Please ask me only interesting questions,” said the new assistant district collector of Ernakulam, Pranjal Patil. “Otherwise I’ll get so bored.” I mentally scratched off all my questions about success, motivation and challenges. I had to think more creatively, but under the sudden pressure to perform, I crumbled. All I could come up with was: “Why IAS?” She might have been bored already, but she answered sportingly.
“I believe you can contribute [to society] in whatever field you choose,” she said. “But I wanted to do something where I could deal with people directly. I wanted to be in a profession where you can see the direct result of your actions.”
Being visually-impaired, Patil might have preferred a profession where she does not have to face the forced sympathy of people, or their awkwardness around disabled people. But instead of running away from the storm, she walked right into it. The thing about her is that there is no trace of self-pity. Not once did she refer to her disability as setting her back in any way, although it must have in many ways. However, when I brought it up, she addressed the issue without any hesitation, and did not shrink from the questions.
“Yes, of course there are discouraging moments in life,” she said. “I get discouraged every day. But don’t we all?” She referred to the time she was rejected by the Railways, despite securing an all-India rank of 773 in the UPSC examination, which made her eligible for the post. She did not give up. Instead, she wrote the examination again, and scored a rank of 124, which helped her realise her dream of becoming an IAS officer. “I believe discouragement paves the way for encouragement,” she said.
Patil lost sight in one eye when she was very young, after a friend stabbed her with a pencil. Soon, as a side effect of the pain medication that she was taking, she went completely blind. She said it was not that devastating when it first happened, as her natural liveliness helped her get over the shock. “I viewed life with a child’s innocence and beauty,” she said. “It was only later that I realised how challenging it was going to be.”
I asked her what she was passionate about in life, and she thought for a long moment. “When I was doing my master's at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, there was a formal discussion in class about the subject of passion,” she said. “I realised that passion is a very big word and there is a difference between passion and liking. What makes me happy is knowing I have contributed something [to society].”
She talked about three personality types described in a book by a Japanese author that she had read recently: independent, dependent and contributive. “Independent people don’t need anyone else,” she said. “They are not interdependent. The dependent personality type is self-explanatory. Contributive people are independent but [they don’t work] for themselves. I want that to be my journey.”
Once, many years ago, when she had gone to fill her water bottle at the JNU hostel, she found a girl there who was extremely depressed and frustrated with life. Patil spoke to her for a long time. Two years later, she met the girl, who told her how their conversation had given her a new perspective in life. Patil remembers the incident with a lot of fondness.
In her spare time, she loves to read biographies and autobiographies. Some of her favourite ones are the autobiographies of Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank and Mahatma Gandhi, whose work she described as “brutally honest”. “Whenever I read a book, I find something that inspires me,” she said.
But how can one be inspired to make a difference in a country that is riven with corruption, bribery, unemployment and poverty. “I just joined so I’m still full of ideas,” she said. “I’m inspired by what I read and what I believe, and have not yet been corrupted by the sad reality. It must be very difficult to change the system. But we will find a way.”
What helps her maintain her positivity is the Buddhist philosophy that she practises. “The core idea of Buddhism is human revolution, not industrial or technological,” she said. “In Buddhism, we believe that when one person changes, it can be the beginning of change in the world. This egalitarianism encourages me.”
When I asked her what she would like to see if she could have her vision back, she grew wistful. “I wish I could see nature’s beauty, clean rivers… the coconut trees that, I hear, Kerala is famous for.”