Cracking UPSC CSE on 1st attempt, Pooja Jha on Fighting Bias


HAfter earning an All India (AIR) rank of 82 in the Union Civil Service Commission (UPSC) Civil Service Examination (CSE) on his very first attempt, the happiness of Pooja Kumari Jha (25), based in Delhi, knew no bounds.

“Where I come from, even dreaming of passing this prestigious exam is unheard of,” said Pooja The best India.

To set his “expectations well within bounds,” Pooja’s father always told him, “You can become something other than a Bollywood actor, an astronomer, and an IAS officer.”

Pooja adds, “I am the fifth daughter and I also have a younger brother. My family’s quest for a boy ended when he was born. My father has been working as an office helper in a private company in Gurgaon for around 40 years old and my mom is a housewife. Her growing up years were filled with hardships. Many of them stemmed from their economic circumstances while some were driven by societal pressures.

“The community I belong to places an undue emphasis on producing a male child. The thought is so deeply ingrained that it has taken me years to fight it and bring about a shift in their thought process Pooja says growing up in an environment so steeped in inequality and yet having to call this place home has always been something that has come as a shock to her.

“The quest to erase UPSC CSE was deeply personal.”

Pooja Jha

“To be able to assert my identity at home, passing this exam and doing well became essential,” she says.

Even though her parents tried to love every child equally, she says that due to being a male child, there was always a sense of special treatment for her. “For example, my brother’s birthday was always an occasion that was celebrated without him having to ask. While we sisters had to cajole and coerce our parents into celebrating our birthdays as well. This, even though it is a small example of the kind of bias my parents had, it touched me deeply,” she shares.

This helped the sisters forge a very strong bond with each other. “We would link and discuss this inequality at length. It was during these discussions that I felt the need to make a change,” she says. What seemed to work in Pooja’s favor was her academic excellence. She says that each time she succeeded, the happiness and joy felt by her parents pushed her to do better and maintain this level of excellence. “It was the time when I received more love than my brother. I waited for those moments,” she says.

With six children to raise, nurture, and nurture, there were plenty of instances where Pooja’s brother’s priorities came first. “Depending on the economic status of the family, we all moved from private schools to government schools and also spent a few years in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) schools in Delhi. The expectation to excel in studies for each of us was very high,” she recalls.

“My successes and my failures are mine.”


Pooja says she is an autodidact. “Although my mother never went to school, my father was only educated up to class 8. While my sisters tried, they did not go beyond class 12. Eventually, three of my older sisters got married pretty early in their lives,” she says.

When she was in Class 7, Pooja says she read about Dr. Devi Shetty and the incredible work he has done in the field of medicine. “I was aiming to be ‘the next Dr Devi Shetty’. In class 10, I appeared for a scholarship test, organized by an NGO called Avanti. I was one of two students selected and it offered me a full scholarship to take coaching courses to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor,” she says.

While Pooja lost a few points in the NEET exam, she qualified for a Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) degree and pursued the same at Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi. “I passed the four years of my examination at the university”, she adds proudly.

“However,” she continues, “the purpose for which I wanted to be in public service would not be served if I pursued dentistry and that was when I decided to appear for the CSE. that I would have been financially very secure, I knew that I would not feel that satisfaction that I was looking for.I wanted to be a role model for all the girls in my community.

“I learned English on my own by becoming a voracious reader.”

With his parents.

“My parents didn’t understand my desire to give up dentistry and prepare for UPSC, but never stopped me from doing it. My determination is something that came out very strongly. After a while, they had no choice but to support me,” she says.

Struggles arose at every stage of Pooja’s life. From spending hours in the school library reading books in a quest to learn English, to doing conversational English to boost one’s skills. “I remember taking The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and not being able to follow the whole book. That’s when I decided to learn the language just to to be able to read more. I couldn’t afford to attend extra classes, so I started to learn on my own,” she says.

When she finished Class 8, her school principal gave her the Wren and Martin, a high school grammar and composition book, which later became her go-to. Some of the authors she enjoyed reading include Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, and Arthur Conan Doyle. “My favorite book of all time is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach,” she adds.

Until Pooja cleaned up the network, her parents remained skeptical. She says we almost didn’t expect her to clear the CST. “When the main result was announced, I saw a complete change in their attitude. In fact, my mother became my biggest supporter. She woke up early with me, only slept when I slept, and made sure that I stay calm and well-nourished throughout my interview prep,” she says.

“More than the result, the change in attitude of my parents is my reward. I’ve worked so hard just for this acceptance,” she says with a broad smile.

(Editing by Yoshita Rao)


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