Monday, March 24, 2014

A Rookie in Paradise

C. Balagopal writes about his experiences as a probationary IAS officer in Manipur thirty years ago

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Early one morning, in 1978, the Deputy Commissioner (DC) in the town of Tamenglong in Manipur turned to probationary officer C. Balagopal and said, “You will now witness a much-loved ritual of the frontier areas: the hoisting of the tricolour in the morning.”

On the lawn, outside the DC's bungalow, marched the dog Domingo, followed by a cat, a duck, a rooster and a goat. They stood at attention in front of the flagpole. Then a Nepali helper climbed up the pole with the Indian tricolour. He fixed the flag, with the help of metal hooks. It took the Nepali some time, after some gestures and shouting from the DC, to realise that he had placed the flag upside down. He corrected it, shimmied down, and gave a salute to the DC.

The DC nodded and headed back to the bungalow. Then Balagopal writes, “I saw Domingo turn to give an enquiring look. Someone, possibly the duck, appeared to say something and the troop dispersed in an orderly fashion, going off in different directions.”

This hilarious anecdote was recounted by Balagopal in his charming memoir, 'On a Clear Day You Can See India -- The Little World of the District Official'. In it Balagopal recounts his experiences as an IAS officer in Manipur more than 30 years ago. It was a brief stint: Balagopal quit the IAS, in 1983, after working for only six years to pursue a successful business career in Kerala.

Balagopal tells several tales in an engaging manner, and you get a picture of life in the north-east from a public servant's point of view – a much maligned group in India. Although what will not prepare the reader is the large number of abbreviations of government officers and posts, as well as rebel outfits which appear in the book: a total of 44. These names are displayed across two pages just before the narrative begins.

Balagopal had to quickly get used to the Byzantine ways of the government machinery. Within 29 days, he was handed down his first transfer. And the young officer had a strange experience: “that queer tug at the heart exerted by a place that till a few months earlier was totally unknown, just another name on the map. This quick dropping of roots in strange places is something the British officers of the East India company experienced.”

The other notable incidents included Malayali policemen of the Central Reserve Police Force trying to influence an inquiry report he was writing, the extraordinary paperwork involved in the filing of nominations for an election, and how a protest outside the Raj Bhavan by a group of teachers was diffused, thanks to a timely tip from a head constable.

Sir, it starts suddenly to get cold at this time of the year,” the policeman said. “The temperature drops in minutes as a chilly wind blows in from the hills.” And when that happened, right on schedule, at 4 p.m., the teachers dispersed and rushed off towards their homes, leaving the head constable to give an amused grin. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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