Bondings over the boss

The most frequent and perhaps the strongest bonds with a colleagues in the All India Services, particularly the IAS, occur at the workplace when one shares an obnoxious boss, writes Vivek K. Agnihotri, former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha

Vivek K. AgnihotriVivek K. Agnihotri
Former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha, Parliament of India
vkagnihotri25@gmail.com

The All India Services, the Indian Administrative Service in particular, are somewhat unusual when it comes to maintaining human relations.  The officers shift not only from one location to another but also from one type of assignment to another, often a very different one, say, from health to education.  In each assignment one makes friends with colleagues, some relationships become quite strong, but most of them fade away over time with the change in location and / or department.  I can recall several such close friendships with colleagues, of whom I do not know where sreveral of them are and what they are doing.  Names of some of them I have difficulty in recollecting.

The most frequent and perhaps the strongest bonding with a colleague occurs at the workplace when you share an obnoxious boss, who tends to be the biggest fixer of them all (call it Fevicol, Quickfix, Fevikwik, Araldite, All Fix or whatever).  And such relationships last and last for no other rhyme or reason.

My first such bonding took place in the first decade of my career, when I and a junior officer had a particularly eccentric boss, the collector of the district in which we both were posted.  He had a great love for the written word.  He wanted a detailed report on all administrative events, big or small.  Thus most of our time used to be spent on producing reams and reams of written paper rather than in solving the actual problems of the citizens, whom we are mandated to serve.  The boss really loved paper.  "He must have been a termite in his previous life", we often joked among ourselves.  He was changed sooner than expected and the new boss knew the problem we had been facing.

He was actually sent by the chief minister in whose district wew were, with the direction that a lot of paperwork had been done, and he should now go and do some work.  My colleague, with whom I shared the travails of the 'paper boss' not only became a close life-long friend, but almost a member of my family over time.  Such was the bounding we developed.

A few years later another bonding took place when another colleague and I were at the receiving end of the ire of our common boss, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding.  It was the fastest fix, and started on day one when together we (having only recently met for the first time) called on the boss, who too had recently joined.  She had wanted us to brief her about our programmes and priorities before she formally called on the chief minister. 

But we were late for some reason (which is a little vague at this point of time: it could be traffic on the way or confusion about the location of her office room or even the time at which she wanted us to meet her or even the fact that she was called in by the CM's office earlier than scheduled) and, therefore, she was ushered into the CM's chamber before we had an opportunity to brief her.  All hell broke loose when she returned to her room and found the two of us waiting there. 

She chided us no end for our unprofessional and careless attitude.  And since this was the first impression, it was stored away permanently in the deep recesses of her memory. 

We failed to gain her confidence for quite some time thereafter.  It was only after several successful ventures, for which we duly gave her all the credit, that we got into her good books and also, perhaps, got good annual confidential reports from her, if the progress of our future careers is any guide. 

In the meanwhile, my friendship with my co-sufferer grew by leaps and bounds.  We continued to be in touch irrespective of changes in locations and departments.  One example of it was that during my study leave in 1991, when I was cut off from the rest of the working world for all practical purposes, I had a call from this colleague, who was then posted in Washington, to inform me about the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a human bomb.  This was the period prior to the proliferation of mobile phones and TV channels; and we had access only to Dootdarshan broadcasts for a limited time on, and therefore, would have had to wait for quite some time to get that news.

The bonds have continued, even though the atrocities (if we may describe our treatment at the hands of those bosses) have been long forgotten.  Someone I met several years later who, going by my friendship and camaraderie with one of our junior colleagues, thought that I was his batch-mate, even though, I was five years his senior.  It made me feel much younger.

But I had a very different type of bonding with the paper-loving boss described earlier. 

His love for the written word had continued unabated.  Several year later I succeeded him to the post of secretary to a committee, which was set up to advise the government about changes to be brought about in the panchayati raj system in the State, following the recommendations of a committee set up by the central government.  The chairman of the committee, in my first meeting with him, told me that a lot of paper had been collected during the past year and a half, but the report of the committee was nowhere in sight.  He gave me three months to produce the draft report.  I found reams and reams of bound volumes comprising material collected from various sources.  It took me quite some time (including several sleepless nights) to get a hang of it; but the draft report was prepared and presented to the committee within the stipulated time.

In the Indian Administrative Service one not only moves from post to post but also from perks to no-perks.  As a District Magistrate, one has an almost Maharaja-like existence, with a retinue of helps and other facilities.  If the same officer then moves to a secretariat, specially the central government secretariat, as an Under or a Deputy Secretary, all these amenities and conveniences vanish in no time. 

As a District Magistrate, my paper-loving boss used to boast that he had not touched his new born son even once, because he was being looked after by the servants.  A couple of years later in Delhi, I saw him holding with one hand his newly born daughter (without an underwear) close to his waist, while in the other hand he held a milk can, as he stood in a queue to get milk from a recently-opened Mother Dairy milk booth at a multi-storeyed apartment complex.