Not too long ago, my workplace was in this magnificent red sandstone building flanking Rashtrapati Bhawan. This building, along with its twin across the road, is seen as the nerve-centre of India.
Walking down the corridors of power one morning, I saw an unusual commotion. Some monkeys had decamped with a couple of official files. I wondered — why on earth would some macaques get interested in files of the Government of India? Then I heard the words of a wizened Babu: “Don’t mistake them for ordinary beings. These are former bureaucrats, reborn. Even in this monkey avatar, they can’t stay too far from files!”
Now for the uninitiated, here is some insight into the importance of files. If there are no papers concerning you, in some file, tucked away somewhere, in some government department, you simply don’t exist! And because you do actually exist, your file, like countless other files, is created, managed and manipulated by the people of my ilk.
I began discovering my might some 20 years ago, sitting wide-eyed as a trainee in a police station. The munshi dropped this pearl of wisdom gleefully: “Look carefully at this pen, Sirji! What I scribble on a piece of paper today would be argued over endlessly by the wisest lawyers for decades. The mightiest judges would scratch their heads trying to make sense.”
We in the government create issues out of a paper under consideration (PUC). Innocuous green note-sheets are our battlefield. Our arsenal consists of a variety of inexpensive plastic pens. Armed with a few drops of ink, we make or mar anyone and anything. Thicker the file, greater the opportunity to exhibit our skills.
We aspire to get mightier with time, hence climbing the career hill continuously is very important. For which there is a cardinal principle — Thou shall strive to stay in the good books of thy boss. Because your boss controls the steps to your career progression — the annual confidential report (ACR). Therefore buttering up the boss is an absolute necessity.
Some years ago, I landed under a particularly obnoxious fellow. He would threaten all his juniors with regular alacrity: “One ‘good’ in your ACR and your career would be burnt forever.” Now, in our cut-throat bureaucratic world, a ‘good’ ACR is terrible news. You are condemned unless you are ‘outstanding’ or at-least rated outstanding.
Nothing seemed to work on this fellow. And then, to my horror, he wrote “just good” as my final assessment. My nascent dreams of battling on juicy files perched high atop Raisina Hill were shot down cruelly and buried deep. Just then a resourceful colleague with access to forbidden files appeared on the scene, like a knight in the shining file cover. He managed to pull out my sullied ACR and inserted ‘&’ in my brief epitaph to make it read an impressive ‘just & good’!
I survived to tell you this story, saved by a simple ‘&’. Thereafter, I have surfed the career waves quite enviably. But you will never catch me too far away from those lovely files — this lifetime or the one after.
The writer is a Shimla-based IPS officer