Friday, May 29, 2009

In Conversation with a "Terror" - P. Manivannan

(My Mysore connection? The missus belongs to Mysore. Which is one of the reasons I try to go there as often as possible. The other two reasons are
The food is awesome
My in-laws treat me like a prince.
I happened to meet the DM there, who is really quite extraordinary. Read on to find out why)

For a "terror", Manivannan is very benign looking. Slightly professorial, slim, just a hint of a lisp and has an infectious smile. But folks in Mysore assure me that he is a dragon. Fearless, short tempered, inflexible. I was curious to see for myself.

"He won't bite me, will he?" I asked, jocularly.

"Don't try to find out", said D, a friend of my in-laws' family, quite seriously.

But a few footnotes might be in order. Manivannan is the District Magistrate and Deputy Commissioner of Mysore. He has a history of continuously battling incompetence and corruption in government and antagonising quite a few people in the process. And everytime he is transferred out of a posting, the citizens protest loudly against it. To my mind this is proof that he is doing good. I'm dying to meet him.

"Why do you want to meet him?" B, another friend asks me. I just smile weakly at him. The truth is, I don't know myself. But deep down inside, I have a fervent hope that someday our country will change for the better. I don't usually say this aloud because of all the derisive laughter that it provokes, but 'hope' is that little creature that sits cowering in the pit of your stomach and peeps out hesitantly when things are going well.

One reason to meet him. I've travelled all over India and wherever I've been, I have found people to be really nice. But open any newspaper and your little cocoon of complacency is shattered by a deluge of bad news. Most of it is abuse of authority, corruption and plain old incompetence by those very "nice" countrymen. The magazines are worse in this respect than the papers. I read "Tehelka" the other day and I wanted to slash my wrists. And yet, I can't shake off the belief that the change will come from our own people. Not from ivory tower intellectuals or international economic geniuses but us.

The other reason is that in my dreamy and romantic youth, I too had attempted the UPSC exam (the entrance test for the IAS, among others). I cleared the preliminaries without much trouble but the mains turned out to be a lot tougher than I had thought. They actually expect you to know things. Being an MBA, I was quite accustomed to bullshitting my way through situations, but apparently people read your answer papers in the UPSC. Consequently, I did not make the grade. But I sensed that I had missed the opportunity of a lifetime. I could have made a difference to millions of my countrymen. Alas! And when I see, over and over, people in government getting wrapped up in the trappings of authority, I can't help thinking what a waste of power that is. Mayawati, for example. She struggles and overcomes all odds to reach a position of power, a position where she can rebuild society in UP, empower millions to do easily what she herself had to struggle bitterly for and what does she do? Build parks, buy handbags and kick ass. So, now that I had a chance of meeting someone who actually goes that extra mile to make a difference, I didn't want to miss it.

I messaged Manivannan when I got into Mysore. I was planning to meet another man I admired, an erudite former journalist and avid blogger named GVK. We were meeting that evening and I wondered if Mani could join in. He said he couldn't, because of a meeting that evening. And GVK was leaving for the US the next day.

"You can drop in right now, if you have the time. I'm quite free", said Manivannan. It was about 12.15. I ofcourse hadn't a thing to do, other than eat like a glutton. With a heavy heart, I gave my stomach the bad news - no carbs for an hour, buddy - and dropped into Manivannan's office.

Manivannan's office must be about 2000 square feet, with a ceiling some 30 feet high. It looked like a palace, which it probably was, because this was a princely state and the builders were a little more generous back then than the Rahejas. "Off with his head", the king would have said if they had dared to sell it on superbuilt area basis.

His desk was in one corner of the office. In another corner, there was a television which was tuned to a Kannada news channel. When I entered, he was with some visitors. He asked me to wait in another corner where there was a sofa and some magazines, and ordered a cup of tea for me. Five minutes later he joined me, and we exchanged greetings.

I had already lost most of the "dragon" impression when I entered his office. In conversation, it evaporated entirely. Mani, as he asked me to call him, turned out to be a regular guy. He was a chemical engineer from REC Trichy and fond of books. I asked him what he reads. Mostly non-fiction. Me too, I told him. Apart from the expense accounts I get from my chaps at work, there is very little fiction that I get to read.

"My favorite books are fiction, though", he said. "Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha". And James Joyce's "Ulysses".

I was impressed, and I told him so. Ulysses has a reputation for being a difficult book.

"I know, but it grows on you. On the first reading, I didn’t understand anything! Required online guide to help! but once you get the hang of it, it is simply brilliant, though I am yet to complete it in real sense!"

Must try it, I mutter to myself. "Why do you have this reputation of fierceness?" I asked him. He laughed. "I haven't a clue. I hate yelling or raising my voice, though I do lose my temper at times. I never abuse anyone, though I am blunt with words. I do take people to task if they don’t deliver. ANd I don't make any exceptions".

I had heard about this. Someone had told me that in Dharwad, where he was the Municipal Commissioner, he once demolished a structure belonging to person who happened to grow as a family friend. The said friend was understandably upset for a while, but eventually he came around and patched up. But that circumstance was never a factor in his decision to go ahead with the demolition.

We moved to his inner office, which had a large conference style table. I promptly sat at the head, like I was the chairperson or something and Mani occupied chair no. 3. He had a cellphone in his left hand, on which he was almost constantly reading messages or replying to them. In front of him, he had a note pad and a pencil, and to his right, a telephone.

He was seriously multitasking. Initially I had no clue, but sitting right there, chatting with me about literature and life, Mani was running the entire district.

An assistant came in and spoke in Kannada. I don't speak Kannada very well, but I understood enough to surmise that there was a mob of 50 people who were demonstrating rather violently somewhere in the district. Mani heard him out and gave him short, specific instructions on who was to do what, and resumed our conversation. The alarm in my look must have been pretty obvious, because he just laughed and told me these things happen almost continuously. Be firm and soon, demonstrators remember they have other things to do and vanish. And a few minutes later, he received confirmation by sms that all was well. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Another phonecall and it was a politician with a grouse against an adminsitration official. Mani spoke most courteously to him and promptly rang up the person in charge of that department. It turned out that the administration official was doing his job and doing it rather well at that. Mani authorized him to speak firmly to the politician and asked him not to worry.

This sort of thing continued all afternoon. Situations. Instructions. Feedback. I told him that I found his style of working quite remarkable. "I have to do this, otherwise I'm dead!" he laughed.


"Because I have a bad short term memory". I raised my eyebrows. "No, serious. I tend to forget things fast, as so many things keep pouring in”. If I don't act on in right away, I will forget about it and it'll come back to me as a crisis. So I try to fix it at stage 1. Because otherwise I'm dead". He laughed. "When you're running an administration, situations are a bit like cancer. Act on them at stage I and you're smiling. Let the secondaries spread, and you're destined for a painful time". And with that trademark short laugh, he picked up the phone, which was ringing. Immediately his smile vanished, his face hardened and someone at the other end got a little tongue lashing for dereliction of duty. It was very calmly done but the steeliness in his voice was unmistakable. I could see where that "dragon" reputation came in.

And so the afternoon wore on. My stomach was growling, but I didn't want to leave just yet. I must have been drooling visibly because he asked me if I would care to have lunch with him. I found enough energy to nod in acquiescence and he rustled up a very tasty lunch the star of which was this Mysore specialty called Pongal. I love it. I'm ashamed to say that I ate up his share as well, but it was a medical emergency. I was afraid that I might die of hunger. Anyway, he was very gracious about it. If I was in his place, I would have imprisoned me.

We got talking about what motivates him. And here I got some insight into why he's so out of the ordinary. I happened to ask him where he was likely to be posted next.

"I'm planning to take a sabbatical. I would like to join an NGO and work somewhere in North Karnataka."


"You mean why North Karnataka?"

"That, and why NGO? Most people try to get deputations to the US or Europe"

His tone changed to serious. "Naren, I used to travel around in buses. Then I became an IAS officer and got all this paraphernalia. I have an entire retinue, gunmen and all, that travels with me wherever I go. The gap between me and the man in the streets has increased."


"I'm supposed to work for them. I have all these sweeping powers and I want to be sure I'm using them right and optimally. I try to put myself into an ordinary person's shoes and do something that will make his life easier and more transparent. I feel the need to reconnect. I'm afraid of becoming an ivory tower intellectual!" And he laughed. I couldn't help thinking how unusual this was. Still, I tried to stir things up.

"But don't you feel cynical about all this? A "what's the use" feeling? " I asked him.

"It's easy to fall into that trap, especially in government. But being cynical is usually self fulfilling, not just in government but anywhere in life. You tell yourself nothing can be done and lo! nothing will be done. It takes energy to do something. I keep trying. Sometimes I feel frustrated. Sometimes furious. But every now and then, I get that tranquil feeling of happiness. Just love it!" he grinned.

"Where do you think this country is heading? Do you think that democracy can ever be meaningful?" I tried to rouse him into debate.

"The world, India included, is changing far more drastically and rapidly than people, including our respected leaders, believe, Naren". He held up his cell phone. "This is going to change things. Let me correct myself. It has changed things already. Information spreads far too rapidly and insidiously to allow anyone any control. Flow of information is the starting point of empowering the people. Empowered citizens can change the nation. The days of autocratic robber politicians are numbered".

When we had this conversation, May 11th, if I remember right, the elections were still happening. Everyone was expecting heat death in the form of a hung parliament. Surely, everyone was saying, the criminals would invade parliament in droves.

Mani's cryptic observation makes sense to me now. The populace has unequivocally punished arrogance. Slowly but surely, the realisation has sunk into the voter that he has a choice. Maybe Mani is right. Maybe the revolution is happening.

I, for one, fervently hope so.


Idling in Top Gear said...

Mr.Shenoy, you are in grave danger of becoming a serious journalist with this piece. :)

From my personal experiences, I was glad to find that there is still a very decent number of well-meaning civil servants out there who forgo cush gigs and lucrative appointments to stay and do field work at the district level, though they are eligible for far "better" postings. What is more surprising is that whereas their jobs give them tremendous power (even in the Panchayat Raj era) and ability to rake in millions a month, some stay model administrators showing little desire for money or personal advancement. One, I remember seeing pre- the 6th pay commission went effective, couldn't even afford to furnish his new quarters in the city with a sofa when he got transferred a few months ago. And to think, all we need to make a huge difference in the way India works is just 600 such men!

maxdavinci said...

Sirjee,you need to prolly write guest columns for tehelka! that'll teach them a thing or two....

loved the bits of humor interspersed in what seemed like a serious account of meeting the DM...

Anna Bond said...

Excellent post. One of your best saar.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Wow, extremely well written. It's a difficult line to walk between earnestness and light-heartedness, and you sir, did a tightrope act.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Shenoy, I came to your blog a few months ago through, what else, google and bookmarked it immmediately. Love your style and the subjects, as well as the comments. Keep going. Wish you posted more often though. BTW, the reason I was compelled to make this comment is, Pongal is not a Mysore dish, it is from Tamil Nadu. The name literally means 'Overflowing'(as it does when cooked in an open pot as opposed to a pressure cooker) in Tamil. Surprised that you seem surprised by the pongal. It is after all not much different from kichdi.

Anjana R said...

I second that bit abt the revolution.

Vishwas Krishna said...

A very good article with good insight on the day to day workings of an upright DC. Among other things, he blogs too, though not very regular.

narendra shenoy said...

@idling - Thanks! I find it heartening that there are still people who havent been calcified by cynicism. 600 men! That sounds like a microscopic figure in a country of 1.3 billion and counting.

@max- thanks!

@anna bond - thanks!

@bpsk - thanks!

@anon -I stand corrected, though Mysoreans always insist that life originated right there in Mysore!. I love khichdi too, but Pongal is awesome. I think it's the pepper that makes it so.

@anjana - Thanks!

@vishwas - thanks!

mbjesq said...

This is a superb piece, Naren!

It gives me great pleasure to read an optimistic account of governance in India -- and all the more so when the optimism and idealism springs from the administrator himself.

To your hope that India will repair itself, I would say: India must do the work itself. No one else will or can. And one more thing: we better get moving on this project. The damage being done in the interim is devastating and in many respects irreparable.

There was one aspect of your report that particularly struck me as a litmus that this guy is the Real Deal: his acknowledgment of the enormous barriers that form between the governors and the governed in India, isolating the former from the realism required for good decision-making. (I wrote about this, a bit, in a piece I wrote about President Patil called "Blinkered" about a year and a half ago.)

I am less sanguine than Manivannan about the ability of the cell phone to transform a populace whose attitudes toward political issues vacillates among apathy, uninformed reactivity, and fatalism; but we'll see. I sure-as-hell hope he's right.


Cynic in Wonderland said...

very good post ji. and i think all of us who continue to stay in india, wish fervently the same - and thats the reason we stay on, and believe.

Etc Etc said...

I liked this post - it was different from your previous posts although you could not let go off the humor!! :-)
The cynic in me tells that civil servants like these are very few and far in between. For once, I hope I am proved wrong!!

What's In A Name?! said...

Read first few lines, and then realised this deserves a more leisure read - shall come back after exams are over on 15th! :(

Btw, UPSC has been one of my dreams too.. perhaps after CA..

Anonymous said...

Nice one!

Keep writing such stuff for people like us who cannot meet people like him, in inimitable style of yours.


Anonymous said...

Quite an absorbing tale.

SunnyKris said...

Awesome nar(en)ration!

Ordinary man meets Extraordinary man-dragon.Extra-ordinary man-dragon projects ordinary image but offers extraordinary hope and pongal!

Humour, good food, food for thought.. what more can a blog offer its readers?

Awesome Sirji!

Anonymous said...

May I say that's one brilliant post! :)


Chimmanda said...

Hi Narendra,

I have been a long time reader of your blog. Noted with interest that you were also listed on Mysore Blog Park... and was very curious to know your mysore connection. thanks for putting that straight here! :-) now am very tempted to ask ms. shenoy where she studied, lived and hung out in mysore!

that apart, this was very interesting for those of us who might never get to meet Mr. Manivannan, but are in awe of him for all the good things we hear he has done.

Drenched said...

It's actually quite refreshing to read about such an honest (and even COOL) civil servant after reading/hearing about all those corrupt and dishnest officials. We just need such people as the majority to make sure some real change happens.
Great, great post! Only someone with a sense of humour such as yours could make this kind of stuff interesting and absorbing. :D

narendra shenoy said...

@mbj - I'm dying to (a) meet up with you and (b) argue all of this. Thanks!

@cynic - Iknow how you feel! Thanks

@etc - Me too! Hope you're proved wrong!

@whatsinaname- You MUST take a shot at the UPSC. From what I've read of your blog, you're IT!

narendra shenoy said...

@ramesh - thanks!

@rofl- Thanks!

@sunny- Thanks a million!

@saranya- Thanks!

@Chimmanda - Thanks! I haven't much knowledge of where the missus hung out but she says she studied in JC

"drenched- you are another person I would love to see in the IAS. How about it, then, old salt? Give it a shot!

Pitu said...

Your next interview will be with Kiran Bedi! Yeh mera daava hai :-D

Pitu said...

Also, how dare you eat pongal and not share any?? <:-( I take back the Bedi blessings :-p

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Very pleasant to see someone write nice things about a civil servant. A teeny trace of envy occurs, because nobody ever blogged about ME. Ever.

But then, I'm cynical.


Sujata Rajpal said...

Nice post. Mr. Manivannan comes across as a very committed person and one of those very few civil servants who are genuinely concerned about doing something for society.
Naren, you are lucky that he could not only meet you but offer you lunch too

hemsha said...

Hi Shenoy,

Manivannan was my classmate and a very good friend of mine. He had the zeal to make it big since school days. I remember him saying to me that he wants to join Defence as an Officer. I am very happy to know that he is making a difference to our countrymen.

Dreamweaver said...

This is one of the best posts I have read. I am also a ardent follower and fan of Mani sir. When I met him, I felt like touching his feet and folding my hands to thank him for all his good work. He is indeed a role model for us(youth).

And Yes Revolution has started. WE are the one who should turn the spark into a fire, which will engulf the mediocrity and cynicism.

Hail Mani!