The world knows Letika Saran as the super-achieving cop — she became Chennai's first woman Commissioner of Police in 2006, and now, at the age of 57, has become the first woman Director-General of Police in Tamil Nadu (and only the second woman to hold that post in the country).
But, half an hour spent with the trim, diminutive lady in her enormous office on Kamarajar Salai, and you get a glimpse into the world of Letika Saran, the woman. You find out that her heart still lies in the hills of Munnar, where she spent her carefree childhood. You find out that she's currently worried about a mix-up in her daughter Uthara's return ticket to Perth (she's a student research scientist there).
You find out that her favourite way to unwind is with her four dogs (two long-haired dachshunds and two recently-acquired pups). And that she still loves reading the detective novels that were part of the reason why she wanted to join the police force in the first place.
“I was always fond of detective novels, and I liked the idea of the police,” she says simply, of her decision to join the Indian Police Service (IPS) after her undergraduate degree at the Women's Christian College. “I've worked in investigation for over 15 years and always found it interesting; so, I've never looked back on that decision as anything but the correct one.”
The transition from college girl to cop wasn't ‘unduly difficult', she says in her precise way: “Even the physical aspects of training weren't difficult, as gymnastics was part of our daily routine at my boarding school in Kodaikanal.”
But the hard road truly began from her first posting. “I was one of only two women in the field at my level, and it was like working in a goldfish bowl, with the eye of the public and the department on you,” she says. “You had to constantly prove yourself — not just as Letika Saran but as a woman police officer. Failure wasn't an option.”
And so, the girl from the hills began to blaze a trail in the plains. But even today, when you speak of Munnar, Letika's eyes soften. “When you've lived in the hills, you identify so closely with the place — even if you haven't had the time to go back in years,” she says in her clear, flute-like voice. “There's something familiar about the hills which, perhaps, isn't there in any other place.”
Still, over the years, Chennai has become home, mostly because, she says ruefully, it's home for her daughter. “She was born and brought up here and calls it home — so, we don't have a choice,” she laughs, adding: “As anyone who's lived here for a long time knows, Chennai is a city that grows on you, and my husband and I really don't look at living anywhere else.”
Our interview is interspersed with a series of phone calls over her daughter's ticket mix-up, and super-cop Letika sounds endearingly like any concerned mom as she hangs up and shakes her head: “Here's the kid not even prepared to travel today, and she's being told she's got to be on the flight…”
Juggling her job and family hasn't always been easy on Letika, but in her no-fuss way, she tells me she was fortunate in having postings that allowed her to be with her daughter when she was very young. “It also helped that she knew exactly how things would be; she was independent right from the beginning,” she says, pride evident.
Today, Letika Saran exudes an air of no-regrets contentment with her life. There isn't perhaps as much time as she might like for travel — back to the hill stations of her youth, for example — but there are always detective novels to read (“they're ideal for when you don't want serious reading”), her dogs which recently doubled in number, and, of course, the passion that has guided her throughout her career.
“From the time that I joined, I always wanted to prove myself as somebody who is competent and capable, who could do the job and get the job done,” she says. “That's still remains my goal today.”