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.

How my daily commute is the Ultimate Test of humanity. And how we’re all failing.

They say a great pain has to be the driver behind great art. Well, my feet hurt like hell. So here goes nothing. An ailing spouse whose hacking cough brought on by a too-cool-for-sweaters syndrome keeps you up 2 nights in a row. A bipolar housemaid who resigns and then responds next week to an ad for the vacancy thus created (true story). A 24×7 job that kicks all popular notions of “sarkaari naukari” in the gut. A pair of lovepigeons that just wouldn’t stop shitting, birthing, and that thing that comes before birthing, in your precious balcony. Yes, that’ll about do for a particularly artistic morning. Which brings me to where I am. Standing in the Delhi metro on my way to work. Admittedly, it is no Mumbai local (which is my personal favorite definition of purgatory). But we in the Delhi metro, have our own jostling body odours,  edgy tempers, and seasonal flu germs feasting on a human buffet of respiratory tracts. And, yes, feet trampling on feet. No prizes for guessing I lost on that elusive prize of resting one’s buttocks. Some days, though, the battle for the buttock rest just doesn’t seem worth fighting for. Correction. Make that most days. The non-existence or eventually fated breakdown of a queue foretells a stampede a la zombie attack as soon as the doors slide open. People shove, push and race mercilessly, unmindful of women, children, senior citizens and (I swear this happens) even people on crutches along the way. PA announcements pleading people to “Please allow passengers on the train to alight first” might as well be airing war cries, for all the good they do. The man who sits on a ladies’ seat is treated like a dog, the woman who makes him get up is eyed like a bitch. Makes you wonder if it is all that hard for us all to be humans.

Being Human(?)

Or may be this is how humans are programmed. May be our garb of humanity (by which I mean the notion that humans are capable of sensitivity for fellow beings) is a tenderly balanced house of cards, on a table of convenience. When the going gets tough, the people get rough. All it takes is a set of well-aligned disincentives. Pit high demands against limited resources and voilà, humanity becomes passé. Makes you worry about the future of the planet. Is this is a worldwide phenomenon or a special characteristic of Indians alone? I have commuted to work everyday for months in the London underground. I have seen orderly queues on the platform, patiently waiting for passengers aboard to alight first. For real. Crowds perform the role of a social audit, shaming any commuter who attempts to break this decorum. Is that a deeper cultural difference? Or is it just some cold demand-supply logic at work? If Indians were given enough seats, would they behave better? If Londoners were made to compete for a handful of seats, would they turn on one another too? There are exceptions, of course. Reassuring exceptions. The man who stands up for any visible lady standing, even at the other end of the compartment (My husband, by the way. #ProudWife.) The young girl who leaves her seat for an old lady. The lady who lets a woman carrying a child rest awhile. But there is still the majority that chooses to look the other way. Which pisses off the ones who don’t. During rush hour, squabbles and even fistfights are not uncommon. The male equivalent of cold stares and dirty looks in the ladies compartment.

Whose elbow is it anyway?

Whose elbow is it anyway?

***

What can we do about this?

 

A. Shaming the transgressors, London style: This strategy almost never works, given that one is almost always outnumbered by said transgressors. Which makes civil behavior the real transgression from the norm. Indians also have the amazing ability to react to shaming with aggression rather than shame. I should know. I once got yelled at by a guy for asking him to not throw a banana peel on the platform.

 

B. Gandhigiri:  Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line vahin se shuru hoti hai. Credits to Shri Bachchan for making civilized behavior uncool. The husband discovered the Gandhigiri way after strategy A failed spectacularly in the face of these everyday “heroes” on the platform. He started offering them the place in front of him in the queue. Day 1: He tried it on two men. One mumbled a sheepish apology, and took his place at the back of the queue. The other proudly accepted the offer, glad that the world was finally giving him his royal due. 50% success rate. Better than A, but unsustainable across people and time. Plus, an added risk of driving an aspiring Gandhian to violence.

 

C. Enforcement: The presence of security guards at every door of the incoming metros makes Rajiv Chowk the most orderly metro station in Delhi. Which is not an accident, as Rajiv Chowk is the most populous station of Delhi, with footfalls comparable to your average airport. If the Indian crowd were left to their own devices, things there would descend to a riot in no time.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi's "orderly" pride.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi’s “orderly” pride.

But is it reasonable to expect security at every station? Would we happily bear the fare hike it entailed? Worse, what does it say about us as a people that it takes burly guys with whistles and sticks to make us behave like civilized adults?

 

D. (Cultural) DNA: What is it about Indian – or indeed human – nature that it takes so little to make us behave like savages? One could say we are biologically wired for natural selection. Survival of the fittest. That could be an acceptable argument if we were playing The Hunger Games. But how come these basic instincts start dictating our behavior even when the stakes are as small as a buttock rests?

***

Is there a systemic solution to this? More sophisticated urban planning? Fines and punishments? Awareness and behavior change campaigns? Design solutions for public transport utilities? Better moral education at school level, inculcating a sense of empathy, compassion for our fellow beings or even basic civility at an early age? Or will nothing less than whistles and sticks work on us? Everyone likes to park their behinds. But let’s not use that as an excuse to trample on our own humanity. Trust me, it looks nothing like my feet.

A Tale of Two Cities

Those who are in my social / social media circle would be painfully aware by now that I have been managing a sustainable transport campaign over the past few months. The aim of our campaign is to spread awareness about non-motorized and public transport. But I can well imagine and understand that some of my unwitting audience may have felt irked by the incessant promotion I did. If you are one of those people, I apologize for the bother. And I am writing this post for you.

This is the story of two people whose paths never crossed, but who are inextricably linked now in my memory.

***

When I first began this campaign in late 2013, I reached out to sustainable transport activists across the country hunting for stories of successful initiatives for us to document and showcase. That was how I “met” (and by “met” I mean exchanged emails with) Kadambari.

kadambari

Kadambari Badami was around my age, and had been doing some amazing work in making the streets of Chennai more walkable for the communities living there. I did not know her personally, but found her enthusiasm for my campaign encouraging.

Here is an excerpt from the very first email she wrote to me:

“Dear Mahima, This is a wonderful initiative on the part of DD News! We would be happy to participate and help put something together. Do let me know what we can do.

Warm regards,

Kadambari”

Last week, Kadambari passed away in a road accident in Bangalore. I had never seen her, nor met her, but somehow it felt like losing a friend.

***

I got married recently. Like most others, my big fat Indian wedding too was a celebration with friends and family coming together to shower their love and blessings on my husband and me. Having lived away from home for the past 10 years, it felt like homecoming. I was rediscovering my own family members – the people some of my cousins had grown up to become, and the people my elders had always been, little known to me. I realized my family was a heady mix of interesting people and swore to stay in better touch.

The day after the wedding, my Mamaji (maternal uncle) met with a fatal road accident on his way to work. He had danced with us the day before, had participated enthusiastically in the wedding rites, had blessed us. And suddenly all we were left with were memories. He was my mother’s youngest sibling.

mamaji

He is survived by his wife – one of the strongest women I have ever had the honour of knowing, two beautiful children, and lots of love.

***

Death is a reality. Our love for someone may be unlimited, but their time in this world is limited. When faced with our mortality, we must accept it as the way of nature. But what we must never accept as natural is untimely loss by agents of our own creation.

It may seem like progress to us when we buy a shiny new car. It may seem like development when a new flyover is inaugurated in our city. It may seem like welcome respite when a road to our workplace is widened. But what all this really does is make roads unsafer for us and our loved ones.

The “average car occupancy” in Delhi is just above 1 person per car. A bus can carry around 60 people in it. Imagine the street space one bus takes on the road. Now imagine the street space 60 cars take.

street space

To make space for these 60 car users, the government builds big flyovers and wider roads. Which makes these roads even more unsafe for pedestrians, cyclists and car users themselves.

The common Indian does not, unlike car manufacturers, have a lobby to fight for him or her.

***

I usually do not share matters of personal joy or grief on public fora as a matter of policy. But I thought there was a lesson here. A variety of them, in fact: “Our time is limited. Live life to the fullest. Love unconditionally. Forgive and forget.” The choice of lesson you take away from this is entirely yours.

Here is the lesson I took away.

I try not to be the reason behind another car on my city’s roads unless absolutely unavoidable.

I now try to walk or cycle over short distances. I take the bus to work everyday. It is not easy. Sometimes, after a long day, as I wait at a bus stop endlessly and find myself wistfully thinking, “I’d have been home by now if I had gone by car.” When I walk, I have to deal with the dust, the pollution, the thoughtless bikers on the footpath and the occasional shoe bite. I find myself fantasizing about joining the people sitting in air-conditioned cars whizzing by.

When these thoughts make an appearance, I tell myself, “May be, me not taking the car today saved a life. May be it was my life. Or somebody’s loved one’s.”

And I find my commitment renewed.

Rest in peace, Mamaji and Kadambari.

Traffic Ab Bus Karo campaign videos are available at http://tinyurl.com/abbuskaro. Apologies, once again, to those who felt spammed during the campaign. Now you know why I had to do it.

***

Update: Please take 6 mins of your time to watch this wonderful video about how the road-fatalities-ridden Amsterdam became among the safest, greenest, most livable cities in the world.

See if you think that there is something you can do to make this happen in your city:

Not to tempt fate or anything…

To-do list for a Sunday afternoon:

  • Wake up at lunch time. Check.
  • Watch some God-awful TV. (And here I mean stuff that would make zombies out of living beings, kill these zombies faster than a head shot, and then bring the dead back to life. Still not the Kardashians though. What sort of lowlife do you think I am? Sheesh!) Check.
  • Read a book lying in a posture particularly bad for your spine. Check.
  • Make plans to go out for a run. But don’t. Check.
  • Take 4 naps. Check.
  • Apply enough oil in your hair to deep fry a shipment of McDonald’s fries. Check.
  • Sit all over the house in different sofas, chairs, and beds, leaving trails of said oil on them. All the time, proclaiming plans of a bath sometime in the near future. Check.
  • Do not take said bath until your mom literally locks you up in the bathroom. Check.

Ah, the many joys of a live well-lived. Happy Sunday, y’all!

Far Beyond Binary

Two years ago, I would not have written anything remotely close to this. Two years down the line, I may read this and find it confused and juvenile. That space between the age when you are drunk on your own youth, to the age when groceries and car loans become issues of paramount importance to you is a fleetingly small one. Indeed, many people, for better or for worse, jump it entirely. 

Love it or hate it though, you cannot deny that it is enigmatic, this space. The veil of self-importance has just been lifted, opening up a whole new universe of perspectives to you. And the concerns of grihasthashramhaven’t yet descended upon you affecting your vision in that imperceptible way of theirs. 
 

“You could never truly hate anybody, if you knew their whole story”, I once read somewhere. Somehow, these words have stuck with me, though I never completely understood what they really meant. May be I still don’t. Who’s to say? But what I like about these words, is their all-encompassing acceptance of the uncountable opinions, viewpoints, perspectives across individuals and societies. They embrace every body for being just who they are. No judgments. And that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

If the indecision of this piece bothers you, imagine my plight. All human beings are walking stories to me. I see them all today – with their own personal joys, their own private hells. And a complex concoction of all these elements seems to make them who they are, what they do, how they behave, how they act and react. To make matters worse, we are changing every moment of every day. 

How then, in this universe – forever in flux with its ever-flowing energies, ever-changing thoughts, transitory feelings, and ephemeral emotions – do I pick a side? Or does that childish concept even have any meaning – “picking a side”? But if I don’t, how will I ever “act”? Which brings me to volition – that flirty temptress. Just when I start believing that we are the makers of our own destinies, the newspaper shows me the animal side of humanity. Just when I make up my mind about us all being creatures of hormones and chemical reactions, someone turns around and changes the world and convinces me of the power of human choice. 

I almost long for the simpler times when I had strong opinions about things. That blissful teenage when I “knew” just what or who was right and wrong. When I was ready to get up and fight to the end for these notions of virtue I had in my head. That fire, that anger, that ecstasy of righteousness – those were greener pastures. But then, is this indecision, this ambivalence, a sign of maturity? To understand and accept that we all have our private versions of right and wrong – is that what “growing up” is about? 

Everything I read, see, hear, observe – it inundates me with the myriad of views that is humanity.

Mercifully, overarching my confused evolution, life has one constant axiom. It will stop for nothing. No epiphanies, no amount of musing or mulling, no fearsome darknesses will stop the sun from rising tomorrow. Which shakes me out of my reveries and forces me to act – determinism debates notwithstanding. Tell the truth, be kind, respect your elders, cherish your friends, be nice to other people, smile – the simplicity of kindergarten comes to my rescue and gets me through the days. 

May be doubt is good. May be it is a sign of being alive. Who’s to say? 

Meanwhile, until grocery woes take over, I relish the space where I can sit back in wide-eyed wonder as I watch myself live, act, and evolve.

The Ordeal of Vacationing

“Wow! You’re going to Europe? Again? That’s so awesome!”, exclaims my hyper-excited friend from work when I tell her why she is rid of me for the next 15 days. Little does she know.

Before the criblogpost begins, the customary disclaimers. I am quite the travel-o-holic. Its an occupational hazard of being a traveling consult-woman (unrecognizably ripped off from the Traveling Salesman). Every morning when I wake up, I need a millisecond to acclimatize myself to the new hotel room I am in and to try and work out which city this hotel room might possibly be situated in. Living out of the suitcase is pretty much the only way I live now. The maid at home in Mumbai is used to washing clothes in a pipeline of bursts. As is the iron-man. (Yes, yes, my sense of humour primarily rests on the rock solid foundation of cheap rip-offs and puns.)

But planning a vacation for family – trust me, that’s a whole other ballgame. Many posts ago, I chronicled the, well, ‘economical’ ways of living we swore by in Europe. I went there as a student, with many partners in crime. The ‘student’ tag was largely restricted to the visa. And used extensively for hoarding student discounts. That apart, it was 3 unforgettable months of poor-hungry-Indian-travels. Between spending nights on city route buses, getting thrown out of railway platforms and using McDonald’s as a public restroom, our travel logs would give the Lonely Planet publishers some serious competition. (Oh, that reminds me. I need to download an e-book copy of ‘Europe on a Shoestring’. Any links in the audience?)

Sadly, when you travel with your family, you have to bid a somber farewell to those masterpiece tactics. When you travel with family, you have to be responsible. You have to look up places you want to show them. You have to figure out the best and most comfortable ways to get there. You have to ensure a roof over their heads and a bed under them, every night in every city on the itinerary. When you travel with family, you have to HAVE an itinerary!

And with the need of an itinerary, arises the need for that necessary evil – the TravelAgent-man. This is a superhero who, for all the money laundering talents he possesses, may well have spearheaded many a hawalas in his day. Keeping a watch on him soon becomes your full-time occupation. For, if left unattended, this man is quite capable of booking the Buckingham Palace for your overnight stopover in London. And then secretively telling you how he ‘had to pull many strings’ to get you a free buffet breakfast for just 150 euros a night. Note that he would say this in a manner that makes you feel obliged to get down on your knees and swear your eternal gratitude to him.

You dodge some bullets from the TravelAgent-man menace. And pray that the number he did manage to hit you with is a small one. Feeling like a blindfolded target in a shooting arena – certainly not the best start to that heavenly vacation.

The good thing about vacation planning is that it does not leave you with time to dwell on bullet wounds. So you brush the feeling aside and roll up your sleeves for Stage 2 – packing. Now, being the compulsive traveler that I am, packing is second nature to me. “So this should be easy”, I tell myself, “right?” Wrong. When you pack for Europe, it’s nothing like packing for Nasik, Balugaon (don’t ask) or Delhi – the kind that you are used to. This is no domestic trip where you throw in some sets of your everyday clothes, an extra toothbrush and expect to be all set. This trip demands shopping. Shopping. My Achilles’ heel. Somehow, while he was assembling the perfect woman as part of my creation, my Maker left a slight manufacturing defect. He forgot to add the shopping gene he has blessed most women with. I musts confess that I quite enjoy the feeling of diversity this gives me, not to mention the favour with the gentlemen. But it’s at times like these that this defect leaves me in the cold. Winter gear, boots, backpacks – somehow all the stuff from the last EuroTrip has been devoured by the monster in the attic and I have to do it all over again. Screw you, Murphy.

You find a friend better equipped at this sort of stuff. You bribe him with a KFC burger (what can I say, my friends come just as cheap as I do). And you get him to do all the shopping while you trudge along behind him, holding the bags and the credit card.

The final lap – the documentation. With the family in Delhi and you in Mumbai, this is an act of utmost co-ordination. It involves ugly-ass photographs you hide immediately once the job is done, forms filled in the triplicate, passports being couriered back and forth several times, and, of course, TravelAgent-man manning the entire mission. This stage involves a Visa interview where the scary-moustache-uncle peers suspiciously at you with his X-ray vision from behind that 60-inch thick glass. Just for some added fun, he mumbles his questions in the most inaudible volume. You bite back the urge to request permission to go get your pet African Elephant, as you read somewhere that they can hear infrasonic frequencies. Something about this gentleman tells you that sarcasm might not go down very well with him. So you muster that last ounce of superhuman hearing you hope to subconsciously possess and try to answer his questions best. It all ends with a friendly I-will-take-your-fingerprints-now and duly complete the exercise of making you feel like a sentenced convict. Just 2 more hours of waiting in the room where no mobiles, no iPods and no magazines are allowed. Just 2 more hours of enduring and inflicting some very uncomfortable staring contests with fellow convicts and you are done.

With that Holy Grail stamp on your passport, you are now officially ready to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. As easy as that. Or so my friend from work would think. Little does she know.

“A vacation is where tired people go to get exhausted.”