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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Slightly inebriated post

Howdy, folks. This is Monsieur Shenoy reporting from the flight deck at 36,000 feet over Mysore. The corpore sano is at sea-level of course, but the mens sana is flying, owing to a liberal dosage of fine single malt whisky. These things happen. The mechanistic cause is the purchase of a flight ticket on the 0610 am flight to Bangalore by yours truly.

The missus woke up first to the alarm at 4 am.

Missus: Naren, why are you leaving so early? You'll be in bangalore before 8. Surely, even you cant have any work that early.

Me: No, I thought I would start early.

Missus: You mean you decided to ruin my sleep just so that you could go to Bangalore a little earlier than usual.

Me: Well......

Missus: Naren, you are an idiot

I found that I could not challenge this simple conclusion. I confess. C'est la vie, as they say in Punjabi, or perhaps french, i can never tell.

Among other things, I must confess that I am missing the wife and kids. The former I love with a passion words cannot begin to express. (yes, she's probably reading this). The latter, well, they're my brats.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sikkim - Getting there in one piece

I'm a big fan of the Indian Railway system. It always seems to work despite odds.

For example, back in the steam engine days, the Puri Talcher express used to take about 12 hours longer than the regulation because the engine driver used to stop along the way and sell coal to people who wanted it (this priceless information is thanks to my old college mate Deepak, who has deeply researched the topic).

Today we have diesel engines. And I strongly suspect that the socialist objective of redistribution of wealth is carried out by the yeoman engine drivers of today who stop every 17 km to sell diesel to the needy.

For I can think of no other reason why the train would halt so often. Infact a congratulatory e-mail to Shri Laloo might be in order.

But I will pigeon-hole this for the moment and carry on with my tale, which will feature scantily clad belly dancers as a reward to those who have patiently borne with me.


The train started from Mumbai CST at 6.00 am sharp. At T+0.3 nanoseconds, the great musical berths game began in our bogey.

Number 37 wanted to go to number 12. Number 12 wanted to go to number 17. But number 17 was a pregnant lady. So number 18 was shooed away and made to go to another compartment altogether.

Shortly, the Ticket collector landed up and started writing the equations in matrix form on his sheet.

My co-traveller Sushil Soman, meanwhile helpfully complicated things by dispatching 7 people to the 3 tier compartment, moments before the connecting door was locked. There was much acrimony on the other side of this door and Sushil disappeared onto a higher berth and pretended to be asleep. And there was one guy who was convinced that Sushil had stolen his berth and kept questioning him in all kinds of oblique ways.

When we finally got to NJP (which is the technical name for New Jalpaiguri) the only thing that the four of us could think of guessed it - scantily clad belly dancers. No, seriously, the only thing we could think of was beer. Thus I fulfilled a childhood ambition of getting a bellyful of beer before nine in the morning.

Around lunchtime, we landed up in Gangtok. It also happened to be my 44th birthday. Grieving silently at the stealthy passage of time - 44 years old, for Chrissake!, I dragged the rest of the bunch to a nice little pub called Pub25 and got properly sloshed.

After a delightful half-hour with the locks of our respective rooms, which turned out to be on a different floor altogether, we hit the sack. Just before I collided with the mattress I heard Kundu say that he would wake us up at 4.30 am to show us the sunrise.

I hoped he would die in his sleep.

My Sikkim trip - I

What with the Taliban's doings in the Swat valley, the great principled battle that is the Lok Sabha elections (waged in extremely Gandhian fashion by kum. Mayawati and Shri Mulayam), the Whatchamacallit Premier League and other things that the newspaper chaps like to put on page 1, I daresay I haven't been missed.

It's not that nobody loves me. The folks at Loop Mobile keep calling me up to find out how I am doing, and whether I would take up their brotherly offer of a free sim card. ICICI bank is another one keenly interested in my financial health and offers me very attractive insurance proposals that can have nothing but disinterested love motivating it. But the people who count don't seem to have really suffered the agonies of separation.

But first, footnotes. On a lunatic impulse, I decided to take off to Sikkim with three other friends namely Harshad Tirodkar, Sushil Soman and Sanjeev Thakur. The first named is an avid trekker and Himalaya freak. He waited for us to book our tickets and hotels and then told us that we would be trekking at high altitude. And, to further bolster our spirits, he suggested we save money by not booking our return tickets because, as he charmingly put it , "body free mein aati hain", a reference to the possibility that we might not make it back alive.

His concern was touching. All of us rushed out to get our blood pressures and electrocardiograms checked. Someone suggested we carry an oxygen cylinder, which mercifully we did not (not available at the chemist's shop), because as it turned out, at the locations we went to, the other tourists were aunties and uncles way past their seventieth year, showing no sign of distress. We would have been the laughing stock of north sikkim.

On further lunatic impulse, we decided to go from Mumbai to New Jalpaiguri by train. Some 48 hours of train travel. The idea behind this was to sample the flavour of the country but we chickened out and traveled by AC 2 tier instead of 2nd class..........