IPS Nirmala Devi’s mother never made it past the seventh grade in her Alundurai village in Coimbatore. And yet, education was of prime importance in her daily life. This year, as IPS Nirmala Devi was inducted as Superintendent of Police (SP) in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Nagpur, her mother’s life-lessons resonated once again.
“Lakshmi Sundharam, my mother, always said there is nothing more satisfying than helping people and delivering justice to them. However, I understood its meaning only after I joined Indian Police Service in 2009,” Nirmala tells The Better India.
This one is a soul-stirring story of a mother-daughter duo who worked relentlessly to fulfil just one dream – joining the government civil service.
Raised By A Single Mother
Feisty, caring, and a rule-breaker – these are the words Nirmala chose when asked how her mother, who passed away in 2016, was.
Despite growing in a conservative environment where women were only pushed to get married, Lakshmi fought hard with her parents to let her complete her education. However, when her parents succumbed to societal pressure, Lakshmi vowed she would fulfil every wish of her children. And she did.
At 17, Lakshmi was married into a farmer’s family. Three years later, her husband passed away. Nirmala was just 1.5 years old.
Without indulging in self-pity or asking anyone in the family for help, the braveheart took on both the roles of a mother and father.
“She would wake up early in the morning, make our meals, drop my brother and me to school, work in the sugarcane fields and evenings help us do our homework. Sometimes, she would work late in the night to water the crops as power supply was available only then. She possessed a tremendous amount of mental and physical strength to juggle between her kids and farm. In hindsight, she was a supermom who did it all without any complaints,” recalls Nirmala.
She was always breaking the norms, Nirmala mentions. Whether it was riding a four-wheeler in the 90s or shutting down a judgmental society that believed Nirmala shouldn’t be allowed to study beyond school.
Lakshmi sent both her children to a private English-medium school despite the financial constraints and allowed them to charter their own career paths. While her elder brother joined the family occupation, Nirmala did her graduation in BSC IT.
Amidst all the hustle, Nirmala also saw her mother going out of her way to help others. She helped women apply for government schemes, was active in panchayat meetings and always encouraged villagers to educate their daughters.
Nirmala has inherited her mother’s empathetic nature so much so that even today she is in touch with the father whose son was murdered in a kidnapping case in 2009. This was Nirmala’s first case as an IPS in Nanded district, Maharashtra.
The Path to UPSC
After completing graduation in 2004, Nirmala secured a job in a private bank to assist her mother financially. This was around the same time when her mother expressed her long-deferred dreams of the Union Public Service Commission.
She showed Nirmala an article that covered the struggling story of an IAS officer from their village. Sure, Nirmala was impressed but dismissed her mother saying it was an impossible dream.
Cut to a year later, Nirmala juggled between her job and preparing for one of India’s toughest competitive examinations.
So what changed?
“I was intrigued by his story, so I ended up reading more about him and others who had cracked UPSC with minimal resources. My mother gave me the confidence that it did not matter if my English was not good or I had no guidance like the aspirants in cities do,” she says.
With no phones, internet or guidance, Nirmala was off to a bad start. She wasted nearly six months reading books in the library that were not relevant to the examination.
“I had no starting point, and amidst all those thousands of books, I felt lost. I did not understand the concepts of chemistry for months only to realise later that it wasn’t relevant.
But she was just not yet ready to give up and seeing her enthusiasm, Lakshmi started her own research. She found free UPSC classes in GRD College in Coimbatore through a newspaper advert.
Nirmala prepared for the entrance test and cracked it. She quit her job and Lakshmi started working harder on farms to meet the expenses.
A year later, Nirmala got another opportunity of free coaching by the Tamil Nadu State Training Institute for Civil Services in Chennai. The institute gave free accommodation and food as well.
This was the turning point when Nirmala finally developed faith and confidence to crack the exams, something her mother always knew.
In between all the coaching, Nirmala and her family still dealt with financial problems. So, instead of purchasing books, Nirmala would take copies of books from her friends. Interestingly, Nirmala photocopied her copies from her batchmate Arjun, who is now her husband and an income tax officer in Nagpur.
All the hard work, sleepless nights and her mother’s encouraging words finally paid off in 2008 when Nirmala cleared UPSC in her fourth attempt with an All India Rank of 272.
“My mother would say the reason why aspirants are given multiple chances at attempting UPSC is that it is a tough exam, so failing is an integral part of the process. Her simple words were very comforting. In all my attempts, she has accompanied me to the exam centres, including the final interview in Delhi. It was like she was giving the exams,” says Nirmala.
The IPS officer distinctly remembers the day results were announced. At first, her batchmate was not able to find her name. Just when a disheartened Nirmala was walking towards the phone booth to give her mother the news, her elder brother called and said she had cleared.
“I remember I tricked my mother saying I had failed and just when she started consoling me, I broke the real news. We were silent for some time and then began the celebrations.”
On Becoming An IPS
The first day into her job as an ACP trainee in Nanded, Nirmala was pleasantly shocked to see how different the police system was.
“Most of us have a negative image of the police, and thanks to movies, Indian cops are always late. So, when I was allotted IPS, my relatives taunted me and said I should have chosen IAS. I also had a similar perspective, but I was so glad to be proven wrong,” says Nirmala.
As Lakshmi said, Nirmala derives satisfaction and joy at the end of each working day. From solving murder cases, catching pickpocketers to being a frontline worker in the pandemic, Nirmala is glad she is in a position to uphold justice and maintain the law and order situation.
“It has been a learning experience that cannot be described in words. On the one hand, where there is distrust, abuses and mocking from people, there is gratitude on the other. I am proud to be a part of this service, and I am sure my mother feels the same way,” she adds.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)