Choppering out of a glass ceiling
From Sixties India – an account of how district officials reacted to a woman officer
I was 23 and flying in a helicopter over the forests of Thane district in Maharashtra. How I got there bears telling but a little background first. I joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1966 by a stroke of luck. Nurtured in an elite finishing school, Simla’s Tara Hall – where we ate bananas with a fork and mangoes with a spoon – I had spent the next three years in Miranda House in Delhi. The freedom of college life presented vastly superior options over pursuing higher education. Three years later, with an English Literature degree in hand, I had stomped out of advanced expositions on Chaucer and Spencer, preferring to copywrite for J Walter Thompson on the joys of devouring Essex sausages or snuggling into DCM towelling.
Those were the days when the IAS exam was heavily weighted in favour of those who could write and speak English fluently. By all standards, the IAS was a prestigious career option then and I secretly started studying for the examination. A year later, I was an ebullient probationer at the National Academy of Administration. The year at the Academy flit past and here I was, a Supernumerary Assistant Collector, dispatched for training to my home state of Maharashtra. It was an urbanite’s first brush with rural India. With my posting orders, I had been handed a long typewritten itinerary of how I should spend the next year: three months with the Collector, a month with the Additional Collector, then the Assistant Collector, the Superintendent of Police, the Executive Engineer, the Food and Supply Officer, down to the lowest but all-important Mamlatdar. Through this exposure I was expected to imbibe what transpired in each little kingdom that exercised authority within the district, a pattern that prevailed throughout the country albeit with local variations.
The frosty Additional Collector passed me every day in his Morris Minor, as I laboured on foot from Kopri Colony where the officer class lived.
The stopover with each officer was memorable because it was so unique. The first sojourn was supposed to be with the Collector of Thane. I had called on him and informed him that, as part of my training, I was expected to report to him for the next three months and to accompany him on all official tours. Bhadbade was a sour, bespectacled bachelor who peered at me across his enormous semicircular table overflowing with untidy files. His eyes went disapprovingly to my arms, muscular after riding at the National Academy. My plait, which swung below my hips, seemed to irritate him even more.
“Why do you want to accompany me on official tours?” asked the Collector, some 10 years my senior in both age and profession. “Do you want to make money on TA/DA?” I was appalled at his suggestion but Tara Hall had emphasized that elders must be respected. So I just kept a safe distance from his office, feeling more confused and neglected with each passing day. Word soon got around that the new “Supey Bai” (Supernumerary woman) was in some kind of disgrace. Typical of the mofussil mentality, I was automatically given the general avoid by everyone in the Collector’s office. My next brush was with the Additional Collector, who was frosty and apathetic in a different way. He passed me every day in his Morris Minor, as I laboured on foot from Kopri Colony where the officer class lived. Although he could see me, hitching my sari to avoid the monsoon filth mixed with cow dung sloshing over my ankles during the 40-minute trudge to the Collectorate, he never offered a ride – apprehensive about what “people” might say.
The next stopover was with the Superintendent of Police. I learnt absolutely nothing about police functions during that month. With a broad grin, he sent me shopping with his wife. She admired any number of saris in the shops, which mysteriously found their way, in brown paper packets, to the rear of the car. I learnt that things could be stitched overnight at the police welfare centre and loved watching the SP’s wife in her nine-yard sari being feted at get-togethers galore organized by an animated gaggle of police wives.
Next was the Executive Engineer. The poor man just did not know what to do with me. He too deposited me at home with his wife who instantly flopped on the floor, chopped a mound of onions, green chillies and coriander on her footheld knife and threw them into an omelette blended with kerosene fumes disgorged from her primus stove. I began looking forward to those forays to the Executive Engineer’s house where I was plied with one pathare prabhu delicacy after another, kerosene fumes and all.
THE Gujarati Assistant Collector’s snipes about Maharashtrians in general and me in particular tumbled out of his mouth as he sat with his long legs on the magisterial desk for most of the day. He did precious little beyond smoking and rolling the cigarette silver wrapping into little cups, chewing the tissue with slobbery saliva, sticking it into the cup and shooting the missile overhead. The ceiling was studded with at least 50 salivated silver cups staring down at us. Every day, Patel would bolt to Church Gate on the 5.15 fast train where he lived an equally fast life which would have outraged the conservative Collectorate if they only knew.
Despite being considered unworthy of official patronage by the district, I was received with great affection by Ministers and senior officers in the Mantralaya in Bombay. Maharashtrians generally did not aspire to the IAS, content to turn into bank staff, teachers or clerks in droves. Women were virtually non-existent in the Maharashtra cadre. In the corridors of real power, I could sense how privileged I was as a daughter of the soil.
One day, the Commissioner of Bombay division (under which Thane district fell) invited me for breakfast. He asked his 14-year-old daughter to share the batate pohe. That was the first time I set eyes on the present Expenditure Secretary, Sushma Nath – in a frock and spectacles. I was paraded before her as an example of what she should aspire to become. Sushma looked at me impassively and returned to her room without a word. Ch-ha (tea) over, the Commissioner directed me to accompany him to the car waiting outside Yashodhan – the timehonoured abode of senior officers located next to Marine Drive. I got into the staff car with its white towelling over the seats and white lace curtains and answered all the questions that GA Sharma – GAS, as he was fondly called – hurled at me on our drive to Thane. The inquisition did not last long. We reached a clearing beside the road and the Commissioner sprinted towards a maidan where a waiting helicopter was whirring away. He leapt into it and ordered me to hop on behind.
I gushed at the sight of the treetops and rice fields as we soared above them in the chopper. The journey lasted no more than 10 minutes. As we descended towards an open field, I saw a huge gathering of people gawking at the sight. In the front row was the dour Collector of the district, Bhadbade, accompanied by an entourage of district officials and another hundred minions bringing up the vanguard. Imagine Bhadbade’s consternation when he saw me – the Supey Bai – alighting from the helicopter right behind the Divisional Commissioner. The Additional Collector actually smiled. The Assistant Collector asked me whether I would like to ride back to Bombay with him on the fast train. The cops saluted me. Suddenly, I was royalty.
That single helicopter ride with the Commissioner altered the mofussil mindset in a jiffy. If the Commissioner could elevate this woman to sharing not just his car but even a two seater helicopter, it was evident he took the training of a new IAS recruit very seriously – man or woman.
To this day, I cannot judge whether the entire episode was carefully crafted to send a message to the district officers who had neglected my training because they had never seen a woman IAS officer or it was just a question of luck. But the incident certainly left its mark on everyone, starting with the constipated Collector.
Yet, three days later, when a body had to be exhumed in the presence of a Magistrate, no prizes for guessing who was asked to fill in. Of course, the liberated Supey Bai was the Collector’s natural choice.