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From 179th to IAS topper: Haritha Kumar's amazing story

Last updated on: May 7, 2013 18:30 IST

From 179th to IAS topper: Haritha Kumar's amazing story

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Divya Nair

'One of my friends called to say I had topped the exam. I thought it was a prank. Later, he brought me a printout of the UPSC Web site displaying the results. My name was right on top!'

Kerala's first UPSC topper in 22 years shares her awesome story.

Haritha Kumar created history last week by standing first in India's elite civil services examination.

Thiruvananthapuram-born Kumar became the first person from Kerala to have topped the Union Public Service Commission, UPSC, examination in 22 years.

"It was my childhood dream to become an IAS officer," the 26 year old told Rediff.com over the telephone from her home in Thycaud, Thiruvananthapuram. "And now it is finally coming true."

Over the weekend, Dr Shashi Tharoor, the Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram, called on her to congratulate her and her family.

"I am happy, tired and busy," says Kumar of the cheerful chaos surrounding her at the moment.

This was her fourth attempt -- she has been appearing for the civil services exam every year since 2009. "I did not qualify the first time. I reappeared the next year and secured 179th rank. The following year my rank slipped to 294. In my last attempt in 2011, I missed being selected for the IAS because I was short of 18 marks. So I chose the IRS (the Indian Revenue Service), but I did not want to give up on my IAS dream. I tried again this year," she explains.

She is currently undergoing training for the IRS in Faridabad, Haryana, and that's where she was when the UPSC results were announced on Friday.

She can now give up the IRS for the elite IAS.

Her father Vijay Kumar runs a construction business while mother Chitra is a homemaker. Her twin brothers, Safdheerth and Sasdharsh, are proud of her achievement; Sasdharsh is busy preparing for the civil services exam this year.

In the following pages, the UPSC topper takes us through the moments that led to achieving her dream.

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Image: Haritha Kumar
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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'My name was right on top! I simply could not believe it!'

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How did you discover your result?

On Friday morning, I tried logging onto the UPSC Web site, but couldn't because of poor Internet connectivity.

Sometime later, one of my friends, Shyam Sundar, called to say I had topped the exam. I thought it was a prank.

Later, he brought me a printout of the UPSC Web site displaying the results. My name was right on top! I simply could not believe it!

I immediately called my Amma to share the news. When she did not answer, I called my father. He was very happy and blessed me.

You are an engineer. Why did you choose to appear for the UPSC exam?

When I was a child, I always dreamed of becoming an IAS officer. I would listen to stories of IAS and IPS officers narrated by my parents, teachers and friends. I knew then that I wanted to pursue (this line).

But there was no one to guide me. As the years passed, that childhood dream faded and I went on to pursue engineering.

But as they say, your desires and dreams also grow with you.

After I completed engineering, the dream came back and this time I did not let it go.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in the civil services?

My father would often speak highly about the Kudumbashree Mission in Kerala (In its mission statement, the movement aims 'To eradicate absolute poverty in ten years through concerted community action under the leadership of local governments, by facilitating organisation of the poor for combining self-help with demand-led convergence of available services and resources to tackle the multiple dimensions and manifestations of poverty, holistically'.)

When I enquired, I found out that an IAS officer had conceptualised and administered over the Kudumbashree Mission model. The very aim of the model is to eradicate poverty by uplifting downtrodden sections (of society). That really inspired me to become an IAS officer.

Did you enroll in any coaching classes?

For the first attempt I did take coaching, but for the succeeding attempts I prepared on my own. I stayed in touch with my teachers and would consult them from time to time and focused on solving more papers.

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Image: Haritha with her parents Chitra and Vijay Kumar and twin brothers Safdheerth and Sasdharsh
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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'One of the biggest mistakes is to spend more time preparing for the preliminary exam'

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Why do you want to be an IAS officer?

All of us have two dreams -- one is to be successful in whatever career or field we choose, and the other is to become a responsible citizen and play an active role in the affairs of the country. I just tried to connect the two.

Why did you choose economics and Malayalam as your subjects?

Whatever problems India faces today are directly or indirectly related to economics. That's one reason why the subject interested me.

I wanted to understand it so that I could use the knowledge to do something that would interest my country and its people.

Malayalam was a natural choice. It is my mother tongue and I am comfortable writing and speaking the language.

After (studying) engineering, I also read a lot of Malayalam literature. I would prefer working in Kerala.

This is your fourth attempt. What do you think were the mistakes you made in the first three attempts?

One of the biggest mistakes most of us make -- and which I made too -- was to spend more time preparing for the preliminary exam instead of the main exam.

You must give yourself at least six months to prepare for the main exam.

Another mistake is rote learning. I would often read the chapters and try to remember every word I read rather than practise them with writing.

After my first attempt, I realised that although I knew the answers I wasn't able to complete the paper on time. So I paid attention to writing in the question-answer format. This did take up extra preparation time, but looking back, I think it really worked.

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Image: Haritha receives a bouquet from the principal, Government Engineering College, Thiruvanathapuram
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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'If you are willing to work hard at something, the universe will help you get there'

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You didn't clear your interview round initially. What do you think went wrong?

In my first interview I focused more on using the right language and accent and paid more attention to how I was saying something, rather than what I was saying.

It was only later that I realised personal interviews also test you for your ideas and opinions.

As long as you can express your ideas in a clear and convincing manner, grammar and language are not necessarily hurdles.

You have to learn to speak your mind and express your views fearlessly. That requires a lot of practice and reading.

A very important tip is to practice group discussion topics in the same language in which you will be giving the interview.

Do not practice speaking in your regional language if you plan to give your interview in English. You must be comfortable with the medium you are communicating in.

Are you an avid reader? Who is your favourite author?

I read more Malayalam books than English. M T Vasudevan Nair and Vaikom Basheer are my favourite authors in Malayalam. I enjoy reading poems by Vailoppilli Sreedharan Menon. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran is also one of my favourite books.

Besides reading, what are your other interests?

I am trained in Carnatic music and classical dance. I have performed several times in school and college too.

What is your advice to UPSC aspirants?

I suggest they take up one thing at a time and spare ample time for preparation. Also, they should choose subjects that they are comfortable in.

For the interview, be part of mock discussion groups and participate in them actively. Practice writing papers.

No matter what comes your way, never lose your focus. In case you do not make it the first time, do not lose heart. Give it another try.

Any message for our readers?

Success does not come easily. Failure will confront you at every stage of life, you can't escape it. Instead, improve your preparation and come back stronger.

Look at me! I had to strive for four years to reach where I am today.

Also, remember that if you are willing to work hard at something, the universe will help you get there.

You can achieve your dreams too. Remember that failure is just a stepping stone to success.


Image: A board of congratulations outside Haritha's home in Thiruvanathapuram
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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