A Bureaucrat Reveals Actualities – Awesome Cynicism and Bruised Truths (Book Review)

Avay Shukla signing Poly Ticks…. at Bahri Sons in Khan Market, New Delhi (File Photo)

It is after a long inner struggle that one resolves to write what one feels. A strong urge to share experiences and impressions with others drives one to ink what he thinks. Initial, reluctance over, he sits down to write. Without inner pushups nothing seems to work and, in the process, he wanders along several memories’ lanes, garners some pearls, a few shingles and a fistful of scowls and sits through irritating moments fancied or unsolicited.

Avay Shukla’s Poly Ticks, DeMocKrazy & Mumbo Jumbo: Babus, Mantries  & Netas (UN) Making Our Nation, Pippa Rann Books & Media, an imprint of Salt Desert Media Group Limited, U.K. is an instructive study of a bureaucrat’s mind. It carries an appealing foreword, Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general, an author of nearly two dozen books for this album of Blogs Avay Shukla an IAS officer writes. Shukla has held senior positions in administration, and lastly, retired as Additional chief Secretary of Himachal and keeping sideways a few little edifying anecdotes or tales grandparents (?) told, labelled as verbal blogs or blogging with variations carry exciting import. Some turn into textual frames, later, take the shape of writing diaries carrying split reminisces with some egoistic lies and truths with inter-textual contexts, and a few proud expressions of wisdom and knowledge bearing mask of an honest theoretical deluge.

One can wind up, as existing times are quick and run about with some essence and a few with waggish and luxuriant transitory missive as if junk food irrespective of global marquee. With the growth of digitalization, social media is transporting cultural variants, a mess of new genres of habits with obnoxious pong of neo-culture as skeptical attitude to heritage spreads to prolix along with a difference. It is an age of global thought undoubtedly but selectively it gives adequate reasons to megalomaniac tendencies among the living politicians in some portions of human territories, which kill universal spirit of humanity, and as such current times are turning difficult rather suicidal. It drives one to just a communiqué that transmits information in continuity, possibly factual or phony sans seminal or per-formative incline.

He wields his coop and ink with a classic acumen, spooky knack with perfect acuity that hit deep but you cannot see the wounds. He is not skeptic but his fierce scorn terrifies. Perhaps, it was the objective when he began blogging deep-rooted anxieties and thoughts about men and society at the micro level with intent to stretch it to cosmic breadth.

I recall the suave face of a little fidgety but apparently pleasing person of unusual warmth, who had been a fine officer with impeccable integrity. His blogs continued to appear infrequently in newspapers and journals. Amazingly, an ‘unserious writer’ has so far written more than three hundred thoughtful, mordant and witty blogs before he started his blog site in 2013. An outstanding civil servant when writes about his phenomenal and awesome range of experiential wisdom, it is difficult to disagree to his short notes relating to the system, socio-economic and political insight. …and when these notes take the form of blogs, I am tempted to consider these as part of literature with traces of autographical gears.

A blog contains biographical element but it is not biography. However, it is expression of the creator’s worries, anxieties and perspectives about life and existence where he tries to philosophize on man and society. This offers passable solid fulcrum to stand and move about while avoiding direct confrontation with the targeted boundary but scholars of literary art cannot ignore it. This standpoint on Avay’s blogs brings him nearer to literature.

A sophisticated man as he is, Avay Shukla is mild but when he writes, he is stridently candid, unsparing and true, the destination he spells out looks as if culled out of varied experiences, impressions, encounters with the low and the high, the charlatans and the supercilious, and this candor with faint disinclination tells of his intractable prowess. Bloggers have also a difficult task to share the thoughts with the most recognized, and rarely with the unknown and if it is, it is with hesitation. To me it was an experience to read blogs of a man in a book form   – particularly an inconspicuously honest senior bureaucrat.

For the inquisitive readers, I selectively speak of his discursive blogs to give a feel of his ferocious wielding of pen power where one confronts naked truths of men of substance in social, economic and political areas. The tinges, intonations and modulations he employs carry a mystic that mesmerizes with guarded authenticity. Those men, who govern the entire system, now, have begun to usurp cultural, social and religious life and habits surreptitiously and at times, overtly as if human beings are battery-operated -a huge farce, and brutal distortion of ethical bases.

We know the situation that the current times are offensive and ghastly but we do not accept. Universal issues of religious prejudice, pollution and climatic changes are subjects of worries and we are finding solutions but secretly we understand the imminent catastrophe born of cynical reason. It is nothing else but sham perception or ‘false consciousness’ as Peter Sloterdijk, a German philosopher says. Shukla’s anxiety is how to be genuine and of some use to the society who bears the burden of feeding fat a disgustingly corrupt and loutish mechanism of authority that determines people destiny.  A pathetic flow of this strain continues in almost all the blogs and so he makes thoughtful men sit up and deliberate. He also offers a few jokey and hysterical moments where you laugh at your conduct – atypical and idiosyncratic.

Of the year 2014, he includes three blogs giving scenarios of some issues, which are speciously simple but inapt handling turns these into passive derision and obliviously solvable flaws and hiatus among the wealthy where the poor live in repugnant living conditions suffering from dearth of basic facilities. The dominant in all wings of ubiquitous system including the bureaucrats (he forgets not), enjoy and manipulate obnoxiously with least compunction. A spirited statement to awaken the reflexive eaters or abusers of taxpayers’ money, Avay appears to make not sparing the police, the forest and the Public works Department…he says little but speaks of a diseased structure and the people who run it even as the chaotic situation agitations create and on the top of it, pollution suffocates.

The blogger vlogs like subject experts and quotes irrefutable figures and historical background to prove his point…fate of Yamuna, which is almost dead as Delhi causes eighty per cent pollution. Here, he tells about Tihar Regency that is an innovative thought of a different empire -a creation of an hotelier’s mind where he speaks about future occupants of Tihar who would be equally influential and powerful people. …it is blunt truth about rulers and rich people. No, he may not be true for, big people have escape routes, and the dark areas of their lives appear illuminated. Nothing happens and that takes us back as to why he thinks everyone engaged in the construction of national edifice to bring good god-blessed days – achhe din, are ‘honey badgers. He does it and asks to deliberate seriously, for we are nothing but puffed up string-puppets and finally, pushed into little heap of ashes.

Avay is not a philosopher! He is an ordinary man with sharp eyes and piercing understanding, who looks seemingly at small incidents pertaining to common man’s life made difficult by equally ordinary men, who somehow occupy the pedestal and look big and then, began …the big circus of which they are the participants. True to his style of unearthing secrets of human nature, he let slips Indians instinctive love for money and the source of black money. To enquire into the extent of black money is an interesting subject but it never reaches any conclusion despite efforts of Sarkari agencies –Laksmi is important for all. Hindus love money is an indubitable truth. He raises issues of real estate property sector. It makes an interesting study with the dawn of consumer society, a postmodern concept that violates ethics and promotes self-interest. Whatever maladies make the situation nauseating need no involvedness in finding a resolution. He suggests religion of good governance will solve not only the disease of black money but it will cure many other ailments.

Some lighthearted observations on Budget Deficit -a seriously perennial financial dilemma, the finance department faces reveals some good-humored facets defying solution. Continuity in deficit budgeting is embryonic. The man holding this portfolio must be an expert in employing figures to cheer up benches and people with a few bouquets and many brickbats –an annual feature where the government calls it an ideal budget and the opposition traditionally calls it malfunctioning of the government.  However, none gets rid of the deficit budget. A keen observer of human mind and internal or external activity is never restive, and here, the word budget gives multiple meanings pertaining to human trust in assorted human acts. If a man is bereft of trust, it is an awesome fragile existence and man begins to live in ‘the trust deficit’ and a sort of disbelief begins to guide one to routine pushing one to sidesplitting, and at times, mortifying twists in trials and denials.

His experiences on sense of humour draw witty conclusion whether in social or political phraseology. An intelligent man with a lethal sense of brusque irony and monikers certain grades and stages of society with harsh jibe or punch, and invokes Shashi Tharoor, who coins phrases with terrific maneuvering calculus where you appear to attack but fail to find the wound. On such occasions, you make fun but appear to laugh sans ostensible peripheral hurt. Shukla’s draws out material of blogs from everyday encounters. Delineation of life of a smart city unveils certain perplexing and eerie dimensions of life bordering on frenzied upsurge that make deep hollows. To grant textual authenticity to experience is a huge exercise in the choice of words, it looks here. At certain places, swanks of ancient heritage or cultural outdated burden surface while a few live in fantasy of fractured elegance without vigour or outward nonspecific ability to stand up and face current mayhem.

It is a serious attempt to open up one’s dark areas of ignorance, and wisdom as well… and find out what a very stylish bureaucrat says, and then withdraws before the finale. He is as true as an ‘obtuse but stubborn 65-year old’, when generational scuffle begins …while fast growing technology assaults your lethargic reflexes and you begin to cultivate relations through social media and try to become Face-bookiya or crack (wise?) jokes through WhatsApp, Twitter etc. and enjoy. Perhaps, he was feeling easy at that time now that the new media tycoons plan to realize money…you get nothing for nothing and so you waste time on your smart cell, you think you hand out wise idioms or knowledge!  What a wise …no idiotic living now a day! Publicity free with dangerous fall out…we refuse to agree as dependence upon apps deepens woes. Well, Avay never permits you to sit and think or sleep with trouble-free smugness.

He portrays dinner parties of the rich people, who turn up late…and continue to slog on to late night, normally midnight hour. Spend money, enjoy life amidst …and pay little as taxes to the government…a clear statement in a light humouredly way he makes, is expected of a suave -big babu as a bow becomes conspicuous. This lifestyle has culture, elegance and history of sorts that determine the fate of those, who collect and cook food, weave stories of growth and then collapse …is the unwritten message  when he spells out the meaningful list of invites whose alliance and obeisance matter. Here, the line of demarcation is very thin…all are in the tandoori fire of leisure, pleasure and waste where survival is no question.

From 2017 to 2020, I have included more than twenty-five select blogs, which appear to take up some good issue. The first being bribe, which is very familiar and not only Indian but people of other countries seem deeply entrenched. To bribe ‘deities and gods’ right from time a newly born attains perception of living and environment is normal.  He speaks of the Modi’s sustained efforts to weed out the virus of kickback quite strong in India for the last hundreds of years …and of religious places where it is quite proverbial. It is to please the deities or gods, and appear philanthropic in conduct. To elect a corrupt man is our choice and to condemn him is the nature. Pledge to destroy the demon of bribe is alive in Indians mind, heart and words with a restrained sense of sarcasm and aversion.  Deep-rooted in cultural structure, the blogger talks of ‘mass movement’, a conceptual impeachment without definite outcome, for vocal cords get worn-out.

Shukla’s sense of going to the origin of sardonic yarn is stunning. Intellectuals have a queer sense of mixing up history in personal utterances emerging in certain situations almost nonchalantly but give immense meaning. When he reminds of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s ‘animal spirits’ in a gathering of industrialists, it is impregnated with meaningful connotations but now, ‘animal spirit’ means authentic entry in daily phraseology. Such names are quite prevalent in important discourses that are acerbic, detrimental and rudimentary with a tinge of poor civilizing impact on audience but because ‘fish, fowl and such creatures, caged parrot, buffaloes, etc create some moments of hilarity in human conduct and linguistic finesse. Political language will attain such depth of crudity with a sense of tribal sneers was never visualized earlier when I was in the university and met some awesome academics.

Then, a dog of the AAP minister in Delhi… and a similar incident in another state what a fun it is! The quizzical fun is when an ordinary man attains legendary fame, thanks to media hype even as role of high-ups …are subject to scrutiny…and then the ever worshipful Cow…that makes one vulgarly hypocrite, the inference is obvious ignoring passionate adoring of ancient sages against theoretic love and worship of man today, a great issue? Again, GST of Arun Jaitley is a renewed reflection on taxation with many insinuations and a few bouquets but it survives and collects fabulous money for the government as the reluctant consumer and taxpayer looks on…a pitiable condition in a democracy! It raises many questions and offers uneasy situations with far-fetched explanation.

At times, non-issues gain credence and more provocative questions stay back, for no self-styled opinion makers have time to deliberate on serious questions of public interest. He says some unforgiving truths about Aadhar. What is this prime time news? Nothing special but attracts stupor and insolence, and still gathers scrap of approbation. Working style of Netas is typically crazy in clutches of parataxis giving rise to endemic confusion flouting any defrayal. He hints at many crossings but then suddenly alters the direction, and it results in little governance, more clamor and wearisome guarantees even as Netas conceive ways to penetrate privacy causing distrust widespread.

Avay makes it more fascinating when he imagines last rights…yes, many of his age-bracket may not survive to find Rahul or Arvind Kejriwal …as the Pee Em …the list appears distended! The mode extends to the ‘pious, the wealthy and the stupid’ and makes one sit up and strike his head when he hits at fiscal anguish or drifter’s legacy.  The financial wizards or jamboree of Netas and pen pushers is a fine directory of wisdom-watchers, who find people are dim-witted, and do not know the laws of nudging, fudging and shoving –or those with intent to shut eyes to reality.

In bits and pieces, one encounters scathing scrutiny of some men in authority, who function only to impede, and so no work and enjoy being string-puppets. Perhaps, gone are the days, when politicians worked on certain norms, now it is all spurious. If he briefly writes about the nature of a few Prime Ministers, the remarks are apt and make one emit an ironic smile. Among them, Modi is a man, who does not know anger! Multiple thoughts about the system, lead to colossal vacuum the bungling sycophants fill and then, a sense of humour is apparent when he talks on a funny real incident about a beggar he met near the Khan Market. He has the cruel penchant to reveal even some dark spots in ‘the self’ to an unusual extent. …his raw and crude experiences are lessons one is inclined to agree for these happen with every astute fellow watching life closely some time like a jester or a boulevard theorist.

In an exclusively singular tone, in his late seventies, he wraps up that it is not safe to travel in India…and then he reveals the wisdom and knowledge of marketing managers who fix advertising slots on TV for condom. …What a fine loom to teach ethics and save adolescents from…! To me it seems both a bureaucratic and a political jugglery. He is abruptly obvious as he writes about holy cows and loose cannons, and reveals slow but obstinate efforts to rewrite history that pleases the powers-that-be. A short incisive journey in lanes of street food –junk –from Vada pav to Shiv Vada pav to Pakoda is exciting…as a cheering technique to attract votes perhaps! Visiting back lanes is derisory but true and his exploration in taking loan speaks of travails of an honest babu.

Many glimpses of humour that might appear preposterous to some but realities of anomalous human conduct at times appear archetypal when he writes disdainfully of unnatural sex underscoring monstrosity of rapes despite efforts to curb and then, atrocious obstructions in getting justice amidst candle–marches and sloganeering…! Many a time, he resurrects memories and at that time, he recounts ardently many reminiscences with which many would identify and that makes blogs exciting and insightfully nasty as well. However, his forthrightness is enviable and formidable too, and many a time it is gentle, maybe godly but to reveal inner truths while gathering bits of unwholesome and gauche past needs a rocky intellect.

He opens up hearts of politicians and tries to find the truth but stops. If one or two or VIPs…Chief Ministers get a clean chit in financial matters, others linger on, and another gives himself a clean chit…despite loud cries and howling of the adversaries. Funny but true rituals among politicians to cast aspersion or abuse at each other it is when in power or out of power, and sufferers are the people and thus, cleaning of dirty linen continues…with changed taxonomy and to this extent blogger tries to awaken himself.  …or maybe he knocks us down, but we, the people of India, love long sleep and lies before vanishing, for we ignore with knowledge the Indian ancient wisdom and vision.

He is ironic but beneath he strives hard or avoids a message –the note that the intellectuals and bureaucrats, who reflect on issues and individuals like him, should strike their heads, overlook niceties and finesse and pick up mobiles. …whatsApp, Face book etc are best to preach, inform and learn free of tax, cess or adjuncts and waste time tellingly without hurting anyone.

He is apt in painting a picture of morning walk in a park…where the gathering of three, four or more talks about bowels, indigestion etc or honest chat about current issues as if TV debates without outcome. Here, worthy spokesmen of political parties or retired police officers or bureaucrats forcefully express anxiety about people’s issues …and the stupid squabble prolongs …to make  you cry. He is a keen observant of persons, words spoken and surroundings including life in totality and looks at it as a blunt critic with safety valves and it is right, for Netas and System are not convenient to truth.

He is candid when he speaks of urban culture and street markets and if one agrees with the thought of Pakoras… of Mr Amit Shah that street markets and pavements are good for self –employment. Then, just think of Constitution that wants people…to be ‘critical’ and inspiring when questions of ‘inquiry’ and ‘reform’ arise, and the actualities that intelligentsia confronts and at time, vegetates in jail waiting for bail. He hints at the existing mindset of intolerance and closing doors to free barter of opinion sans bitterness and fear of regime agencies.

Perhaps, no one is keen to find the root cause of germs of undefined intolerance and hatred. Such truths disturb a thinking man whether rightist, leftist or centralist or indifferent to any ideology, and give a shock, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’  Avay Shukla truthfully underlines the undying microbes with a deterrent proviso. In an analogous hint, he talks of some truths about budget and the magic of benign inanity.

Financial experts love to play with figures unfortunately fabricated and still they maintain they state the truth and the disease of importunate deficit stares to scare and subdue.  The shrewd finance managers had never been able to present a surplus budget but to talk of foreseeable loan to burden the people. When he writes about budget and religion, he is a bit ironic, more contemptuous, and dangerously true, and perhaps awkward to many, for living with some principles of life, is difficult in present times and he is not an exception.

One runs into cynicism, mourning and lamentation, sermons and ultimate retreat. Questions of keeping distance from vile elements in the system in which he lived long empirical affliction are not amusing but more exigent and grueling. I found, notwithstanding, his observations on the conduct of Netas and Babus he conveys a subtle message. If one listens to the intrinsic thought pattern and objective, one would realize what he tells so ingeniously and it makes blogs brilliant. The other unkind truth is that a bureaucrat lives a life of futility (?) despite its fortunes and cynical mind-set, I would say. God bless. Amen!

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(PC Katoch is a former academician, civil servant and member PSC HP), is an author of more than sixty books (English and Hindi), a poet, novelist, short story writer and a critic in English and Hindi. He lives in garh-malkher, Palampur, Himachal, India.

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