To Babu or not to Babu

This piece was originally published on the website Gradstory in 2014, soon after the UPSC results for the year came out. Back then, I was a little under 2 years old in the civil services. Today, I am a little over a year old out of the civil services.

I continue to work closely with the Government of India in my professional capacity. I continue to be close with friends still in the trade. It continues to be a job I deeply respect and admire. And I continue to hope that, with time, more and more young and talented people will choose to join the services for the right reasons.20819120.cms_-520x245

Meanwhile, here is the article I once wrote from the other side, reproduced again in its original form, in honour of Civil Services Day 2017. Go (self-dabba-carrying) Babus! You know who you are.

It is that time of the year again. The UPSC results are out. Over a thousand new entrants make their way jubilantly into the bureaucracy of the country. Many will be publicly felicitated on this grand success of theirs. Village panchayats will put up pandaals to celebrate the good fortune. Local Godmen and goons will wash their feet with milk. (True story, happened with a colleague.) Much merriment and press coverage shall ensue.
Felicitation

Every year, around this time, as my Facebook feed gets inundated with these declarations of success, I wonder how many are thinking of this moment as the beginning of their life’s hard work, rather than as the culmination of it. If my personal experience is anything to go by, there are precious few.

What attracts you most to the job a bureaucrat? Is it the power? The prestige? The under-the-table income? The government-sponsored car? The peon who hurriedly comes to open the government-sponsored car’s gate and carries your dabba up the stairs for you?

If yes, let me save you some long reading. This piece is not for you. Also, while I have your attention, I do not like you. Seriously. Do us all a solid, and carry your own damned dabba for once. Kthxbai.

Bureaucracy

Assuming that you are continuing to read on, you are either insulted and fishing for an excuse to hurl insults back at me, or belong to the camp that is attracted to this job for its contributive potential. You probably want to give something back to society and see the Civil Services as a means to that end.

You are among the precious few.

Welcome to bureaucracy. I like you.

And since I like you so much, here is a token of my appreciation – a heads up about the life you just signed up for:

#1 I just called you “the precious few”. That makes you a minority. 

Brace yourself  to know what it feels like

Brace yourself to know what that feels like.

Most people you will encounter in the coming few decades of your life (should you choose to stick around that long) define their existence by this day, this rank, these marks – and will continue to do so ad nauseam. Your unenviable job for the rest of your bureaucratic career is to walk the tightrope between living among them and not becoming one of them.

#2 The bad news: a new caste system awaits you here. The good news: membership is optional.

If you thought that you have made it and life will be a bed of roses hereon, welcome to the civil services caste system. We have many castes here – the IAS and the “IAS-allied” / the “home cadre” and the “have-to-learn-a-new-language cadre” / the “Group A” and the “Group not-A”, etcetera etcetera. Notice that all of these castes are sealed for life based on the subject’s performance in a fundamentally flawed examination (s)he wrote once upon a time – and are in no way a reflection of the quality of person they were or have evolved into since.

No offence, of course.

No offence, of course.

The identity associated with these castes – higher or lower – is a self-inflicted albatross most babus wear around their necks to their retirement. Some, to their grave. These are the often the ones that will demand your respect.

At the same time, you will come across some amazing people who have shunned the caste system altogether. You can recognize them as the ones that command your respect based on who they are, and not the office they occupy.

Who you wish to be is up to you.

#3 Never forget who you were before this day.

Just because you do, it will not mean that the world around you will ignore the caste system too. All your life, you will come across those who will either put you on a pedestal, or try to bring your spirits down because of your service, or your posting, or your cadre, or some other irrelevant tripe linked irrevocably to these marks you scored in UPSC all those decades ago.

Existential crisis could be a common occupational hazard

Existential crisis is likely to be a constant occupational hazard.

Develop a thick skin. Tune these voices out. Cherish your old friendships, stay in touch with the world you are coming from. Your roots will keep you sane.

#4 You cannot change the world single-handedly. But always be on the prowl for the small differences you can make.

It is easy to get frustrated if you seek to cure cancer on Day 1. Here is a reality check for the fellow romantics. This is just another job. Many out there are contributing more to the task of nation building than you are. And there are many problems here that you can do absolutely nothing about.

My advice – focus on what you can do. No task is too little. The beauty of being here is that small steps for a babu can often mean big leaps for the system. For instance, I am crazy about technology and paperlessness. I may not have cured cancer yet, but the few trees I have managed to save so far give me a decent night’s sleep.

Celebrate Small Victories

Celebrate small victories

This also makes it extremely important to have interests beyond this job. After office hours, I shell out bullet-pointed satire and advice no one asked me for. And I suggest you find something crazy to do too. This is going to be a long journey and you’ll need something to keep the seasickness at bay.

#5 This is just another job. You are not God. Stay humble.

At the very least, be nice to the little people

At the very least, be nice to the little people.

Among the many things we inherited from the British is the maibaap culture. When everyone around you treats you like a demi-God, staying grounded becomes a challenge. Never forget that you are here to serve the public and not the other way round.

I once met a senior officer who took this spirit to the next level. The nameplate outside her office read “Smt XYZ, Public Servant” instead of a heavyweight designation most bureaucrats derive such smug satisfaction from. She said the gesture earned her flak from her colleagues for “denigrating the stature” of her office.

And that is the sort of appreciation you can expect for your humility too.

Oh, I almost forgot. Congratulations on your grand success.