Indian babus seldom write good memoirs. Most write humdrum notes on loopy files though they’re happier with squiggles on note sheets. Beyond their file riled world, very few serving bureaucrats write – an indulgence not worth risking in their movement up the totem pole – unless they are “directed from above” to morph into “columnists” and anchor the government’s Potemkin drivel.

But the retirement years are another matter. When every attempt at seeking a post-retirement sinecure fails, they settle into the drearier job of writing memoirs. What else, at this cusp of time and space with dimming wattage, could they do but artlessly hyperventilate, living through the yolk of their memories in prose?

Though turning memoirist has its blessings, aside from some serendipitous gains. It’s orgasmic, a timepass, the mind revivifying its atrophied zing, the I-Me-Mine syndrome given full rein, as you give yourself yet another blessed off-chance to stay relevant and earn those fifteen minutes of glory.

Of all the memoirs of civil servants I’ve read, only a few have stayed in my head. Very few lack these traits. But Jatish Chandra Mohanty’s memoir Breaking Through New Earth is different. His strongest calling card is a humane and practical approach to administration, interpreting rules outside the rulebook, performing amidst engulfing corruption, and doing things with a beating heart.

An IAS officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre (1979 Batch), Mohanty served his entire time in that state. He sought voluntary retirement in 2006, seven years before the actual date, to get back to his roots, start a new political outfit in his native Odisha and serve the people there. He holds a degree of doctor of science in environmental health risk analysis from Harvard University.

Many instances deserve mentioning but I’ll confine myself to a few. One relates to the period when he was Managing Director of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply And Sewerage Board. A few days after the Babri mosque was demolished, rumour swirled that the reservoirs had been poisoned.

He was flooded with calls from panicked citizens. There was no poison but the rumours had to be scotched. He stayed up the night. “It wouldn’t stop ringing.” Not the “easiest thing to do but I answered every call.” He deemed it his bounden duty as the HMWSSB head. “It was a human thing. It had to be done. Looking back, I would have gladly done much more if it were required of me.”

This sense of commitment and spirit suffuses all his actions. It animated him when as Collector of the West Godavari district he met a “distraught-looking man” from Chennai on a Sunday. His request: to immediately issue Scheduled Caste certificates for his two sons selected to Class I jobs in the Indian Railways on the basis of SC certificates provided in Chennai.

They had been asked the day before to produce certificates from their district of origin; the next day was the last day of joining. Issuing caste certificates requires verifications and is done in 30 days. Here there wasn’t time. Mohanty did the most unbureaucratic thing, making an exception “on humanitarian grounds” and issuing the certificate that same day. The sons joined. How many babus would dare do this, or risk doing?

There are ample instances in this episodic and anecdotal book to show what an egoless approach can do. IAS officers wouldn’t go to other officers, instead called them over. But not for him the choreographed turns of the bureaucratic screw. “I picked up the phone and dialled Mr. Kapur, the Engineer-in-Chief of Irrigation. ‘We would be pleased to meet you over a cup of tea tomorrow at 4 PM in your office’… Mr. Kapur was wordless for a moment but recovered soon enough, and said that he would be honoured to have us over.”

What can egoless passion achieve? In his bureaucratic diapers, as Project Director of the District Rural Development Agency, Anantapur, Mohanty was looking after the Drought Prone Areas Programme, a Government of India initiative for semi-arid areas but faltering. He decided to get feedback first hand and left for New Delhi. His visit and his bullish commitment reaped rich dividends. The proposals were sanctioned.

I must allude to another instance. A contractor offered him a beautiful box, a desk calendar with motivational quotes. Moments later, he offered another identical box with currency notes. “I graciously accepted the first one and returned the one with the notes, simply saying ‘no’ with a smile and my signature hug for the briber.”

The briber, stumped and transformed, declared: “Sir, I have been working with government officials for almost 25 years now and you are the first person to have declined a bribe. And that too with this much grace and also style!”

Far from preachy, the book is replete with many such experiences where innovation, pragmatism, empathy form the running thread. This sense of service is a hand-me-down from his freedom-fighter father, for whom helping the needy was part of his fabric of being. As he recalls in the preface:

“A recollection of my childhood is peppered with memories of my father going all out to help people in every way that he could… There were heavy floods... My father would pack the food we had at home and set out to distribute it to those in need. Whether his family ate or not was secondary but his dedication to serve was paramount... I grew up imbibing my father’s values and passion for service.”

This book is a clutch of eclectic insights, run on the idea of how bureaucratic processes can be made simpler, transformational, with paradigm shifts served with an empathetic heart. It bookends what makes a good leader: innate humaneness, affability, transparent honesty, an egoless head always swivelling to innovate, a gung-ho serving spirit, the ability to lead from the front and to stand by your team, to convince political masters with sincerity of purpose—and make the improbable happen.

Wish we had more such bureaucrats!

Breaking Through New Earth by Jatish Chandra Mohanty is published by Wings Publication, 2021

Breaking Through New Earth: A journey from humble beginnings to three  decades of the Indian Administrative Service : Jatish Chandra Mohanty: Books