Book Review: Madam Sir, Manjari Jaruhar

The reality is that the ‘woman’ prefix was as much part of my professional journey as the stars on my epaulettes,” says Manjari Jaruhar looking back on a long career which began with her being the first woman IPS officer assigned to the Bihar cadre. A career that she has meticulously documented in her engaging memoir, Madam Sir.

The book begins, as most memoirs do, with her childhood. The oldest of three daughters, she was brought up to be independent and assertive, but with the clear understanding that all she did was just a lead up to a “good marriage”. It was when the marriage failed, and she realised that a divorce was inevitable, that she, for the first time ever, put her foot down and insisted on appearing for competitive exams. Though it was the IAS she aspired for, she got selected for the IPS, and underwent the physically gruelling training that she was absolutely unsuited for. As she later mused-

The IPS training made me acutely aware of the gaps in my upbringing. Why do we not encourage our girls to take up a sport, to build muscle, to build stamina? Why do we protect them from the outdoors for fear of “ruining” their complexion? Surely a strong body and fit mind are more to be coveted than fair skin.

It was when Manjari Jaruhar, IPS, fresh from weeks of training at the Police Academy donned her smart uniform and reported for duty that the reality of being the first woman police officer in her cadre really struck her. While her colleagues were given their first postings and sent to the field, she was asked to wait till the IG’s office received instructions on how to proceed with her training. This was the first of the many times she would be sidelined or assigned a desk job while the more coveted field postings were given to her male counterparts. Throughout the book, while she tries to downplay the challenges of having to constantly fight to be taken seriously as a police officer, it is evident that she disliked having to repeatedly prove herself worthy of regular postings.

Manjari Jaruhar describes her initial years in the force as being a time when she felt she was in a glass bowl- constantly under the scrutiny of people who viewed her with curiosity, suspicion and even hostility. But she also acknowledges the people who mentored her without prejudice, and of how even in a patriarchal society like Bihar, she won the loyalty of her staff.
She narrates a few anecdotes of how people made snide remarks about her when, after getting a bad deal, she presented her case to the appropriate authorities and got justice. This is something that many women working in male dominated fields have faced- first we are denied something that is our due, and after we fight back to got it, we get blamed for playing the woman card to get decisions reversed.

She must have been an inspiring role model for the female recruits when, after several years of service, she goes back to the Police Training Institute as an instructor. She describes how she retained her femineity without in any way compromising the demands of the uniform. One passage from the book stands out-

Often the girls would be unhappy with the police uniform. ‘why should we wear the men’s uniform, Maam? Why can’t we have something more comfortable, more suitable for us?”
It is true that the uniform is designed for a man. Yet, I feel that there should not be any difference in uniform because to me the uniform is the big equaliser. “The moment we start wearing a different uniform, others will perceive us differently,’ I would tell the girls. When you are breaking into a male bastion, you must first blend in, before standing out. I hope that one day there will be so many women IPS officers that they will stop being an aberration.

This is a question that still persists- should women blend in, or should they demand something more suitable for their gender. Equality is different from equity; shouldn’t workplaces offer the latter, instead of demanding that everyone conform to the former?

There was another similar incident where a female recruit was sexually harassed by a particular man. She resolved the issue by getting the perpetrator to apologise to the victim, and advising the female recruit not to press formal charges. While in the 1980s/ 90s, it would have seemed the right thing to do, was it really? Shouldn’t sexual harassment in the workplace be treated differently, especially since the perpetrator was a member of the police force and therefore should display greater sensitivity.

Though she never speaks about it, you can read between the lines about how difficult it was for her to manage home and work. Though her family was extremely helpful and she had a good support system, the family definitely suffered because of the long work hours and the stress of field postings. She mentions how frequent transfers messed with the education of the children, and of how holidays often got cancelled because of tense situations. In light of this, the last chapter assumes special significance- it is a tribute to the person without which she may not have been able to achieve as much as she did, and yet is a person who always remains invisible. That, more than anything else, sums up her humility and gratitude.

Of particular interest to me is the role she played in the investigation into the Bhagalpur blindings which shocked the nation. She understands how the frustration with the nature of the judicial system sometimes encourages people to seek a shortcut to justice, but emphasises that vigilantism has no place in the police system-

The Bhagalpur blinding showed me how important it is in the police to follow the correct path and not resort to extra constitutional ways. Many officers feel that encounters are the only way to deal with hardened criminals, but the Bhagalpur incidents taught me a salutary lesson that, although such behaviour might bring quick results and commendations in the short term, it invariably leads you down a dangerous path.

Manjari Jaruhar not only paved the way for the women who followed her into the IPS, she also actively mentored many of them and helped them achieve their full potential. Madam Sir is a memoir which chronicles with remarkable honesty and candour her successes and her failures, her achievements and her disappointments. My only slight disappointment is that she keeps a distance between herself and the book- though she presents the facts, she doesn’t really offer a glimpse into her soul, you see her actions, you do not hear her thoughts.

The book is titled “Madam Sir”, because that is how she was addressed during most of her career. Manjari Jaruhar, IPS is a remarkable lady who lived under public scrutiny, and emerges as a powerful role model for us all.

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Natasha Ramarathnam

Mother | Education | Youth empowerment | Gender rights | Civic Action | Book slut | At home everywhere | Dances in the rain | Do it anyway | Surprised by Joy