Accepting Failures in Life


I am tempted to write this after seeing a report in a vernacular newspaper today.

It was about someone named V Bright Saigal who died recently in a rented room in Delhi as a lonely man with no significant social contacts. It was his landlord who brought him dead to Delhi’s Safdar Jung Hospital.

Saigal originally belonged to Kakkanadu in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. With no friends in Delhi and no regular contact with other family members in Kerala, his body remained in the mortuary for some time with no claimants.

His landlord called a number taken from his diary and the number happened to be of his brother who never saw him for the last 35 years. Saigal’s brother rushed to Delhi but with no knowledge of Hindi and unfamiliar with the way Delhi runs, he stood outside the hospital mortuary with no idea what to do next.

Fortunately, help came from the Delhi-based social worker and my friend Advocate Deepa Joseph who helped him claim the body, complete the formalities, and cremate his body in Delhi after performing the last rites by a group of volunteers who came forward to help.

When I saw the news and looked at Saigal’s picture closely, I recognized Saigal and also remembered a common friend Thomas – both of them used to sit almost every day and study in the JNU reading room next to the Library canteen for more than 2-3 years. They were preparing for the IAS examination of UPSC which recruits top-level bureaucrats for the Indian government.

This JNU reading room was then known by the nickname “Dholpur House” – after the UPSC office in Shajahan Road by the same name because most of the people who used to sit and read in this room from morning till late evening were UPSC exam enthusiasts.

Both Saigal and Thomas were not JNU students, but they could sit there as JNU allowed nonstudents also use that facility. In those days many people from various parts of the country, especially from North India used to come and stayed in cheaper accommodations available in the congested Munirka village outside the JNU gate. This reading room was a resort for those who stayed in such cheaper rooms with no ventilation and no amenities to fight Delhi’s extreme weather conditions.

I too used to visit this reading room occasionally in the 1990s and on one of those days I accidentally met Saigal’s friend Thomas. Thomas and I used to be hostel mates in Kerala when we both studied at St Thoams College Pala. In fact, I was very happy to meet Thomas who hails from Pampadum para in the Idukki district of Kerala. During my undergraduate days I used to be a fan of him and admired the way he conducted himself in the college hostel, his numerous fights with our then hostel warden Fr Eanas, and many of his adventures as a young boy in the CR hostel of Pala College.

Both Saigal and Thomas took up part-time tutoring jobs for survival. Both of them took the UPSC examination 3-4 times and exhausted their chances. To me, they could not clear their UPSC examination mainly because they could not dedicate their entire time to the exam preparations. They had to work part-time and exert themselves.

At that time, Delhi had several UPSC IAS aspirants who came from rich and feudal landlord backgrounds with a huge amount of money and time at their disposal for writing the UPSC examination. Saigal and Thomas could not match their merit and fail. I am not a subscriber of many of the rags to riches stories being circulated about children of manual laborers who studied under streetlights making it big at the UPSC examinations. Perhaps there could be a couple of exceptions, but they are not the rule!

Thomas came to my hostel and asked me whether he can take one more chance by staying as a guest with me in the hostel. Most of the hostels in Delhi University and JNU of those days had such illegal guests staying along with hostellers to prepare for the IAS examination. I agreed and he started staying with me. Saigal seldom visited Thomas during those days.

I noticed Thomas had only a couple of dresses and very paltry belongings enough to fill a small briefcase. I knew everything was not OK with Thomas and tried to help him. But he never wanted anything free and refused all the help that I offered. Soon I found that he was not eating properly. I have stolen part of my share of food from the hostel and used to give him. I found he was feeling some kind of hurt whenever I offered such help to him.

One day when I came back from my class, Thomas and his belongings disappeared from my room and I discovered a note written by him which says, “Sebastian, I got a job offer from Dubai and I am leaving. Thank you for all your help”. Despite my several attempts to trace him, I have never seen him after that. I am sure Thomas did not go to Dubai, as he did not have a passport. His disappearance is still an enigma to me.

Now I know what happened to Saigal. He has a Linkedin and Facebook profile with the name V Bright Saigal. I can see he has published an anthology of poems as an Indie publisher in Amazon. As an Indie writer myself, I know how meager are the economic rewards for an indie writer. Indie writing gives tremendous satisfaction, but you cannot survive with just writing. These days writing can only be a hobby while you hold a full-time job!

I can see from the hollow descriptions about himself on both LinkedIn and his Facebook page, he did not accept his reality and he lived in illusion and led a life of poverty. Whenever his family members contacted him and asked to meet, he refused by saying the time to meet had not yet come Whatever he claims on social media is just aspirational, not his real life. His neighbors say he lived on fruits and plain rice with nothing to go with it. Saigal most probably died out of poverty.

Saigal was from a very poor family. His parents were illiterate and did manual work for a living. He came to Delhi with dreams and thought he will do his revenge by becoming something in life, but lady luck was not in his favor.

I must also admit that I too was not quite different from Thomas or Saigal. I too came to Delhi and went through similar life experiences and aspirations. I too could not clear the UPSC examination when many of my hostel mates made it big in the UPSC examination. I too felt humiliated, and depressed. But at some point, of time I accepted my failure and moved on with my plan B. But there are many people who could not accept failures. Many live thereafter in a world of illusion.

We see a lot of viral posts on LinkedIn and Facebook about successful people. Such posts can very well inspire people to dream big and to achieve something in life. People should also write about failures and how people have accepted failures and moved on.

One of the most contested competitions in India is the UPSC Civil Services Examination to recruit top bureaucrats for the government. Most people try their luck after completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in arts or science.

I remember a guy named Harshal Patil who could not clear the civil services last year even after using all his chances. He humorously wrote about himself on Twitter: “Results for UPSC CSE are out and once again I find my name missing from the list. I want to thank everyone, who was there for me on this tiring but memorable journey. 6 attempts,5 visits to Dholpur House. Time to move on, I guess. Let’s see what the future holds”

He also posted pictures of his visits to attend the interview in the Dholpur House in New Delhi. Harshal seems to have cleared the preliminary round all the time, but he could not get through the interview stage even after six attempts. There is not much difference between the last candidate who got selected and the first candidate who got rejected in this exam. But life takes two different trajectories for these aspirants.

Someone finishes one’s BA or MA, in his/her early 20s. Many aspirants who spent their productive years in the hope that they will clear the exam in one of the six attempts face an uncertain future when they have exhausted all their attempts in their late 20s or early 30s. Those candidates who do not have a plan B end up in discontentment and they lead a frustrating existence for the rest of their life. At present, there are no mechanisms for appropriate counseling services and rehabilitate these youth who spent their youthful productive years in the hope that they would join the powerful steel frame of India.

Thousands of youths write competitive examinations to join higher studies or for jobs at various points of life. Many people fail, some people commit suicide, and some people move into depression, but most people move on after accepting failures.

It will be useful to do some research and see why different people have adopted different approaches to cope with their failures. Long ago, sociologist Emile Durkheim through his research found that as far as people feel they are part of a community, their chances of committing suicide are less. He found that members of religious communities who have strong bonding and a sense of belongingness to each other are less prone to suicide. Society has a responsibility to take its failed members along with them. Society must watch out for tendencies of individual isolation, depression, and so on.

In my case, my sense of belongingness to my family, my community, and my faith in God helped me to overcome my failure. Saigal has left his home in Kerala 35 years ago. He stayed alone and did not belong to a community and died a death in poverty and loneliness. As members of society, we all have a responsibility to help our fellow members to accept failure, and move forward with a positive and meaningful life!

(Kandathil Sebastian is an author and social scientist based in Delhi)


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