by SK Jha, a mechanical engineer-turned-coaching teacher. Since his coaching classes for Railways and SSB aspirants, which he started in 2014, could only accommodate a little over a 1,000 students a batch, Jha started the 90-minute mock test sessions on the ghats. Anywhere between 5,000-10,000 students take the test every Saturday and Sunday morning.
Recently, as images from the ghats went viral — of several students sitting on the steps, their heads buried into their test papers — they told an India story, or more specifically, a Bihar one: of the struggles and despair that youngsters go through in their search for that elusive sarkari job.
Puja began preparing for the Railways exams soon after she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Commerce from Jamshedpur Women’s College. She had been taking home tuitions until then to support her family, earning Rs 5,000 a month. “I had cracked the state polytechnic exam and was being offered architecture. Through the college placement cell, I also got an offer for a call center job. But none of it excited me. My maternal grandfather had a Group C Railways job and my uncle had a Group D job. They really inspired me,” says Sharma.
She is glad she didn’t take up the private job offers because her friends who did are busy with “grihasti (family and children)” now, with no careers.
Her own journey since then, however, hasn’t been smooth either. She has made three attempts at the Railways exam, but missed narrowly each time. “At the RPF Constable Recruitment test, I exceeded the running timing by 20 seconds and for my second attempt, I practised so much that I sprained my ankle a day before the test. Then, at the Railway Recruitment Boards Non-Technical Popular Categories Exam, I missed the cut-off by three marks,” she says.
With little money to spare for coaching, Puja had been preparing for the tests on her own in Jamshedpur, mostly through online tutorials. But after three unsuccessful attempts, she was sure she needed some help. “I had heard about free coaching for girls at Jha sir’s institute in Patna but my parents were very apprehensive. No girl in my family had gone out of Jamshedpur… I spoke to some of my male cousins and they convinced my family,” she recounts.
So last year, as the second wave of the pandemic subsided, she landed in Patna with her father and found a paying guest accommodation for Rs 3,500 a month — a big investment for the family. “But I have no other interests. Unlike other people my age, I don’t watch movies or serials or go out… This is all I want, to be the first woman in the family to have a government job.”
Most of the aspirants who take these mock tests on the ghats are from underprivileged backgrounds, and Jha believes that the “lack of opportunities in the private sector” is the reason why residents of Bihar are fixed on government employment. “There are no jobs in Bihar. Nothing. And there is no skills-based education either. So what option do people have,” says Jha, adding that his idea to start free coaching classes for girls led to an increase in their numbers in his classroom. “There are about 350 girls now.”
To ensure that her parents’ investment in her future does not go waste, Puja follows a “very strict” daily schedule: waking up at 5 am, praying to “surya devta (the Sun God)” and going for a run, taking mock tests with her study group, cooking all three meals between 9 and 11 am, and then rushing to a public library to study between 11-4 pm. This is followed by another four hours of classes at Jha’s coaching centre, where she does questions on Reasoning, Math, General Knowledge and Science. At 8 pm, when she reaches home, she revises all her lessons, has dinner and then goes to bed. “Then repeat the next day,” she laughs.
Puja also has to keep a close watch on her diet to stay fit for the physical tests. “I eat a lot of green vegetables, chicken and fish. But I don’t make them in onion gravy, only mustard. It is healthier,” she says, adding that at her home, too, being the eldest, she did most of the cooking.
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When she can afford a break, Puja goes up to the terrace of her PG accommodation and takes in the view of the city, at times using this time to talk to her younger sister and mother. “Patna has a lot of garbage. I miss Jamshedpur, it is very clean. Also, people here speak very shuddh (traditional) Hindi, we speak a mix of Hindi and English. Yahan log bahut rengha rengha ke bolte hain (People here speak very slowly),” she says.
By her own admission, she doesn’t have many hobbies, “but I want to improve my skills.” “I like to listen to English songs and learn their lyrics. I recently picked up the lyrics of (Justin Bieber’s) Let me love you. I am also learning astrology and numerology through YouTube videos,” she says.
While in Jamshedpur, the 25-year-old had set up a YouTube channel, where she mostly reposted funny shorts, that has over 5,000 subscribers and worked as a local tourist guide too.
However, with the RRB-NTPC exam slated for July, all that has taken a backseat. “I got very good marks and rank without any coaching… Now I am working very hard. My own life, my struggles, keep me motivated. I will crack the exam. I am sure,” she signs off.