Anna Rajam Malhotra – A Luminary

The first woman IAS officer in India

Calicut in the late 1930’s was quite different from what you see today. It was a sleepy colonial town, not any longer the great trading entrepôt it once was. The days when the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Arabs and so many other nationalities who came to trade there were long gone, for the arrival of the British had changed all that. It was some time in the 30’s that OA George arrived at this Calicut with his children and wife Anna Paul, in order to start up a little publishing outfit. Both of them were well educated graduates, something unique in those days. KC Menon’s CESC had just started to electrify the town. Traffic was sedate, with just bicycles and horse carriages plying the main roads and Calicut exhibited hardly any hustle and bustle. During weekends, some Europeans from the estates in Wynad drove in to party at the European Club and by Sunday they were also gone. But Calicut had two colleges, a few good schools and this was one of the main reasons why the couple chose the town.

This story is about their daughter, who went on to become a pioneer and a trailblazer to women in the field of administration and it was in that Calicut that Anna Rajam George (Born July 16, 1927) grew up with her parents and four siblings (an elder brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister). Anna’s family lived right across the Providence girls’ school on Gandhi road, close to the beach, so it was only natural that she did her schooling there. Though the family were originally from Niranam (the writer Pailo Paul was her grandfather) near Cochin, Calicut became their home, and as we all term it, their native place. George stuck a friendship with Norman (as he was called after his printing press) Achutan Nair and settled down to run his little business.

After schooling at Providence Calicut, Anna finished her intermediate at the Malabar Christian College Calicut and moved on to complete her BA Honors at Presidency College Madras, where she majored and topped in literature. During her growing years, she had a keen ear for music and played the Piano, but they were always waging a difficult existence, what with a father who had been victim to a stroke. Nevertheless, her education did not suffer.

With hardly any other job avenues open to women in those days, Anna started her career as an upper division clerk at the AG’s office in Madras. As they all say, some things occur by chance, and thus it was that her cousin, an engineer, who was applying for the IREC, brought home an application for the Civil services examinations (in 1950). She probably did not even know what IAS was all about, I guess, but she filled in the application, only to realize that the fee to be remitted with the application was a princely sum of Rs 140/-, something neither she nor her family could not afford. Her friend’s mother offered to pay the fees, and she did so (The benevolent lady’s son rose up to become an IPS officer later).

While her two brothers went on to work for the P&T department in North India, Grace the youngest, continued studies at Calicut. It was at this juncture that Anna got news that she had been successful in the civil services written examinations.  Interestingly, even though her mother was one of the first women graduates from Madras university, she never worked, and Anna had always been told that she had to do more than tending to a home.

When Anna appeared for her interviews in 1952, the interview board suggested that she choose the foreign service because it was more suited for women. Anna was insistent that she would not choose any easy option (Her sister Grace adds – She was a tough nut to crack) and chose the Madras cadre. Reporting to Chief minister C. Rajagoplachari, a person who did not quite agree that this was a field for women, she was offered a job at the secretariat, but the obstinate Anna would not budge, she wanted a Sub divisional officer’s post. That was how she was deputed as the Sub Collector of Hosur district, Rajaji’s birthplace, an area bordering the Mysore state, not far from Bangalore.

Her days as a sub collector at Hosur & Tirupattur were legendary. Though I had read about a lady collectors elephant encounter, I never imagined it was Ann Rajam, and it was not until Grace, her sister mentioned to me that Chettur had written about it, that I got it in a flash, for in his book Mango seed and other stories, there was this charming story of the sub-collecteress and the elephants, titled “Her finest Hour”. I quickly got my copy out and reread the story, which Chettur had written as a piece of fiction. The story itself runs close to reality, as recorded by another eminent Malayali, MKK Nayar IAS (1949 cadre), to whom Raju (yes, that was Anna’s pet name) was as close as his own sister.

Let’s take up the story from Nayar’s book, and I acknowledge the source in gratitude – He starts off mentioning that the news of ‘a lady sub collector at Hosur and the elephants’ had hit the press - The men who read the news were not amused. Some raised eyebrows! What! A woman in the IAS? A she-elephant storming into the bastion of bull-elephants? How did the Government permit this? If a serious riot broke out, would a girl be able to quell it? Or give orders to shoot? Would she be able to face a charging mob of communal madmen and address them?

Anyway, as the story went, a group of elephants from Denganikotta forest had lost their way and strayed into open land venturing eastward, terrorizing the villagers on the way. Walking eighteen miles, the elephants reached Hosur. The villagers gathered at the sub-Collector’s bungalow to cry and complain. It was only when Anna, who was taking a bath, came out that they realized the sub-Collector was a woman. As they fidgeted, a woman among them told her about the calamity and pleaded “Please save us, Amma!’ For a moment the sub-collecteress (as Chettur called her) was stunned, not knowing how to handle this. But she recalled that elephants were scared of loud noises. With the little Tamil that she knew, she asked the villagers to get hold of all kinds of tins and cans. Joining the villagers and creating a bedlam, she accosted the elephant herd, cautiously.

Picking up Nayar’s words once again - Wonder of wonders! The leading tusker slung his trunk on his tusk, turned around and began to retreat. Other elephants followed him. Anna’s ploy had worked. Anna and the villagers followed and the elephants began to go faster. Other villagers on the way also joined with pots and pans they could find and joined the tin-beating procession. In four hours, the elephants were back in the forest and hiding. Anna was very tired and weak by then but did not lose heart. The villagers celebrated their success with a festival at Denganikotta looking on Anna as Goddess Durga. She was surrounded by hundreds of women of the village who massaged her feet, legs and arms. They fed her milk. She became their Mariamman…

Anna was tired and wished to get away somehow. By then, hearing about the incident, the DFO arrived in his car. With his help, Anna escaped further anointments, offerings, dousing in turmeric powder etc and went home by 1AM at night. She slept until noon next day. She thus became the heroine of a fairy-tale that received wide publicity and put to shame her male detractors. As SK Chettur put it, It was her finest hour!!

There are mentions both in Chettur’s story as well as in other articles of her colleague’s suggestions that the elephants be shot, but Anna would not harm these gentle giants, she knew that they just had to leave, not die. Anna, as Grace explained, actually got the idea of making loud noises from the time she had spent with her cousin and witnessing ‘khedda’ operations in the past.

There are so many such incidents in this iron lady’s life, there is a story of how she and her team accosted a bunch of smugglers at the border, with no weapons or other means, on a dark night. The district collector was aghast hearing all this, he admonished her foolhardiness, read her the complete riot act and gave her a pistol and ammunition to take care of herself in future. Well, these were all novel things mind you, a fearless women administrator, one who could ride a horse, fire a gun and so on. All this becomes even more surprising, considering that Ann was a diminutive lady tipping the scales at just 98 pounds in weight!

Anna returned to Madras around 1956, lived at Chetput where Grace schooled, and perhaps continued at the Madras secretariat until the early 70’s, after which she moved on to Delhi. However, I could not ascertain the exact timeline and Grace feels she went off to Delhi not too long after getting back to Madras. Asked often what she felt about being the first IAS woman officer, she would reply that it was not important, it is just a statistic. She always believed that women always had the desire, but the many social pressures and a general lack of opportunities, were the reasons they remained behind the scenes.

There was a love story brewing through it all and her beau was none other than her brilliant IAS batch mate, RN Malhotra. But it was not a time for marriage (in the 50’s it was simply not feasible for a Punjabi lad to marry a Christian woman, that level of tolerance was ages away) and in any case, Anna was not for it. At that time, only unmarried women or widows without encumbrance could join the services, though none had. Though her appointment order had these lines: “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated”, this clause was rescinded some years later. Grace mentions that when Anna and her classmates debated this topic, Anna was the one who was against a female IAS officer marrying and straying away from her chosen path. While all the boys argued for the rule to be changed, she was the only one who suggested it remain as is!

After her tenure in Madras, she moved to Delhi during the Indira Gandhi years. As additional secretary for agriculture, she was very much involved in the Green Revolution and argued against the many detractors of fertilizers. There is a story of how she had to accompany Indira on an eight-state tour to review food production, a trip she undertook, despite a fractured ankle. By 1973, the food situation had stabilized.

Now we pick up the story of her husband, the revered Ram Narain Malhotra, who went on to become the governor of the Reserve bank. His family had arrived as Punjabi refugees from Pakistan during the partition, and Malhotra was a hardworking and efficient IAS officer. A brilliant administrator and financial whiz, Malhotra was later posted to the IMF in Washington DC as an executive director after a stellar tenure as the finance secretary at Delhi. Anna visited the US in 1975, during that time and when Malhotra proposed, Anna accepted. They were married at Washington DC, after a long 25-year wait! Malhotra returned to take up the RBI position in 1985 during which period he carefully shepherded India through a period of credit crunch and foreign currency deficits.

We can see that by 1977, Anna had taken up the post of additional secretary of the department of animal husbandry and fisheries. By 1980, she became the Chairman of the National Seeds Corp and thence the head of the State farms Corp in 1981. Around 1982, we see Anna as the secretary of the department of Education and Culture. During this tenure, knowing that legislative measures to stop ragging would take time, heads of institutions and universities were asked by her to ban ragging through executive orders. She also headed India’s delegation as its secretary general and spoke in a few UNESCO conferences. We also get to understand that she worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi when he was in charge of the 1982 Asian Games, to help set it up.

Malhotra by the way, had succeeded Manmohan Singh in Feb 1985, who moved on to the Planning Commission. At that juncture, the high command was faced with a problem of finding an appropriate posting for Anna. There were only a few options available in Bombay (as she belonged to the TN cadre). Finally, it was suggested that Anna take charge of a project that had been announced recently to set up a greenfield port close to the Bombay harbor. The Bombay port trust was not capable of handling the increased demands and it was decided to build a new modern container handling terminal. This was how Anna took on the responsibility of building India’s first computerized container port, Nhava Sheva, in Bombay. Anna took up the challenge, and it was a huge one. As the eleventh major port of India, it was constituted as a separate port trust, with its own constitution and Anna Malhotra, was its chairperson.

Starting from a marshy salt pan in 1984-85, the JNU port project took shape and for once, a project was completed ahead of time (3 ½ years) and below budget, thanks to the iron will and tough work ethic of its administrator. Anna had a harrowing time with the archaeology department, but ensured that controlled blasting techniques were used to avoid any damage to the nearby Elephanta caves. As Grace puts it, she was a tough cookie alright and a taskmaster, no excuses worked with her. At the end when all was done and dusted, there was not a whiff of a scandal, that was how Anna completed the 1200 crore project, traveling daily from South Bombay to Nhava Sheva and back. An impressed Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister, had only one complaint, about the ordinary food that Anna would arrange, that too for a dignitary! Today the port handles around 60% of India’s container volumes and I could not help but wonder at what Bal Thackeray had to say about this Madrasi, who built him his greatest asset, the Nhava Sheva port!

When the port was opened in 1989, the country took notice and a year later fetched Anna the Padma Bhushan award. Interestingly, a year later, Malhotra also got his Padma Bhushan, perhaps the only couple in history to have both been recipients of such high honor!!

Meanwhile Malhotra had resigned after Yeshwant Sinha asked him for his resignation in order to make way for a Congress nominee, S Venkitramanan to take the position in 1900 (Source YS’s autobiography). Malhotra was later tasked with regulating the insurance sector. His committee’s work allowed entry of private entities into the insurance sector, and created the IRDAI, to regulate the sector and protect the interests of policyholders.

When Malhotra passed away in 1997, it was a massive blow for Anna, she had waited so long for them to be together and just after just two decades of togetherness, he was gone! She continued with many ventures such as the National commission for women and the film certification board. Grace mentions that she was the worldly person of the family, the agony aunt, who always had an answer, a solution for anyone with a problem, be it an insurance policy issue or paperwork or anything to help out.

One person who changed her life at this juncture was none other than the legendary Capt Krishnan Nair who as you may recall, built up his Leela hotel empire from scratch, after the age of 65. Anna who had run into him some decades back at Delhi and known him over the years, joined the Leela Group as a director of the board. Anna often mentioned of her enormous respect for the self-made Krishnan Nair, and it was apparent that the respect was mutual. Concerned about her safety, staying alone in a large house in Delhi after the death of her husband, the Nair family wanted her to relocate to a place close to them. Anna moved to Bombay, Nair had arranged a flat at Marol - Andheri and tasked one of his employees, Sujith Damodaran from Cannanore, to ensure that any assistance Anna needed was provided.

That 20+ year tenure in Bombay was in no way a retired life for Anna, for she traveled to Delhi often, met hundreds of people in connection with the Leela hotel affairs, took care of many projects and board meetings, and oversaw the group finances. Sujith wistfully recalls the days when these families united, how Anna would be always supervising Sujith’s children, forcing them to improve their English, how Krishnan Nair’s children grew up under their godmother’s hawk eye and how they all loved their Annama! He breaks up when he tells of the day he got a frantic call from Anna, who had fallen in the bathroom and how he rushed there to see her in a pool of blood, an injury which she eventually recovered from after the doctors had put in 18 stitches on her head. Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, she hobnobbed with them all, in those days. In the autumn years of Anna’s life, one could often see her meeting her visitors at the lobby of the Leela hotel or spending time with Captain Krishnan Nair and his family. Until the end, she would still field a number of telephone calls from various people who wanted some assistance or clarification. Anna was equally at home in Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi and I would not be surprised if he handled a smattering of Marathi as well. Capt Krishnan Nair passed away in 2014.

Grace, her youngest sister and Anna’s biggest fan, who lives in Rhode Island, USA remembers it all, how they used to spend a month or two at their little home in Edappali - Cochin, and that is where we get to hear of a final chapter in Anna’s life, relating to a maid who worked at their house. Anna as usual checked and tutored the maid’s kids, and found out one day that the maid was a college graduate who after marriage could not find work. She had passed her PSC exams, and had been trying for long to land a job as a typist, but of no avail. Anna got to working the phones over this matter and harangued every authority possible. Many years passed by. Just as she thought she had succeeded in 2016, elections intervened and the whole process ground to a standstill. Anna was distraught, she had tried so hard, and she had not succeeded. But things would change, for in June, the lady got her appointment order as a typist.

It was possibly her last hurrah and Anna Rajam (George) Malhotra bid adieu to our world, in Sept 2018. She wrote no memoirs, always downplayed her part in history and was immensely happy in the success of women. Throughout her life, only one thing was paramount for her, education. Any child she came across, would be questioned, cajoled and scolded, if she found him or her not focused on studies.

This no nonsense, tough and competent character who took all her achievements lightly, always brushing off compliments, insisted that her best days were spent in the villages she served, not the politicians or bigwigs she worked for. The bureaucracy during her last years left her disappointed as she saw it getting mixed with politics. Her era was different, she said, and the women who succeeded her showed “high conduct.” Her overriding motto in governance, as Sujith explained was “if you have to upset one person in order to avoid upsetting a thousand, that is the step to take.” Playing down her pioneering role, she called it a “fluke” during an interview with the Hindu in 2012. Her story will perhaps teach anybody who aspires public office that a stubborn and honest person could also do well, in today’s world.

Anna broke barriers, set examples and blazed through to showcase an enviable career which I hope many more women will emulate and people like me can write about.

The Story of an era told without ill will - MKK Nayar (Trans - Gopakumar M Nair)
Mango seed and other stories – S K Chettur
Remembering Anna, India's first woman IAS – Cris @ The Newsminute, Sept 20, 2018 
Pahal episode 13, Doordarshan, interview by Tabassum

With many thanks to Cris, my friend and journalist at Trivandrum, Sujith Damodaran at Leela Hotels - Mumbai and Grace, Anna’s sister at Rhode Island USA, each of whom narrated Anna’s story to me, passionately.

Photo – Courtesy Grace V



LIjoy said...

Thanks for sharing the inspiring detail of Anna.

vmk said...

I thought all this happened a long time ago, but on reading find that she only died recently. What an inspiring story, what an inspiring lady. Enjoyed your write up.


Thank you, Maddy, for this lovely write up on Miss George, as we fondly called her. She and my father worked together and she became a family friend.
We are familiar with most of her life after she joined IAS. Nice to learn about her early life.
You are familiar with my mother's blog. Miss G features in this.

Maddy said...

Thanks Lljoy,
glad you liked this

Maddy said...

Thanks VMK..
Yes, a very inspiring character, but hardly known. Am glad I could shed some light on the topic!

Maddy said...

Thanks Raji,
Hope you are doing well, Oh yes, I recall your mom's blogs too.
So their paths crossed, I can see how she must have been at work, from your mom's jottings. Small world, I suppose.
Keep well and keep safe

Unknown said...

What an enjoyable read, as always. Did she also not oversee the Asiad that took place in Delhi?

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

Thanks, Maddy for the meticulous research which has corrected many incorrect details about her. Yes, she was indeed a gracious lady with a fantastic drive for achieving whatever she had resolved to undertake. I used to know the couple when they were in the USA where the respected grandfatherly Ram Malhotra was the Executive Director of IMF. When I mentioned to her that I was from Calicut, she was genuinely happy to meet someone from the city where she spent much of her childhood. In fact, we travelled together in November 2015 to India when Ram Malhotra was returning to take up the Governorship of RBI.
I had heard on the corridors of Finance Ministry that they decided to wait to get married as Ram Malhotra did not want to hurt his mother's feelings and that it was only after the old lady passed away that they tied the knot. It could just be a gossip.
Anyhow, a great story, Maddy!

Maddy said...

Thanks unknown...
Yes, I mentioned it as well, though I am not too sure about the extent of her involvement in the 82 ASIAD.

Maddy said...

Thanks CHF, CK..
A remarkable couple, as you mention. When you study the lives of these people, you come to realize that they are also just that, normal people, but with a little more focus, purpose and drive - not some superhuman machines.

Unknown said...

Greatly impressed with your write-up!! Very informative...We would be grateful if you agree for using the information of this article by giving you the courtesy...Thank you!

tka mockingbird said...

Beautiful peice. We were all discussing this in our family (kayyalathu) WhatsApp group today. My mother was Rajukochamma's cousin. Thanks a lot for writing this.

Maddy said...

Thanks Joseph,
glad you enjoyed this