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  Books   18 May 2024  Book Review | Brilliance, empathy, simplicity qualities that define Subbarao

Book Review | Brilliance, empathy, simplicity qualities that define Subbarao

Published : May 18, 2024, 1:55 pm IST
Updated : May 18, 2024, 1:55 pm IST

The subtitle of the book — Notes from My Life and Career — is significant

Cover page of Just a Mercenary? Notes from My Life and Career
 Cover page of Just a Mercenary? Notes from My Life and Career
Subbarao, Subba as we call him, is my IAS batchmate. I still recall vividly the first time I met him on that mid-July day in 1972 when all of us reported for training at the Mussoorie Academy. In fact, all 150 of us in the batch were seeking out Subba to secretly size him up and check what put him on the top. Subba, for his part, was distinctly uncomfortable with this attention and must have been hoping that this scrutiny would be over soon.

Over the next two years that we spent together in Mussoorie, I realised what made Subba special — a rare blend of brilliance, empathy and an unassuming personality. Although we moved apart after the training period — he to Andhra Pradesh and I to Tamil Nadu — I’ve followed his extraordinary journey to the top of the civil service and then as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India with interest and admiration.

I was mildly apprehensive therefore when I set out to read Subba’s book. Like most civil service memoirs, would he too fall into the trap of glorifying his story and hiding his failures, and break my carefully preserved image of him? I need not have feared. Subba tells his story with rare candour and honesty; the easy flowing language and subtle self-deprecating humour are a bonus.

The subtitle of the book — Notes from My Life and Career — is significant. Unlike in a conventional memoir where the author is the driver taking the readers along on his journey, in these “notes”, Subba, very characteristically, tells his story as if he was a bystander allowing the reader to make their own inferences.

As collector of Khammam district, Subba stood up to Chief Minister Chenna Reddy in implementing the protective legislation for tribals. As finance secretary in Delhi, he went against vested interests by arguing that the price at which spectrum is given away should be rediscovered through a fresh auction. As RBI governor, he famously fought for the autonomy of the central bank. In any other memoir, these would have been tales of heroism; in Subba’s narration though they are just mere episodes in his career.

Empathy is an attribute that I associate with Subba and that comes through clearly in the stories he tells, for example, of his encounter with Md Azharuddin which illustrates the ebb and flow of life, his feelings of guilt for overlooking a former leprosy-affected person for the post of his jeep driver and the stoicism of his “daffedar” who turns up for duty barely four hours after his wife of 30 years had died.  

Another trait that distinguishes these “notes” from conventional memoirs is that Subba admits his mistakes candidly and reflects on his dilemmas in an insightful and instructive way. As his tenure as collector of Khammam aborted in just nine months, he wonders if he moved hastily without understanding the ground situation and thereby lost the war in trying to win the battle. He admits to vanity when he thought that his posting as officer on special duty for bottling liquor was not important enough given his track record. As governor of RBI, he earned the moniker of “baby-step Subbarao” for raising interest rates in only baby steps even as inflation was touching double digits. He admits to his realisation in hindsight that the economy would have been better served if his monetary tightening had started sooner and had been faster and stronger. Few policymakers have been so forthright and honest.

Now some quibbles. Even as I enjoyed reading “the Mercenary” — as a matter of fact I finished it in just two sittings — when I was done, it left me with a vague sense of incompleteness, the feeling that Subba should have dived deeper into some of the issues. For example, a couple of years ago, he wrote an op-ed in a major newspaper under the title — ‘Has the IAS Failed the Nation?’ — where he bemoans the intellectual and moral decline of the IAS. Why did he not expand on that to give his views on how the IAS should be restructured and reinvented?

In a very touching letter to his departed mother which forms the last chapter of the book, Subba dwells on the difficulty of following one’s dharma. But he also says that it is sometimes difficult to even discern what one’s dharma is. Why did he not illustrate with some life experiences?

Quibbles apart, at the end of the story, do we get to know what is the magic formula for getting from the IAS to the governorship of the RBI? This is not meant to be a guidebook, but it most certainly lives up to the blurb of “informing and inspiring young professionals to find a way up their career ladders — and finding meaning in their journeys”.


Dr C.K. Gariyali, an officer of 1972 batch of Indian Administrative Service, has served both as secretary to the chief minister and as secretary to the governor of Tamil Nadu. Post-retirement she is a fulltime social activist and author. She serves on the board of several charities and is founder of Schizophrenia Research foundation of India as well as EDIT, the charity of Equitas Bank. She has authored 17 books, including Kashmir the Land of Kashyapa.  


Just a Mercenary? Notes from My Life and Career
By Duvvuri Subbarao
Penguin India
pp. 336; Rs 799



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