Immediately after completing my graduation, in 1970, I began preparing for competitive exams, and filled and submitted whatever forms I came across. I knew my parents had high expectations from me and I did not want to let them down. I would get through the written exams of Business Schools, but was always rejected by the Interview panels, as they considered me too young to be admitted. I was rejected by the Delhi University, the Banaras Hindu University, even IIM Calcutta, merely on the grounds of age and also, in case of IIMC, as I was considered inexperienced! What chance did I have against IIT graduates, many of whom had even worked for some time after their graduation! As one can imagine, I was pretty much down in the dumps when I applied to the UPSC for the IFS exam. I had no idea what the Forest Service was – in fact no idea what forests were either! There was no ‘Google’ to guide me, and nobody in my father’s circle of colleagues and friends had any knowledge. All they knew was the Administrative Service (IAS), the Foreign Service (IFS) and the Police Service (IPS).
I was fortunate enough to clear the entrance exam in my very first attempt, and become, at 22 years of age, one of the youngest ever to join the Indian Forest Service. This fact was enough to give me a bit of a swollen head and an unnecessarily inflated ego! The pride of my parents, and the praise of my teachers, further added to my misplaced sense of self-importance! With my head in the clouds, I reported for training at the Academy at Mussoorie, where I discovered that all the others there considered themselves special too. The Academy was primarily a training ground for the IAS, and just provided a short Foundation Course for the other Civil Services. However, the Director and the Faculty there made no discrimination and treated us all alike. We were made to feel that we were the ‘chosen ones’, and we subconsciously began behaving in a supercilious manner too. I carried this attitude to the state, till an incident brought me down to earth, and to reality ….
The bureaucratic system requires adherence to a set of Rules and Instructions that govern the actions and behavior of all government officials, at all levels. These are enshrined in the Civil Service Rules that were framed by the British in 1861 and continue, with modifications, to this day. One of the chapters in this set of Rules is devoted to Leaves of all sorts to which a government servant is entitled. The instructions clearly spell out that every absence from duty shall have to be regularized by sanction of Leave applied for or granted post facto. Any absence from duty that was not regularized by grant of Leave, would be treated as unauthorized absence and no salary would be disbursed for such absence.
Now it so happened that one evening, when I was walking past the office, I heard raised voices in the cabin of the Head Clerk. As I peeped inside, I saw a peon alternately pleading with and threatening the Head Clerk, demanding his salary for the month. On enquiry I learnt that the worthy had absented himself from duty for over a fortnight, without permission and, since the period had not been regularized, was not eligible for salary. To defuse the tension, I assured the defaulter that I would look into his case the next morning, and continued with my walk.
The next morning, as I was getting dressed for office, my wife told me that, Ram Singh, the recalcitrant peon, was waiting to see me. As I stepped outside, Ram Singh wished me and proffered a box of sweets. “Sir,” he said, “I had gone home …”. Without letting him complete the sentence I threw the box back at him, barking “How dare you come here? Do you think you can get your salary by offering me a bribe?” The ‘laddus’ in the box scattered across the lawn, and Ram Singh, tears in his eyes, stood still as a statue. “Get lost,” I shouted at him, “I’ll make sure you are properly disciplined for this misconduct!” Ram Singh slouched off and I went back to my breakfast. My wife was also somewhat shocked. This was the first time she had seen me in this mood! The rest of the day passed rather uneventfully and I forgot about the incident of that morning.
That evening, my wife and I put on our walking shoes and set out for our routine walk. As we wended our way through the Forest Colony, on our way to the main road, passing the houses of the subordinate staff, we saw a couple sitting on the steps outside one of the houses. My wife, with better eyesight than mine, said “Isn’t that Ram Singh over there? Looks rather downcast, doesn’t he?” I, too, could make out Ram Singh and what I presumed was his wife, sitting quietly in the fading light of day, on the steps of their verandah. Something within prompted me to turn and walk towards them. As we approached, Ram Singh and his wife stood up with folded hands and greeted us hesitantly. “How are you, Ram Singh,” I said, having absolutely forgotten what had happened that very morning, “Why the long face?” His eyes again filled up with tears. “Sahib,” he said, “This morning I had brought you a box of ‘laddus’, but you threw them on my face, without even letting me say a word.” “What did you expect?” I asked. “Did you think a box of ‘laddus’ would influence my decision regarding your salary?” He stood quietly with his eyes downcast. “Listen to him, at least,” said my wife. “Okay,” I said, “What is your story? Tell me.”
“Sir,” began Ram Singh, “last month I received a letter from my brother in the village, saying that a soldier had come home on leave, and he thought he would be a suitable match for my daughter.” “Since the boy would be in the village for just a couple of days, I had to hurry if I wished to meet him and his family. As it was evening already and the last bus to my village was to leave shortly, I hastily packed some clothes and left for the Bus Stand along with my wife and daughter. I had no time to inform anyone. Not even my neighbour!”
“So,” I said, “What happened?”
His face lit up. “Sir, when we got there, we met the boy’s parents and got the boy and girl to meet too. God was kind, and the boy’s family approved of the match. Since they did not know when the boy would get leave again, they proposed an immediate marriage. I was in a fix. I had no money, no jewelry, no clothes … In fact we were simply not prepared for an immediate wedding. Fortunately, my brother offered to help, and I got the boy to agree on extending his leave by a week. In that one week we somehow managed to arrange everything and, I am happy to say, we organized the marriage and the marriage feast satisfactorily.” “Once the marriage was over, I took a couple of days to settle the bills and, promising my brother that I would return his loan shortly, I rushed back here to join duty. I need my salary to send money back to my brother,” he continued. “This morning I had brought some ‘laddus’ for you, to share my happiness!” he concluded.
I was dumbfounded. For perhaps the first time in my life, I had nothing to say. My wife saved the day. She walked over to Ram Singh’s wife and gave her a hug. “Do you have any more ‘laddus’?” was all I could manage to mutter. The evening walk was forgotten, as we sat on a mat on the steps of the house and enjoyed ‘laddus’ and tea with a relieved couple.