My early years were spent in Paturu, a village in Kadapa district. I was born here, in my mother’s house. Our house was located on Kapu Veedhi, the street of Kapus, who were also known as Reddys. If a person of a higher caste or status was around, men had to leave their dhoti unfolded, letting it fall to their ankles. Only with people of their own or lower socioeconomic strata could they fold it up! Also, if people from the scheduled castes had to pass our street, they had to carry their footwear in their hands! Life then was steeped in casteism.
Traditionally in Reddy families, daughters were pampered by the father (ayya), while a son could be in the ayya’s presence only if called for or sent by his mother! But my ayya had always been friendly with me, prompting amma to remark that he was spoiling me by not being aloof enough. His only weakness was for food, especially since amma was an excellent cook. But he had developed a heart condition early in his life, so she attempted to moderate his diet. It was a futile effort — amma would often give in, as ayya would sit for a meal but wouldn’t look at his plate till he was served what he wanted!
My father was remarkably modest for his standing, attributing his achievements to good luck. He would often say that his friends who were more brilliant than him were ordinary teachers or assistant engineers, while he had become a respected officer. In fact, if I used to study in the night or early in the morning, he would say, “Why are you studying late into the night? In life, you should be good but your fate will determine your life.” That was my father’s philosophy, but my mother’s approach was slightly different. She would keep telling me that, if I didn’t study well, I would have to slog in the field like a farmer. That proved an effective threat and I studied hard.
I could have joined engineering after school, but since I was underage by a year, I joined a bachelor’s degree (honours) course in economics at Vivekananda College in Madras, in 1957. At the college, many of my classmates were from urban, educated, middle class and upper-middle-class backgrounds and their only aim was to pass the exams to become IAS officers, lecturers, lawyers or at worst, an upper division clerk at the accountant general’s office.
Around this time, leftist political ideologies were gaining ground in the Andhra area, and Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam in Tamil areas. I witnessed processions where idols of Lord Ganesha were carried through the streets in Madras, while people shouted angry abuse at the idols and threw slippers at them. At first, I was shocked as Ganesha and other Hindu gods were sacred in my house. I was sympathetic to leftist ideology for a while in Government Arts College in Anantapur (1955-57) and to Periyar’s self-respect movement.
I went on to become the general secretary of the hostel union. As was the practice, distinguished persons would give lectures in the hostel’s prayer room, where pictures and idols of Hindu Gods would adorn the walls.
As the general secretary, I invited Mona Hensman, the principal of Women’s College; Syed Abdul Wahab Bukhari Sahib, of New College; and Kamaraja Nadar, a non-Brahmin Congress leader. Those were exciting days, where I learnt the power of speaking out. But, I also learnt the importance of keeping quiet, and keeping time, on my next assignment.
In 1960, I was admitted into the full-time PhD programme at Osmania University under the guidance of Prof VV Ramanadham (VVR), an expert in transport economics and economics of public enterprises. I learnt quite a few things from him. He would often give appointments at odd times — 9:05 am or 8:55 am, but never 9 am. His explanation was that in India, 9 am meant about 9 am, stretching all the way to 10 am. But with 8:55 or 9:05, there was no mistaking the seriousness of the intention! Also, his room had two cards: one on the wall that had a picture of a fish about to bite a hook and underneath was a quote, “Even a fish could avoid trouble if it kept its mouth shut.” The card on the table read “Your time is precious, don’t waste it here.” The message was clear — be punctual, open your mouth only when essential, and get out when the job is done. I learnt them well.
In August 1961, I was appointed as a temporary lecturer in Hyderabad Evening College. My term was six months and my consolidated salary was Rs.250 a month. After a month, I was transferred to the prestigious Nizam College, whose students were from the upper echelons of society.
I was nervous on my first day as the class was overflowing with young men and women — all my age. After introducing myself, I expected questions on my teaching style, economic concepts or previous work experience, from the students. But that was not to be. “You were working in the night college before joining here. What were you doing during the day?” came a question, amid muffled laughter. Knowing the slant of the question, I, too, cheekily replied: “In day-time, I did what others do during nights!” There was laughter all around. After some more banter, the ice finally thawed. A few months into the job, I was to lead an excursion to Delhi. I agreed on the condition that the trip would have no girls. But the principal said girls would be part of the troupe. “But”, he added, “the girls have assured me that they have self-control and that you should not worry.” I assumed he meant they would behave themselves but I retorted, “Sir, I cannot assure you about my self-control.” My days as lecturer didn’t last for long though.
Ayya wanted me to pursue civil services and since his health was deteriorating, as the older son, I would have to take on greater responsibilities at any moment. My work at the college was great and my salary was good. But I saw his point: civil service offered stability and respectability during uncertain times. I decided to prepare for it, but I was determined to pursue my interest in academics. Prof VVR was not comfortable with my decision as he wanted me to apply for a post-doctoral research fellowship at Stanford University. He spoke to my father, but ayya was firm. In fact, the vice-chancellor, too, tried to dissuade me by saying: “You are old enough to think for yourself.” I replied, “Yes, I thought for myself and decided that I will obey my father!” That was how I moved on to becoming a civil servant.
Unfortunately, ayya didn’t live to see the day I was selected, but by then I had only taken my written examination. After ayya’s death, we had to vacate our government quarters. We sold our Fiat car and I had to buy a bicycle. Our standing in the society, though, was restored by June 1964, when I joined IAS and was deputed to Andhra Pradesh.
Initially, I was posted as an assistant collector under training in Visakhapatnam district. It was a good initiation into the rough and tumble of administration, as within a few days, I was assigned to adjudicate an irrigation dispute and write up a draft award on the collector, Abid Hussain’s behalf. I was surprised when the collector signed the draft without reading it. It was my first learning in management — Abid sir told me it was my objectivity as a complete outsider to the dispute that was more important than knowledge of the subject or of the law. Another advice he gave me was that you do not have to be anti-rich to be pro-poor.
My training period in the state was a choppy affair, from July 1965 to April 1967. I had the rare distinction of being transferred four times during that period! My first move was to Hyderabad district. As a block development officer, I had my first encounter with corruption. The panchayat samiti president was close to a minister. He had obliged bureaucrats by helping them buy land, including laying roads to their grape gardens or farms as part of the government rural roads programme! Pocketing 10% in cash was a precondition for issuing any cheque to the public from any state scheme. I tried to put a stop to the practice. My next posting was as secretary, zilla parishad, Chittoor, where I lasted for four months. A day before I was to take over as sub-collector and magistrate in Rajahmundry, I was posted to Ongole subdivision. But the person in charge did want to move out of his posting and refused to hand over the charge. “I want you to go to Hyderabad and get it cancelled because I want to remain here,” he told me. I replied: “Do me one favour — get it cancelled and I will hand over the charge. I am prepared to go anywhere but spare me the agony of not having a job till then.” So, he handed over the charge to me and went to Hyderabad for a week. He came back but was posted to a neighbouring sub-division. So, one of the lessons that I learnt is that if somebody is unpleasant to you or something bad happens to you, you are not necessarily the reason why it is so!
Thankfully, I got a break from my posting in Ongole as my application for a diploma course in planning at the Netherlands-based Institute of Social Studies (ISS) was accepted. I was excited as I was going abroad for the first time and, more importantly, would be studying economics, a subject that I loved. My days at the institute were sheer bliss. Lectures were held in spacious classrooms that overlooked elegant gardens with ponds and fountains.
The ISS was also an eye-opener, academically, culturally and socially. I was impressed by the openness of the society. Soon, I began to understand the difference between friendly girls and girlfriends!