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.

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An Honest Indian’s 10 Books List

The Facebook Fad of the season is “10 Books That Changed My Life”. Also known as, “Look How Intellectual I Am!” It is a great way to show your friends and family how you have read – and more importantly, finished reading – books that many of them secretly started reading but could never finish on account of falling into a deep pretentiousness-induced coma midway.

1. That Booker one.

I read the preface of that once. Gave me an inferiority complex I see a therapist about to this day.

2. Oh, I know that one. VS Naipaul wrote that.

Yay India! (and the people India drives away!)

3. Arundhati Roy ki book?

I didn’t read that because of our irreconcilable ideological differences (Also, referring to a dictionary 5 times per sentence was too much heavy lifting those days.)

4. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.

Pulled a muscle once picking this up at a bookstore. (Speaking of heavy-lifting.)

5. Which one is this? French hai kya?

*googles to make sure this shit actually exists and you’re not just making up words by this point*

6,7,8. Bong authors writing about eating Bong food and thinking Bong thoughts.

In Bengal.

9,10. Regional language books.

When did these become cool? How come I missed the memo?

{insert disclaimer about how 10 is too small a number to do justice to what an obnoxious pretentious twat you are}

 

So, it was about time some wrote this. Here is An Honest Indian’s 10-books List:

1. Harry Potter.

Okay just Chamber of Secrets. But I read that before the movies came out. I so hipster!

2. The Shiva trilogy.

Okay just the back blurbs. But I definitely plan to watch the movies. (Hrithik Roshan may play Shiva. READ that in ToI. Does that count?)

3. You Can Win.

‘Nuff Said.

4. One Night at a Call Centre. 

Erm, a “friend” recommended it.

5. Khushwant Singh ki non-veg jokes vaali book.

Tee Hee.

7. That book 3 idiots is based on.

8. That book Kai Po Che is based on.

9. I watch TVF videos.

That’s like AIB-for-intellectuals, no? Surely that counts.

10. Chacha Choudhary, Pinki, Super Commando Dhruv, and Agniputra Abhay.

Judge me, and a volcano will erupt somewhere. You know what I am talking about.

It might have escaped your notice, so let me helpfully point out that I skipped a number there. Congratulations. Now you know what honesty in an Indian looks like.

I tag my therapist.

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‘Dislike’

Most of us probably agree that Facebook is a much treasured abode of stupidity. A harmless, meaningless, time-killing stupidity for the larger part of it. On most days, I indulge in it when the firewall allows. Even relish it. Its fun, we have to grant Zuckerberg credit for that much.

But this, I had to speak up against.

Last year, around the same time, you may recall a spate of status messages put up by your lady friends (possibly, including you) with nothing but a color on it. We all know by now, what it was. This year too, men are understandably puzzled by “I like it on the…” status messages. ‘Likes’ galore. As do comments with question marks (from the males) and knowing winks (from the females). I received my share of emails with my girl friends letting me in on the latest secret. Its that time of the year again. Girls are basking in the glory of their new found furtive thread.

So far, so good. If you want to titillate your male friends, be my guest. Hell, be their guest too, I’ll bet. Flash the colors of your bras and where you like to keep your handbag at home on your status messages all you want. (Yes, I spilled the beans. Shoot me.) But don’t, please don’t, give it the name of Breast Cancer Awareness month to make yourselves feel better about it.

How many of us know the first thing about breast cancer? Do you know anyone who has lost a mother or a wife or a sister to breast cancer? Do you know how painful it is – for the patient and their family? Do you know if there is a cure? Do you even know the symptoms? Forget everything else – if you, God forbid, developed it someday, would you even be able to detect it in your own body in time?

My answer to some of those questions is a ‘no’. If yours is too, then lets celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness month. This October, Google breast cancer. Find out more about it. Ask your family doctor. Tell your friends. Look up some organization that works for it and donate a hundred rupees to them.

But, ladies, I beg of you, please don’t continue falling prey to such shameless marketing gimmicks. (I don’t even know who starts these things. And what they stand to gain by it!)

Those of you who had the honesty and courage to read this with an open mind may be thinking how you never looked at it this way. A number of friends on my facebook account are women whom I know to be intelligent, responsible, sensitive people. Many of them also participated in this as a harmless prank. I am sure none of them meant any disrespect or harm. If you participated in it too, I am sure you didn’t either. Which is exactly why I felt it necessary to share this alternate point of view.

For the record, I am no killjoy. Far from it. Ask my friends. They are all over facebook – just like me! I am just someone who believes that we should be ready to own responsibility for the fun we have. And its implications. Right?

So what are you reading?

I was just reading Arnab Greatbong Ray’s latest blog entry about his take on the Maoist rebellion. I have to confess I do not know half the names thrown up in the entry. But I am aware of the core issues being contested here. The incentive structure that directs the show. The parties behind the scenes, creaming the bloodbath in eastern India. But given the purely conceptual understanding I have of the subject, I wouldn’t even dare assume I am entitled to putting forth my 20 cents on the issue. Well, not more than saying that Arnab seems to have done an excellent job of it. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Call me myopic, but the sentence in the blog that caught my eye the most was this:

…(the Maoist issue) rarely captures national attention, confined as it is to largely rural backward areas for which it is pushed to the rear of the news by other things more important to our national life—like IPL, Shoaib-Sania and Kites.

I am ashamed of admitting that I read the glorified tabloid that is The Times of India. In my defense, my mornings are a haze of toothbrushes, towels, clock cursing and religiously swearing myself off late nights ‘ever again’. Given such tight schedules, I get time to catch up with the outside world only during lunch and coffee breaks at work. That leaves me with little choice with respect to the paper I read.

I noticed yesterday’s front page article in the ToI was about the Maoist attack on CRPF jawaans. The headline was “It is WAR”, with the word ‘war’ written in bold red letters for the effect. The index on the front page did promise us a detailed outlook of how hostel girls in Jalandhar are burning Sania posters to register their agony, what Shoaib’s second cousin’s pet dog feels about the whole thing, et al on the ‘Times Nation’ page. But to me, there was one more testimony to the seriousness of the attack. If it managed to elbow the flurry of noserings to page 5, it must be big.

This morning, however, sanity was restored. Shoaib coughs up the alimony for his wife (the word wife still being written in quotes for some reason). The couple claims front page positioning again. The Maoist attack is a close second in terms of word count. Gossip conquers reality. My world makes sense again.

The point I am trying to make among all the distracting derision, is something similar to what Arnab was saying. Where do our sympathies lie, as a nation? Doordarshan told me when I was a kid that we were once a country of thinkers like Chanakya. My parents taught me that enlightened souls like Gautam Buddha came from this land. My textbooks assured me that we gave the world the decimal system that forms the basis of modern civilization as we know it. From a nation which was supposed to be the think-tank of the world, when exactly did we turn into an army of eyeballs?

If there was a cliché award, a strong contestant would be: “What is today’s media coming to?” I am quite guilty of having used it myself. But is blaming the media a good enough excuse to wash our hands off? If repositories of cattle excreta such as ToI and India TV exist, basic economics tells me there must be a demand sustaining it. Remember how ‘lite’ and ‘diet’ versions of our favorite snacks conveniently flooded the market the day we decided it was fashionable to be a faux-health-conscious society? Supply follows demand – basic economics. Something for all of us to think about.

Meanwhile, I have a bone to pick with our admin guy about the press we subscribe to.