Dressed in a green T-shirt and track-pants, L Tochhong sits in the living room of her official residence at dusk on her last day of work and says, “I do not like to feel that I am a woman because that means I am insecure and I do not want that to be a drawback for me.”
When she joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1979, L Tochhong became the first Mizo woman to join the elite all-India service. Two years ago on August 31, she set two simultaneous records; she became not only the first woman to become the Chief Secretary of Mizoram, she also became the first Mizo woman to hold the post.
Her administrative ability may be grasped from her looking after six different departments at the time of her retirement, which included Political and Cabinet and Home, working closely with both Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla and Home Minister R Lalzirliana.
On October 31, she completed her last day in office after a career spent serving in Maharashtra (as a probationer in Thane), Goa, Delhi (first as Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Tiz Hazare, and then as director in the Union Home Ministry) and later in her home-state of Mizoram.
Upon her superannuation, she has also been immediately appointed as State Election Commissioner.
Born on 18th October, 1954, L Tochhong’s parents moved from Mizoram to Shillong when she was just five years old. She grew up and studied there and, like girls her age then, she aspired to become a “glamorous” air-hostess or “a doctor and heal the world and all that sort of thing”, but it was after her matriculation that she began to seriously consider the civil services.
Given she has been a pioneering female in a patriarchal community that has nevertheless seen a growing number of working women, she follows a difficult rule of thumb.
“I have never felt my gender, frankly speaking,” she says.
“Maybe at times, on some rare occasion,” she concedes, “But I always quickly discourage that kind of feeling. And I think that is very wise.”
“And I would also advise other women to never let that be a drawback. In a workplace there is no gender. Even if they try to put you down with some condescension or something else I think one should build up that barrier so that you are never touched by these things,” she adds.
“I had a very happy equation with our Ministers,” she reminiscences, “I think our political leaders have matured a lot over the years.”
Although Mizoram is generally known for and hosts a relatively gender-equal society especially in the urban areas, the highest echelons of power remains male-dominated. For example, it was only this year that a woman was elected to the state assembly for the first time in 27 years.
A comment L Tochhong generally evokes among less senior officials both male and female is that her professional attire has almost always been the traditional Mizo wraparound called puan, which though commonly worn is not always donned as office-wear, most adult women reserving it for church services or weddings.
“Everyday!” she says of her attire, smiling. “Even when I was posted outside Mizoram. In Delhi while I was in the MHA. I think puan is very elegant. It is very covered also. I suppose I stood out among my fellow female officers sometimes. But I try to promote our heritage, our culture, and I always carry puan with me.”
As for her career, she says she has ended it with a “a sense of satisfaction” with “no occassion that one truly regrets, by God’s grace it has been quite smooth sailing for me because I have always had the unstinted support of my officer, right down to the bottom level.”