“There there…hard luck, never mind what happened this time, live to fight another day, another attempt, another time”….a set of words that becomes almost familiar as a futile try at consolation to every other dejected companion in a community of students as he/she stands at the face of a small defeat, a little set back amidst the ocean of opportunities already lost for six odd months. A lot goes into this repetitive effort to get the two letters, viz., C.A. to prefix and apparently, empower our names. Every student has a story that will commonly involve a host of sacrifices, quite a few on the surface and lots more underneath that pretty much go unnoticed or rather unrevealed.
This is my story, my experience and it certainly is one of many which I would call terrible but treasured. I am sure there were and are many who have a much more inspirational story to this journey, but since I had the privilege and the opportunity to unveil mine through this blog, I'd love to present it to you. Make of it what you may, it is a memoir for me and it is here to stay. I won’t or rather can't go on to unveil all of the sacrifices in this blog, but this is a short tribute to the period of 5 or in some unfortunately fortunate cases, 6 months that transforms a student to a professional whether or not he/she is evidently gifted with the designation of a Chartered Accountant on paper at the end of it all.
1. How & Why C.A.?
Chartered Accountancy is one of those courses that although easy to enter, is a tough nut to crack out of. Many enter and only 10 or so in every hundred clear. The horror stories seem to have begun a few generations back when the results were down to 2 percent or so. Many gave up the course mid way trying to dig through a different tunnel and as a result the number of people appearing for the exams declined sharply, thus increasing the percentage of results. Rest assured though the exam, till date, remains one of the toughest ones in Asia. Pursuing C.A. was a sudden change of perspective that came my way in the 9th grade back when I had a really good aptitude in Science whether it be astrophysics or biology. I had seen science graduates take up finance jobs in India due to a lack of mainstream science opportunities in the country. So being a realist, I thought of starting off with commerce in the first place. The fact that my father had a plethora of commerce inclined degrees including Chartered Accountancy was a cherry on the top of the cake. And once I choose commerce, I decided to go for the best it had to offer. Although common, C.A. was and is till date a powerful and respectable qualification in India. I had an immature but genuine desire for a challenge which led me to the course, but it ironically fizzled out at the end of it all. To sum it up the course brought me down to the ground while moulding me into what I needed to be.
Studying for Chartered Accountancy is one phase in life that lays out the cards as they ought to be and not as normative as they already are. The leave period as well as the examination itself shares quite a resemblance to the game of Poker. It seems to be a guess before the cards are out in the open, but to a keen eye, it never was supposed to be; it was a calculation, a mathematical problem, a case to solve where playing the man is not a choice, playing the cards only possibly could be…so what really happens here in this leave? Is it all study and no play? Perhaps in some cases, but not all…
For me, the exam leave was quite a roller coaster right from the onset. Laid back mentally, yet busy professionally with work in the course of my articleship, I was not inclined to pick up pace with the studies immediately. My interest in the Capital Markets had driven me to choose the revised course of studies introduced ever so gloriously by the institute which came as a package of amended requirements including a soft skills programme and an information technology training programme, each 15 days long, to be attended before the examination itself. To the students, it starts as an opportunity to socialise while learning and in this context, a good company is often appreciated. For me, the trajectory of the programmes started with casual interactions in a visit to the garden within the institute’s premises during the break. It gradually ascended and built up with the bonding & group building activities within and outside the classrooms, till it finally reached a stage where classroom discussions were driven by the group propaganda and the mutual desire to party and blow off some steam led to actual impromptu outing plans with minimal people to ditch. All in all, each of the programmes proved to be a good platform for the students to network, develop new acquaintances and in some cases foster long-lasting friendships. It also provided a sufficiently legit excuse to take a mild brief break from both Articleship and the studies, except the occasional coaching classes or two, of course. I completed my programmes on a very tight schedule in June with my attempt approaching in November, but tried to squeeze the best out of them.
3. Beginning of the study leave:
The meticulous plans and agendas started to take shape right after the training programmes were complete, but as a wise person once said, “make a plan, throw it in the dustbin and make another one”, it remained a dream to achieve my towering goals and hopelessly aggressive targets. The institute that had gracefully left us a stack of reading material about 3-4 feet high, kept coming up with more inches to add, as though the reading material was supposedly a child growing into a teenager and well, I do not exaggerate the pace. I understand a teacher’s pain whilst managing a class full of angsty teenagers in that it is somewhat similar to the feel of reading the C.A. syllabus for the first time on my own without the silver spoon of classes to feed. It had all sorts of tantrums to throw and mind games to play which at the end of every chapter made me question…WHY are there so many accounting standards? WHY does audit have to be so extensive? WHY do audit standards replicating pretty much common sense exist? WHY is the Corporate law so huge? WHY has India complicated the concept of taxation?! (And the list goes on)
But it is this “WHY” that happens to be the most important aspect of this course. It took me a while to get that. Often, we associate the question of “WHY” with the science of discoveries and the question of “HOW” to teaching about the outcome of the “WHY” part. Teaching of an outcome is incomplete and hence imperfect, but reason never can be. C.A. is a nexus that has to be studied like science, the material mostly highlights the “HOW” part and has its shortcomings, but that is acceptable, it is an imperfect teacher. To be what you need to be, it expects you to dive into reason as a way to remember. I am not a product of 1st attempt, but I was and presumably still am a good interpreter of what I read and have a decent memory. So what did I lack in my attempt(s) before this? The short answer would be, the effort of diving into the “WHY” after learning the “HOW” and wondering about all the above questions.
Reminiscing the study leave, the exam and the articleship, my frustration with audit had grown into hatred and after it turned to be a reason for my failure, the hatred turned into a need for vengeance, sweet and cold. As for the rest of the subjects, I was cruising along decently, but not extravagantly. Each subject demanded something different, but for me one of the biggest challenge was to complete the papers in the first place. I’d lost out on the last 12-15 marks in more than 3 papers in my first attempt just because blank pages don’t fetch marks irrespective of whether they’re blank because of ignorance or because of shortage of time. This time I had made it an on-going agenda to push down the pain in my thenar muscles and write something meaningful, if not correct to finish the papers.
4. The Myths busted:
The days kept getting longer and the sleeping hours kept getting shorter. I am not sure whether it was just my perception of time or the trade of mental effort for sleep, but the day and night seemed to be all the same. The dark circles kept getting bigger and the source of caffeine in at home kept getting depleted every 4-5 days. Some said this exam was easier than the 10th grade, but then again it is also easy to spread false rumours about some courageous tales of excursions in the wild once you are out of the woods. Some said that the last 2 months had to be devoid of social media and social life.
So let me break this myth- Studying does not require you to stop living despite the word containing ‘dying’. If anything, social distancing often piles up an existential crisis over the already heavy weight of huge exam syllabus and this can never be a good thing for mental health. I had an hour designated to hang outs and recreation everyday. Also, using social media, whether it be Instagram or whatsapp, was a part of my everyday life even during my leave. Although a prudent practice to many, I never quit it. I found it better to reduce its usage to 2 hours a day. The use of social media is supposed to be beneficial and so I made sure it was. There is a two-fold aspect to social media in the preparation of this exam:
Firstly, being lazy came as a millennial norm and I was no different; I wasn’t someone to check the institute’s website regularly for updates; it was more than likely that someone else from my network would. So a link or two from my network on whatsapp to check out the updates certainly didn’t hurt and was rather helpful and crucial in the hindsight.
Secondly, there was always a better sum, a better problem to solve and someone else from my network was perhaps solving it. His or her query might just have been the thing my preparation was missing the first time around; whatsapp again comes to the rescue there. Exchanging snaps of problems, solving and sending across the possible solutions, having in-depth the discussions on concepts to gain clarity and finally sometimes realising the error of my ways was all possible because I did not give in on the benefits of social media. Some of these were possible over a phone call, but certainly not as smoothly. Beside the study-related conversations, I reduced the chatter on my whatsapp to only 4-5 closest friends by disabling the unnecessary notifications and enabling the custom pop up notifications for these close ones. As far as Instagram goes, there was an obvious & implicit strict policy not to upload anything myself. Uploads on social media, in general, can turn into a distracting want for external approval birthing insecurities in the worst possible ways which, in turn, could be amplified by the exam stress. I, however, did not stop myself from checking out and liking posts during those designated two hours. It was somewhat good to know that someone was worse-off while someone was better-off than I was at a given point in time; in fact, that kept me afloat over self-loathing, but under the brittle pride, arrogance and complacence aspiring for better days to come.
The gestation period for the qualification can be exceptionally brutal, especially since many are hit by tides of breakups, rejections, goodbyes and all in all sacrifices to prioritise the “me” in “time”. There are conflicts that test friendships against the tides of time and also for their very foundation and depth. I did go through a patch somewhat bordering depression. Depression is a real problem that requires us to have uncomfortable conversations. While it may be uncomfortable, it is immensely important to remember that mental health is as important as physical one. In such difficult & testing times, it is always better to have those uncomfortable conversations with someone who need not necessarily be a therapist. Sometimes that ‘someone’ may be from family whereas sometimes it may be a genuine friend who makes the uncomfortable conversations comfortable for you. In my case, the conversations were too uncomfortable and difficult to communicate with family and that is precisely why I had to turn to a close friend or two. The difficult times unmasked the reality and opened my eyes to who my truest friends were and accustomed me to the idea of having a smaller and more discrete circle of genuine friends than what I was used to earlier.
5. Breaking the Habit?:
The exam stress keeps mounting up if the home environment isn’t right. Many prefer going to libraries to study by escaping all there is at home, but not me. I had figured my preferences out back in college. For in depth study, I had a dire need for a messy room where I could lay across 3-4 books on the bed with me either sitting at the centre of these or stalling across the room with yet another book in my hand. So, come what may, even with a little stress at home, I could never study in the systematic and artificial peace of a library. I wound up my studies at 3:30-4:00 am and woke up at 10:30-11:00 am. Weird and absurd as the habits may sound to idealists & early birds, they were mine to own up to and in the scheme of things, worked to the best of my potential. I guess we all have to be honest about our weirdness during the study leave and bold enough to embrace it to do what suits us the best.
There’s no denying there were days where I woke up feeling blue and wanting to accomplish so much more than I actually did. Such days were certainly like mini setbacks which left behind a tonne of backlog for the days to come. But at times I found it alright to switch off and hit a snooze on the panic button by listening to music, going for a nice walk, working out or just watching a stand-up comedy show. At the end of the day, the best within us can be brought out in the calmest and least cluttered of circumstances. Humour & music has its way of bringing us back on track, there may be science to back this, but this here is just my experience.
6. People & their expectations:
The surroundings, peers, colleagues and family all have unsaid words of hope that for most of us are a cause of mental pressure. A hundred people have more than a hundred things to say which start with the line “Just one thing…”, but everyone has their own journey and own timing in life and despite all the frustration and dismissive attitude, at the end of it all, I think not just me, but every single CA student reaches a point of indifference when it comes to advises; their philosophy generally turns into something on the lines… “Take opinions, use the ones you think are right and in the end do what, in your opinion, is right”. This is one of the reasons for the stereotype that C.A.s are not too outspoken, interactive and reactive. Granted, soft skills and interpersonal skills are mostly a matter of self-training to C.A.s given that the fifteen days soft skills programme is far from sufficient in this respect. However, from what I understand, C.A.s are great listeners in the making and often are inclined to listen and comprehend good feedback and information in the best possible ways. They do not see it as a point of discussion, contention or interaction and hence may lack an equal and opposite reaction which a regular extrovert would instinctively provide. This is, however, a stereotype and there were, are and always will be people who defy it. I certainly believe that C.A.s are more than capable of adapting and excelling at soft skills either by learning & experience or by sheer talent.
7. Shifting Gears- Last month of preparation:
Coming back to the experience of the final exams, the most adventurous, yet in many ways most boring period began around the beginning of the last month. Shifting gears on the studies is a given, but the real challenge was adapting to the Institute’s last month additions, deletions and amendments incorporated into the syllabus. In my first attempt, I did not comprehend the impact of these changes on my studies. But I guess that’s one more things that this course teaches, “Things change and often suddenly….deal with it…” pretty blunt, but true. By the time the next attempt came, it had become a norm to be prepared for changes and take them as a part and parcel of my time table.
There is a notion that one needs to complete 3 readings before the exams. Although, a good practice I never ended up having 3 readings of all subjects. From what I have observed, around this point in time people push too hard to fulfil the process of 3 readings and whilst doing so, cut some edges or compromise or worse, lose a lot of important depth in their previous reading(s). The process makes them look at time as if it were their enemy. From the onset I had a plan to prepare flexibly and never bought into the notion of 3 readings. It is a good practice, but not one to push for succumbing to the might of time. There’s this quote I often use for motivation against time:
Time is not an enemy, nor is it an ally, it is just a continuum of conflicts; so handle them well and time will take care of itself.
The syllabus was exponentially huge despite a few small cuts in the syllabus and introduction of multiple choice questions. Further, both the changes proved to be double edged swords in a manner of speaking - The syllabus that was cut down actually happened to be an easier part of the curriculum whereas the multiple choice questions, which seemed a good thing on paper, only reduced the odds of getting marks down to 50% from what I believed were previously 60-70%. There was a lot to keep up with and a lot to remember, both in theory and in concept. Memory loss was a given and acceptably a part and parcel of the exam. Around the last two weeks, I was surprised by how little I could recall. In fact even the last of the revision readings before the exams felt a lot like the previous reading. Panic struck in; the pessimist in me was knocking the doors in my mind and I was trying not to answer.
8. The Exams:
Frankly, all I had on the exam days was hope, something I remembered consciously and surprisingly plenty I remembered subconsciously. I entered the exam hall yet again for those 7-8 days like a veteran who had done it before. Around the 5th paper (Strategic Cost Management), I was pretty much done with all the repetitive studying and had a wilful desire to tear a massively thick book bare handed. But I had to keep going. I had studied all day for this paper, burning the midnight lamp and burying myself into it. It all came crashing down though when I got a call from a friend around 1:00 am informing me that the exam was postponed owing to the State elections at the time. The Institute had its way with last moment changes, but this was a whole new level – an announcement at 12:40 am on the institute’s Twitter account postponing an exam that was to happen at 2:00 pm the next day. Peaceful, but agitated and mildly agonised and aggrieved, I was left with nothing much to say.
With some rejuvenating sleep spanning 5-6 hours of what seemed like a boon in those times, I woke up and had to prepare for another and yet another paper. The days went by quite slowly when it came to the studying parts and extremely fast when it came down to those 3 hours and in some cases 4 hours in the exam room. I guess Einstein’s theory of relativity operates well in examination environments too.
I was almost never sure if I nailed it or screwed it up, but I always put a happy face to my parents as the exam days went by. As the exam ended I had mixed feelings about it all, but I trusted the process and that the universe did intend to make things right.
9. The D-day:
It was a struggle for future waiting for the light at the end of the dark tunnel. And well, was it worth it? …So the question remained for the next month and a half. I merrily tried to push down the anxiety of the results.
I had some travels and adventures along the month and a half month which remain to be told another time, but fast forwarding to the 16th of January 2020, I could safely say I had gotten so good at pushing down the anxiety that I could convincingly pretend that I didn’t care a damn. The institute tried keeping us all in mid-air declaring that the results could be announced on 16th or 17th January. Through the day, my parents had built up their anticipation and eagerness to either celebrate the occasion or spend the day consoling me. I, on the other hand, was acting indifferent. I had plans on dropping the course if I didn’t clear any of the groups and pursuing an MBA somewhere in England & Wales. This was a feasible plan given that pursuant to a recent announcement, Institute of Chartered Accountants of England & Wales had declared that C.A. Intermediate (erstwhile IPCC) would be deemed to be a Bachelors degree whereas a Chartered Accountancy qualification from ICAI would be deemed to be a Masters degree in England & Wales. But my parents did not want me to try and pave a cowardly way out of the tunnel I had entered and persevered in for almost 6 years. They had prayed and tried every spiritual voodoo in the book; although not an atheist, I did not believe in religious rituals. But as long as it gave them inner peace and satisfaction I was certainly not going to stop them.
Even on that day their prayers continued right till the moment the Institute uploaded the results on the website. I had fallen asleep in the afternoon whilst casually watching a few episodes of Friends when my dad woke me up. There was a peaceful silence for a second or two after which he lisped those golden words, “Congratulations…you are a Chartered Accountant…”. Needless to say, I was shocked, but for some reason my instant reaction was, “Okay, really?!Because I don’t like these kind of jokes!” And so I went back to the laptop and checked out the results. I was awestruck and scrolled through the web-page trying to ensure that it wasn’t a hoax. Reading the word “Pass” twice on the mark-sheet sent shivers down my spine and all that had transpired over the last year or two just washed itself away. Speechless and happiest I have ever been, I pushed down the tears, just smiling at what seemed like sun-kissed screen of laptop.
I called up my mother. All I could hear over the delighted ‘congratulations’ was a weep of joy and an emotional outburst for a life-long dream of hers fulfilled. My parents had made immense unsaid and unnoticed sacrifices through this entire journey. They had seen me at my worst and had been extremely patient with my frustrations. In many ways, it was my parents’ achievement as much as it was mine. A long time may go by and I may accomplish many more things in life, but the one thing that I’d always remember is how that joy beneath her weep brought me to the brink of tearing up despite a lot of resistance.
10. A Tribute:
They say it is the happiest moment of your life…but to me it was a huge relief coupled with a little happiness. After a hard fought victory for a prefix that is attached to me for a lifetime of more challenges, congratulating wishes and celebrations echoed through the week. I knew it was a short lived glory, but for every glorious achievement in my life I’d probably reflect back on this entire journey to keep my feet firm on the ground. I’d sum it up with this…
Life is about living through the journey and not the destination. It is about making it to the destination despite a hundred detours. If success is supposed to be a summit to be cherished, somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.
For me that “somewhere” would probably be my entire journey through CA. The summit is still very far, but I finally understand the feeling for which we cherish it and the reason we climb there.
I finally lay in my bed at night without any agony, stress, vengeance, anxiety or all in all any weight on my mind just comprehending what had happened and what lay ahead. Lost in the thoughts, I fell asleep hoping to be woken up again with a surprise like that afternoon knowing it’d probably not happen again for a long time.