Around India in 60 days

Pooja Elangbam
By the time our India Tour as part of IAS training had hit 45 days, I was so exhausted that I had caught a fever (which paranoia convinced me was malaria till I got myself tested). However, looking back, reflecting on all the places we visited, all the people we met and the experiences we accumulated, I feel that it will take me many days, if not weeks to reflect upon the 60 days we spent on the road, trying to feel the pulse of a diverse, chaotic, unimaginably beautiful nation.
Our first stop was our army attachment in Poonch, Jammu. We were promptly made to wear bullet proof jacket and helmet for a 200km journey which I found extremely burdensome.  This weight remained with me throughout the next 7 days as we were taken to the forward posts of the LOC, making me wonder if lighter equipment couldn’t be found to protect the lives of our soldiers who had to wear it for months on end. A plethora of new experiences awaited us, starting from patrolling at the border to firing practise. We were able to interact with so many jawans and I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many Manipuris, who themselves were happy to meet someone to converse in our native language. We talked about home, their families, the condition of their stay and food at the border.  We even experienced ceasefire violations, the nightsky lit by shelling and firing, making us realise the tenacity of life at the border, the constant possibility of being hit by a sniper bullet. The hospitality and the deep sense of discipline of the armed forces be it the army, navy or air force will remain etched in my mind.
I have always been fond of travelling and my parents have always encouraged it, taking us to places both in India and abroad while growing up. I believe it takes us out from the confines of our narrow lives and helps us see an array of lives so vastly different from our own but equally relevant. I have been wary of the tendency that civil servants fall prey to of thinking that they know everything and that their profession is somehow superior to everyone else’s. It is so important to engage and interact with people from different regions and spheres of life in order to locate our place in the world but also give credit to other people who are struggling or prospering equally. It gave us an opportunity to experience this up close, to encounter people doing amazing work be it in public service, corporate world, the military or the civil society organisations.
I have been to Rajasthan a few times before but it is surreal everytime I come back including this time. It is strange how you start to perceive a city when you are a civil servant, you are still mesmerised by the beauty but you also begin to notice the way developments are taking place, the way traffic is managed, the maintainance of the old city in tandem with modern structures. In Jaipur, it was interesting to see how tourism was being promoted by means of eye-catching short films , use of social media and also by making everything more transparent and accessible. Being a bit of a sentimentalist hoarder, I had taken it upon myself to buy a little something from every place we visited.
There are fleeting glimpses of places that made me sit up and take notice such as the visit to the control room of Narmada Dam. It was eye-opening even for a person like me who comes from a non-technical background and I was able to grasp a bit of the science behind how it operated.
Mumbai is another favourite city, its coastline gleaming, its energy electric, littered with new cafes, imposing Victorian buildings. One can’t help but be swept up by the optimism and drive that this city exudes, once a dowry gift from a Portuguese princess to an English prince, now the glittering city of dreams. It was a strange juxtaposition of the high rises with the sprawling slums, both representing India, two sides of the same coin. Our Navy attachment there included sailing out to a nearby oil-rig. I felt a little nauseous with seasickness kicking in, but it didn’t dampen the awe I felt of being out in the sea, miles away from the coast, the loneliness of it, the insignifance of our puny little lives.
We soon set our tired limbs on the white sands of Lakshadweep, the clear blue-green waters taking our breath away, a kind of beauty that almost hurt our eyes, unaccustomed to such unearthly sight.  I believe every place has a soul, it is upto us to coax it out to reveal itself. Sometimes you find it walking beside you on during your early morning walk to the lighthouse, other times it settles down in a song that pierces your soul as you drive in a taxi, often it lurks in the filter coffee you try in a street corner, in the sweet delights of a strawberry tart, in the way sometimes sunsets put you in a trance, in the shouts of the boys playing football in a barren ground.
Our non-governmental attachment in Prajjwala, Hyderabad is something that haunts as well as inspires me. Sunita Krishnan’s journey is itself remarkable, her ability to rise beyond the walls of victimhood and create an organisation that seeks to rescue and rehabilitate trafficked women and children. What is so moving is that a large number of her organisation is staffed by former victims of trafficking. There is solidarity among them, as self-sufficiency almost.  Ms. Krishnan made us realise how the cooperation and commitment by civil servants to the cause of anti-trafficking is crucial. She felt that often the lack of evidence was responsible for many of the traffickers getting away and that is where law enforcement officers can play an important role. I came away humbled and determined to always look out for the people in margins of society.
There were a few things which unnerved me too. Most of the official dinners we attended had a clear segregation  of men and women in terms of sitting arrangement, as though the women were expected to trade domestic stories while men revelled in more worldly matters. There was also a clear bias against northeastern cadres if not north east people themselves, the way senior officials chuckled or made sorry faces when  people mentioned getting cadres such as Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, reinforcing the already prejudiced minds of my batchmates. I often thought my generation, most of us still being in our 20s, would have more capacity for change and open-mindedness but I am yet to feel more optimistic regarding this matter.
A few tragecomedies  also came our way.. There were times when we were rushed to meet so and so VIP the moment we landed without being given an opportunity to wash up. There were a few passive aggressive moments that eventually led to very funny group dynamics. We also had a near death experience during our last leg of the trip as our flight from Tirupati to Delhi suffered a wing damage, experiencing severe turbulence that made us pray fervently for our lives. We had to change planes at Hyderabad because of the damage and was stuck at the Hyderabad airport for 6 hours, landing in Delhi at 3am and then being rushed for our Delhi attachment at 7am.
In the end, it is the people I met that I remember most. The schoolchild who helped me when I was slightly lost despite using google maps in search of a restaurant. The jawans at the border with their ready smiles and their eyes lit up as they talked about home, a home which was located at another border, 1500km away from the border they were manning. The girl-woman who burst into tears sharing her story about how she was trafficked by the man who had promised to marry her. The children who took my hand and pulled me into a folk dance with them. The construction workers who labored under the harsh sun but took time out to greet us. The man who sat on his doorway labourously painting miniatures as his ancestors might have done. Women in burqas enjoying the sunset in Lakshadweep, giggling and waving as I passed them. The woman who brought me water when I asked for direction due to a language gap, the local journalists who clamoured for our photographs when we visited a district hospital, the pundits who chanted soothing Sankrit shlokas at a temple we visited, the principal of a tribal school who told us with pride of the students who were doing so well, the gleam in his eyes as he talked about his students who have gone on to become engineers and lawyers. WST made me realise that our country is the people in it. Our task as civil servants is to help them realise their true potential in whatever way we can.
The writer is  IAS, Assistant Commissioner, Imphal West