His father was gunned down barely three days before the Common Entrance Test ( CET) for admission into the medical colleges. Traumatised , he still stoically took the exam because his father, himself a teacher, wanted him to study medicine. The nerves of steel , the same kind of determination have now helped him top this year’s civil services examination. But then there is nothing tough about his soft face and twinkling eyes.
Indeed Dr Shah Faesal has a pssion for Urdu language and literature. “ Even as a MBBS student, I never gave up reading Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mohammad Iqbal,” he declares with a smile. Communication skills are important, he gently points out, and command over languages and literature help in articulation.
In the civil services he in fact offered Urdu Literature and Public Administration as his optional papers. The young doctor is equally passionate about Kashmiri and would like to do everything he can to make it more popular. But while he topped the list, three other Kashmiris, namely Mir Umair, Showkat Parray and Rayees Bhat, have also made it into the elite service.
Busy receiving calls and visitors and acknowledging congratulations pouring in from everywhere, Faesal said he and his mother has been invited by the J & K Governor, Mr N.N. Vohra, to the Raj Bhavan. As Mr Vohra himself had been a civil servant, he was looking forward to the meeting with the Governor.
Fluent in English as well, Faesal ( not Faisal as media reports have put it so far) says, “ My suggestion to the youth is to sharpen their communication skills”, adding that there was a lot in English and Urdu literature that people can learn from.
It was while doing his MBBS that the idea of appearing for the civil services first occurred to him, he recalls. “ It was perceived as a kind of mountain that few Kashmiris are able to scale,” he says in good humour. “ As a doctor, I would be able to serve people, heal their wounds and lessen their pain but as a civil servant, I would be able to serve more people and in various areas,” he remembers thinking.
A meeting with another fellow Kashmiri, an IPS officer, settled it. Abdul Ghani Mir, an IPS officer of the 1994 batch, also belongs to Kupwara like Faesal. He had served in the Bihar cadre before shifting to Jharkhand and is currently on deputation to his home state. Mir, acknowledges the topper, has been an inspiration.
It was no chance meeting though. Mir had written an article on “ Why Kashmiris fail in civil services” which caught the young medical student’s attention. That first meeting was not to be the last and they have kept in touch with each other. Said Mir, a DIG now, today, “ Faesal worked really hard. His is an example to be emulated. Kashmiri youth should strive for excellence in whichever field they are, particularly at competitive examinations at the national level.”
Once he cleared his MBBS examination with flying colours, everybody expected him to do his post-graduation. “ But then I had made up my mind. People felt I had lost my mind, putting a promising career in medicine at stake,” he said. But he stuck to his plans and received enormous support from his mother, who asserted that he was free to do what he wanted.
He started by writing for local, English newspapers even as he was doing his internship at SKIMS. But once that phase was over, he decided to sit down for some serious preparation and confined himself to his home. His friends in Delhi helped him prepare for the Preliminary test. “I did not have any coaching before the Prelims”, he said. Thereafter the Zakat foundation of India (ZFI) held an examination and offered to fund him in Delhi for the civil services examination, he said. “But since I had offered Urdu Literature and Public Administration as my subjects, I felt that there was no need to accept their funding,” he said. He stayed at the Hamdard Study Circle, which provided affordable food and accommodation in New Delhi. His passion was such and his preparation so intense that he always believed he would be selected for the services. His friends would often tease him by saying that he would be topping the civil services.
One of them, Dr Bashir Ahmad, a veterinarian, has been affectionately calling him the IAS topper since long before the results were finally declared this month.The crucial interview, he recalled, lasted 25 minutes . “They asked me about the RTI Act as I am a member of the J&K chapter of the RTI movement, on Indo- Pak relations, about peace in South Asia, health care, education, law and order, the Google controversy in China, censorsship laws of China and grilled me on the economy,” he recalled.
His reply to the very first question , he believes, broke the ice. The interview board was supportive and “ they treated me with a lot of respect, allowing me the time to speak my mind.” It was a pleasant experience, he insists.
When the results came out, Shah had been busy as usual with the GPRS on his mobile. “I am a GPRS addict and read a lot of things on Wikipedia”, he shyly confesses. While busy on the mobile, he chanced upon the news that the results had been declared. “I could not believe that I had topped the list. It must be a mistake, I thought. Then I checked up with my friends and they confirmed that I had indeed topped the IAS examination.”
He of course owes a lot to his mother, Mubeena Bano. A teacher by profession, she raised him after his father fell to the bullets of unidentified gunmen. The family shifted to Srinagar from Kupwara after the tragedy. Today his mother was in tears , recalling how even in his childhood Shah would etch out words on the wall with his bare fingers.
While the young doctor prepared for the examination, she would call him thrice every day, the son gently informs. “ But I would never waste his time,” she protests, “ I would only enquire after his health and the food that he had taken”.
A steady stream of visitors has been pouring into the modest house in the Hyderpora area on the outskirts of Srinagar. A relatively new and upcoming residential area, a muddy and pot-holed link road from the bypass led to the cluster of three houses which have been home for the last eight years to the doctor’s family and relatives from Kupwara in north Kashmir.
He studied in the government Middle School and then matriculated from the Government Higher Secondary School, Sogam, before joining the Tyndale Biscoe memorial School in Srinagar for Class XI and XII. Abdul Muneeb, a businessman, is busy constructing his house in the neighbourhood in the upcoming colony. Pleased and proud at the attention the area is receiving, Muneeb said young Kashmniris are intelligent enough to achieve greater heights but needed proper guidance and facilities. His sentiment is today shared by many. “I now need a secretary to keep me informed about the engagements”, Shah Faesal playfully said with a smile when one of his friends Dr Muzaffar Bhat, Convenor of the J&K RTI Movement, sought an appointment for an interaction with the fraternity.
IAS Topper's Success Mantras
Are you getting used to the limelight?
(Smiles) Yes! Initially it was a catastrophe trying to cope with the rush of people. But now I am getting used to it!
Does your being from Kashmir help because now people acknowledge the fact that it is a state that has potential?
These are popular perceptions. Whenever popular perceptions break it becomes news. Never has there been a topper from Kashmir so yes, it does significantly lend weight to my selection.
How have the people in your neighbourhood reacted?
Oh, the response has been unprecedented! The youth have found a new role model and an icon.
Are you comfortable with that status?
No, I don't like being cast into being a demi-god because if people put you on a pedestal today they may also nail you if you fail to meet their expectations.
How are you coping with these expectations and working towards meeting them?
Now that I have got a platform, I am speaking out not just about my achievements and myself but also spelling out the concerns of the youth in the state.
What are the concerns of youth in Kashmir?
The youth there has a lot of potential and talent and the willingness to work hard. They seek opportunities and a safe space to realise their potential and someone to trust them.
The curtain of suspicion that lies between you (the rest of India) and us needs to be removed.
The general perception is that many Kashmiri youth do not consider themselves part of the national mainstream. Is that the case?
It is all about perception. Since you do not have a sense of belonging and relation with and no information about the people in Kashmir the image you carry is that it is a tourist spot.
You need to see that there is human tragedy and pain in the region. Identify with that. Own the pain.
Despite having a strong background in science, why did you choose Urdu as one of your optional subjects?
The intention was to dispel the myth about Urdu being a downtrodden and a neglected language. I wanted to prove that Urdu too can fetch you laurels.
Was that your idea in appearing for the UPSC too? To break certain myths?
Yes. The fact that there haven't been many people from the Kashmir province to appear for the UPSC in the last 15 years was a motivating factor. I wanted to dispel the myth that we are incompetent people and the profiling that goes on...
How do you plan to reach out to the people of Kashmir if you get the Jammu and Kashmir [ Images ] cadre?
First, I'd like to ensure safe space to the youth. Besides this, my endeavour would be to bring about more connect and communication between the young people in Kashmir and the government so their grievances can be addressed.
How did you prepare for the exam?
I did not study for the exam; I studied for myself with the sole idea that if I could explain the basic concepts of a subject to a layperson only then would I have understood the subject completely.
What would your advice be to youngsters appearing for the exam?
If you have failed, keep trying until you have attempts left.
Know everything that there is to know about India. Learn about its politics, geography... its culture because that is what it is all about.
What has been your biggest learning?
Despite evidence of favouritism, merit is respected, come what may.
How do you plan to break the stereotypes of babudom in India?
I am aware that the bureaucracy has been branded as being corrupt, defunct and hostile. You cannot blame them entirely because for the bureaucracy to change, the social system and its mindset must change.
How did you overcome the odds you faced in your early life?
There is nothing you can do besides move on. I believe in the cliched phrase that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Life has to go on.
If you surrender to the adversities your ego is defeated. Learn to bring in your ego in such situations and move on.
Tell us something about yourself.
Although I am 27, my perception of the world is that of a middle-aged person. I am often by myself and lost in some thought.
I read quite a bit. I don't watch a lot of movies. I am quite an atypical 27-year-old that way.
What kind of books do you read?
Persian, Urdu and English literature fascinate me. I am also studying philosophy these days.
Among the books I have liked are Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani, Oscar Wilde's plays because I like the wit and humour in them and also because I feel they are great in sharpening your articulating skills!
I also like Dr Iqbal's poetry and the philosophy and messages it carries.
I believe you also write plays. What are they about?
I have finished a play called Leap to Freedom. It discusses the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir.
The themes of all my plays revolve around political circumstances in Kashmir and the human tragedy there. None of them have been staged as yet.
What according to you is the single biggest issue facing the youth in Kashmir?
It is the sense of insecurity. One needs to address this issue from various sides. Besides for things to change, it is important that one gives them the voice and space.
How do you think we can help in integrating the youth in Kashmir with the rest of the country?
You need to identify with problems there and instil a sense of belonging. You need to take them out and show them the world, show them how peace can prevail and how life can become wholesome.
You cannot continue to be tourists all the time.
Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani