When Kerala struggled to keep afloat in the flood last month, two women made headlines with their unconventional way of offering leadership. Thiruvananthapuram district collector K Vasuki and Thrissur district collector T V Anupama led from the front when the state went through the worst disaster in a century.
The IAS officers had become familiar faces across the state even before their latest assignments. They had shattered prejudices by proving that women were no less tough when getting the job done.
Vasuki pursued a medical degree in Chennai before taking up the civil service. Anupama is an engineering graduate from the BITS Pilani Institute’s Goa campus. Both of them preferred the civil service to lucrative jobs elsewhere.
Anupama and Vasuki in conversation:
What made you choose the civil service?
Anupama: The IAS was a dream for me. My father and uncle had written the preliminary exams when they were younger. But they could not pursue their dream for some reason. Somehow they passed that dream to me. I kept hearing about the IAS right from my school days. My father and uncle had been preparing me for it. Even after my father died, my uncle used to buy me books on competitive exams. Later, I joined the BITS Pilani in Goa. I received two job offers through campus selection before I completed the course. They were excellent offers with good paychecks. I was torn between those offers and my dreams of the IAS. There was no guarantee that I would pass the civil service tests. My mother then worked with the Guruvayur devaswom board. She had raised me and my younger sister after my father died. Despite the situation at home, she told me to drop the offers and focus on civil service. She was more confident than me.
Vasuki: I chose a career in medicine with an intention to serve the people. I thought I could serve the community as a doctor. When I started working in a government hospital in Chennai, I realised a doctor's job was not enough to address the ills of society. The life in the government medical college was a window to real life. We could see a lot of malnourished children when we went to the paediatric ward. When we asked the mothers why they were not feeding the children, they would open up to us about their miserable lives. Most of them had drunkards as husbands. They were forced to work day and night, leaving their children all alone. That is how I realised how poverty and starvation affected the people. I thought of working with an NGO. Then I realised that I could do better as an IAS officer.
(Vasuki's nickname in her college days was 'Vampire,' thanks to her dogged pursuit of blood donors for the needy. She was the go-to person for anyone who went to the medical college looking for a donor.)
Anupama: I have heard stories about you giving someone a good thrashing.
Vasuki: (Laughs) I have beaten up several people. Those days it was difficult for a girl to travel in Chennai without someone trying to grope her. Prying hands were everywhere, in buses, trains and in streets. I made sure to deal with anyone who dared to touch me. Even girls would ask me if I didn't feel ashamed. Why should I? Shame was on the people who tried to molest girls. I would beat up them so bad that they would not even think of harassing a girl again. Girls have to change their attitude. Once our gang of girls went for a movie. The moment I got into the movie hall, someone misbehaved with me. I slapped him tight. It was so unexpected that he froze wherever he stood. I beat him again and again. You only have to start it. The people will take care of the rest. I am sure that he never misbehaved with a woman again.
Have you encountered prejudices like women are bad at decision making?
Anupama: There were situations when I had to respond to people who thought so. If you think people are doubting your ability, you have to prove them wrong with your actions, not words. Such doubts were common in the beginning of my career. They got better later.
These notions may be a result of the low amount of women at workplaces. Time will change it. I never had to sit in the back seat because I am a woman. I never approved it. At the same time, I have heard a lot from women who had to go through such experiences.
Vasuki: There are a lot of surveys from around the world that prove that women are better decision makers. Still people act out of their biases. There are many seniors and colleagues who think like that.
How does society treat the girls?
Anupama: Even now people treat a little girl as someone who has to go to another house some day. Even when she wants to pursue higher studies, her parents may be thinking what is the use. It is grossly unjust when people think that there is no benefit in spending money on girls' studies. A girl is entitled to all the opportunities a boy get.
Vasuki: We have always tried to raise our daughter, Sayoori, without her feeling she is a second class citizen. Still she has asked us if she had to leave us after marriage. She even asked us if she could marry her brother so that she did not have to leave home. Somehow she got the impression that girls are supposed to leave her family one day. We have never talked anything like that in her presence. Still the five-year-old learned it from society. That is worrying. If you have a daughter and a son, you teach her to cook and train him in driving. You spent a lot of money on your son's studies. So he grows up with an impression that he is superior. The change has to come from the houses.
Sayoori and Samaran. They are uncommon names.
Vasuki: Sayoori is a Japanese name. I am crazy about movies. Sayoori is the name of the protagonist of 'Memoirs of a Geisha.' I liked the name when I watched that movie. I always wanted a daughter. Samaran means fighter.
When did Vasuki and Karthikeyan decide to live together?
We went to the medical college together. We were in the same batch. We were good friends. We had a gang of seven. We were known as 'Seven Stars.' I liked him. So did so many others. I felt that we were more than friends. I proposed. He approved. Nothing was planned. I talked my mind at the right time. That's all.
We felt safe and secure after that. We thought about the switch to the IAS after that. We would not have got into the civil service had we were not together. He is the district collector in Kollam now. This career was a collective decision. We sat on the idea for months. One day we went to a hilltop temple and talked it out for about two hours.
(To Anupama) Your life had a similar turn, didn’t it?
Anupama: Clinson and I went to BITS Pilani together. We were five from Kerala. All of us are still friends. Clinson and I decided to live together. More than anything else, our friendship drove us to the decision. I was a bit tensed when I was preparing for the civil service. He was trying to go abroad for pursuing MBA. We could support each other in those times of uncertainty. He was with me when I decided on this career. So he can still support me. I realised that even more when my son was born.
My boy talks a lot. He always hums something. The moment I get home after work, he would cling to me and ask me to sing to him. Ayan is almost two years old. I want to read him stories but I can’t always. I feel sorry for him. Clinson got a land in the technology sector as soon as he finished studies. He later quit and returned to Kerala. He has started his own company.
How do you manage to stick to your decisions?
Vasuki: There would be challenges. There would be people who try to influence you. When you are able to overcome all those and take things to a positive conclusion, you become confident. That gives you a lot of strength. If you are convinced about your work, if you have given it considerable thought, if it is for the public good, stand by it. That is how I see it. Crisis help you see who is with you and who is not.
Anupama: We have a legal system. If you stick to the rules, there is a very low chance of getting it wrong. Do not think of how the others would feel when you take a decision. If you do that, decision making would be delayed or faulty. I do not think a person can always take the right decisions. Nor do all the decisions end up wisely.
What about time management?
Anupama: Time management is something that I never get right. It is not easy to manage office and home without help from others. You can prioritise. If you can do it alone, do it. If you need help, get it. Never treat family as secondary.
It is important to earn as much as your husband. There is no point in worrying about the time you could have spent with family. You can always find time to spend with them. You have to enjoy each milestone of your children. That is important.
Vasuki: There are women who do not work because they cannot manage both work and home. If that decision is taken by the woman alone, it is ok. But women should never abandon her skills under duress. Women are expected to multitask. When the man is free to focus on his work, the woman has to take care of the children, their food, their school fees etc. This stress can lead to various complication by the time you are 45. If you compromise too much you will burst out one day.
Recent controversies make us think that politicians and bureaucrats are not always on the same page.
Anupama: It is a mistake to say that people's representatives and bureaucrats are not on the same page. You need support from the people’s representatives to finish any project you take up. After all, they are more exposed to the people. Both of them should work together to bring progress. The work we do together is seldom reported. Only the disagreements make it to the news. Maybe that is why you think so.
Vasuki: It is not difficult to work with politicians in Kerala. We know that they are more in tune with the people. So we never have a problem listening to them.
What do you have to say to the aspiring civil servants?
Vasuki: You have to give a clear answer on why you want to join the civil service. You have to be able to say that you want to serve people. It should be an honest ambition. Never take up this profession for recognition.