This week began with me taking the Air Force Common Admission Test for the second time. “What happened the first time”, you ask ? Well, I didn’t make it in of course, why else would I be taking it a second time? I did barely make the cut, exam wise. What followed was a six day long selection process which turned out to be rather cut throat.
Also, this story is going to be unapologetically in-depth.
AFCAT is the easier one of the three entrance exams one could take to get into the Indian Army, Navy or Air force. The others have much tougher general knowledge questions while in the case of AFCAT, you can pretty much skip the entire GK section and pass the bar just with the aptitude and verbal skills sections. Which is precisely what I did. It was quite close though, I had scored a mere four marks above the minimum requirement. I could’ve answered one question wrong and the negative marking would’ve dragged me down. Some of my friends who wrote the exam with me did not make it by a matter of 1 or 2 marks. I really am not any more deserving of the position than any of them, but as lady luck would have it, I was the only one who made it in. This is how I get by most things in life, it almost feels like cheating. I put minimum effort in multiple arenas and at least one of them clicks and I take that to be a sign and move in that direction. It usually turns out to be the best direction too and for that I’ll forever be grateful. Thank you, weird force of nature that has been making sure I end up just where I need to be, just when I need to be without messing up.
Pardon the distraction.
Anyway, what follows the exam is the Air Force Selection Board interview. It could last for one, five or six days based on when you get kicked out. Looking back now, I think even if you have absolutely no interest in joining the military, a SSB interview should be a rite of passage that everyone should go through at least once in their lifetime.
We were asked to report at around 7 in the morning at the local railway station. It was the mid of winter and much colder than what I’m normally used to and I’m dressed in formals. Feels awesome. Looks sharp. No thermal insulation whatsoever. But one can’t really complain about uncomfortable weather when one is applying to join the military, can they? There was a small group of people huddled by a sign that read ‘AFSB Candidates’ and I joined the crowd not drawing attention to myself. We had our IDs and admit cards checked and packed in a van. Every instruction came measured to the word with accompanying hand gestures that never seemed to change as they addressed batch after batch. The military aura began there, as the first officer in uniform said, “Candidates, fall in line. Take out your files. You will step forward when your name is called and walk to your left once I say so.” The van was parked on the right but we all walked around through his left anyway. People soon gravitated towards those speaking their native languages in the bus, few introductions were made, few experiences from those who have done this before were shared. I chose to be the silent observer not really making much noise. It wasn’t time yet and I couldn’t find anyone who spoke Tamil too, so..
AFSB-M, the M stands for Mysore, stands proudly right opposite this Decathlon store about 10 minutes away from the railway station. We were escorted inside the campus after our personal belongings were scanned through. Inspirational Slogans and model missiles and aircrafts welcomed us. We were served breakfast after a session of document verification and form filling and that’s when I finally met a few from my own state and minor discussions ensued. These were all people from rather rural backgrounds, working different jobs, speaking different accents. There were few others too, a senior from my own college, another guy of my age from a different branch of my college. A gang of rather cocky, disruptive trio who were just here for the sake of it, perhaps to get a nagging parent off of their backs. We were asked to assemble again before I could be done surveying everyone and this time we were going to be allotted temporary ‘chest numbers’. As luck would have it mine was the first number to be called out. I later found out that it was sorted according to our ages. Me being chest number one implied I was the youngest person there. The youngest of 147 candidates. Amazing. I’m not used to going first. Even when I’m very sure of myself I always wait it out, let someone else go first, watch what they do and do it better. This time I was left with no choice. And once all hundred and forty seven of us were allotted numbers, we were taken to our first test – The Officer Intelligence Ranking Test. We were given the most detailed of instructions regarding how to go about the test and if one were to watch the proceedings from an external galley, the whole process would look like a well oiled machine, a perfectly in sync assembly line. Right from the manner in which the answer scribes were distributed and collected, it felt like we were thrust dead centre of a well choreographed dance routine, only we were learning the steps on the go. The test itself is rather too simple and straightforward. Only the time is too less. The answers were simple, but getting to the simple answer a few seconds earlier than the person sitting next to you mattered. After two sets of question papers, the next test was the more interesting one – The Picture Perception and Discussion Test. We were given a plain sheet of paper with a square on the top left corner. A rather hazy, black and white picture would appear on the screen for a short period of time. Thirty or Forty five seconds, it was a year ago and I do not remember all the specifics. Don’t sue me if the details are off. The objective is to form a story regarding what is most likely to be happening in the picture. Not a description of the picture itself but rather a imaginary story of how whatever’s in the picture came to be. The first minute is to decide on a title and jot down the gender, probable age and mood of whom you think is the main character and another 4 minutes to form a story in not more than 100 words or so. The justification given was that the average person can write 20-30 words per minute. Since the picture is blurred beyond recognition and in black and white at that, it’s going to seem different to each person. Each person is going to see something that the picture ‘obviously is’, but fails to realise that it is obvious only to them. After the 4 minutes, we were split into batches of fifteen and taken to different rooms for group discussion. We were monitored by three people whose presence we weren’t supposed to acknowledge at all. Each one of us, of course starting with me, would read out our individual stories and the moment number 15 was done with it, the group discussion begins. “Yes, We all know the weather is pleasant, it is most definitely a good morning and all our breakfasts were good. Skip the pleasantries and jump straight to your story. All the best.“, was the last rule we received before I began reading out my story. As soon as #02 began his story, I realised how differently we all do see. His story was far too different from mine, some of it made more sense, some of it felt forced. There were those whose stories followed a pattern, and you could tell these were pre-planned stories from their coaching classes. There was this one guy who kept smiling wide at everyone, as though he was high as a kite. When it was his turn to narrate, he just shrugged saying, “No story!”.The smile never faded from his lips though. The instant #15 finished his story, the room erupted into chaos as everyone wanted to be the one to initiate discussion. I just sat there not knowing what to do. I never go first, but usually no one wants to. Maybe except that one obnoxious kid in class. Here everyone wanted to. The competition was real and unfolding in front of my eyes in full scale. The moderators did nothing but observe and take notes on their respective clipboards and I decided to dive in as well. I managed to get in perhaps two sentences before someone interrupted again. We were supposed to discuss all our stories and conclude with one common story and nominate a person to tell that common story in the end. Except perhaps six of us, the rest remained silent. The moderator asked us to nominate one person, and we all settled at #6 anonymously while #5 meekly nominated himself. Nobody but me noticed that. And then came the wait. I didn’t know if it had gone well or not but I knew I had to make it in. Writing stories, talking, group discussions, those are my ‘things’. I can’t fail here. Although the fact that I hadn’t spoken more than four sentences, none of which was included in the final story did bug me. There were many who had already begun packing their things while some desperately wanted to at least make it through the first day. Most of them were engineering graduates working in software jobs. It was rather weird to see a 23 year old man tell me if he doesn’t make it through that day he was going to rent a room in Mysore, spend the week sight seeing and tell his family that he was rejected on the last day. He had virtually no money and yet he was willing to bet what little he had on making sure his family does not see him fail. He didn’t make it through. Oh, Mr.No Story’s story came through as well. Turns out he already had a job and a ‘girlfriend’ that he stressed every time he repeated the story to someone, and apparently he just came here because his mom won’t stop nagging him and he had never traveled to the southern part of the country.
The results were shortly announced and out of the 147 of us, 100 were eliminated. The rest of us were allotted new chest numbers, I was still #01 though, and split into five groups, A through E. We were also asked to hand over our mobile phones, laptops or any electronic device capable of storing information. This was rather hard. No mobile phone for the next four to five days. What will I hold onto now when I get too awkward ? How do I listen to my sleep playlist? Who’s going to help me escape all sorts of social interactions now? But it had to be done. And we did. We were asked to assemble at 6 P.M for our psych evaluation which is basically four written tests, and taken to our rooms. Each group stays together. Us being the first group were allotted the first room on the ground floor. The room itself was fairly large, with single beds and cupboards for all of us. Study tables, a changing room and a large speaker on the wall. There were 10 of us. The ten youngest members of the set. Two of us were in the pre-final semester of college while the rest had graduated the year before and working in different IT companies. These nine people are going to be my people for the next five days. I don’t do well with new people. The speaker crackled to life and a elderly voice, in English bearing a thick Hindi accent ordered us to assemble in the mess to get our lunch. The thing with military campuses is that except when you are inside your room or going to the bathroom, you are expected to be in formals, shoes included, and wearing your chest numbers as well. The lunch was a refreshing change from the horrible excuse for food that college has me so used to. We didn’t really have time to get to know each other yet and almost all of us decided on taking a short nap as soon as we settled in. The next announcement came through at about 5.30 P.M along with tea and we proceeded to the psych evaluation, walking in a line with me at the front. The entire campus was rather cozy had one main trail and there was no way one could get lost in there. Yet, as I walked on, 46 aspiring air force candidates following me, the feeling that I was walking in the wrong direction into a rather big embarrassment kept nudging me. It wasn’t until I saw an officer at the distance waving at us to walk faster did the feeling leave me. Being first was something that was going to take a while for me to get used to.
The psychology tests were mostly about speed. There were four tests, all written. The entire ordeal lasting about 3 and half hours. It had more of story writing, forming sentences with words that flashed on the screen, writing our reactions to hypothetical situations and self descriptions. The tests sound like very mundane tasks and they were. They aren’t made to be difficult or make us think hard, their sole purpose is to get us to be honest and reveal ourselves. That’s where speed comes into place. If I’m given an hour to stare at a picture and form a story or write my response to a situation, I could come up with poetry. But no, the picture stayed on screen for half a minute, each word flashed by with barely 15 seconds to write and there were around 60 situations we were supposed to respond to in under 30 minutes and the speed and the stress weeds out lies. You won’t be able to make up anything new and have to settle for the first thought that comes to your mind. With the stories I found myself writing out long lost events from my own life. I could’ve fudged reality a little here and there. When it came to thinking up stories and forming sentences and such, being a compulsive liar with a flair for writing gave me quite an edge and I did have the necessary spare time. I just chose not to. These tests were designed for a purpose and I was determined to go through them as honestly as possible, no tricks or shortcuts and it will tell me if I’m cut out for this job or not the first time around itself. There were people here who were attempting this for the seventh time and such and I can’t be one of those people. Although I did write the exam a week ago for a second attempt. Things turned out differently. I’m not a hypocrite. I swear.
The tests ended at around 9.30 in the night and we retired back to the hostel and were informed that the phone booth would be kept open for an hour if we wanted to contact our parents. Two landline phones for four dozen people. I managed to get maybe five minutes with my dad before I felt like everyone in queue behind me was wishing me dead, so I left. Social anxiety. Sleep came easy that night, with all the exhaustion of constant testing and the travels of the previous day. The next four days though, were going to be a whole other story.
End of Part 1. Go ahead to Part 2.