Wednesday, March 07, 2007

'How to Placate an Angry Naga' : Finding One's Feet in the IAS

It started with 'Five Point Someone' and has now become a genre of sorts. I call it 'experiential literature'. People writing heavily inspired/ thinly disguised accounts of life on elite campuses, in the corporate world or as a desi in a foreign land are no longer a novelty.

But a peek into life in the IAS, is. After the classic 'English August', we finally have another interesting book from an IAS officer on what it's like to be in government service. This one is not fiction, though - it's reality in diplomatic and digestible wordbytes.

Yet, it manages to provide quite a few insights into how government departments function - and why they don't. As the authors themselves ask in the foreword of the book: "Is the government working because of civil servants or despite them?"

We begin our journey at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. Now you would think this training comprised lectures on economics, politics, law and so on - which it does. And yeah, they also discuss important items of practical value like 'how to handle VVIP visits'.

But were you aware that trainee IAS officers actually start their day with PT and jogging at 6.30 in the morning? The idea being to inculcate 'Officer-Like-Qualities' or OLQ - an indefinable mix of attributes which in modern management jargon is usuallyr refered to as 'leadership ability'.

The secret sauce which makes you a successful IAS officer is actually summed up on page 13:

The cornerstone of impeccable OLQ was learning how to say 'no'. The more boorish members of the faculty did not even wait for yu to finish your sentence... but others said it with a smile, which not only took the edge off the negative reply, it even made you feel guilty about putting the person in this position.

This, one learnt, was real OLQ - the art of man-management combining the ability to lead by example with the common sense to know what to say, what not to say, when to react and when to keep a straight face, and to be able to pull it off ina fraction of a minute in any given situation.

You are then introduced to life as a 'sub divisional magistrate'. A first posting is never easy and more so for a woman. Then there are dilemmas like how to impress your boss without being seen either as an overeager-beaver or a yes-boss type.

The author takes you through the pain of transfer, always hanging over officers. Worse than a transfer is the 'waiting for a posting' category where you are simply... given no work at all! There is an interesting chapter on the dynamics of maintaining 'law and order'. How one must understand mob psychology and strive for 'containment' despite grave provocation from the public.

The next time you see the situation 'getting out of hand' on TV, spare a thought think about how many such situations have probably been defused due to the wisdom of an anonymous IAS/ police officer.

Insights into human nature are peppered across the book. The protocol between the district magistrate and superintendent of police. The delicate balance one has to achieve with seniors, juniors and colleagues in related government departments - given that unlike the corporate world you don't have the option to simply chuck your job and leave.

The behind-the-scenes work which ensured a superbly organised 'Millenium Maha Kumbh' is the highlight of the book, and also the inspiration for the title. Apparently the highly respected Naga sadhus who do not wear a stitch of clothing on their bodies, wander in and out of the administration offices. Unaware of the impact their nakedness may have on others - and leading to some hilarity.

There is a chapter on different kinds of bosses (these varieties of course exist everywhere!) and on a problem peculiar to the IAS - 'how to deal with politcians'. One trick of the trade, apparently is to never say 'no sir' (might offend) or 'yes sir' (implying total compliance' to any request. You simply say 'very well sir', which is non-committal.

At the very end, the authors ask an important question on all our minds:"Do IAS officers manage to change the system in some way or does the system change them?"

They conclude that there are 3 kinds of officers:

1. Dreamers: who stand up for values and wish to do something meaningful. They may end up disillusioned, or appear like failures to the world but at a personal level feel the satisfaction of having lived by their own ethics.

2. Pragmatists: they try to look at the system impersonally and are satisfied if some good comes out of their efforts. However they are not 'crusaders'. They are content with keeping their integrity intact without demanding the same of others.

3. Self-aggrandizers - their defining quality is total flexibility. They crave power and are willing to compromise everything to achieve it.

Of course, being serving officers the authors do not venture to answer what % of their bretheren fall in categories 1, 2 and 3. The popular perception is that dreamers are 2%, pragmatists 10% and the rest, to put it less tactfully, as corrupt and venal as the political masters they serve.

This may be a wrong perception - perhaps another book by the authors in their post-retirement phase can shed some light!

A couple of small cribs:
Although the book credits the husband-wife duo of Leena Nandan and Jiwesh Nandan, it's written completely from the perspective of a lady officer. Wonder whether that's yet another fine example of 'tactical accomodation' to avoid an ego clash :)

I also feel this book suffers from 'babu language' at times - many thoughts could have been expressed in more simple and colloquial words.

But overlook the somewhat stilted prose and dive in anyways. Especially if you have any interest in IAS as a career or the IAS in general. And yeah, compliments to the designer of the book jacket. The Ambassador car complete with red siren is the perfect symbol. It doesn't get more 'governmenty' than that!

'How to Placate an Angry Naga' : Finding One's Feet in the IAS is published by Penguin, Rs 195


  1. Having a lot of Goverment officers in your family gives one a good sense of all that they have to go through. I have seen the amount of anguish they go through, trying to break their heads with moronic politicians. At the same most of their efforts go unnoticed. That combined with the total disregard for meritocracy and quota etc ruins their commitment to work. Though I have seen them tread on and after lots of perseverance they are in a position to at least change somethings...

  2. Many people comment govt officers as corrupt..without understanding the circumstances they work under...I know ppl calling honest govt workers as MAD..u need guts to overcome pressure from society

  3. Reading this, I was strongly reminded of Sir Humphrey from "Yes Minister" series... what with the OLQ, and never committing to anything for politicians and the types of officers...

    That said, I am sure this will be a nice read, given the image of IAS in India.

  4. Many capable students are opting for lucrative business career instead of IAS.

    I hope this book can motivate some people to opt for IAS.

    PS - Best of luck for your Job-Ok_Please venture.

    - Shailesh

  5. No more Google ads? Wonderful!

  6. I wonder how many will be interested in what an IAS has to say...We might read an IITian's experience,but IAS will be relatively boring I guess

  7. Rashmi Bansal has done a very good job in summing up this true-to- life yet suprememly interesting book. The last word one would use for it is boring, so those who feel that a book on the IITs or the BPO sector will prove to be more readable are sadly mistaken. How to placate an angry naga is racy, is fun and is distinctly unputdownable!!What is commendable is the direct style, the wry- sometimes self-deprecating- humour, the total lack of any pretentiousness and the over-all human appeal. There's no better word to describe it-you realise that behind the facade of impressive designations are peolple as human as the rest of us; with their failures and successes their disappointments and achievements. Under the veneer of a life that seems glamorous and enviable are the trials and challenges of getting a job well done. The total lack of any attempt to win accolades for themselves is another remarkable thing that sets this book apart. All in all, an eminently readable book that is both entertaining and edifying.

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