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Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on May 16, 2013

LF17_GUPTA2   -  The HIndu

And What Remains in the End: The Memoirs of an Unrepentent Civil Servant Publisher: Rupa Price: Rs 350

Some books leave you with a deep sense of sadness — even while they make you chuckle, marvel at the beauty or tenderness of a thought or human emotion, sit up and take note of a piece of poetic prose, rich imagery or a full-bodied character.

Robin Gupta’s And What Remains in the End – The Journey of an Unrepentent Civil Servant (Rupa) does all this. At one level it is the memoirs of an IAS officer with 36 years in India’s civil service. Like all good memoirs, the book leaves you with full-dimensional character, painted in deft strokes and vibrant colours, with shades of grey as well.

But Gupta’s book is more than the ruminations of a bureaucrat in a service that has been, during Independent India’s 66 years, woefully entangled in the mire of greed, arrogance, depravity, petty politics, power play and worse. In scintillating prose, the author gives us rich images of the nooks and corners of India — Delhi, West Bengal (Gupta’s home cadre), Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab — where he served as an IAS officer.

In this honest account, the corruption, sycophancy and chicanery, on which the bulk of our babu-dom thrives, comes through. Gupta, a 1974 batch officer, is different from the bulk of his colleagues, perhaps because of his pedigree, upbringing and values. The narrative is strung together with his myriad postings. As he refuses to kowtow to higher powers and passes orders on merit, does not entertain “requests” from his political bosses, and shows flashes of arrogance and highhandedness, sometimes in an inebriated state — if there was ever a child of Bacchus, it was him! — he faces a plethora of transfers. And like others before him, has to cool his heels in insignificant postings.

Travelling with him, we get a ringside view of how the hallowed IAS functions. Meet the Chief Secretary of West Bengal on whom the young probationer calls after some months in his posting. “The head of the executive wore an inscrutable mask; he was unaware of my appointment or where I was posted, much less of what I had been doing. He made routine enquiries, displayed neither warmth nor interest. His indifference was alarming.”

In his first posting, when he places a lady officer under suspension for not coming to office for weeks, she appears in a bright-bordered sari, her perfumed hair coiled above her head. “Asked to explain she gave me a coquettish look and blithely replied. ‘I will appear before your honour after office and reveal all.’”

Gupta’s book is a delight for its skilfully crafted small portraits. A circuit judge in West Bengal “who would cook fish curry on a stove placed firmly in the centre of a study table, unmindful of time or schedule.” A chief secretary who was known for his poetic temperament, wayward moods, erratic reactions and repetitive statements, with a penchant for “freshly recruited lady stenographers”. Mr Sen, a district magistrate who gave him this gyan at the beginning of his career: “Go into the field and fall in love with the impoverishment of the countryside, Mr Gupta. This alone is the rationale for the administrative service.” And the barber who told him never to trust police intelligence reports without verification — a piece of advice he never forgot. But in the wily world of the IAS, brilliant, honest and hardworking officers are not allowed to make changes at the grassroots with greed and corruption ensuring their frequent transfers.

The greatest merit of Gupta’s memoirs, apart from the racy style, and sensitive and poignant manner in which he relates the story, is his basic honesty and humour. There isn’t any visible attempt to dress up anything. The pages are dotted with Gupta’s drunken interludes and orgies, including his socking a policeman and breaking his teeth, when a group of them demanded a bribe as he was driving under the influence of alcohol. They refuse to believe he was an IAS officer as he lived in his family house in a posh area in Delhi.

His disastrous marriage to a fellow IAS officer and the lacklustre honeymoon on a Dal Lake houseboat are related thus: At midnight, with “head heavy with drink” he tries to engage the young boatman in a conversation on whether “marriage was necessary, and how does one succeed”. The boatman’s response: “Holding my hand to steady my wayward step, he led me to the bedroom. ‘Your honour has come here to make love.’” Later when he has a “love affair” with a walking companion in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens with a “blue blooded but impoverished” stranger from Lucknow, “tidal fits of madness” overtake him, leaving him ruminating: “For the continuous nurturing of love, to keep it green and alive, is exacting.”

We get interesting snapshots of politicians. Narasimha Rao’s flawless French and austere living; Zail Singh’s kindness; Devi Lal’s warmth and astute governance, his son Chautala’s violent temper and fits of uncontrollable rage, and his penchant to physically assault legislators and insult senior officers.

And of cities too. In Calcutta, Government files were works of art. It had a large Muslim population and excellent Mughlai food. “But the veneer of secularism that I witnessed in the upper echelons of Calcutta society erupted sporadically, through subtle nuances in conversation rather than any violent exchange. I found a deep distrust between Hindus and Muslims alike.”

Gupta gives the readers a startlingly close look at the various layers that hide inefficiency, sloth, corruption, high handedness, nepotism and worse in the way India is governed. And all this is related in effortless prose, a tone that is neither sanctimonious nor bitter, but sometimes philosophical. Of his meteoric rise in the Punjab cadre, he says it ends on “a rather low octave owing to my failure to grasp the dynamics of success” and his rigid stand on issues, and “biting replies” to MLAs.

Without the bottle and philosophy as his constant companions, and of course his mother who goes on to live for 100 years and is a rock of support to the single officer, his constant incarceration in the service would have been difficult to digest.

The book is full of hilarious anecdotes — as tragic as they are comic. For instance, when as Forests Secretary in Punjab, he refuses to allow the ecologically fragile bit of forest in the Shivalik area to be developed into modern hosing colonies on the periphery of Chandigarh, both the CM and advocate general are not amused. Asking him to reverse his opinion, the latter writes with biting sarcasm: “You are being dramatic. I understand that you are a poet, a writer, and occasionally an administrator. Be practical. And may I suggest to you, as a supporter of our government, to get hold of some land in this area for your retirement home? It is close enough to the golf course and the clubhouse has a good watering hole.”

Refusal to comply ends his stint; Gupta returns to the department three years later as financial commissioner, and insists on open tenders to auction a timber contract and not renew it automatically. The minister, who has been bribed, summons him and screams at him, and then talks to the CM over the phone “in hushed tones, as lovers whose romance has narrowly escaped discovery might.” He gets up, applies “another daub of tilak on his furrowed forehead” and storms out to the CM’s office, returning in 30 minutes with Gupta’s transfer orders.

With the numerous scams that we witness these days, where both the politicians and babus appear equally brazen and shameless, what Gupta says in the prologue rings true. “There is little doubt in my mind that the country is veering dangerously towards catastrophe; the largest democracy in the world, in a little over six decades, has displayed a remarkable inability to take charge of itself.”

With its intellect, wit and humour, honesty and a fine writing style, this book is truly a “literary milestone”, as Khushwant Singh puts it.

rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in

Published on May 16, 2013

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