Power, Predicament & Possibilities

BY ZAINAB FARHEEN

A peek into the gripping work of fiction – Rogues among the Ruins – written by Achala Moulik, IAS (Retd.)

The laal-batti and power associated with the Indian Civil Services, the privileges of being a part of the Indian Administrative Services or the glamourous Indian Police services have been an obsession for most of the Indian Population – an obvious career option for a middle-class Indian kid along with the other ‘accepted’ careers as a doctor, engineer, or a lawyer.

It is, thus, exciting to get a peek into the Indian Civil Services that have always commanded a position of immense respect and awe in India. Author & IAS (Retd) Achala Moulik has weaved just the thing to attract the attention of curious readers – her latest gripping work of fiction – Rogues among the Ruins.  

It paints the perfect picture of the conflict of civil servants caught between ideals and thirst for success.  

During a recent discussion on the book – Bureaucracy Unleashed – organised by Bangalore International Centre, Achala Moulik, K N Shrivastava, Director, IIC & IAS (Retd), Rohan Raj, Entrepreneur & Podcaster, and Manish Purohit, Co-Founder, AuthorsUpFront touched some issues that the book explores and discussed how much of a reflection the fictionalised account is of the truth.

South block- Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.

To give you a glimpse of Moulik’s book, its first part is a fictionalized account of the workings of the Archaeological Survey of India and the painful predicaments of a dedicated but naïve scholar faced with temptations. The scholar’s son, a morally indifferent bureaucrat, chronicles a later era in the second part. Through tawdry dramas, administrative acrobatics of sycophants and hypocrites, he encounters the sordid reality of powerful men and women who think they rule the country. With sardonic humour, sympathy, and reluctant respect, the narrator takes the reader on a journey through Glory Road where principles are discarded by the ambitious, where the proud encounter humiliations, where idealists are scorned, and sometimes those with stubborn strength overcome ordeals.

Moulik began the discussion by setting the record straight that in no way has there been an attempt to run down the IAS through her book. “The Indian Civil Services is a fine system established by the British. It produced wonderful people who worked for India’s development and contributed to the progress of the country. As part of the bureaucracy, we were able to do a great deal for the economic and social development of the country. It has been backed by the dedication of hundreds of civil servants in various services,” she said.

After all, Moulik, who comes from a family of scholars and diplomats chose to be a part of the Indian Civil Services even when the gates of international organisations were open to her. Moulik attended schools in Washington, New York and London and with her father – Moni Moulik – at the United Nations, it could have been easy for her to settle in the USA, UK and join some international organisations after her graduation from London University. “But our parents chose to send me to India. And I came here with a set of ideals, like many of the civil servants who joined the services. They stood their ground and worked together to outwit the vested interests,” she explained.

As a civil servant, she has served as the Education Secretary, Government of India and as Director-General, Archaeological Survey of India.

Sir Henry Cotton serving as an Indian Civil Servant in Bengal.

Speaking about her experience as a civil servant and faced with difficult choices, she remarks: “The predicament of making ethical choices is not new in our society or our country. It is an incredibly old dilemma. We all have to make choices. My protagonist in the book also fights many problems as he travels on a lonely road,” she said.

K N Shrivastava then steered the discussion to a much more current issue about the heritage monuments and utilising them for economic development in our country. “In 1988, I had visited China with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. I was part of his entourage, and it was the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister after the 1962 war. Then, the site of the Terracotta Army or Terracotta Warriors was being excavated. In 2009, it has completely transformed with the best facilities for tourists. The turnover has been in billions, and it is the same for the Great Wall of China,” he said adding that China has leveraged the heritage sites way better than India has done.  

“What can we do to harness these heritage sites for economic development,” he asked.

Responding from her rich experience as the former Director-General of Archaeological Survey of India, Moulik said that having lived in Italy, she has observed that these monuments require a lot of care. “There is Taj Mahal, Ajanta and Ellora and great temples of the South. I don’t think we have harnessed our resources,” she said adding that India has a more diverse monumental heritage than other countries.

“From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Rajasthan to Bengal; The temple, museums and palaces, there is so much diversity that one feels like they are looking at different countries,” Moulik says explaining that it is not a lack of funds but the absence of will and dedication to preserving them.

“There is a huge potential in the sector,” she remarked.

At this point, as the time slipped out, little time was left to delve deeper into the issues. The speakers also discussed the education sector, public universities, and a need for academic excellence to attract students to public universities.  

As a member of the audience, I already felt so familiarised with the choices and struggles of civil servants and what they go through to balance their ideals while working for the development of the country and fighting against groups working for their vested interests. Curiosity enough for me to grab a copy of the book, which is a work of fiction but with a flavour of the facts on the ground.

As Shrivastava put it, the book has focused everyone’s interest on civil servants. “Those interested in public administration would find it very interesting,” he said while wrapping up the discussion.  

It does. One leaves the discussion with the thought that this book indeed is a must for all those who want to know what the red flags behind the laal-batti are and what predicaments haunt the power of the Indian Civil Services.

When not writing, Zainab is thinking or planning about writing. Potterhead for life, she is all about the simpler joys of existence – museums, movies, music (love alliterations), books, travel, food and culture. With a Masters in Political Science and International Relations, Zainab is also a researcher with one eye on serious defence and strategic affairs, and another one on everything Foreign Policy and diplomacy. Bio is subject to edit when she finds more joys, passions and solutions for world peace.