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Pakistan: An intelligence test of sorts.

Pakistan, May 23 -- I am one of those fortunate people who did not search high heaven to get their first job. In fact, I had a job as soon as I had a degree. My academic career had been a brilliant success and I had secured a high rank in my MBA class. Impressed, the university offered me a position as lecturer, which I duly accepted.

It was a suitable employment on all counts and I savoured the prestige which accompanied the transformation of my role from being a student to being a teacher. I was doing what I liked best and getting paid for it. But like all good things in life, this situation did not last; the university at the behest of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) began tormenting us lecturers to better ourselves by getting an MS degree and threatened to demote us otherwise. I figured that with the arrival of truckloads of the HEC's PhDs in the offing, plain old master's degree holders like me would be out of business anyways.

In view of my dilemma, an intense in house debate over to be or not to be a PhD was initiated. A faction within my family asserted there was no wisdom in joining the PhD bandwagon and suggested that I should instead take CSS exams. They argued that the CSS was something one should compulsorily try his fortune at before reaching the cutoff age of 28 years. It affirmed that a career in the civil service was unbeatable: it brought honour, respect and significant perks to the officer and his family and in case the attempt was in vain, the PhD option was always available.

Yet I was unconvinced. I had witnessed my father waste his life in the bureaucracy and I had an ineffaceable belief that the civil service gave nothing to its employees but a lifetime of trauma, transfers and financial tribulations. I felt that advancement in the Service depended mostly upon one's skills in public relationing and "sociable" acts of dealing out Havana cigars and Marks & Spencer ties to the right persons. The CSS brigade rejected such pessimism and reeled off the privileges of being a government officer and conjured up images of doors opening and cruising green number plate cars, in order to convince me. That was their trump card and my objections evanesced.

Veterans of the CSS exam, warned me of the daunting task which lay ahead. Some denounced the exam as nonsensical, an utter waste of time and energy and declared that on a Punjab domicile it was a colossal undertaking. Undeterred by such rhetoric, I began to prepare for the exam. A cursory look at the myriad of reading material and the open-ended syllabus convinced me that preparation required undivided attention and so I quit my job.

There were 12 subjects and I calculated that a month apiece would be enough time to give each one a thorough go through. But a host of affairs such as pitching in with household chores, attending to unexpected guests, answering doorbells and the 130 decibel racket stirred up by our tenant's children, kept me from implementing the planned regimen. Before I knew it half a year was gone.

I changed my routine and began to study by night. The burning of midnight oil (and it actually happened thanks to Wapda) helped my preparation "take off". No, the fate of the "takeoff" was not analogous to the one Pakistan's economy is always experiencing. Before the month was over, all books had been read once and the pyramid of newspapers, meant for enhancing awareness of current affairs, had been scanned.

Soon, I knew all about the American war of independence, James Madison's war with England, could cite half a dozen theories of the international system, and had read much of seminal work in International relations. I gathered a fair knowledge of the British and American constitution and of the forms of government in Pakistan and India. And convinced of the veracity of sociology's basic premise, that humans are descended from monkeys (as demonstrated by the tenant's children), I even took a special interest in Sociology.

When I considered myself sufficiently equipped with divergent knowledge, I decided to take a look at the past CSS exam papers. A single glance at them convinced me that I knew nothing but the fact of my ignorance. It seemed that the paper setters expected candidates to have a PhD in all schools of applied sciences. Instead of going into panic mode, I reminded myself of John F. Kennedy's phrase, that the greater our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds. Conscious now of my ignorance, I realised that examiners expected us to acquire minute and meticulous knowledge. Diligently, I began memorising facts such as the velocities at which dust clouds whirled in outer space and the exact size of the flag which was unfurled before the Constituent Assembly in 1947.

By the time the exam arrived, I was pretty confident. I kept my cool as I strode into an examination hall teeming with thousands of CSS aspirants ready to launch themselves upon the civil service of Pakistan. But when I got hold of the question paper, I went livid with shock. My brain fogged up at the sight of a paper littered with questions like what are new alleles and explain hermaphroditism. I never knew such things existed and so there wasn't any chance of my acing Everyday Science.

"The other papers will be different", I hoped. Such hopes died as I discovered other examiners also disposed towards asking similarly extravagant questions. American History and Constitutional Law were my forte and I was sure of doing a better job in them. But the nightmare of impossible questions wore on. I didn't know how many members the USSR presidium consisted of. The last I had heard was that the USSR had disintegrated so I hadn't bothered reading up on it. I was also clueless about the year the phonogram and locomotive were invented. At least the American history examiner would admire the size of my ignorance. It was as big as the Empire State Building, all right.

If only I hadn't wasted time on trivial topics e.g. the Monroe Doctrine and The New Deal. Or if only had I been a modern Merlin who could contrive answers to riddles which passed as questions. I expected to be on home turf in the final test paper of Business Administration. But I had another thing coming and to this day I am trying to figure out what questions pertaining to databasewere doing in a test relating to the domain of business.

The exams are now over and I am thankful for having exercised the CSS option. I know there is no chance of my squeaking past this time but I believe that the experience was not an exercise in futility altogether. I am now cognizant of many home truths, like my mediocre caliber for one. I also understand why most civil serpents, I mean civil servants, are so disagreeable. Anyone who has gone through the drudgery of CSS will understand. I have discovered the cause of the obtuseness of our bureaucracy: it is composed of people with a smattering of everything and knowledge of nothing.

Finally, a piece of advice for future CSS aspirants: please check out how many people on the Committee for the 18th Amendment sported a moustache. The "knowledge" may come in useful for Constitutional Law

Published by HT Syndication with permission from The Friday Times. For more information on news feed please contact Sarabjit Jagirdar at

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Publication:The Friday Times (Lahore, Pakistan)
Date:May 23, 2010
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