The Travails of an Accidental Probationer

Ashok Jha, IAS, Andhra Pradesh

Four score and ten years ago, the UPSC in active connivance and deep-rooted conspiracy with the Government of India, inflicted on this nation, the 1969 batch. The country is still to recover from that grave error that monumental Himalayan blunder!

As I pen this nearly fifty years later, I’m struck by the tremendous changes that have taken place in the last fifty years, both within the country and internationally. When younger people ask me how the country has changed, I’m reminded of a joke doing the rounds many years ago:

In 1969 a guy goes to a car dealer to book his car. After he puts down a deposit, he is told to come back 10 years later to pick up the car.

He asks “morning or afternoon”?

The salesman responds “ten years from now, what difference does it make?”

Buyer’s response “yes it does. The telephone chap is coming in the morning.”

This in essence is a powerful metaphor of the state of the economy fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, we made less than 35,000 cars a year, now it is more than 3 million with every major international company jostling for market share. In 1969, not everyone could manage a telephone connection quite unlike the ubiquitous mobiles today.

I’m sometimes asked, as to my first reaction when I landed up in Charleville. Much like a TV journalist asking the survivor of an earthquake of 7.7 on the Richter scale.

“I know you have lost your home and your family, but how does it feel?”

For me all my joy was wiped out, when I was filling up the joining report. Since I had arrived at 12 15 pm I was told the date of my joining would be 3rd July AN. Not knowing the difference between FN and AN and not wanting to sound ignorant at the start of what I hoped was going to be an illustrious path breaking career, I quietly did as told.

Subsequently, I was “enlightened” by my better-informed colleagues that I would be a day junior to them as they had joined in the FN. For a long time, I harbored a grudge against my sister at whose insistence I had stayed back in Dehra Dun for a hearty breakfast. At that time, it seemed a good idea to fortify oneself before encountering staid denizens of the Government of India.

Probationers, as we all know, come in many shapes, sizes and acronyms. KTPs are the best-known variety and they originate from many states. At the other end of the spectrum, are the lesser known but numerically not insignificant, CCLPs (Couldn’t Care Less). Much like Maggie noodles, before it was unceremoniously yanked off the retail shelves, I was different. I was an AP, an Accidental Probationer.

Like many sensible students before me, I hadn’t a clue about what I wanted to do after my post-graduation in Economics. All the others had carefully planned their activity—most were busy filling up forms that the UPSC had provided as bait. The chatter at the dining table was not about the multifarious challenges facing the country, but of mundane issues like which State should shoulder the burden if one miraculously qualified. I felt completely left out of the conversation as I hadn’t even seen the Form.

After much serious thought (after all the fee of Rs 80 was a small fortune those days) I took the plunge. Armed with a postal order of the requisite amount, and two DTC buses later, I became the proud owner of the Form. Having assiduously kept away from all forms till then, one glance at the Form convinced me that I was not cut out for the job. Filling up the Form required a certain skill, a high level of resolution and dedication, attributes which at a tender age of twenty-one, I woefully lacked.

At that point of my existence, there was a deep schism in the world. It consisted of two types of people— those that could fill up forms without breaking into a sweat, and those that suffered nervous breakdowns at their mere sight. No prizes for guessing where I belonged. But without my recognising it at that time, I did possess a much sought-after Officer- Like- Quality called procrastination. (It came in very handy later in my career).

With masterly prevarication that comes from years of experience, the Form was consigned to a drawer of my desk where it remained undisturbed for a considerable period of time.

Two days before D day the chatter at the dining table rose to a crescendo. I could duck it no longer. A far-reaching decision impacting the Nation had to be taken. With the active abetment and collusion of a friend who had done the needful, the Form was filled up exhibiting a high level of prescience. An example was my opting for the State of Himachal Pradesh in 1968, nearly three years before it came into existence in 1971! It was a mere Union Territory till then.

Other than the initial “misgiving” of being declared junior, the Foundation course did not hold any serious threats till the cadre allotments were notified. The State of Andhra Pradesh didn’t realise at that point of time what an irreversible error of judgement they were committing by accepting me in their fold. I understood later that they had no choice in the matter. After all those were the days prior to the concept of cooperative federalism.

Not having travelled south of the Vindhyas till then, my immediate concern was not to rush to ascertain its geographical coordinates as any self-respecting KTP would do, but to investigate the prospects of fishing in its territory. It was not a mere coincidence but a matter of active consideration that I had opted for the State of Himachal Pradesh entirely on that criterion. I was reassured by my more peripatetic colleagues that while AP did not reach the lofty heights of HP in that department, it was not entirely deficient. It was a great relief as it meant that the two delightful years that were spent angling in HP while ostensibly pursuing a post graduate degree from the Delhi School of Economics, would not be a national or even a notional loss.

Some lucky people, like the former Prime Minister Mr. P V Narasimha Rao, have a flair for picking up languages. It took me less than two Telugu lessons at the Academy to come to the unflattering realisation that my tongue and brain were not adequately in sync to be equal to the task. This was to pose a very serious obstacle in “earning” my first increment. The amount involved—Rs 100–was not to be trifled with as it constituted about 20 per cent of one’s take home salary.

At the Departmental Telugu test a few months later in Hyderabad, the very senior IAS Officer in charge Shri Shastri, clearly was in a dilemma. Glancing at a piece of paper which had accurately captured my poor performance earlier in the day, he thundered “you cannot read, you cannot write and nor do you understand Telugu, what do you expect me to do?” In

a calm voice which did not betray my nervousness, I replied that the least he could do was to pass me as I had been in the State for less than two months and was able to converse with my peon. Eying me with a tinge of pity mixed with exasperation, he pressed a bell, and much like a genie trapped in a bottle, a man in a grey shirt appeared.

“Imagine he is your peon, say something to him” he thundered.

Without batting an eyelid, and mustering nearly all the Telugu at my command, I ordered “coffee tiskura” (get coffee). Obviously, my accent, tone and demeanour were impressive, as I passed the test!

During the Foundation Course, while the KTPs swotted, and the CCLPs generally gadded about, some of us were thoroughly confused. We didn’t know whether we should take to heart all the serious stuff — Law, Public Administration etc. —that was being thrown at us relentlessly, or to duck, dodge and weave around the punches. Before we had worked out an enduring strategy, the Course ended and would have been easily forgotten but for an unexplained occurrence.

Less than a week before we were to pack up for our training in the State cadre, around 2am I felt someone shaking my bed vigorously. For a while I thought it to be a nightmare, but even when I was awake in bed, the shaking continued. My immediate suspicion was that one or more of my “spirited” colleagues, taking advantage of the widely known fact that my room was never locked, had decided to play a prank. But a thorough examination of the premises yielded no Probationer of any variety. Without too much fuss, I bolted the door and was half asleep when the bed was continuously rocked with tremendous force. Since I was not fully asleep, I was transfixed with fear and immediately switched on the bedside light. The shaking of the bed stopped. I searched the room again. I was alone. To add to my panic, the wall behind the bed had deep cuts. It was then that the realisation dawned on me that everything was not kosher and that I had witnessed a force well beyond mortal limits. I switched on all the lights in the room and the bathroom, and sat up for the better part of what remained of the night.

I mentioned the incident to a few of my esteemed colleagues next morning. Their reaction ranged from utter disbelief to complete fear. The sense of fear was aggravated by the deep cuts the solid iron headrest of the bed had made on the wall behind it. Those that scoffed at my story during the day could not muster enough courage to take up my challenge to spend the night in the room. Their courage waned as the day progressed. The only person who was totally unfazed was the room bearer. Without batting an eyelid, he informed me that it had happened at least once before. His explanation was that many years earlier, a Probationer had committed suicide in that room— a case of unrequited love. Discretion being the better part of valor, the few remaining nights before the first phase of the training in Mussoorie ended, were spent in another room in Happy Valley.

Had 1969 been the India of 2019, a high-level enquiry would have been ordered immediately and the Commission would have undoubtedly submitted a voluminous report in 2029 without coming to a precise finding!

My first impression of the Officers of the AP cadre was extremely favourable, no doubt buttressed by the very jovial Deputy Secretary to whom I reported in the Secretariat in Hyderabad. My attachment for a week with Shri Ghulam Ahmed, the famous Indian spinner who had mesmerized the Australian cricket team in 1956 snaring ten wickets in a match, was very productive in understanding the nuances of off-spin bowling under Test conditions. Another week with a Joint Secretary, who was an avid punter and had won the Jackpot at the Hyderabad races, opened my eyes to a new world which was unfettered by work related tensions.

The District Collector at Vishakhapatnam to whom I reported for district training initially was a very senior, devout religious Officer who gave me a blank cheque in organizing my training. While he operated mainly from the office at his residence, his encouraging comments on my fortnightly diary reassured me that he was not only alive and kicking but was keeping a benign close watch on the progress of the Assistant Collector (Under Training)

Unable to buy a car, I had got my old scooter sent across from Delhi. This was not a decision endorsed by at least two persons. The Hazur Sheristadar (the boss of all the non-gazetted officers) could not come to terms with a lowly two-wheeler being parked in the portico of the Collectorate, in the vicinity of the Collector’s car. He felt this detracted from the dignity and majesty of the hallowed office. His solution was a win-win for everyone: I was provided with a jeep to go to the Collectorate whenever I was in Headquarters.

The other person, who was aggrieved by my scooter was my camp clerk (CC). He had been assigned to accompany me on my tours. This created all sorts of protocol issues. How could he sit pillion on a scooter being driven by the AC? After much hesitation, he reluctantly agreed. His confusion came to the fore on one occasion as I was driving through the port area, and had slowed down to almost a stop. He decided to lighten my burden by getting off without any fanfare. Oblivious of the loss of a pillion rider, I drove on for a while before realising that the CC was AWOL.

I broke out in cold sweat as I had left the Collectorate with the CC and he had literally vanished into thin air. Fearing the worst— that he had fallen off and been run over—I requested the Collectorate to check with all hospitals and alert all police stations. Since there was no word from anywhere, I returned to the office in a worried state of mind. About half an hour later, the CC strolled into my room nonchalantly. Apparently, he was not feeling up to the mark, and therefore took a unilateral decision to abandon ship!

While I functioned as the district Treasury Officer, as a part of the mandated training, a retired Officer came to see me. His grievance was that he had not received his pension for about a year. On being questioned as to why this was so, the concerned clerk pointed out that the pensioner’s six-monthly certificate certifying that he was alive was not on record. Since the pensioner was before me, I certified that he was indeed alive and he went to collect his pension. A little later, he reappeared, more than a little distressed, as he had received his pension for the previous six months, not the six months prior to that. The clerk conceded that the pensioner was alive for the past six months but there was no record to show that he was alive six months earlier!

A few weeks prior to the conclusion of the district training, there was a change of guard—a new Collector joined. He was the antithesis of his predecessor. Polished, urbane and always accessible, he made it a point to take me along on his tours in the district so that I could observe at close quarters how to handle the multitude that thronged his visits to the villages.

It was a satisfying conclusion to a yearlong training in the State.

Our Bharat Darshan thereafter had a fantastic itinerary. Starting from Chennai, and traversing a large number of States and cities including Jaipur, Jodhpur, Mercara, Bombay and Goa, we finally wound our way to the Wagah border beyond Amritsar. For some inexplicable reason I had been made the Treasurer of the batch— an honour which was wholly unmerited considering that I never had enough money which needed to be treasured. Perhaps the Academy Director saw in me qualities of parsimony and foresaw that I would one day be a reluctant Finance Secretary of the State as well as the Central Govt. Whatever be the reason, I learned a very valuable lesson of administration the hard way. Towards the fag end of our travels, there was a verbal spat between one of the probationers and the Officer in charge of the batch. Much to the chagrin of the Officer, I did not side with him ignoring the two golden rules of the work place. Rule number one: the boss is always right. Rule number two: If the boss is wrong, refer to Rule number one.

On our return to the Academy we were greeted with a sight we would never have imagined in our wildest dreams. As we got off the bus, the fearsome, dreaded riding instructor, Mr. Naval Singh whose very name caused unbridled consternation, displayed his softer, humane side. He requested us to join the riding classes which were no longer mandatory. By a stroke of the pen, the Government had transformed a roaring lion into a tame cat. This was another lesson: never underestimate the Govt.

The final session of training in Mussoorie ended with the Army attachment. Our small group was to go to the Indo- Chinese border, but because of a number of landslides we couldn’t go all the way and were attached to the unit of 5 Grenadiers. The Commanding Officer and all the other Officers of the unit took great pains to make us feel at home and taught us to throw grenades and fire all weapons from a pistol to a sub machine gun. Unfortunately for them, in a friendly competition of marksmanship between them and us rookies, fortune smiled on us. This was yet another lesson: inexperience is not always a handicap.

Government of Andhra Pradesh obviously took a dim view of the great time that I had had as a Probationer, and posted me to the prominent Naxalite infested district of Srikakulam ending a glorious innings as an Accidental Probationer.





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