There was once something very strange about our country.

If you are born of recent times, and are hence unaware of that strangeness, ask your elders. And if they cannot remember it, then read the accounts of old, beginning with that of Fa-Hien, who wrote an entire book a whole millennium ago on the strangeness
that was, once, India.

Let me give you an example.

Each year, during the height of the monsoon, the Government of India conducted an exam. It was held in every nook and corner of the nation; you would find exam centres on the farthest hills of the North-East and the loneliest isles of the Arabian Sea. Thousands of large halls were requisitioned and filled with wooden desks for this exam. Nearly a million people wrote it.

This was no ordinary exam.

It consisted of several written papers to be solved over several weeks and culminated in an interview for a select few. Young men and women from across the country set aside their youth to prepare for it, obsessing endlessly over strategies and methods to crack the topmost ranks. Most candidates wrote it over and over again, often sacrificing an entire decade to the exam until they finally became too old and spent the rest of their lives dreaming
of what might have been.

Did I not tell you that this was no ordinary exam?

It was, after all, how India chose her monarchy.

Of all the people who wrote the exam, only a few hundred were chosen. A few hundred out of a million! Of these, some were given charge of our forests; others became treasurers of our wealth and collectors of our taxes. Some became guardians of the law, while others were given control of our railways and the national postal system. A handful were made emissaries and shipped off to foreign lands. And the remaining, the cream of the chosen lot, were anointed administrative officers of the republic.

Members of the Indian Administrative Service, the IAS. Uncrowned kings of India. They ruled over us collectively, firmly administering our land, drawing their authority not from god, inheritance or conquest, but solely from the merit they displayed in a single exam.

Were we not the strangest monarchy in history?

I first attempted this exam thirty-five years ago, shortly before our country celebrated her fifty-eighth birthday, and I my twenty-fifth. It was a month into the monsoon, and the earth was soft and green. My exam centre was an old Jesuit school that stood on a hill overlooking a perennial river; its great hall had once been used by the British to jail freedom fighters during the Independence struggle.

Scores of parents waited outside that hall, whole families praying in the rain and muck while their wards (and hopes) wrote the exam within. Piles of textbooks and handwritten notes on general knowledge, history, geography and law lay discarded outside, and even before the current year’s exams were over dozens of future aspirants gathered to scavenge these.

In the year 2003, inside that hall where mildew and mould had banished from the walls all traces of our forefathers’ sufferings, and despite the constant pounding of rain on the tin roof above, I wrote and cleared the written rounds of the exam.

The “powers that were” called me for the interview, and I travelled to Delhi (it was “New” in those days), where I sat before a panel of seven senior IAS officers who grilled me for an hour on all kinds of topics: the history of Indian dance forms, the flora of the Western Ghats, the latest advances in space exploration.

All crucial knowledge for a future ruler of men, I suppose. Finally, one of them, a handsome woman seated in the centre, asked me this question: “In your opinion, is there something wrong with India, and if yes, what do you intend to do about it?”

A million responses popped into my head: poverty, lack of infrastructure, religious oppression, social inequality – there was so much that was wrong with the country, and there was so much that could be done. Then I thought of them, the members of our bureaucracy sitting before me, and what they could have done in all the cumulative decades of their careers.

Which is what finally prompted me to say, “Our current administrative system is completely degraded. There’s too much corruption, inefficiency and injustice. I’ll change that. I’ll ensure that government offices under me function efficiently, following the rule of law. I’ll make sure my office uses modern technology to interface directly with the people, and that schools and hospitals in my jurisdiction are run properly. No bribes will be taken, no delays tolerated. The people in my charge will have a direct say in the way their government is run.”

I regretted my outburst the moment I finished, for I saw disappointment writ clearly on her face, though the others showed no emotion. They thanked me for my time, and as I walked out of there I knew that I had been found unworthy. A month later, when those little blue envelopes notifying the chosen of their success were despatched across the country, not a single one bore my name.

I spent the whole of the following year preparing once more for the exam.

That year saw a particularly bad monsoon. The roof of the Jesuit hall leaked profusely, subjecting many of the candidates to Chinese drip torture. My paper was soaking when I handed it in and yet, somehow, I made the cut and was called to New Delhi to be interviewed again. Seven interviewers were present, seated in a semi-circle, like Saints on the great Day of Judgement.

Six faces smiled at me as I sat down, the exception being the lady in the middle. It was she, the same handsome woman who’d asked me that awful question the previous year, and I could tell that she was close to recognising me. She sported a deep frown as she looked through the file before her, probably wondering where she’d seen my name before. (In case I haven’t mentioned it earlier, I have a rather unusual name.)

This time they interrogated me on political reforms in the Middle East, the economics of India’s labour markets, and the importance of Vedic medicine in the modern era. I answered each one as best I could. Finally, just as I had begun to hope that it was all over, she posed the dreaded question, couched in different words: “Is there a problem with our country that you feel you could address if you became a civil servant? How would you do it?”

I’d spent much of the previous months obsessing over that question and the answer I’d given, and now here it was before me again – this was my chance at redemption. I had reasoned that my previous response was childish, arrogant even, and the panel had obviously taken offence at the way I’d indicted the system of which they were a part. So this time I chose an
answer that seemed (to me) a little more heartfelt, a little more human and infinitely more worthy of the handsome questioner.

“The inequality of women. That’s our biggest problem. Right from their birth, they’re denied an equal right to life, nutrition, education…even to toilets. They aren’t allowed to contribute to our economy. They’re barely allowed to exist independently. We’re paying a huge price for that. I want to address this. I’ll start specialised facilities for women in my districts. Schools…jobs…police stations, all catering specifically to women. I’ll make sure
they get equal opportunities so they…”

I saw her close my file even before I finished, and the disappointment on her face was more pronounced than it had been the year before. “Thank you, and have a nice day,” she said, a tinge of pity lacing her voice.

Of course, I was not selected that year either.

I spent most of the following year wandering about in the Western Ghats. In the winter I visited Kerala, where I was born, though I had no family left. There, on an estate that once belonged to my father’s ancestors, I met an old coconut tree climber who laughed uproariously when I told him that I had spent two years trying to crack the civil services exam.

“Look,” he chuckled, “I climb fifty trees and pluck five hundred coconuts every day, and I make twice as much as the IAS officer posted here. Think of something else to do, boy!” Then he tied his feet firmly together and glided up to the top of his tree, where, still laughing, he began felling coconuts at a furious pace, one of which struck me on the side of my head.

It was at that precise moment that I resolved to attempt the exam one last time.

The third year that I wrote the exam the country witnessed the worst monsoon in living memory. It rained so hard that the river beside the hill rose and engulfed the school grounds, and the candidates had to be ferried to the great hall so they could write the exam. The hall itself was flooded, and we sat in shin-deep water with tadpoles and tiny worms swimming around our toes.

The light was so bad I could barely see what I wrote, and yet, despite all this, by some miracle, I cleared the written rounds for the third time and embarked on what had become an annual pilgrimage to New Delhi. As I inched towards the capital city along railway tracks older than our nation, all I could think of was what I would say when that question was posed to me once more.

On the anointed day, as I walked towards the interview room, I knew in my soul that she would be there, waiting, with that question in her arsenal, and I did not have the slightest idea of what I would say or how the day would end.

Indeed, there she was, seated in the middle, as always. This time she recognized me immediately, her gaze silently asking why I hadn’t moved on with my life. The others began their usual inquisitorial foreplay, and I fended off their questions on the legal procedures that came into force during riots, indigenous strains of wheat and why it was important that Indian technology be sent to Mars while millions still starved here.

Finally, when they were done, I looked at her expectantly. She hesitated at first, as if wondering whether torturing me a third time was worth her while, but then, with a little shrug, she queried: “Is there a problem you see in India…something you’d really want to change? How would you go about it?”

And despite my premonition about this question, my eternal nemesis, my mind froze, and a thousand images swarmed before my eyes. The tree climber’s face and the king’s ransom he collected by felling coconuts. The rains outside and the train journey I’d have to make back home in a few hours.

The driver of the autorickshaw I had taken on my way to the interview, who kept pictures of Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Bollywood divinities on his dashboard. The tadpoles I’d squished with my big toe when I wrote the exam for the third time in the flooded Jesuit hall.

“Well? Is there anything you’d like to say?” she asked politely, though clearly betraying her impatience. I saw her begin to close the file in front of her. My file.

“Yes,” I blurted out. “There is something I dislike about India, and if I could, I would devote the rest of my life to changing it. It’s the way we name things. We simply don’t know how to, in fact. I think we have a genetic or karmic disability when it comes to this task. Not only do we give everything inappropriate and terrible names, but we’re unable to accept the names bestowed upon us by our ancestors, and each generation grows tired of existing names and changes them, thus extinguishing history. Hence, everything is renamed in the same foolish way, until eventually the object itself is left with no identity. If I become a civil servant, I’ll try and introduce order and reason into the way we name things.”

I waited for her to ask me why. Why an obsession with names, and what good an orderly naming system would ever achieve in a country as dysfunctional as ours, but that question never came. Instead, for the first time in three years, I saw the hint of a smile on her face…

The Black Dwarves Of The Good Little Bay

Excerpted with permission from The Black Dwarves Of The Good Little Bay, Varun Thomas Mathew, Hachette India.