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Welcome to the land of coconuts

Land in any airport in Kerala and you will be welcomed by the lush green canopy of the coconut trees. So unlike many other places, even outsiders dont face any issue in identifying the origin of the name of this beautiful stretch of land, Kerala; The land of Kera or coconuts. Malayalees are an enterprising class. Contrary to popular perception, it is not that we work hard only outside the state. Such misconceptions arise only because of the inability of others to understand the intricate way in which the Malayalee mind works. The basic thumb rule is as follows: when outside Kerala, the Malayalee works hard; when inside Kerala, he get things to work for him. It was this that led our great grandfathers to discover the potential of the coconut tree and plant them all over Kerala and even name the place as such. It is undoubtedly a wonder tree. Every bit of the tree can be put to good economic use: the nut, the husk, the wood and so on. But the best part is yet to come. You get one of the best form of natural liquor from the coconut tree called kallu. Now I guess you have got a feel of how the Malayalee mind works.

The story seems to lead to a happy ending. But there is a twist. For the benefits that you get from the coconut tree, there is one huge problem. The tree grows upto a height of 30 m on average. The nut weighs around 1.5 kg. A fully grown nut when it falls down will touch the ground at around 80 km/hr velocity. At this speed and weight, dont have any misconception, a falling nut can be your ticket to the other world. As the canopy spreads out, a radial distance of 2 metres from the trunk can be safely classified as ‘High risk zone’ and a further 1 metre can be classified as ‘Potential high risk zone’. So far I have talked only about falling nuts. If your head is fortunate enough to intercept the path of a falling coconut leaf, (this requires a footnote for the uninitiated. A falling leaf brings very pleasant imageries in our minds. But the leaf in question here is a bunch of leaves connected by a truck. It weighs some 10-15 kgs. So a falling coconut leaf is just as good as a falling tree) your loved ones will be spared of the expenses of burial. The safety hazards are so scary that this happened when Barack Obama visited India in 2010.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11684382

But still we plant it everywhere. Not just in groves and plantations but on front of and behind our houses, in front of commercial complexes and so on. Even when the economic return from the sale of the nut has come crashing down, we keep on planting. The emotional attachment is also playing its part here.To obviate the concerns on the potential risks posed by the tree, our great grandfathers created a proverb also (the intricate malayalee mind at work). ‘Thengu Chathikilla’, The coconut tree will not betray you. So you hear countless stories of how the coconut fell just inches away or the leaf coming crashing down a few seconds after the person left the place etc.

But all these beliefs and concern for the tree breaks down the moment your neighbour’s coconut tree mischievously pokes its head into your compound. The infamous hypocrisy of the Malayalee at work? Sociologists need to go deep into this. People start running from pillar to post to get the tree out of his compound. Starting from the panchayat to invoking the provisions under section 133 of CrPC, some even go upto the High court filing a writ petition. This is independent of the number of coconut tree present in his own compound. Risk to kids playing in the compound, damage to the roof tiling…The arguments and counter arguments just dont end. This is disservice to our great grandfathers who discovered a tree as great as this and even went to the extent of finding a proverb to displace possible fears.

But dont worry, the Malayalee mind has already started to work on this. We have not only identified rubber as our next big crop, but even leads the country in terms of research and better cultivars, something very rare to find in the agricultural scene of the country. Rubber meets all the conditions previously set by the coconut tree: good returns, the whole tree can be put into good use and so on without any of the safety hazards posed by the former. No falling death traps, no need of any reassuring proverbs. No wonder that coconut groves across the state is being replaced by rubber plantations. So do
not be surprised if you find the state named as ‘Rubberum’ some 100 years from now. It is just the Malayalee mind at its best.

Confessions of a battered suitcase

This is an extract of the privileged communication i had with my faithful VIP suitcase which carried my heavy luggage during our mandatory Winter study tour as a part of our professional training to become able administrators…

I was born in a hot, crowded and happening factory somewhere in the outskirts of Nagpur. Even before I could figure out what was happening, I was transported to a small, sleepy town called Palakkad where I waited with my siblings for someone to come and adopt me. I am a VIP suitcase and I am going to tell you my adventures in the last two months when my owner took me on a journey of a lifetime.

I waited for days and months on end but no one chose me. “This suitcase is too big”, most of them would declare. My long wait ended when this boyish looking guy came with his dad to get a big suitcase. My owner was a new recruit to the Indian Administrative Service named Gokul. Others said. ‘He will take you around the world during his official tours’, my peers said with a tinge of envy. I was happy beyond words. But he had other plans for me. As soon as I landed up in Mussoorie carrying almost 40kg of his things, he locked me up in a corner of his cupboard. He went for treks, village visits and other outings. He took my friends, the black American Tourister bag or the Reebok backpack on these journeys. I lay in one corner, unnoticed. On December 16, I was taken out and once again stuffed with things. I weighed around 30 with that. I thought Gokul was going home. It was when I was taken up to the academic area on that night that I knew that I was going for a two month study tour across the nation.

While there were only 16 Officer Trainees in our group, there were around 50 of my compatriots for the two month adventure. These included the ‘twice born’ laptop bags also. They were never kept on the floor and always enjoyed the coziness of their owners lap. Let me introduce some quirky characters in our group. One is the fake Jaguar bag which Anugraha madam picked up from somewhere in the busy corner of Karol Bagh. Being a fakie, he was mistreated so badly that he can’t even stand properly on his feet now. My peers were the American Tourister and Samsonite bags which belonged to Dr. Vijaykumar and Aravind. We were the biggest in the group and always supported the rest of the group when we were fitted into the luggage compartment during our tours. There was this bag that belonged to Sourabh Raj that was just 3/4th of my size but carried at least 5 kilos extra.  Some of them always ended up on the heads of porters in the railway station but I was always carried around by my owner.

My first adventure came with the army attachment with the Gorkha rifles in the northern part of Sikkim. I was put on a 2.5 tonner truck along with my heavier compatriots. We were escorted by the soldiers of the Madras Regiment on the journey. The full day journey from New Jalpaiguri to Lachung was tiring but the company of the soldiers who kept on telling about their adventures in Kashmir kept all of us entertained. They told us that in case of an emergency this was the same route that would be taken by our soldiers to reach the borders while the Chinese soldiers can reach the border in half the time from Lhasa. Our owners seemed to have forgotten us and sped away in Innovas. So we took our sweet time and stopped to enjoy the beauty of the Teesta valley as we progressed along its banks.

I hate air travel. You will be unattended for a long time and the staff throws you around like anything. On top of all these you will be thrashed for being overweight. Fortunately most of our travel was by train. Gokul would bind me to the rail berth to prevent some unsuspecting souls to explore what secrets I am holding. The few air journeys turned out to be eventful. The first one was the journey between Guwahati and Aizawl.  My owner frantically took out stuff from me and filled it in his Reebok backpack. The Reebok was bloating with things sticking out on all sides and reduced my weight to 20 kg. But on reaching the airport, it was found that the free limit was 15 kg. This prompted more frantic rearrangement and I was looking sleek at 16kg. The aircraft was a sight to behold. It was a small ATR 42-300, a trifle larger than a mini-bus. The cargo cabin was like that of a Volvo bus. It felt more like a chartered flight as the cargo cabin contained just 2-3 bags other than 25 of us. One of the rare occasion in which we were treated good in a flight. I hope our owners in the flight cabin were also treated well. After all, Air India is in serious financial crisis as per newspaper reports and you can’t expect they airhostesses to be pleasing when they have not been paid their salaries for the last 2 months.

Another interesting thing happened during the flight from Port Blair to Chennai. This time the trainees decided to pool in their luggage and do group check in. I tried warning them of the possible free rider problem that may crop up due to this. I overheard this while they were doing combined studies for the FC exam. The final weight tally came to around 40 Kgs in excess of the free limit and they were made to pay Rs.10,000 for that. While people were vey careful in the previous journeys and carried 2-3 hand baggage, many were simply strolling into the aircraft this time carrying just a book. I think they deserve the amount lost for the carelessness.

Getting all us out at railway stations was a major task and let me tell you that within 1-2 stations, the trainees had devised a fool proof and efficient way to do this. The task became more difficult when the stoppage time in the station is 1-2 minutes and we had to give way for passengers to board also. This was put to test in Chandrapur station in Maharashtra where the stop was only for a minute. We were split into two groups and were taken out through the two exits of the compartment. One trainee would hand a bag down to another standing down. He will hand it to the next one who will keep it away from the train. I timed the whole process once and they were able to completely take out around 50 bags and 16 people in 55 seconds. Necessity surely takes efficiency to newer heights.

Uttar Pradesh sprang up a different surprise. There were around 10 policemen to receive us at the railway station, some of them armed. In a land where lawlessness is the law and people get killed in open daylight, I wondered why such a huge contingent was needed just to escort ‘not even confirmed’ trainees holding no independent responsibility to their hotels. We had lesser number of people guarding our backs in the naxal affected Gadchiroli. But of course, IAS officers know their job and U.P is supposedly the best cadre. So I guess I will find out the reason sometime later during my long association with my owner.

I got back to Mussoorie after a short visit home on 19th February, 2012 with just a few minor scratches and discolorations here and there. It was an incredible 2 month journey when I travelled over the mountains and the seas and saw people and places I may never see again. I hope my owner takes me out for more such adventures as he is getting ready to lock up in a similar cupboard two floors above my old room. Till then, Adios…

To be or not to be : Choosing civil services as a career

A career in the Indian civil services is still one of the most coveted job in the nation. The number of applicants for the 900 odd posts every year is increasing exponentially. Just about 6 lakh applied for the 965 notified vacancies for CSE 2010. After a one year gruelling process, the UPSC recommended 920 for appointment.  Of which only those who end up in the first 100 will get the coveted IAS/IFS and the remaining may end up appearing for at least one more attempt!! And even after getting through, you work under severe constraints. IAS and IPS officers works directly under the supervision of elected representatives. Their decisions are to be guided by political sensibilities as well as real-time requirements. Added to all this, there is no fixed tenure at any of the posts. The not so favoured among the officers may end up getting 3 or 4 transfers every year.

So one should be very sure about the requirements of this examination and well as the requirements of this service before deciding . Given the competitiveness of exam, there is no other way other than full-time preparation. One need to start 7-8 months before the prelims and the exam process takes one whole year. Thus atleast two years need to be completely devoted towards the preparation. While we hear about the inspirational stories of the toppers and the successful civil servants, what is lost out in the noise is the failure of tens of thousands of aspirants and the intense dissatisfaction with which many officers continue in service.

So I request the would be aspirants to spent some time contemplating on these:

  • Know about the services. Talk to serving and retired bureaucrats. Read memoirs or articles. There is more to the services than Lal bathi and huge bungalows. Be sure that you will fit into the service.
  • Know about the requirements of the exam. Make a realistic assessment of the efforts that need to be put in. People don’t start as equals as far as this exam is considered. People with a good general knowledge base, opinions and ability to express their views definitely stand at an advantage over others.
  • Make a rational self assessment. Dont do it based on your past laurels and achievements as this exam is not testing intelligence as defined in the conventional sense. Its looking for broad-based individuals with opinions.
Thus be very sure before taking the plunge. But once you have made the choice, there should be no looking back. You will face failure, pass through highly depressing stages, doubt your ability to make through, may have to start from square one after reaching upto the last stage….Thus is it a test of your mental strengths as much as it is of your intellectual abilities. The whole process of preparation and exam is a life changing one, whether you come out successful or unsuccessful. You get to read and learn about things that you would not have done otherwise. There is nothing other than knowledge that makes you feel more humble by the virtue of having more. I feel much more closer to my family, my close relatives and my friends than ever before. Think and discuss before starting. All the best for the aspirants.
@Aspirants.I will be writing about my experiences and strategies for each of the subjects in this page. Please refrain from sending me messages and friend requests in facebook. I think it is not the right platform and I also prefer to keep it personal. Please follow this blog and post comments if you want to clear any doubts. As someone who found it hard to get proper guidance in the beginning, I am only happy to help. But please use this blog as the platform.

I am not yet into the service but…

Technically, I am not an IAS officer yet. I have only been recommended by the UPSC for appointment into the IAS. The Government of India has to send me an offer of appointment before I am formally inducted into the IAS. 9 months of Preliminary training awaits me before I get my first field posting as Asst. Collector (Under Training). But I was shocked to know that bribing doesnt always wait for all these formalities to end to reveal itself. Was also surprised to know the subtle forms in which it comes. Yes you have been misguided. Villains dont walk into your office with a huge suitcases loaded with cash. Bribing, small or large has its own subtle forms. I recently received a phone call from a popular civil services magazine which i didnt use and i strongly disapprove from the examination perspective. This was how it went:

Rep: We would like to take your interview for our xyz magazine.

Me : Ok. But i cannot endorse your magazine as i havent used it.

Rep : Thats ok. Its a questionnaire. Plus we are also giving you a cash award for your achievement( I later got to know from another source that the amount works out to be 5000 rupees).

Why the hell should they give me a cash award?? Every year people top the exam. I havent even used their magazine. The catch is in the questionnaire that we are asked to fill. “Apart from our magazine …… what else did you read?”, “How long have you been reading xyz magazine” were some of the questions to name a few. They also change some of our answers to suit their ends too. In the end, the interview would turn out to be an open endorsement of the magazine by us and the so called ‘cash award’ a payment for that!!

Thanks to Supreet singh IAS who had blogged about this here, i could call their bluff. Still i couldnt give him a firm ‘No’ when he called and said “I will call back in an hour”. I called back some 20 minutes later and said I would neither endorse their magazine by appearing in the interview nor accept any monetary reward from them.

He has rightly titled the post as ‘…Warning to the future toppers…’ But many in the rank list may be either too naive to know or may find it ok due to the prospect of reaching out and inspiring more people. By the time it is discovered that the interviews have been distorted and we have been made to endorse their product, it will be too late. And also the  ‘cash award’ will ensure that they dont create any problems afterwards.

It seems the training for being an upright civil servant begins even before you reach Mussourie. Firm ‘No’s’ to such invitations, felicitation events organised by shady individuals is only the beginning of a very long journey.