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Just as our poor government would fare much better, without a doubt, were we able to put into effect some of the ideas of the first and-Im sure that our first family will forgive me-the original-Aflatoon. His proposal for the creation of an aristocracy of administrative talent, for example, which is what his rulers become after some decades of training. Well, can we juxtapose against them, even for a minute, our members of the Steel Frame? After all, they too, at the end of their careers, have worked at all kinds of government jobs for thirty-five years. On-the-Job Training, absolutely, and probably more effective than Platos more formal, academic cultivation of body and mind.

I see at least one more point of comparison. Plato recruits his rulers from all stratums of society, but the vast majority of them are chosen from the top two because they are bred for the job. The cream of the scum, without a doubt. Does one need to underline the similarity with the distorted, top-heavy representation of classes and castes in the Steel Frame that led, almost a decade ago, to the setting up of the Kansal Commission in the hope that its recommendations would redress the balance? The fundamental difference of course is that Plato views this unequable, disproportionate reflection of the people in their administrators as essential to his grand design. The perfect-versus the Welfare-State, no doubt.

After that minute-for the duration of which we compared the two frames, the steel and the Platonic-is over, we can turn our attention to one of the end-products of our deliberations, the civil servant who retires at the age of sixty-two. Sixty-two, by any scientific, physiological, logistical, numerological or astrological configuration, is a mystifyingly insignificant number. Its triviality, its arbitrariness, as a cut-off age is underscored by the fakeness of all our birth certificates. It would be fairly accurate to say that most of our sixty-two year olds are actually between the ages of sixty-eight and eighty. Time being illusion, doubtless. Then why retire our guardians at sixty-two when we can benefit for another couple of decades from the wisdom and administrative skills of a handful of them? Ah, but the problem is-you object-how to select that handful? How to prevent the legendary Dr Bhatnagar-for example-from worming his way into that hand after his return from the UN?

The solution, of course, is to choose your wise sixty-two-year-olds only after analysing the opinions of their subordinates. Pick only those who in all humility have for thirty years sucked below with as much solicitude and nicety as above. Remember that according to their annual confidential reports, theyd all be outstanding. How then will you differentiate between the matchlessly-outstanding and the a-national-disgrace-but-outstanding? Simple: send questionnaires to-and interview-some of those assistants and deputies who suffered your prospective guardian over their heads in various offices. Ask them: 1) How would you define the term 'outstanding in relation to the officer in question?

2) Did he get all his promotions on time simply because everyone needs to budge a bit every once in a while, responding, as it were, to a fundamental law of Physics?

3) What degree of relevance to the personage under discussion has the axiom that states that when one removes an officer from his position, one also causes his work to vanish?

4) When his children dropped in at his office to phone aunts in the US and cousins in Australia, did he buy them Pepsis from the Office Entertainment Allowance?

5) At meetings, when his boss dried him up with a look for having brought the wrong papers for discussion, did he hang his head in shame and weep silently like Tom Dooley? Or did he glance at you in such a way, just once, askance, that his bosss ire was deflected onto you fully for the next twenty minutes? While he slumped back in his chair and smirked in witless relief at the others at the table?

6) Did he hang around in office pointlessly, way beyond closing time, only to impress?

7) How skilled was he at leaving his decisions for time-that sage, that overlord-to take care of?

8) Did he usually sit in front in the office car beside the chauffeur either because he wished to show that he believed in social equality or he was gay? Or because in an Ambassador, the front seat is a d.a.m.n sight more comfortable? Or because he didnt wish to be machine-gunned down at the back?

9) How hard did he try to scramble into the Intelligence Bureau Endangered List? With what success?

10) Did he regularly sign differently different official papers, depending on their importance and the extent to which he understood them?

11) Did he address village gatherings of the semi-illiterate in English? With a quote or two from, say, Louis Mac Neice? Or did he speak some of our other languages with such perplexing fluency that in a matter of minutes, hed notice the members of his audience eye one another in polite bewilderment?

12) Did he spit into the urinal while p.issing?

13) Or sigh audibly and invoke a God while leaning forward, resting his head against the tiles, gazing down and playing a sort of billiards with the naphthalene b.a.l.l.s in the bowl with his jet of urine as the cue?

And so on. The questions that one poses will depend, naturally, on the parties in question, on who is being interviewed about whom for what job. Rest assured that I dont envisage selecting more than a couple of wise guardians per year. Theyll of course undergo a series of physical, medical and psychological tests-if a blue flag flapping in the wind suggests a woman drying her long hair on a terrace on a bright Sunday morning, and a glass of cold coffee suggests a middle-class wage-earner contemplating a crime, then what does an empty goods train hurtling through the night signify to you? Confidentially, of course. That sort of thing.

Well, youve selected your SAge-Man-for-All-SeASons and hes distributed his mithai in celebration; what next? Why, he rushes off to his astrologer, of course, to tap the future. Okay, and after? After, you ask him to handle a specific project, keeping in mind the field of his expertise. No macro-level c.r.a.p. Back to the grassroots. Dump on him acres of wasteland, for example, to convert into a profitable orchid farm. Let him pick his own team, back him to the hilt, no knives in the back. Give him constitutional and extra-constitutional protection. Tell him to tackle the problem of traffic in your megalopolises. Ban cars completely downtown and wherever else the action is. Update your neolithic buses and trains, and instead of your air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven automobile that inches forward, sleekly and silently, at four kilometres an hour, use the bicycle-car, the manufacture and popularization of which will be given top priority in the new Welfare State. You know, doubtless, what Im talking about? The cycle-car? With four sets of bicycle pedals, two in front, two at the back, that is to say, one for the driver, three for the passengers, with a steering wheel, a tooter and a set of gears in front? Its either that or the normal, standard bicycle. My sixth sense-or my astrologer, if you wish-tells me that it-the cycle car-will become incredibly popular and will in fact totally revolutionize industry. You see, while pedalling and giving some shape to your leg muscles, you can at the same time bicker with your husband, paw an object of desire, or daydream to a Rani Chandra cassette. No exhaust fumes, traffic jams or parking nightmares because its half the size of every other car. The countrys petrol consumption plummets, its air improves and jet loads of multinationals bid it tearful farewell, only to return by the next flight, in new lightweight suits, with firmer handshakes and different briefcases with state-of-the-art plans for the various components of our cycle car. Rest assured that their modern technology simply wont leave us alone.

Of course, no one, absolutely no one, will be above the law that will oblige the citizens of our cities to park their purring cars far away in some ghastly suburb and use our new trains, buses, cycle-taxis and cycle-cars to get to work. No exceptions, no insidious class hierarchies or caste reservations. Ministers, terrorists, cops-all equally subject to the new regulations.

Yes the police too. I intend to devote an entire session-for which the script is ready-to the management of the police, so I wont antic.i.p.ate myself here-not beyond a point, anyway. It is monstrous how we, in our daily lives, continually allow to be flouted and belittled the bedrock-axioms that ensure the health of the state: namely, that the upholders of the law must never be seen to be above it, and that the hand that holds the gun shouldnt sign the order to shoot. When you dont rein it in, the beast goes berserk, and tramples all over your life and mine, and swaggers up to the richer farmers of the north and demands of each one of them a lakh of rupees, or else itll whisk away, torture and finish off their innocent, full-blooded sons and then congratulate itself the morning after for having wiped out some more dreaded terrorists.

The question that needs to be answered is: Is Operation SAMASAS beyond the reach of the tentacles of the Kansal Commission or not? That is to say, though it is true that the lowering of standards is fundamental to the idea of the accommodation of all imperfection within the Welfare State, isnt it equally important that one mustnt compromise in the least on quality control in certain key areas? That one must not lower ones standards to the point where the rot might start to set in?

The rhetorical questions continued for the rest of the paragraph. Dr Chakkis scripts were best read out by Dr Chakki himself. He thought so too but since Suroor hadnt responded to them with the alacrity that was their due, he had concluded that perhaps they needed to be delivered in a voice more melodious. Miss Lina Natesans had suggested itself when she had phoned him at the hotel the previous week.

'Can you, Dr Chakki, arrange for someone to receive me at Madna station when I arrive there next Tuesday? My trip is official, so I deem myself entitled to a reception committee. I have repeatedly faxed, telegrammed and phoned the Munic.i.p.ality but have received no firm reply.

'It will be a pleasure, Miss Natesan. We will recreate in Madna a little of the good times that we enjoyed inside Aflatoon Bhavan and outside the milk booth of the transit hostel. Particularly since Mr Agastya Sen will be here too, fresh from Europe and en route to Jompanna to take up his post as Officer on Special Duty for the negotiations with NeSLaY. May I ask what brings you down here?

The plague, was her answer. She reminded Dr Chakki that it had always been with them. It had broken out in the national newspapers more than a year ago only because none of them, in the silly season, had been able to bear the agony of waiting for Jayati Aflatoon to grant audience to Bhanwar Virbhim. It had now receded in the main to where it had always thrived, the alleys and drains of places like Madna. It also survived, for a season and gathering dust, in Miss Natesans thirty-page memorandum on the table of the-then HUBRIS Secretary, Dr Harihara Kapila. He had skimmed through it till Housing Problem and then given up. However, before he quit his post to climb the ladder, he marked her complaint down to a subordinate with the remark: May please forward to the Disaster Management Cell in Home Affairs for advice on her and her colleagues. Meanwhile, if she cant be accommodated in one of our training courses abroad, pack her off to Madna.

A.C. Raichur was well enough by Tuesday morning to be ferried off to the railway station with a description of Lina Natesan and a board with her name on it. Just as well, for even those who knew her well would have failed to recognise her when she stepped off the train. In her externals, she had changed but marginally. It is true that her spectacles had been replaced by soft contact lenses that lent a sparkle to her eyes, and her hip-length hair had been pruned to a mannish helmet, but the georgette saris remained the same. It was her demeanour, her deportment, that had been utterly transformed. Inner fire on a war footing, no doubt. Her victory in the court case, her success in Paris, and her recent appointment as General secretary of Tetra Pack had all contributed to give her a sense of purpose and a springy step.

After a few hours of dialogue on the phone, Tetra Pack was the name for their new party that Dhrubo and Agastya had finally come up with. Tetra of course for tetracycline, for the party that would rid the country of the plague.

In the auto rickshaw, the new Miss Natesans preferred mode of transport, en route to the hospital, she recruited, in her unique mellifluous Hinglish, an awed A.C. Raichur.

'We have to think small. Big is clumsy and slow to move. Once it moves, Big is uncontrollable because of its size. Look at our policemen in a riot, for example, monsters gone berserk. Big is filthy, inefficient, wasteful and causes calamities. The hills of garbage in this town that the Munic.i.p.ality leaves unattended is one contributing factor of the plague, isnt it? Remember that over the decades, every single institution, organization, building, agency and establishment that has been taken over by the government has been unsystematically ruined. The State needs immediately to shed weight, you know. It can retain defence, foreign policy, finance, justice and a couple of others but no more, I say.

She spoke non-stop. The auto-rickshaw reached the hospital, they alit, walked through the corridors, entered Ward Two, greeted Dr Chakki and the simpering Miss Shruti and Miss Snigdha, did a round of the beds and she was still speaking. She had a hand on the door k.n.o.b of Rajani Suroors room when all of a sudden, her voice began to boom.

It took Dr Chakki a second to realize that inexplicably, the lone air-conditioner in the cubicle had gone off. He was vexed. Itd never happened before, at least not officially.

Agastya, who was at that time inside the cabin, was not however at fault. He had just that moment managed to prise open the stiff fingers of Suroors left hand and place in his swollen, livid palm a Yin Yang box full of dope. He then remoulded the fingers tight over the box. 'You look as though you need it, friend.

Miss Natesan turned the k.n.o.b and opened the door a fraction when they all distinctly heard from somewhere inside Rajani Suroor a groan. It was a slow, loud and deep rumble of disgust, exactly the sound that one hears from someone who is wrenched out of sleep by the heat. To Agastya, it sounded dreadfully like a long-drawn-out Pa-yn-cho-om. They were a set of syllables appropriate for the occasion, he felt, a couple to bid adieu to the dead and with the balance, to greet the world of the living.

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