It’s impossible to get 10 IAS officers to agree on anything except the virtues of the Apex scale, which is why any contentious matter is passed on to a committee of such officers, to bury it for all time. But there is one thing they will agree on: ask them which was the most memorable and enjoyable phase of their careers and they will all respond in one voice- their probation period. And with good reason: this is the stage of their life when they are full of hope and idealism, they are learning something new every day, they genuinely believe they can change the world, each one of them is a potential Chief Secretary or Cabinet Secretary though they will tread different paths to rise to their respective levels of incompetence and, perhaps the most important of all – they have not yet met the politicians who will be the curse of their later careers! Life looks good when you are a probationer!
After the UPSC made a grave error of judgment in selecting me in 1975, one underwent four phases of probation- in the Academy at Mussoorie, the Himachal Institute of Public Administration, district and settlement training. It’s the last of the four which my mind wanders to today, a day on which I have just shelled out Rs. 910.00 for another cylinder of gas. One would expect that with the BJP leaders emitting so much gas in Bengal and Assam they would be giving it away free, but there are no free lunches with this party. In any case, you are entitled to ask: what is the connection between gas and my settlement training? Bear with me, gentlemen, and I shall tell you all, including how I conned Neerja into making a graver error than the UPSC, by marrying me.
I am aware that not all fairy tales begin with ” Once upon a time…”; quite a few begin with ” When I was posted as Deputy Commissioner of…” This account, however, predates my DC days by a few years and can therefore be told with a straight face and a slanted bat. It is by no means a fairy tale but the highlights of my revenue-cum-settlement training in Jwalamukhi, then a small but bustling town about 38 kms from Dharamshala in Kangra district of Himachal. Jwalamukhi’s fame is based on the fact that it sits on an unexplored reservoir of natural gas. Some of this comes out of vents in the famous Jwalamukhi temple and the resultant flames have been sold to devotees of the Devi as miracles-the eternal and mysterious flames. The town makes a good living out of this fiction, and good luck to it. After all, the govt. makes an even more profitable living out of gas- natural and man-made- doesn’t it?
There were four of us dispatched to Jwalamukhi for three months to learn the arcane art of measuring land, recording rights, settling disputes and fudging revenue records. Our capo di tuti capi was Mr. Kainthla, the Tehsildar, one of the finest revenue officers I have worked with. The problem, however, was that we rarely saw him: a chain smoker, he was always engulfed in a haze of cigarette smoke from which he occasionally emerged like an Old Testament prophet, to preach to us about Jamabandis, Shajra nasabs, girdwaris, khasras, khataunis and other lasting legacies of Todar Mal. An amiable man, he nonetheless believed in the concept of “lese-majesty” where IAS probationers were concerned. I once gave some clothes to the local dry cleaner ( there was only one within a radius of 20 kms and he used engine oil instead of petrol) who misplaced my favourite track pants but refused to admit it. I complained to Mr. Kainthla who summoned the truant burgher and reminded him that his family had not paid any “mal guzari” for their land for the last two generations and he was thinking of recovering it as arrears of land revenue. The track pants were found the next morning, the mal guzari is probably still outstanding.
The bane of our existence was the local Executive Engineer who had the power to permit, or deny, us rooms in the PWD rest house. He would throw us out every second week and we would then have to sleep in the drivers’ quarters. He outranked Mr. Kainthla, and since the bureaucratic hierarchy is more rigid than that of the great apes, there was little the latter could do except light up another Charminar. Rumour had it that this XEN had taken the UPSC exams three times and shown great consistency by failing in them all. He had then made it his life’s mission to make every IAS probationer wish he had never joined the ruddy service. He almost succeeded in my case. Luckily, however, the XEN of neighbouring Ranital had no such bias against the IAS- he had failed to make it to the IPS- and invited us to stay in his rest house. We gladly accepted his offer even though we had to go half a kilometer into a forest to take a dump. It enabled us to see a lot of wildlife at close quarters from a squatting position, an opportunity denied to most people.
Our real field training was done under Mr. Kehar Singh, the Halqua Patwari. I soon realised why my grandmother in Husainganj village, pop. 272, had opined that I should have become a Patwari instead of joining the IAS. A Patwari is the nearest thing to God, the Pope and Mr. Modi not excluded. He can, with just one stroke of the pen, turn a barren plot into a tropical forest, an encroacher into a landowner, a tenant into an encroacher, paddy into wheat, a Bangalore nerd into an agriculturist, black money into apples. Kehar Singh, overawed by his stupid but twice born trainees, revealed all the secrets of his trade to us, including how, by removing or adding a couple of links to a “zareb” (measuring chain), your bighas could be converted to acres, and vice versa. I don’t know whether this knowledge from the dark web helped me in my later career but, now in retirement, I can understand the wise words of a retired Chief Secretary: always make it a point to send a couple of bottles of the demon rum to one’s Patwari every Diwali. A retired Additional Chief Secretary is, after all, a mere tick mark in his Girdawari register and can be smudged out with just a drop of erasing fluid, an Adani reduced to an Anil Ambani with one shrug and a rub.
Enter Neerja, with whom I was destined to plight my troth. We had just met in Lucknow and decided to get to know each other- at least I decided, Neerja just did what her mother told her. I wrote her a letter from Jwalamukhi every day, except second Saturdays and Sundays when no bureaucrat traditionally lays pen on paper- our own Sabbath. Fresh out of Delhi Univ. I would quote extensively from the Romantic school of poets, which made a deep mark on her then still impressionable LSR mind. Hedging my bets, however, I figured that Keats and Shelley were not the potion for her mother, a person made of sterner stuff but one who just had to be in my corner if I was to win the match, as it were. Here is where the flames and temple of Jwalamukhi came in handy. I had myself photographed before the deity in all poses while offering prayers, touching the feet of the priests, genuflecting before the idols; I even did a Rajiv Gandhi long before he did- posing in my janau and the found-again track pants. I obviously did a better job than him because Neerja’s mom was soon convinced that here was a devout man who would worship her daughter like he did the idols of goddesses in the temple. The nuptials were announced, the banns made public and objections invited. Some of Neerja’s admirers did lodge protests but they were disregarded with the same aplomb that the Election Commission nowadays dismisses complaints against the Prime Minister. The rest, as they say, is ancient Indian history. I don’t go to temples anymore and Neerja can’t abide Keats, Shelley or Byron, not even Wordsworth and his rainbows. Being a cautious man I have not asked her mother for her opinion.
I don’t know how much revenue knowledge I picked up in Jwalamukhi but I did get me a life partner there, thus ensuring that the Shukla “shajra nasab” would continue for another generation at least. I invited Mr. Kainthla for the wedding but the postman couldn’t locate him in the cloud of smoke.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/