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A tale of two Bihar babus
In 20th century India, the best and the brightest kids went into either engineering or medicine. Those were the times when the government hadn’t opened engineering colleges to private players and hadn’t let IITs mushroom.

In inter-collegiate debates, you looked at the jean-clad, mop-haired, bespectacled IITians with reverence. Once they graduated, these Mr. Brains would leave for the US to either study or work, never to return to their motherland. It hurt because India had incredibly subsidized their education.

Those who stayed back did their post-graduation, and some joined big private companies and PSUs.  Surprisingly, a few chose to be in ‘government’ aka public service. Like the Tamil Nadu government is today littered with IITians and other high profile officers whose passions go beyond governance.  Do you know that it has a Carnatic music professional, a wildlife photographer, an active cricketer, not to speak of a voracious reader, and a research buff? 

This month we met two of them: Principal Secretaries, Kumar Jayant and Dr. Rajendra Kumar both alumni of IIT and whose passion is reading and research respectively.  While Jayant currently handles Co-operation, Food and Consumer Protection portfolios, Rajendra Kumar is the Industries Commissioner.

Kumar Jayant: 
Texts to story books

For someone who studied in the Hindi medium until his class XII, Kumar Jayant showed remarkable scholarly skills to first crack into IIT and then be amongst its toppers. While the gold medalist went to IIM and later graduated to global banking, Jayant waded into IAS.

I ask, “what makes a high ranking engineer get into bureaucracy,” and he looks me in the eye to say, “those were the days when the public sector was the major option if you chose to be in India. And what could be better than being in government, that controlled the public sector?” Fair point. 

We met Jayant for a different reason. He is a voracious reader and devours over forty to fifty books a year. 

He says: “sadly, we don’t encourage our young minds to read outside the syllabus.” And then avers: “when a hostel has a library of fiction and non-fiction, even if only four out of a class of 60 initially have a reading habit, the rub-off effect will make 30 of them avid readers by the time they graduate.”

Kumar Jayant should know. An alumnus of the well-known Netarhat Vidyalaya, 150 km from Ranchi, Jayant began reading English books only when he was in Class XI. Meanwhile he had read through the extensive collection of Hindi books in the school library. Can you beat this? He picked his first Enid Blyton in Class XI. Of course, after that, there was no stopping. At IIT, reading was the in-thing.  

His favourite authors are Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Alistair MacLean, Jeffrey Archer and Sidney Sheldon. Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy, Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, Archer’s Kane & Abel, and Sheldon’s women-centric suspense novels had him in thralls.  He recommends Vineet Bajpai’s  Harappa, a tale that knits 3700 years of ancient and modern-day characters in a nail-biting conspiracy. In non-fiction, his tastes range from mythology to travelogues. He recommends India: a sacred 

Geography by Dian L Eck, a book that explores the holy places of India and introduces Hindu religious ideas. 

On Chetan Bhagat, Jayant says the debut work 5 Point Someone was good because it had a relatable story. “Over time, the storylines have got skimpier and unsuitable for a novel.” When he says he likes John Grisham, I wonder whether the law stories are not templates. Jayant remarks: “so is Robert Ludlum. In each of his book, it’s about something that threatens to have a destructible impact on the world!” 

At the India level, his personal favorites are investment banker Ruchir Sharma and the rock-star former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. To Jayant, Salman Rushdie is unreadable and Amish’s use of current lingo in his Sita is discordant. He likes Amitav Ghosh and in particular his River of Smoke.  His international favorite is William Dalrymple.

Kumar Jayant loves watching conspiracy videos. “You don’t have to believe what they say. Like how you watch television news but don’t have to believe all that goes into it.” Punch! 

I ask if there are any regrets. “I would never have been happy in the private sector with the kind of work culture it has and the self-promotion it demands,” says the former ONGC staffer.I agreed. 

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