Day one had us on our feet throughout and ended with all of us huddled around the common notice board. Besides the long list of ‘Places to visit in Mysore’ which held detailed accounts of all the famous tourist spots with their distances from the AFSB and means of transport to get there, the notice board also had all the contact numbers we would need there, rules that had to be followed which included things like “steps to ask for the ironing box”, phone and internet booth timings, food timings and a detailed schedule of the forthcoming days. The first two days were set for personal interviews for groups A, B and C while D and E would be having their ‘Group Tasks’. Then we would switch on the next two days. My personal interview was scheduled for 10 AM the next day. And I can’t talk to people. It would be kind if only they let me text the interviewer.
Small talk, big consequences
Mysore in December is cold. As we all laid beneath two layers of wool in our respective beds, a sudden marching band jolted us awake as a rendition of ‘Vande Mataram‘ that I’ve never heard before began playing at maximum volume over the speaker. I tried but I can’t seem to find it on Youtube either. Perhaps knowing the relationship we hold with our snooze buttons, the music did not stop for much longer as the songs kept flowing in. Mostly patriotic or inspirational. Always in Hindi. Some of them stuck pretty deep in my head by the last day. A small snack, usually biscuits or a sandwich and tea/coffee arrives with the alarm to the hostel entrance as people began clamouring out to occupy bathrooms and get started on the daily routine. The cold water was punishing but made sure no speck of sleepiness remained as we stepped out. We all sat around in our beds after breakfast discussing what the interview could be about. Four out of the nine of us in my batch had our interviews that day with #2 and #4 in the first slot at 8 A.M. Previous googling had let us know that the interview would be mostly personal, about our own lives and sometimes the interviewers liked to provoke us with edgy questions like, “What kind of porn do you like to watch?” and “Your sister’s pretty, may I marry her?”. There most certainly will be questions on the current affairs and general awareness of the country I might end up protecting. That last detail worried me because I haven’t read a newspaper or watched a minute of news on T.V since I came to college. #9 was quite adept at that though and had begun filling us on whatever he knew, from wars we’ve been a part of, major assassinations and what not. I was quite surprised to find out how much of half-knowledge I had. I knew these people existed, and were assassinated or were at least in the news for something. But it’s not enough to sit and have a discussion about. I have no opinions about these things. So I listened as much as I could, threw questions at the guy to see what he felt about it. All I have to do later is mimic his exact emotions and words and stick to it. #2 returned from his interviewing and we eagerly lapped up anything he had to tell. “The interview was quite easy,” he began on a positive note, his Rajasthani descent weighing heavily on each word, “They ask you to talk about yourself for about half an hour and there are few rapid-fire questions in the end about India.” Uh-Oh. We sat him down and surrounded him, nudging him on to remember, to try and recall the questions in order. Meanwhile, #4 had also returned. His story was pretty much the same, except he had been asked no general awareness questions whatsoever. Dear God, let me have this panel. He too stressed on how friendly the interviewer had been and how much he put him at ease. “Three national and international news!”, #2 recalled, was something almost all the panels were asking for. I could pull up 3 national news from the scraps of #9’s lessons but I wasn’t so sure of international news though. But it was time and I had to leave.
We reached the waiting room, me and #3 wearing our best formal attire and compulsively shined shoes. Luckily there were a few copies of that day’s newspaper in the hall and we all poured over it like our life depended on it. I was called first and directed to the building to my left. Rather unexpected, I was told all the interviews took place in the central building only. “Follow me, make it quick.”, an officer in blue ordered and follow I did. He stopped at the gate, “Head straight, take the staircase to your right. You will reach a waiting area. Someone will call your name.” The walls were adorned with photographs of previous Airmen, in order of their births with a short description of their achievements underneath. Interview first, admiration next. An officer was waiting for me before I made it to the waiting hall and he took me to a different room with one empty chair in front of an array of many more. I took the empty chair but an audible click from the officer notified me that wasn’t my spot. Turns out this was just a fancier waiting room. He took my certificates away and left me in silence. A good five minutes later I was called in. The name plaque by his door had something that resembled the word ‘President’ but I caught it in the edge of my vision and I can’t be too sure. I had attended a couple of interviews before, for IT companies and they were all rather impersonal. A desk separated me and the interviewer. But this was a whole other league. The interviewer was an old man, with considerable balding and heavy set wrinkles along his cheeks that came into view every time he smiled, which was a lot. He sat behind a grand desk with way too many items that it was hard to make out if it was a clutter or everything was exactly where it needed to be. Once again, framed photographs of decommissioned planes hung all around us. The military sure loves its history. “Welcome Mr.My super-secret name, do take your seat.” My seat was about five feet in front of his desk. All the body language lessons we had been taught in our campus placement training classes came rushing back. Straight spine, hands resting on knees. No bouncing legs. My certificates were already on his desk. He enquired about how my stay had been and how it felt to be chest number one. The second voice in my head that loves to provide much-needed commentary and criticism mostly while I deliver speeches suddenly sprang to life. Be honest. He’s been doing this for ages. Drop any illusions of grandiosity that you could fool anyone and just stick to the truth. I told him it was all rather new but nothing I couldn’t get used to. Smart answer, mental pat of approval. He pointed to the small table next to me with a glass of water and a box of tissues, “Starting now until this interview is over, that space is yours and you could do as you wish. Have water, sit comfortably and do not ask my permission to do anything. We’ll be talking entirely about you and try to relax and answer at your own pace.” The smile never left his face. Don’t you even dare touch that glass of water, we both know you will drop it. The interview went on with him asking about eight to twelve questions at a time, which I will have to spend the next fifteen minutes answering in order. They were completely about me and got extremely specific. Free shrink, yay. He would insist I state the names of everyone I talked about and try to include the when and where. We began with my schooling, he made me talk about my best friends and those that I didn’t like, my favourite teachers and how they might describe me. It moved on to stories from college, and then my family. Within minutes the tension in the environment had entirely lifted. I have a bad feeling about this. The way he nodded along, with that ever-present smile and the kind of things he was asking me about, my family and incidents in college and such took out the intensity of an interview and replaced it with the careless abandon of a gossip session. Soon I was leaning forward, emoting, making all sorts of gestures with my hand and opening up to a man I had met half an hour ago. In due course, I had mentioned it to him that the general awareness section of AFCAT had proved to be my toughest part and perhaps taking my plight into consideration, my current affairs questions were rather simple. As expected I was asked to mention any three national and international news I was aware of. I managed to replicate the sincerity of #9 as much as possible and luckily enough going through the newspaper moments before gave me enough substance to fill up the holes. I’m not entirely sure that he bought it though. He then asked me to explain things I remembered studying in third grade – the number of states in India, sister states and their capitals, the meaning of the national symbol of India. I messed up. I told the right answers but in a tone over saturated with doubt. He kept smiling and writing it all down into his clipboard. “I’ve had a wonderful time talking to you for the past one hour and I have all that I need. Slide the curtain to your left and you may walk out.”, he said extending his palm. I walked over, shook his hands, took my certificates and proceeded to exit. Wait, which side is left, again? I walked out surprisingly less clumsy than I would expect myself to be in such a situation and made it back to our room just in time for lunch. Once again, people I barely knew flocked to me enquiring about what went on and I recalled everything to the best of my ability. I could finally call it a day and go to bed.
Barely after an hour, I was woken up by sounds of shuffling people. The working day at AFSB, Mysore ends at 2 PM. The candidates are allowed to ‘book out’ and see the city until 8 PM. The remaining five of my group whose interviews were on the next day wanted to go out as they were convinced that they would be asked how exactly they spent the free day that they had, and they needed something real to answer the interviewer. One by one, the four of us folded and all of us decided to go out and check out the Mysore Palace. #9 was the only one who spoke the local language, which meant he bargains with all the auto drivers as we watched on. The palace was rather crowded with more than one school bringing their students on class trips. We basically walked around reading the captions on the many, many photographs that hung on the walls. It’s weird how generations of the royal family all maintain the same sombre expression in all the family portraits. If posing is genetic, my heart weeps for the future offsprings of all the duckface Instagram models. After marvelling at the sprawling ceiling domes and ornate doorways, we moved on to the residential suite. More photographs, more personal belongings set in glass cases. It’s a spooky feeling when you realise that families once lived in the very space you are now sightseeing. You are in someone else’s home and all the items in view were once regularly used by all the sombre faces from the photos. Outside the residential wing, there was a small ‘camel petting area’ with just two malnourished camels ruminating endlessly and a single elephant carrying a few foreigners around the perimeter, living up to the ‘authentic Indian experience’ stereotype that is the elephant safari. We made it back to the gate around 6 PM, a couple of hours still left on the clock. So we decided to head to the decathlon showroom right opposite the AFSB. A particular trekking bag in blue immediately caught my attention and I made a mental note to gift myself one if I made the cut. I’ve always wanted a trekking bag. Short window shopping session aside, I decided to retire back to the room. Few of them wanted to stay back and try out nachos and coffee at this vending cart by the parking. I decided against it as street food during a winter night while it was drizzling seemed like a bad idea given my group tasks will soon be on the way and I need to be at the top of my game physically.
As soon as I got back, I headed straight to the phone booth and rang up my parents. Being closed up in a strange place around strange people can make you homesick incredibly fast. At least when I have my phone, I have a short window into a world that’s familiar to me, but now stripped off that too, it was a rather lonely feeling. I couldn’t risk looking like I was too caught up in my own world, so I kept the phone calls to a minimum – parents only. I used the internet hub to send emails to some of my friends. It’s rather sweet, you know? Being so used to instant messages and emojis, emailing someone a long paragraph and the anticipation until the reply arrives makes you appreciate what the person means to you that much more. Makes you wish you could go back a generation and converse in handwritten letters. After all, anticipation breeds chemistry, doesn’t it?
I had the next day off. And our group tasks in the following days. The interview had its stutters but I had a good feeling about it. The lack of smartphones actually pushed us all to talk more than what we normally would in this situation. However the others had early interviews and I had to lie in darkness, without my earphones, and wait for sleep to claim me once again.