Many of you would have heard about Kota, the place where IIT aspirants go to spend the best years of their lives swotting for IIT entrance exams. Mukherjee Nagar, a suburb in the northern part of Delhi, is the equivalent of Kota for the UPSC (Union Public Service) exams which determine the identities of the civil servants and police officers who will run India in the years to come. Mukherjee Nagar is where the hype around India’s demographic dividend meets the reality of very few jobs for driven, ambitious and intelligent men & women. The result is that every year over 1 million youngsters sit for the UPSC exams and amongst them only 900 end up getting the high-powered jobs in the civil & police service. That’s 1 job for every 10,000 candidates. The hundreds of training centres in Mukherjee Nagar monetise this mismatch. Nootan Sharma evocative piece captures a slice of life in this unique ecosystem:

“Everyone in the area knows Jha. He’s a UPSC ‘veteran’— having attempted the competitive civil services examination six times, and even reaching the interview level once. But with no more chances, and no clear idea of what he will do next, he has become a mentor and ‘big brother’ to new aspirants like Kumar.

Jha and others like him, who gave the best years of their youth to UPSC preparations, are Mukherjee Nagar’s Sandeep ‘bhaiyas’—the popular character from TVF’s hit show Aspirants…

“Bhaiya, I am finding it difficult to complete the answer writing on time, I think I have to do something about my time management,” says Kumar, who left his home in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, for Delhi with stars in his eyes and dreams of becoming an IAS officer. As the two bond over a cup of tea, Jha patiently answers Kumar’s questions.

“Give each question a specific time and write fast. Answer questions that you know first,” he says, putting a comforting arm over Kumar’s shoulder. The conversation drifts to memes, current affairs, and cinema. Kumar meets Jha every alternate day for advice and some pep talk.”

So what explains the ‘bhaiya’ phenomenon? Why do capable, driven men who have failed to crack the UPSC exams become mentors for those who are aspiring to make it? “Shows like Aspirants have mainstreamed the bhaiya culture, but it’s been a part of the UPSC coaching ecosystem for years. The bhaiyas are almost always young men who simply don’t know how to disengage from the UPSC preparation cycle. They’ve spent lakhs on coaching classes, every minute studying for one of the most difficult entrance exams in the world, picked up the pieces when they didn’t make the cut, and did it again—and again. Now, they bask in the respect of almost having made it and are treated like knowledgeable ‘elders’ by every new batch of aspirants hoping to enter the civil services.

The number of years a bhaiyaspends preparing for prelims/mains and the number of times they’ve cleared these exams to reach the interview stage determines the extent of their “power and influence”.”

However, there are other reasons why the ‘bhaiyas’ never go home and eventually settle down in Delhi permanently even without cracking the UPSC code: “Mohit Pandey (30), a ‘senior bhaiya’ from Rajinder Nagar, has exhausted all his chances but refuses to go back home to Lucknow. People in his Lucknow neighbourhood say this is precisely why parents should think twice before sending their children to other cities.

“They say things like, ‘He went to Delhi to become a collector, see what he has done with his life now.’ I don’t go home much because I don’t have any good news for my parents, and a lot of taunts wait for me there,” he says.

However, he cheers up when talking about the space he’s carved for himself in Delhi after eight attempts at UPSC.

Pandey’s day starts at 5 AM with a morning walk where he meets aspirants to discuss world politics and foreign affairs. From there he heads to his part-time job at a local library. In between, he evaluates mock tests for some coaching institutes, receiving payment for each copy he checks.

He has spent far too many years on his own. There’s no question of seeking financial help from home.

“People like me know that this place has nothing for us anymore. But breathing in the same air makes us feel like our dream is still alive,” says Pandey, while sipping hot tea and watching young aspirants from a distance.”

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