Civil servants writing memoirs, collecting their thoughts in the tranquility of retirement, has been an old tradition since the ICS days. In recent months, about half a dozen books written by retired civil servants, mostly from the IAS, have been released, such as Deepak Gupta’s The Steel Frame:A History of the IAS, Anil Swarup’s Not Just A Civil Servant, Shripad Bhalerao’s With Tongue in Cheek: A Civil Servant Recalls, TR Raghunandan’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know Of Bureaucracy But Were Afraid To Ask, BK Chaturvedi’s Challenges of Governance: An Insiders View and NC Saxena’s What Ails The IAS And Why It Fails To Deliver: An Insiders View. The reflection of Parimal Brahma, formerly of the IA&AS, titled Confessions of a Bureaucrat: A Memoir has a different flavour. Each of these books has its own strengths and weaknesses but how many of them would be valued by scholars or loved by the public at large remains to be seen. Dr K Pradeep Chandra’s book Tiger Hunting Stories ~ Lessons on the Art of the Possible has to be viewed in this context.
There are reasons why reminiscences of civil servants generally fail to make an impact. First, the authors concentrate on their achievements and rarely on their failures or misadventures. Second, there is often an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to project the “self”, using an overdose of “When I was the Collector” variety of ruminations. Third, because of being steeped in civil service tradition, they try to adopt a boring and safe approach while discussing issues. Finally, the quality of language employed is often colourless and replete with officialese. All these make such outputs, exceptions apart, eminently forgettable.
The author of the book under review has certain characteristics that equip him well for the task. As a bright student, having graduated from IIT, Madras and IIM, Calcutta, he was inspired by his father to compete for the IAS. His father, hailing from a most disadvantaged community of Andhra Pradesh, was promoted to the IAS and made a mark for his service for the downtrodden. He desired his son make a concrete difference to the lives of poor people ~ the raison d’etre ~ of joining this premier civil service.
The tongue-in-cheek title of the book that has nothing to do with the tiger or hunting is indicative of his sense of wit that has enlivened the whole narrative. As retired officers are prone to recounting their administrative exploits, he notes “at retirement functions, the superannuated officer was attributed several ‘kills’…”With a light hand, the author chronicles the varieties of experience gained from the time he saw his name published amongst successful candidates, in a small town in Khammam district where he had gone as a marketing manager for a liquor company, through the Mussoorie Academy days followed by the rustle-bustle in the state’s administration till he retired as the Chief Secretary of Telangana.
There are perhaps few careers in the world that can match, in terms of providing opportunities for public service of different hues in the vast cauldron of India’s democratic polity, as that of an IAS officer. Yet very few members have the ability to observe, record and articulate how the institutions of governance interact with the lives of millions of people still in need to justice and fair play. The strength of the book lies in its attempt to capture this involved process. The elegance of prose makes the intricate mechanism of governance interesting to the reader.
As he moves up the bureaucratic ladder ~ from the training period through the district experience to heading public sector enterprises and secretariat departments ~ different kinds of challenge are encountered. Having been transferred from department to department ~ from technical education to finance, from civil supplies to Scheduled Castes Cooperative Finance Corporation ~ he explains what value he sought to add in each assignment and also the extent to which he succeeded. Such discourses, almost as a rule, tend to degenerate into dreary prose unless they are interspersed with insightful, often hilarious, anecdotes. For example, while in the Education Department, he desired that the language of a letter addressed to the Vice-Chancellor of a renowned University be softened when he was sternly told by his subordinate who drafted it “Sir, we are the government, they are just creations of the government. We do not request or plead with them. As government, we direct and demand.” The book abounds in such reallife stories ~ from offering a job as a helper in a social welfare hostel to a distressed woman who felt offended to work for and clean non-vegetarian dishes of Scheduled Caste students and thereafter quit the job, to using all his resourcefulness to attract IKEA to Hyderabad!
His experience in rescuing IAS officers kidnapped by Naxalites, implementing the Rs 2 per kilo rice scheme introduced by NTR, attracting investment in the state while working in the Industries Department and steering the administration through the unforeseen problems of the new state (after bifurcation), as also his interactions with the different Chief Ministers of the state, have been recorded faithfully.
Without showing any rancour towards any individual or group, the author reminds the reader how “caste” consideration sometimes rears its ugly head, in subtle manners, even in the enlightened strata of the government. The book exudes positivity. And the author’s sense of satisfaction of a life well lived, despite occasional setbacks, emanates from the work. He alludes to the Rashomon-effect and admits that his own perception need not be shared by all others.
Nevertheless, the book succeeds in giving an impression that life in the IAS, even in these turbulent times when the ministers disown decisions taken by them and when the lure of much higher remuneration in the private sector beckons the talented, can be both meaningful and immensely rewarding. This ring of optimism, one hopes, would be widely appreciated and inspire some of the brightest in the younger generation to seek a career in the higher civil services.
The reviewer is a retired IAS officer.