Women don’t have it easy but does that deter her ambition in life? No, right? People come and go, but only a few have an impact on you and the ones who inspire you. During an interview, I came across a woman IAS officer, Mittali Sethi (AIR 56, CSE 2016), and while listening to her, her journey felt so inspiring. So much that we wanted our readers to know how an established doctor thought of pursuing UPSC, which she had no idea about, and became an IAS officer. Inspiration is what keeps us, and everyone, going. So here we have Mittali, who will give an insight into her journey, the issues she had faced, her projects, her inspirations and how is it living in a man’s world. And trust us, the read is totally worth it!
The journey from a Doctor to an IAS
“I’m basically from Jalandhar, Punjab and till 12th, I have studied there. Then for BDA, I went to Amritsar after which I completed my post-graduation from Chennai. Shifting to a different city helped me propelled into a completely contrasting culture, which I had never seen in Punjab. For example, gender equality. In Tamil Nadu, girls are treated so differently in public spaces. Going away from home made me realize no one is superior or inferior to anyone. Three years in Chennai was a great learning experience. After marriage, I took up a job as a teacher in the dental college and a consultant. A few months later, I started introspecting what I was doing. On the basis of a gold medal that
I had won during my PG, I got an INSPIRE Scholarship for PhD, but I looked out for other options. Back in time, there weren’t many options for us to choose a career from, and neither we had that freedom which nowadays millennials have. I was that ‘ideal’ girl since childhood. My mother wanted me to be self-reliant. I had realized it very late in my life that what if I don’t want this. I don’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to do something else.
I was at the hospital when a guy was studying for IAS and it was the first time I had heard of it. He told me about IAS, UPSC and I found it very interesting. In my free time, I started reading the newspaper and the book for the preparation of IAS. One day I was searching for something when a search result came up with Abhay Bang and Rani Bang’s ‘Society For Education, Action, and Research in Community Health’ (SEARCH) and I had applied for a program there.
I had also given the exam for UPSC after studying for three months but didn’t clear the Prelims. Of course, I later realized that it requires more than three months of study. And SEARCH had offered me to join there for three months as a dentist, to which I had refused due to poor internet connection which would hamper my UPSC studies. But they asked me to at least come for 10 days. On the first day in Nagpur, our hotel refused to accommodate me and my husband saying that we aren’t married, just because I didn’t change my name post-marriage. So we left there for Gadchiroli and reached late at night. The next morning, I was given a broom and asked to clean the place. And for the first time after so long, I felt nice. I was the first non-Maharashtrian to join the program.
Then on the first day, Rani Bang (Amma) came and took a session on ‘Love and Sex’ followed by a presentation on the reproductive parts of men and women, what’s masturbation, periods, and a lot more the next day. Everyone in the camp opened up on the topics without shame. Amma used to say modernity is your mind, not clothes. Meeting her was the high point of my life as I realized that women are like her also and I wanted to be like her. Then I met Dr. Yogesh, who changed my life completely as a mentor. In the next seven days, I traveled to every Naxal-affected place as a part of the medical team. It was my introduction to places and things that I had never known about in my life. There are moments in life when feel like choosing the options that are very different from urban elites. I felt peace in those 10 days and that is when I had decided to make a change in my life. When I came back, I started studying for UPSC and it was my third attempt when I cleared the exam.”
On managing work, studies and family
“Family was never an issue as I motivated my husband too, to pursue what he had always wanted to do i.e., music. So he had also gone to learn music from AA. R. Rahman academy. The job was an issue because I used to work till 5. We had started a teaching project where we used to teach 10 students and 10 MBBS students at our home in the evening. There were multiple things going on. I always feel that it wasn’t my intelligence because of which I had cleared the exam but the goodness and positive energy around me that propelled me to understand the perspective of the world.”
“It was difficult to manage studies with a job. It’s not about the number of hours you’re putting but what you’re doing in the time you are studying. I started at a zero point. I had never read a newspaper in the past ten years when I started preparing for UPSC. If I can come to a level from where I started and where I am now while working and anybody can. I hardly had 6-7 hours to study with my job. But then it’s equally important to have your experiences.
I had mine with the Gadchiroli learning, experience with Chandrika* and the teaching project. So in UPSC, there aren’t any specialist questions. I got all India’s highest marks in the essay (160 marks) in which I was asked to write on ‘internet’ and ‘river interlinking’. All they are looking for the people, who have an honest and courageous perspective towards the world. Basically, how do you think? First, you learn the technicalities and facts, but what you put on paper is who you are. It takes a lot of fo courage to put yourself on paper also because people, most of the time, are trying to please somebody. They write what they feel the examiner would want to read. It’s better to write what and how you really feel about it. Most people want to pursue IAS for popularity and not to bring a positive change in their nation. It doesn’t require much intelligence but the awareness of your society and a different perspective towards it.”
Life as an IAS
“The motive behind pursuing UPSC was to work in the social sector. I like working for people, on-ground, I don’t like closed chamber work. However, I had also enjoyed my profession as a doctor also. I was happy where I was, there was no problem. Now when I look back with the authority I have and the work that I’m doing, the diversity of it, the fact that you get such diverse experiences was very appealing. You have so much fun and get to experience so much on the ground. Rarely a job in this world can parallel the diversity IAS has. Every job has its pros and cons. But it depends on the person.”
Facing the failures
“When I was giving my Mains, I had anxiety for which I had seen a psychiatrist. I used to feel so low worrying about how will everything happen. Mains and interview for UPSC are not very happy times. The feeling is not very good when you face failures. But it teaches you a lot. Friends and family sail you through it and having them by your side are very important in life. Society encourages don’t discuss problems with even your loved ones. And that’s wrong. There’s no harm in being vulnerable.”
How is it for women to live in a man’s world?
“Of course, it’s difficult. I get calls and emails from women, who want to pursue UPSC but have family concerns either marriage or kids. Once you get into services, you will get placements at different places. But it should be your stubbornness of doing something, Karna hai to Karna hai, which will pave your way forward. The determination and stubbornness to pursue UPSC despite family objections, job barriers, or any obstacle blocking your way. But a lot of people waste their time thinking. For women, barriers are much more and deeper. Fortunate are the ones, who get support from their family and friends when you are into UPSC. And they are the ones, who help you get through the failures and the difficult phase.
It’s extremely difficult for a woman when she comes to administration, there are so many weird instances that she has to face. Sometimes she is the only lady in the office, at some places, women don’t have access to the washroom, there aren’t any washrooms. And people think it’s normal. But it is odd and we are fighting to change it. And it’s important that you should have your own circle where you can vent everything out. I had people around me, who listened to me when I had to vent out and that helped me deal with my mental health. But a lot of women live with such feelings of everything being unfair around them or experiencing harassment in life.”
Here’s a video of Mittali, where she talks about how a woman IAS officer manages to live in a man’s world. Take a look:
Chandrika is like a daughter to Mitali. Here’s what she has to say about her experience with the little girl – “I met Chandrika 2 years ago. She was the daughter of our hospital’s canteen worker. At 11 years of age, her family sent her to Kerala to work as a domestic maid. She then went to Mangalore in the same capacity and had come back home to Pondicherry only 6 months back. She was learning tailoring in the morning (which, as she told me later, she hated) and worked as a domestic maid in the evening. She was 17 when I met her and was a dropout from school.
Her younger sisters – all 3 of them – went to school and were studying in different standards. I was preparing for Civil Services back then and was very busy with my job and studies. But I wanted to help her, and till today, I am proud of the question I asked her on one sunny morning. “Chandrika, if I make some arrangements, would you like to study?” That day began her education with some of the people I know. One of my colleagues who was a doctor but had a deep interest in Maths started teaching her. My husband started taking English classes. After a span of 3 months, when we all saw her dedication and interest in studies, we started regular daily classes for her. And then, I took the most drastic step. I told her to quit her job and study full time.
Even with resistance from my family and friends, and from her family, she left the job, and then in another 6 months, my husband and I found a NIOS(National Institute of Open Schooling) center. She was going to school! That moment in my life is truly indescribable. This photo is of the day when Chandrika was going to write the first exam of her secondary exams. From a silent, meek girl, in two years she had transformed into a talkative, confident, smiling girl. In many ways, she was becoming younger! To me, this photo is a huge leap in faith. I was able to turn around life with a very simple question. I realized that one doesn’t need an achievement or academic excellence to change the world. You just really, truly need to care. And guess what, this May, I got selected in Civil Services with a 56th rank, and Chandrika passed her tenth exams. Goodness truly is a circle. Her education continues, so does my unending desire to see her reach her fullest potential.”
Thank you, Mittali for being such an inspiration! All we can say to the IAS aspirants is cherish your journey and just remember, nothing is impossible. Become a true hero and make the nation proud of your work.