A genre in itself: the civil service memoir is an important part of the record of public administration

The best memoirs aren’t the ‘tell-all’, gossipy accounts, but those that are insightful and reflective, acknowledging the role of civil servants in implementing policy decisions, and providing glimpses of the truth 

July 20, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addresses a gathering of successful candidates of the UPSC Civil in Lucknow on June 18.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addresses a gathering of successful candidates of the UPSC Civil in Lucknow on June 18. | Photo Credit: ANI

Bain was an unusual civil servant. “Call me Bain” — those were his first words when we met at his son, writer Dilip D’Souza’s house in Bandra. J. Bain D’Souza was five decades older than me and had joined the civil service in the year that India became independent. As a trainee officer, he helped to organise refugee camps during Partition. He held key postings, including as Municipal Commissioner of Bombay and Chief Secretary of Maharashtra.

Bain also told terrific, self-deprecating jokes. His memoir, written in equally modest and very readable style, was titled No Trumpets or Bugles: Recollections of an Unrepentant Babu.

In spare, no-frills prose, he writes about the work of public administration in the early decades of the life of the nation. He also notes a troubling trend in a section of the IAS over the years: of becoming unreflective in work, dealing only with “what their clerical army feeds them… slaves of their in-trays.” This naturally impacts accountability and responsiveness.

But, he adds, what has stayed unchanged is this: “The official’s readiness to regard himself as master rather than servant of the people. This is something we happily inherited from the British… Our officials have steadily played God. They have known best what is good for the people, and being predominantly from the upper classes, have tended to make policy choices that favour their own kind. So (for example) you get the neglect of public transport in our cities.”

Witness to history

The civil service memoir is a genre in itself and an important part of the record. Civil servants are witnesses to major historical moments and key discussions on policy. Nevertheless, the best civil service memoirs aren’t the ‘tell-all’ or salacious accounts filled with gossip about the weak or fractious moments of powerful leaders. The most interesting memoirs are insightful and reflective, acknowledging their role of implementation rather than as prime movers of policy decisions; and providing glimpses of the truth, but in the poet’s words, “telling it slant”.

Civil service memoirs ought to be compelling — after all, they have a ringside view of history — but let’s face it, many are hard to finish. They tend to be full of ‘me, myself, and I’ — forgetting that there is no ‘I’ in government, but that it is really all teamwork, with some of the hardest work being done by those who are directly in contact with the people at street level, especially frontline community workers.

Some civil service memoirs provide a chronological account of every single posting and every anecdote in excruciating detail. Some get lost in stories about “When I was a Collector” — forgetting that after the 73rd Constitution Amendment, the role of the Collector — a creation and legacy of the British administration — is marginal at best, and that it is decentralised local governance which needs to be strengthened.

Some sharp commentaries

The memoir can only be as interesting as the life story it tells. In a sea of banal, self-obsessed, and triumphalist narratives, there are some that stand out. One highly readable memoir is V. Balasubramanian’s Fall from Grace: Memoirs of a Rebel IAS Officer. Intelligently written, richly detailed, and with the sharpest of commentary, Balasubramanian brings an original voice to his telling of several decades of administrative history.

Another deeply unusual memoir is Chiranjeev Singh’s Yaava Janmada Maitri, written in Kannada. Born in pre-Independence India in Punjab, Singh served as India’s Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, and worked and settled in Karnataka where he retired as Development Commissioner.

K.M. Chandrashekhar’s recent memoir As Good as My Word is also about an unconventional career. In his assessment, the high points of his work, even more than the four years spent as Cabinet Secretary, were his tenures in Brussels and Geneva at the WTO, where, using negotiation skills learnt while dealing with unions and factions in Kerala, he worked on international trade policy.

I have also been drawn to analyses that take a long, honest look at the bureaucracy itself, not from the centre but from the margins.

One such critique is T.R. Raghunandan’s witty and ironic deconstruction of life bound up in red tape, titled Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bureaucracy but Were Afraid to Ask — a trenchant look at a civil service that takes itself far too seriously. Another is N.C. Saxena’s introspective and deeply researched What Ails the IAS, and Why It Fails to Deliver: An Insider’s View, in which he argues why the IAS must share the blame for the country’s inadequate performance on hunger and inequality.

Lack of women’s voices

I have often wondered why there are so few memoirs by women civil servants. Surely, they have stories to tell, not least of all about the entrenched patriarchy they have often had to struggle against in their work. Yet perhaps, as women tend to do, they undervalue their own contributions.

At a recent discussion on a civil servant’s book, there was the inevitable question about why civil servants wait until retirement to write their memoirs.

The answer is quite simple: for one thing, service conduct rules come in the way; for another, it is difficult to reflect and write in the midst of meetings, crises, and multiple demands on one’s time; but the most important reason is that it is only after retirement that it is possible to take a long, measured look at the years that have gone by.

Finally, not all civil servants write their memoirs — but they leave a mark in the systems and processes they put in place. P.R. Nayak of the 1954 batch of the IAS passed on this week. Among the many deeply felt tributes, his junior colleagues recalled how, as Development Commissioner before the advent of computers, Nayak had devised a detailed system for monthly multilevel reviews, from the taluka to state level, of major developmental programmes — a system that continued to serve the state for decades.

A great legacy indeed.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS.

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