HJS : How did you feel on transitioning from FC to phase one during your time ?
Abhiram Sir (AS): FC is always fun, at our time we had only IAS, IFS and IPS together. Most of my close friends were in the IAS. Some close people from other services did leave, but bonds strengthened over time.
HJS : Curriculum wise, FC vs Phase one, what was your impression ?
AS : In our time we did not have the module based curriculum that you have now. Things were quite scattered. Law was something I loved. Jaspreet Alwar madam’s classes on the same I absolutely loved. She might take some classes in your phase one also. Some subjects always went above of my head like economics which I never used to understand. It’s not my cup of tea.
But some generic lectures were very good. We always had some interesting people to come and we looked forward to that. For example, Sunita Narain and Nikhil Dey. You may not agree with many things that they said but it was fun to listen to them. There were times when OTs had verbal duels with the faculty because of differences in ideology.
HJS : As an OT, your most favourite and least favourite subject of phase I
AS : Least favourite, I don’t remember. Most favourite was CrPC and IPC…basically portions of law curriculum.
HJS : Most memorable part of your Phase I ?
AS : It was Polo Ground and Ganga Dhaba. I loved Ganga Dhaba as a hangout spot. And for morning activity, every day you had to go to Polo Ground for PT as there were no different fancy options at that time like you guys have today.
HJS : Never had problems waking up so early?
AS : Not really, I’ve never had that issue. But those days, attendants used to bang on our rooms in the morning to ensure everyone was awake. And we got tea in our rooms back then.
HJS : So no loudspeakers in the hostel corridors to wake you up like we have today?
AS : (laughs). Those speakers today are actually meant to be for disaster warning public address system in case of fire or earthquake. But I confess it is a dual use tech we use to wake you up also. But trust me, someone banging your door at an unearthly hour is the most effective way to be awakened.
HJS : Were you always regular in attendance on your morning PTs ?
AS : (laughs). I will answer that once your Phase One is over. But, in weekends I used to wake up even earlier, so that I can walk to Cloud’s End to do my birdwatching.
HJS : Tell us a little more about this birdwatching hobby of yours.
AS : Always loved nature right from my childhood days in Kerala. I used to collect dead beetles and other insects as a kid. I poured water on the ground and waited for earthworms to come out so that I could catch them and feed my fishes in my fish tank. Houses in Kerala have lots of backyard and I used to do all these things. Then I started watching discovery channel in class seven. In college, I started birdwatching more. That was one way to stay away from my engineering subjects and coding, which I anyway hated. I guess that is how I fell in love with birdwatching.
HJS : Then how did you end up as an IAS officer.
AS : I wanted to be a professional wildlife biologist, do my PG from WII Dehradun. If not that, I thought I will be an academician in political relations. (Even now I keep abreast of geopolitical happenings from even the farthest corners of the world.). I am from an ordinary middle-class family and my father worked in a bank. There was no one in civil service in our known circles even. The closest to a government officer that I knew was someone who worked in the agricultural department. But he was very important to us as he used to sign, stamp, and attest my photocopies of marksheets as he was a gazetted officer.
In my class 10, I had no idea of IAS or about this guy called the DC. A friend from my school (Vishnu Warrier, 2013 batch IPS) got me interested in current affairs and reading newspapers. Then I liked it. Then he talked about this UPSC exam. Then slowly I got interested.
HJS : Favourite subject during UPSC prep ?
AS : Geography, it was also my optional. It also helps me in birdwatching.
HJS : Favourite sports in LBSNAA as an OT ?
AS : Walking, trekking and cycling. I somehow have a mental block against swimming, though the pool is just below my residence these days.
HJS : If you had a time machine to go back to either FC or phase I or phase II, which one would you go to and why ?
AS : All. All were fun. FC was fun due to Himalayan trek, India day etc. Phase 1 was fun as we had weekends free and we had lot of time to explore though there were not so many cafes in Mussourie at that time. I used to go to IGNFA often as I had friends there. Phase 2 also, because we had the foreign tour during our time, which you guys do not have these days. I would redo it all for the overall experience.
HJS : What were your expectations out of Bharat Darshan during your time? Did it meet your expectations?
AS : The expectation was the vast diversity that we would be exposed to. And we were not disappointed. As a middle-class family member, we had not travelled much as a family except where my father’s LTC allowed. So, I was amazed to visit so many places and experience the different cultures of India in Bharat Darshan.
The opportunity to travel was very attractive to me. And we had 8 weeks of Bharat Darshan, two weeks more than yours.
HJS : Tell us about some long-lasting bonds that you formed or saw being formed during your Bharat Darshan ?
AS : The grouping was random, so was the itinerary. Due to this I made some very good new friends. I would not have otherwise made those great friends that I made in Bharat Darshan.
HJS : How do you think the OTs can best utilise the learnings picked up from Bharat Darshan?
AS : Try to remember interesting things, for example where you need to get in touch with and for what purpose. Also, just have the realisation that India is diverse and empathy is needed as a general quality.
HJS : Talk to us a bit about your district training experience
AS : District training is always fun and exciting. I was put up in a remote place of northern Karnataka, which was and still is not very well developed. Coming from Kerala, I felt like a fish out of water and a very tough time adjusting, especially in the first three months. I felt many times that this is not for me and that I should give up. But now looking back, I am glad I did not give up. District training taught me a lot about the new role I was getting into and it taught me a lot about myself.
HJS : Most Interesting assignment as IAS
AS : Every assignment had some interesting elements. For example, the shock of my district training days. My stint at Dept of personnel was also very interesting as it taught me many things. Mysore DC was also quite fun. I remember doing a lot of birding after waking up in the early hours at my Mysore residence while I was Mysore DC.
HJS : What is the secret to your coolness and calmness ? How do you have this zen aura ?
AS : That came over time. As a probationer, I have learnt some times about how not to be. Hence, I have done and said things in my training that I would not do now. So, this transformation has been gradual. Initial few years were rough. After my sub division stint, I knew I need to transform.
HJS : Some mistakes that you made while working that we can learn from ?
AS : Choosing my battles wisely is very important , that is something that I have realised over the years. I regret not being able to address sewage inflow issue in a major Mysore Lake – I feel I could have done things differently.
Also, I have survived tough times by maintaining bridges across all stakeholders. There is no need to antagonize anyone and everyone.
HJS : Knowing what you know now, what are some of the things you would like to tell your younger self if you had a chance to talk to him ?
AS : Travel more is what I would say. Travelling more as I feel it really broadens our horizons. Both in official and personal capacity. I have not missed any HTC or LTC till now. I have taken every one of them. I personally feel that it is not a matter of pride when someone says they have not taken any leave. I think holidays are necessary, both for you and your family. The point I’m trying to make is plan your time wisely, you will have time for yourself too. You will need to find that time to enjoy.