By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Indians' World View : So Broad Subconsciously, So Narrow Self-consciously!

A few days ago I had recalled a Shankar's Weekly article of mine dated Jan. 1973, which had ended with an imaginary South Indian wedding invitation (March 28 -- Kicked Upstairs : Field Marshal Manekshaw....).  When I was rustling through my old files looking for that article, I came across an Evening News article dated June 1977, in which I had quoted a real-life South Indian wedding invitation.  

I would like to share this piece of writing also with you, because it concerns a significant psychological aspect of the average Indian's outlook towards foreign lands and foreigners, especially the Western world and Westerners.  This has been a theme I've explored endlessly during the past half-century, and I shall be fishing for many more essays, articles and reviews containing my consistent reflections in this regard.  



(in same order as in text)

 Udipi restaurant  --  Udipi is a small town in Karnataka State, famous for certain traditional South Indian light refreshments (such as idli, dosa, vada, upma, etc.) which are beginning to be well-known in many parts of the world now, thanks to the ever-expanding Indian diaspora at the global level.  'Udipi restaurant' is a genetic expression to indicate any joint in any place where these dishes are cooked and served.

Saree  --  An approximately 5.5 metre-long (or longer) and 1.2 metre-wide piece of fabric (made of silk, cotton, polyester or blends thereof), draped gracefully around the body from shoulders to feet, which is the traditional dress of Indian women, who naturally consider it to be the most beautiful dress in the whole world (as I do).    


Evening News, New Delhi
25 June 1977

Indian vision

I received a surprising and intriguing invitation from a friend of mine recently:- 

"Mrs. and Mr. S.V. Subramanian request the pleasure of your company with family and friends on the occasion of the marriage of their daughter Bhagirathi with Balakrishnan on Monday, July 4, 1977 at the Hindu Temple, Flushing, New York-11355."

There was no reason why I should have been surprised, because I had already read in the newspapers about the construction of the Hindu Temple in New York.  But newspaper reports are impersonal, and wedding invitations are personal things which make a far more definite impact on you.

As for the intriguing quality of the invitation, we Indians are invariably thrilled whenever we see anything Indian flourishing abroad -- whether it's an Udipi restaurant, a saree or handicrafts shop, an Indian temple, or Indian music.  We have our sights so firmly fixed outside our country that we never pause to think that there are many foreign things right in our midst here! 

Indeed, we never realize that churches and mosques must once have been alien things in this land of ours called India.  We even take our synagogues for granted.  They are all so much part of our lives that it never occurs to us that they have a foreign origin!

And we read, write and speak English --  with our alien styles and accents, no doubt --  as if it were our native language.  When we fill up forms asking us what foreign languages we know, we usually forget to mention English!

Would any Frenchman or Russian find it intriguing that French, Russian and other European-language classes are held regularly in many Indian cities?  But let some white-skinned foreigner just speak two sentences in Hindi or Tamil, and we would make a big fuss about it!

Imagine a European or American citizen being unduly excited by the fact that there are symphony orchestras in Bombay and New Delhi, or that there's a brisk sale of jazz and pop records in Indian shops!  But let an Indian musician go on a concert tour in Europe or America, and we would confer a demi-god status on the person!

Do we Indians have a broad vision?  Our subconscious assimilation of foreign things on our soil seems to show that we do have it.  But our self-conscious obsession with Indian things abroad seems to show that we lack it absolutely!


PostScript,  2013
Teach Yourself Indlish -- Lesson 1

The remarkable similarity in the wording of the imaginary and real-life wedding invitation cards wasn't just a coincidence, because both of them had the same source  --  the standard English version of the conventional bilingual invitation form prevailing in middle-class South Indian society during the past several decades.  Please note that in Indian languages we don't have separate words for 'wedding' and 'marriage';  and so a 'marriage invitation' is a perfectly valid concept and popular expression in Indlish!

By the way, 'Udipi restaurant' (defined in the Glossary above) is a term used by me.  The popular generic expression is 'Udipi hotel', because we don't have a separate word for 'restaurant' in Indian languages.   So we do sometimes talk about the Udipi hotels we've visited in London or Paris, New York or San Francisco! 

What did you say?  You'd like to learn Indlish?  Fine, let's start here and now!  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Kicked Upstairs : Field Marshal Manekshaw, Field Captain Batterji

Among the good things independent India inherited from its former imperial rulers was a well-organized Government set-up, both civil and military.   It wasn't normally possible to view the Army's affairs in a humorous light;  but once in a while such situations did arise, as when General Sam Manekshaw retired on promotion, which was fine grist to my Shankar's Weekly mill!


Glossary  (in same order as in text)

Field Marshal  --  The Indian Army retained (and still retains) the British designations for officers, from Lieutenant to General, though it adopted native terms for the lower ranks.  Field Marshal is an honorary title conferred only on two distinguished war veterans so far, Generals Sam Manekshaw and K.M. Cariappa.

Mantri  --   Minister, in Hindi  --  not a term typically used as a person's name.

File Bhavan  --  'Bhavan' is a Hindi expression which broadly denotes 'institution'.  Very near the massive and monumental twin Secretariat Buildings in New Delhi, where the Ministries are located, there are a number of relatively small but quite spacious buildings housing the various Departmental Headquarters  and bearing native names like Krishi Bhavan (Agriculture, 'krishi' meaning crops),  Udyog Bhavan (Industry and Commerce),  etc.  For no reason known to me, there's also the hybrid Rail Bhavan, which makes my File Bhavan sound very real!

Chief Minister  --  Corresponding to the Prime Minister at the Centre are the Chief Ministers in the various States in India's federal system.

Gazette notifications --  Senior officers' postings, transfers, etc. are notified in the Gov. of India's official Gazette.

Burochari --  An imaginary name, resembling actual South Indian names like Rangachari, Gopalachari, etc.  

Under-Secretary  --  The designations of 'gazetted officers' in the Government of India Secretariat are as follows:  Secretary  -  Additional Secretary  --  Joint Secretary  --  Deputy Secretary  --  Under-Secretary.  (Section Officer is a non-gazetted rank).

21-4-73  --  In India, dates in short form are usually expressed as Day-Month-Year.

Batterji  --  Obviously improvised from 'batsman', but with an amusing connection with three popular names in West Bengal State  --  Chatterji, Bannerji  and Mukherji --  which were invented by the British bosses, who couldn't properly pronounce the authentic Bengali names Chattopadhyaya, Bandhopadyaya and Mukhopadhyaya. Somehow they hadn't meddled with Battacharya, so I just made good the omission with Batterji!

Wedding invitation  --  Its relevance in this context is the prestige and status symbolism attached to the designation of the bride's father --  Under-Secretary, being a 'gazetted officer', distinctly ranks above Section Officer, a non-gazetted post;  and it sounds much better alongside the designation of the bridegroom's father!

Srimathi/Sri  --  Sanskrit for 'Mrs./Mr.'  --  adopted in most Indian languages, of which there are many.

IAS  --  Indian Administrative Service, conceived broadly conceived on same lines as the British Civil Service. 

Kalyana Mandapam  -- Tamil for 'marriage palace'. 

Muhurtham  --  Auspicious morning time for Hindu wedding ceremony.

Svaraswami  --  Imaginary name for a Carnatic musician ('swara' meaning musical note), resembling Sivaswami, a real Tamil name.  Traditionally in South Indian middle-class weddings, it used to be fashionable to have a reception in the evening, with dinner clashing with a classical music concert.  The idea is still in vogue to some extent, but the concert concept is fading out gradually. 


Shankar's Weekly 21 Jan/ 1973
Upstairs And Out!

I HAVE seen phrase books in several European languages , but none of them ever indicated the equivalent of the English expression "being kicked upstairs."  This typical British practice is perhaps not much favoured on the Continent!

We in India, of course, are not averse to adopting time-honored British conventions.  The latest instance is the 'promotion' of General Sam Manekshaw to the rank of Field Marshal, which he will hold for life.

In the British Army, it is reported, a General who is promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in peace time normally lays down his office soon afterwards.   In keeping with this tradition, Field Marshal Manekshaw relinquished his appointment as Chief of the Army Staff on January 15, and was succeeded by General Bewoor.

It is commendable that an outgoing soldier or official should be honored with a higher rank than the one he enjoyed while in service.  Particularly in our political, economic and social milieus in India, this would mean so much to the persons concerned.  I therefore recommend that this excellent practice may be followed in all cases, and not merely in the case of retiring Generals.  If the authorities accept this suggestion, we can look forward to communications like the following:-



New Delhi, Jan. 20

Mr. C.K. Mantri, Union Deputy Minister, has been promoted as Honorary Minister, which rank he will hold for life.

In accordance with prevailing traditions, Mr. Mantri is expected to relinquish office shortly.  It is understood that the name of his successor will be announced in a few days.

Newsmen who called on the Deputy Minister at File Bhavan this afternoon found him in a jubilant mood.  Mr. Mantri said that as soon as he is relieved of his present duties he would go back to his State and become Chief Minister there, which would be easier now in view of his new rank at the Centre.



MINISTRY OF FINANCE (Department of Expenditure)
Gazette Notifications

New Delhi
May 14, 1973

No. 76893  --  Shri R.S. Burochari, Section Officer, Ministry of Finance, assumed charge as Under-Secretary with effect from 21-4-73 forenoon, on promotion.


No. 76894  --  Shri R.S. Burochari, Unde-Secretary, Ministry of Finance, retired from service with effect from 22-4-73 forenoon, on attaining the age of superannuation.



Bombay, June 23

Following India's spectacular victory  over the visiting Australian cricket team, the Board of Control for Cricket has decided to promote the Indian skipper, Anil Batterji, as Field Captain.

Batterji will retain this title for life.  He will not, however, be eligible to participate in future Test matches.

The selectors are meeting here shortly to select a new Test Captain.  The most likely choice is Pitchpal Singh, the brilliant all-rounder from Haryana.

Talking to newsmen here today, Anil Batterji said that this honor meant a great deal to him, as it will enabe him to retain his present job in a reputable Bombay firm.




                                            Wedding  Invitation

                                 Srimathi & Sri  R.S. Burochari
                                   (Retired Under Secretary,
                              Ministry of Finance, Govt. of India)

                                   request the pleasure of your
                               company with family and friends
                                       on the occasion of the
                                    marriage of their daughter    
                                       K. RANGARAJAN, IAS
                                       (Collector, Thako Chak)

                                                     son of
                                   Srimathi & Sri R.K. Iyengar
                                  Retired Accountant-General
                                                     at the
                            Balaji Kalyana Mandapam, Madras         
                                      on Friday, July 27, 1973
                              Muhurtham: 8 a.m. to 9-30 a.m.
                                Reception/Dinner:  6-30 p.m.
                           (Music by Sri Swaraswami & Party)


PostScript, 2013
Prophetic phenomenon!

I think I must have possessed some mysterious and divine power of clairvoyance in early 1973,  A few days ago I had explained how close I had got to inventing the name of Gorbachov in a Shankar's Weekly article in April 1973  (The Eras Of Comrade Babov And Comrade Gabov, 17 March 2013).  And here's an article I had written just three months earlier, in Jan. 1973, in which I mentioned an imaginary character called Pitchpal Singh (suggesting a cricket pitch and sounding so much like the real-life name Pritpal Singh), who soon turned out to be an amazingly prophetic phenomenon! 

For the legendary batsman/fast-bowler Kapil Dev  (who made his debut at the national level playing for Haryana State in 1975 and quickly emerged in the international scene as one of the most successful Captains in Test cricket, winning the World Cup in 1983) was nothing but 'the brilliant all-rounder from Haryana' in real life!  Surely, another instance of my gazing into an amazing crystal ball!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Critic's Rational Vision Of Change In Dynamic Cultural Environment

I have been an earnest journalist for 50 years now, since December 1962 when I was living and working in Madras (now called Chennai).  I started writing regularly on South Indian classical music  --  which is known as Carnatic music  --  45 years ago. when I was living and working in Bombay (now called Mumbai).  And I started writing regularly on Western music 40 years ago, when I was living and working in New Delhi, the Capital of India, which is still miraculously known by the same imperial name given by our British rulers (who packed up and went home 65 years ago, leaving behind this universal language called English and some marvellous specimens of European architecture and culture!).
And now it gives me great satisfaction to see an essay I had written exactly 25 years ago, concerning the critic's obligation to recognize and come to terms with the inevitable changes which occur endlessly in a dynamic social and cultural environment.  What I find particularly significant today is that I don't wish to change a single word of this text I had written so long ago, although since then far more convulsive  changes have materialized in the world of music, and in the whole world's music.  Of course, I can add some specific comments about the present and predictable future scenrios, but that will not alter the tenor of these reflections.


THE HINDU, New Delhi
3 June 1988

The critic and the changing scene

There was a time, not very long ago, when an exponent of Indian classical music or dance had to be extremely conservative if he or she was to achieve distinction and fame.  Even the most brilliant and versatile artists would normally concentrate all their attention and energies on cultivating the inherited techniques pf performance, and nothing else.  Restraint and conformity used to be the indispensable virtues of the successful virtuoso.

Dynamic shifts

But the scene is changing fast these days, in keeping with the new dimensions of technology and travelling modes, and the subtle transformation in social and cultural values.  Parallel to the dynamic shifts in the career and lifestyles of the successful artists, who now have ever-increasing opportunities to perform all over the country and even abroad  --  and the quantum leap their image has taken as a result of the vast expansion of the television network  --  a progressively increasing degree of permissiveness is visible in the scene. 

It is only natural that in such convulsive circumstances some of our accomplished musicians and dancers would tend to diversify their interests and embark on unusual and innovative ventures, some of which even take them beyond the boundaries of the classical tradition.

Rational vision
It is not in the nature of the rational and constructive critic to frown on all innovations without reference to their true significance, for he is well aware that today's conventions too must have been innovations at some point of time in the past, and that some of the present trends will surely be part of the tradition on some future day.
But as one becomes increasingly liberal in one's outlook, one also feels more intensely concerned about the preservation of the traditional values;  and one's response in any given situation could be either encouraging or negative, depending on the merits of each case.  Therefore, different postures taken by the rational observer on various occasions might even appear to be mutually contradictory, unless the whole issue is viewed in an integrated perspective.

Critic's role

It must be noted that the rational instinct is not the exclusive possession of the enlightened critic;  it is also a potential quality of the collective consciousness of a culturally well-endowed public.

That's why all the excitement which modern innovative ventures in music, dance or drama create in the public mind does not necessarily undermine the public's appreciation of the classical tradition or the folk arts.  To identify, explain and encourage the right balance between these conflicting forces   --  thereby enhancing the rationality of the collective cultural mind and protect it from the illusions of mediocre adventurism --  is the true business of the responsible critic.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Eras Of Comrade Babov And Comrade Gabov

I have such a large collection of what I think are my best pieces of writing that I find it extremely difficult to short-list them.  But I have no hesitation at all in saying that no matter how short that list gets to be, it must include the following article I wrote 40 years ago:    



(In same order as in text) 

Churchgate Terminal  --  Long before the middle of the 20th century, Bombay already had a couple of excellent, fully electrified broad-gauge suburban railway lines:  one of them starting from a modern terminal building in the city's most fashionable locality called Churchgate, and the other from a magnificent Gothic building called Victoria Terminus, not far away, resembling London's St. Pancras station.  (By the way, I lived and worked in the Churchgate area during 1967-69, and invariably turned up there whenever visiting or passing through Bombay, both before and after that spell).

 Bandra, Andheri, Borivli, Virar, Goregaon  --  Major suburban localities of Greater Bombay, with railway stations bearing the same names.

 Vladiwestok  --  The Churchgate line is operated by the Western Railway, hence 'Vladiwestok'.  Of course, Vladivastok in Russia is at the East-coast end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, 'Vostok' meaning 'East' in Russian. 

 Baikullov  --  Echoing Byculla, another major suburb, with important station on the Central Railway line starting from Victoria Terminus. 

 Skyscrapers project  --  By 1970, Bombay's skyline was getting awfully skewed by concrete jungles of very tall buildings, causing severe civic problems.

 Mahimsk  --  derived from Mahim, another major Bombay suburb, and the famous Russian towns Omsk and Tomsk.


Shankar's Weekly
15 April 1973
A Tale Of  Two Comrades


ENTERING  the Churchgate terminal on my first visit to Bombay, I noticed that above each platform there was a prominent overhead sign which said:  BABOV

I asked a friend about it, and he said it stood for Bandra, Andheri, Borivli and Virar.  He was right obviously, for only the concerned letter was illuminated, depending on the destination of the next train.

I was, however, never able to ignore the mysterious overtones of the sign.  Every time I passed through Bombay I thought of Babov, and wondered who he might have been.

 Stepping off a local train at Churchgate several years later, I saw that the BABOV signs had disappeared;  but in their place there were other equally intriguing ones which said:   B.GABOV.

 A railway official at the gate told me that the G stood for Goregaon, but I wasn't convinced.  I was no longer inclined to accept such down-to-earth explanations.  Comrade Boris Gabov, it seemed to me, was too real and forceful a person to be written off the history books by a mere railway official.

 Wasn't he the one, I asked myself, who succeeded the great Babov as the Leader of the Party?  But let me begin from the beginning!


COMRADE Yuri Bandrovitch Babov was the son of a humble office worker in Vladiwestok.  His father, Ivan Bandrov, lived in a tenement in the outskirts of the city, and he spent four hours every day commuting between his home and his place of work.  Young Yuri grew up without seeing much of his father's face, and he deeply resented the fact. 

 Ivan Bandrov became ill on account of the bad working conditions in his office, and he died two years before the Revolution.  Yuri was 24 years old at the time, and had become a booking clerk in the Vladiwestok railway terminal. 

During the Revolution Yuri Babov joined the Party, and in due course he rose to the highest office.  The provision of proper working and living conditions for the workers and the improvement of public transport facilities were the two main themes of all his campaigns.

As soon as he became the Leader, Comrade Babov initiated a great expansion of the suburban railways, which he completely electrified.  It not only helped the commuters, but brought quick promotions to thousands of railwaymen.  

The Leader discouraged personality cult, and had forbidden the display of his portrait or name in public places.  But he couldn't prevent the proud and gratified staff of the Vladiwestok railway station from displaying huge illuminated signs above the platforms commemorating their great ex-colleague's name.


MEANWHILE, a former parcel-office clerk of the same station had also emerged  as a powerful national figure.  He was Comrade Boris Goregovitch Gabov, the son of an engine-driver called Gregori Goregov.

Goregov had died a heart-broken man because he didn't have a living wage, and his son was determined to improve the lot of the rail workers.

Boris Gabov was a prominent trade-union leader at the time of the Revolution, and he rose to be the Deputy Leader of the Party.  He not only increased the salaries of the railwaymen, but secured for them as many travel concessions as in any other country.

When Comrade Babov had improved the public transport facilities, he turned his attention to the other main item in his manifesto.  Relying heavily on the advice of People's Architect Bykullov, he launched an ambitious project of building skyscrapers to provide spacious offices and residential apartments for the workers.

For a while it looked as if the project was going to be a great success;  but soon certain unforeseen difficulties cropped up.  The terrific congestion and traffic bottlenecks which arose in the urban centers became unmanageable, in spite of the improved public transport system.

 The upshot of it all was that Comrade Babov confessed failure, and the Central Comiittee relieved him of his high office and posted him as an assistant station master in Mahimsk.  Comrade Gabov emerged as the new Leader.

 The employees of the Vladiwestok railway station removed the BABOV signs, and in their place they put up new ones commemorating their other great ex-colleague's name:  B.GABOV. 

 Even at this distant date, visitors to Vladiwestok can see these relics of history at the terminal.  They are being preserved by the authorities as tourist attractions, although Comrade Gabov too couldn't cope with the skyscraper problem and had followed his predecessor into oblivion.



PostScript, 2013
Gazing into the crystal ball


 Obviously, I couldn't have written the above article in 1973 with such authentic undertones if I didn't have a sensitive insight into the political set-up and national ethos of the Soviet Union.  Just compare my description of the two leaders and their backgrounds with the following paragraph from Wikipedia, the Cyberian phenomenon which materialized three decades later:

"Gorbachev was born [1931] in Stavropol Krai into a peasant Ukrainian-Russian family, and in his teens operated combine harvesters on collective farms. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 with a degree in law. While he was at the university, he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and soon became very active within it.... He was appointed ....  First Secretary to the Supreme Soviet in 1974,.... a Member of the Politburo in 1979.......[and] was elected General Secretary by the Politburo in 1985."

That's rather interesting, of course;  but what's truly mysterious about this whole context is how close I actually came to inventing the name of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachov!   And mind you, I am not just talking about Boris Goregovitch Gabov, which sounds pretty close.  If you add Bombay's down-town terminus Churchgate to the list of its major suburban railway stations  --  Bandra, Goregaon, Andheri, Borivli and Virar (which are all real names, and not imaginary ones)  --  and shuffle them around a little, what do you have?   Yes, Gorbachbov!  Which isn't a far cry from Gorbachov, is it?

 Do you need any more convincing evidence that I was really gazing into a crystal ball when I wrote this amazing story?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

India Vs. Italy, Or English Vs. Italian!

Who says you can't read Italian?  Just look at the following news item in today's Corriere Della Sera, and honestly try to translate every word you see.  Of course, there are many words you can't understand, but there are many other s you don't even need to translate!  Check your impression of the news with the report in today's THE HINDU, then come back to the Corriere and see for yourself how much Italian you already know!


 Corriere Della Sera, Milano
13 March 2013
Tensione dopo la decisione dell'italia di non far tornare i fucilieri a New Delhi

Convocato l'ambasciatore italiano --  Il premier Manmohan Singh: "decisione inaccettabile"

È braccio di ferro tra Italia e India dopo l'annuncio che i marò italiani non torneranno a New Delhi.

Dopo la convocazione dell'ambasciatore italiano a New Delhi, Daniele Mancini, il ministero degli Esteri indiano ha diffuso una nota in cui si chiede a l'Italia di "rispettare l'impegno preso", ossia di far rientrare in India i due marò a cui era stata concesso un permesso per votare alle elezioni in Italia.

"Il governo dell'India sostiene con fermezza di non essere d'accordo con la posizione espressa dal governo italiano sul ritorno dei due marine in India - ha fatto sapere New Delh --   L'India si aspetta dalla Repubblica italiana, come Paese impegnato nel rispetto della legge, che onori la dichiarazione giurata sovrana fornita da essa alla Corte Suprema". . . .


THE HINDU, New Delhi
13 March 2013
Rome must stand by commitment, envoy told

"Italy reneging on promise unacceptable," says Manmohan Singh

Taken by surprise by the Italian refusal late on Monday night to send back the two marines, facing trial for killing two Indian fishermen off Kerala, India set in motion the process to regain lost ground by summoning Italy's envoy and telling him that Rome must stand by its commitment to send the duo within four weeks to stand trial here.

India tried to hold Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini by his undertaking to the Supreme Court that allowed the two marines to leave for their country to cast votes in the February 24-25 general elections. Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told Mr. Mancini that the Italian government was “obliged to ensure their return.” . . .

This interaction at the diplomatic level in the evening was preceded by political activity with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling a delegation of parliamentarians from Kerala that Italy reneging on its promise to the Supreme Court of ensuring the return of the marines was “unacceptable” . . .

“As far as we are concerned, Italy is obliged to ensure that the two marines returned in the time frame given by the Supreme Court. Basically that is the position I took at the meeting I had when I summoned the Ambassador of Italy a little while ago,” Mr. Mathai told journalists.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Filemaster-General & Ali Babu Go Away On Furlough!

ALI BABU and the Filemaster-General were two characters who figured occasionally in my Shankar's Weekly articles in the early 1970s, and also in my column Delhiberations in the Hindustan Times Evening News in the 1970/80s.  I had meant them to embody the crusty layers of the bureaucracy at the lower levels and the topmost level respectively.  But actually I found it difficult to project them in a negative light, because I belonged to the civil service myself, and systematically making fun of them carried the twin risks of violating the official conduct rules and also appearing to adopt an arrogant attitude towards my colleagues, for many of whom I had great respect. 

In the event, I thought I would wait till the end of my service period before developing this potentially explosive idea properly.  But when I actually retired from civil service, I began writing a serious column in THE HINDU about Govt. audit reports, and couldn't get a focus on the funny side of the filemasters' work.  Meanwhile, in the infrequent articles in which they did figure, Ali Babu and the FMG had actually emerged as harmless and rather charming characters.  And here's one of those cameos, which I hope can still raise a good laugh after all these years!   

By the way, 'Babu' is a Hindi word which roughly means 'clerk' in official circles.  Ali Babu, obviously, has a hilarious root in the classic Arabian Nights tale Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves.  Actually I coined this expression because I thought Ali  Babu And The Forty Winks would be a fine title for a humorous sketch about the office zombie.  But of course --  you guessed it! --  I never did come round to writing that story!



(In same order as in text)

British Raj  --  British Regime ('Raj' in Hindi means 'Rule' in the sense  of 'regime').  'British Raj' is a popular expression in India, where we have a highly evolved culture of both written and spoken Indlish, which has survived across seven decades of postcolonial history.

Furlough  --  Oxford Dictionary:  leave of absence, especially from military duty (origin Dutch verlof).  Roget's Thesaurus :  Vacation  --  a regularly scheduled period spent away from work or duty, often in recreation:  teachers enjoying their long summer vacation.
Central Government
  --  Govt. of India, which is the Federal Govt., conversationally called 'Central Govt.'

LTC  --  Leave Travel Concession, which meant partial refund of the cost of travelling to and from the employee's home town, which had to be declared on joining the service, and couldn't be changed till retirement.  Employees in offices located in their own home towns got no benefit out of this rule, of course.
15-5-84, etc.  --  In India, it's a traditional and universal practice to write down dates as Day-Month-Year, which seems (to us) to be more logical than any other way it's done anywhere else in the world.


Evening News, New Delhi
15 June 1984

Home leave

In the leisurely old days of the British Raj, senior civil servants were periodically entitled to long spells of what was known as 'furlough', for visiting their overseas homes  or just relaxing elsewhere.

Even the seniormost civil servants in India today naturally do not have such a luxurious perquisite, but all Central Government employees do enjoy the privilege of a Leave Travel Concession (LTC) once  two years for visiting their home towns with their families.

In most places this may mot have a substantial impact on the work in Government offices.  But since the Capital is a cross-section of India and employees hailing from all over the country are working here, during the school summer vacation the LTC does lead to a summer exodus from New Delhi.

The following papers in the Filemaster-General's office will illustrate the point.  Perhaps they constitute an extreme case, but they will give you a broad idea of the problem.



Upper Division Clerk
Section B-14

To the Assistant Filemaster-General (Admn)



I enclose an application for 15 days' earned leave from 4-6-84 to 23-6-84, with permission tyo prefix 3-6-84 and 24-6-84 (Sundays), in order to enable me to visit my home town with my family, availing of leave travel concession.

Most of my colleagues in the Section have already proceeded on LTC, including the Section Officer.  I, therefore, submit this application directly to you, for your kind and favourable consideration.

Thanking you,
Yours faithfully, 



To the Deputy Filemaster-General (Admn)



I enclose a copy of my application dated 15-5-84 for home leave, addressed to the Asst. FMG (Admn). 

I now understand that the AFMG is also on home leave, so I venture to put up this application directly to you, and shall be extremely grateful if you are kind enough to sanction the aforementioned leave.

Thanking you,

Yours faithfully,



To the Filemaster-General


Respected Sir,

I enclose copies of my letters dated 15-5-84 and 25-5-84 addressed to the AFMG and DFMG (Admn) respectively, regarding my home leave, for your kind consideration.

As the DFMG is also on leave, I take the liberty of putting up these papers directly to your good self.

Under the circumstances, Sir, I humbly request you to kindly sanction the leave I have applied for.

Thanking you, and hoping to be excused for the inconvenience caused, 

Yours faithfully,



To the Filemaster-General


Respected Sir,

In continuation of my letter dated 31-5-84 addressed to you (copy enclosed for ready reference), I came to know that your good self are also on home leave at present.

Under the circumstances, Sir, I am proceeding on home leave as stated in my original application dated 15-5-84, in anticipation of your kind ex-post-facto sanction, for which I shall be extremely grateful.

Thanking you, Sir, in anticipation of your favourable orders,

Yours faithfully,

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rulemaster-General Vs. Bulky Rules Commission

TMG - RMG - FMG -- Taskmaster-General, Rulemaster-General and Filemaster-General -- the three great towers of the formidable bureaucratic edifice! We have taken a look at the TMG. Now let me show you how I visualized the RMG at first, when I already had a track record of 15 years as a civil servant in independent India, where the Government set-up continued to bear a close resemblance to the British model.

The name Chapterji was a hilarious variation of Chatterji, which is one of the most common names in the State of West Bengal. By the way, Chatterji itself is a permanent distortion of the authentic Bengali name Chattopadhyaya, which couldn't be pronounced properly by the British rulers in colonial India -- but that's a different story which I shall tell some other time!

Shankar's Weekly
14 Jan. 1973
Bulky Rules Question

I happened to meet Mr. R.N. Chapterji, Chairman of the Bulky Rules Commission, at a party the other day. He was, I found, very communicative about the problem with which he is currently preoccupied.

"What are the basic aspects of the Bulky Rules question, Mr. Chapterji?" I asked him.

"The basic aspects are quite simple," he said. "The rules and regulations governing our affairs have become too bulky. Some people want to change the situation and simplify the rules. But others want to keep the rules as they are, unless they can be made bulkier. Naturally the two sets of people can't help clashing."

"Why should anybody want the rules to be bulky, Mr. Chapterji? Surely it will be in everybody's interest if the rules are simplified?"

"Not necessarily! There are the people who have been appointed to the posts whose incumbents are expected to interpret the complexities of the rules and regulations in force. They will lose their jobs if the rules are simplified."

"I see."

"Then you have the people who have really managed to master the Bulky Rules, and they are the ones who wield all the real power. If the rules were simplified, everybody could master them, and these Rulemasters will lose their hold on their bosses!"

"I see."

"And then, of course, there are the parties who want the rules to be interpreted in a way which favours them. Obviously, the more complicated the rules, the greater the room for any desired interpretation. These parties are naturally opposed to any reduction or simplification of the rules."

"Of course! Anybody else, Mr. Chapterji?"

"Well, in general most decision-makers prefer the rules to be bulky, because that gives them a good alibi to cover up their mistakes and delays."

"Who are the people who oppose the Bulky Rules, then?"

"Oh, there are some people who are against the Bulky Rules because the delays caused by the complications adversely affect their interests. But most of the people who oppose the Bulky Rules do so because they would like to come to grips with them and start wielding power, but don't have the competence for it."

"Mr. Chapterji, while the Bulky Rules battle is being waged, the rules seem to be getting bulkier and bulkier . How does that happen?"

"Well, the Rulemaster-General just goes on making new rules, and issuing correction slips and clarifications about old rules, so as to make the rules bulkier. The Rulemasters at the lower level help the RMG in this project, by raising all sorts of doubts about existing rules and asking for endless corrections and clarifications."

"Why do they do all this?"

"Because their job security depends on making the rules bulkier. That way, they figure, even if their opponents win and secure a simplification, the rules would still be as bulky as in the beginning."

"Mr. Chapterji, it is more than a year since the Government appointed the Bulky Rules Commission, but you haven't yet submitted your report. Do you mind if I asked what's causing the delay?"

"Oh, there are many reasons! But the main thing is that the Government had nominated some senior Rulemasters as Members of the Commission, to give expert advice to the Chairman and other Members. Unfortunately they have conflicting views, and we haven't been able to agree on a common approach yet."


PostScript, 2013
Changing perception of RMG's role

Well, I wrote that article 40 years ago, and much of what I had visualized about rules and their bulk has stood the test of time, and found to be universally true. But I have an important observation to make concerning certain progressive changes in my perception of the RMG's role in the bureaucratic framework.

It will be useful if you get to know the FMG also well before I discuss that aspect. So, on to the Filemaster-General!

(to be continued)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Taskmaster-General Tackles A Tricky Task

SHANKAR'S WEEKLY was a wonderful magazine which had humorously attracted the close attention of the most intelligent English-knowing people in India throughout the third quarter of the 20th century.  In a figurative sense, if not in a clinically accurate way, it could be called the Punch of India.  In its pages it was possible to discuss the most serious issues and concepts in a light-hearted way, and that's where I found a harmless way of expressing highly critical opinions about the bureaucratic set-up to which I myself belonged.

And it was in Shankar's Weekly that I created three central characters  --  the TMG, RMG and FMG  -- who embodied the whole mind-set and culture of Government officials, prevailing not only in India during and after the British regime, but universally, in any country on any continent in the world, at any point of time.

Let me present the TMG here  today.  Before I introduce the other two, perhaps you'd like to guess what exactly those initials stand for!

Shankar's Weekly18 Nov. 1973
Taskmaster's Task

THE Taskmaster-General sat behind his desk puffing at his pipe, with a large pile of papers before him.  He was going through the monthly arrear-reports from the Regional Taskmasters.

Facing the TMG across the table , and wearing a worried expression on their faces, were the Deputy Taskmaster-General (Co-ordination), the Assistant Taskmaster-General (Task Forces), and the Headquarters Taskmaster (Reports).

The TMG was a short and rather stocky man in his early fifties, with a shining bald head and a cherubic face.  He was usually a friendly, jovial person, but there were occasions when his smile could give way to a scowl.

 Right now the TMG's face was forbidding , and his subordinate officers sat in nervous silence as he shuffled through the reports.

The TMG  looked up at last, put his pipe down, and glared at his officers.

"As you are probably aware, gentlemen,"  he began, with biting sarcasm, "the Taskmaster-General is responsible for seeing that all tasks in the country get done, and get done in time.  But it seems to me that the toughest task he has got these days is to get things done in his own organization, leave alone getting them done quickly!"

The officers listened in silence.

"Now, the most disgraceful aspect of the situation"  the TMG continued,  "is that 12 out of the 50 Regional Taskmasters' arrear-reports are themselves in arrears!  Seven of the other 38 are provisional;  16 out of the remaining 31 are incomplete in one respect or another.  Fifteen reports are up-to-date and in the proper form, but six of them disclose serious arrears in external tasks, and eight reveal a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs.  Only in a single region it seems the Taskmaster's work is current....."

The TMG picked up his pipe and lit it with deliberate care.

".....Current, that's to say,"  he concluded with a devastating puff,  "if the blasted fellow is telling the truth!"

"Yes, Sir,"  said the Deputy TMG (C) meekly.

"And look at the flimsy alibis some of them give!"  the TMG exploded.  He picked up a report at random from the heap on the table, and started reading from it.

"Just listen to this drivel!  The allotted tasks during the period under report couldn't be got done, because the various departments, undertakings, factories, business concerns, contractors, shopkeepers and domestic establishments in this region continued to show a non-cooperative attitude.  Out of 15,427 directives issued by the undersigned during the month, only 1,246 were carried out.  Only interim replies were received in 2,106 cases.  No acknowledgements have been received in respect of the other 12,075 cases, in spite of demi-official reminders and personal contacts."

The TMG thumbed through the report, and resumed: 

"And listen to this, again!  Out of 16,425 specified tasks pending during the month, the RTM could get only 1,246 done.  He has given no valid explanation for not getting the other jobs done!

"And all this talk"  the TMG went on,  "about Taskmasters not being able to get adequate co-operation is beginning to get on my nerves!  The departments, undertakings, companies, factories, contractors, shopkeepers and what-else-have-you aren't expected to co-operate with the TMG!  They're supposed to be answerable to me, damn it, and it's up to the RTMs to get the answers!"

The TMG sat back on his chair, and sighed.  A look of resignation came over his face.  He was suddenly very calm and composed.

"The whole trouble, gentlemen,"  he said, almost genially,  "is that the Regional Taskmasters don't seem to have understood their own true role.    Most of them seem to think that all they've got to do is to issue directives and sit back twiddling their thumbs!

"I think, gentlemen."  the TMG concluded, getting up from his chair,  "it's high time we called a conference of all the RTMs and gave them a pep talk.  Please draw up the agenda papers immediately and show me!  And now, if you will kindly excuse me, I am going out for lunch."