Thursday, 30 October 2008

Remembering Ramnath

Ramnath was the best stenographer in the company.

A small-made man with a prominent nose and wiry, steel grey hair, Ramanth lived in Mulund and had to take the overcrowded and notoriously unreliable Central Line every day to reach the office in Ballard Estate. Ramnath also acted as the de facto personal assistant to my boss Gana and lived in mortal fear of Gana catching him arriving late to work, which was often, due to the unpredictability of the suburban railway system.

Humble, honest, and always happy to be of help, Ramnath could be depended on to deliver a neat, flawless letter every time and was in great demand among the managers. He rarely used a whitener, never typed over a mistake and abhorred carbon smudges and greasy thumb marks.

Ramnath harboured a cynical disdain for those managers whose working knowledge of English was poor or whose dictating skills were not up to scratch, even though he was careful not to show such feelings in public. I must have shown some promise in both departments because very soon Ramnath took me under his wing and patiently chiselled away and smoothened whatever rough edges I had, when it came to official, written communication in English. He freely edited my drafts, sometimes replacing words or even whole sentences and often, playing around with entire paragraphs. I did not mind this at all because every time, the final result was much superior to my original draft.

A few years later, I knew I had passed the test when Ramnath stopped editing my drafts.

I will conclude this post with this interesting story: One day Ramnath is on leave and another stenographer called Sathe is forced to take dictation from Gana. Sathe is terrified of the great man who dictates in a clipped accent at breakneck speed because when he goes back to his typewriter and looks at his own shorthand, he can comprehend nothing. Finally after several attempts and with a little help from fellow stenographers, he completes the letter and places it reverentially in front of Gana.

There is a moment of silence as Gana scans the letter before signing. Suddenly he sucks his breath in sharply and screams: “Sathe! What do you mean by this? Please check your piles? Please check your piles?”

Sathe realised only too late that he should have typed, “Please check your prices”!

Sathe never took dictation from Gana again.

Friday, 24 October 2008

In Praise of the Stenographer

If you look back over the last 15 years or so, the stenographer as a species has totally vanished from the office scene. You do not see him anymore. The advent of the PC and the laptop, word-processing programmes with spell check features and the unblinking focus companies have brought to bear on headcount-related costs have all played their part in vanishing what was once the constant in any organisation chart.

One of the skills which I had to master quickly, when I started my career almost 25 years ago, was that of dictating a letter. It is a skill which forces you to think clearly, logically, and in paragraphs, for, it is not enough to just reel off what you want to say, you have to also call out the punctuation marks and the paragraph breaks to the stenographer as you dictate.

The dictionary definition of stenography is “the art or process of writing in shorthand”, but good stenographers did much more than just convert your words into little strokes and squiggles in their shorthand pad and reconstruct them without mistakes on their faithful Remington typewriters. The better stenographers could improve on your original draft by correcting grammatical mistakes and errors in syntax and by ruthlessly editing out verbiage and clumsy usage.

Right from the days of the British Raj I suspect, the monopoly for good stenography was held by the South Indian Brahmins of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. During the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of them, after passing their matriculation from small towns such as Kumbakonam and Palghat boarded trains to Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and other cities afar to make a living. What they had in addition to the matriculation certificate was a working knowledge of typewriting and shorthand learned at the friendly neighbourhood typewriting institute. Most of them found jobs in government and in large trading houses of that time and a good percentage of them rose up through the hierarchy by dint of their hard work and dedication and went on to occupy key positions in the very same organisations they first joined as a humble stenographer decades ago.

In the company I first joined, they had a “stenographers’ pool” which was almost fully populated by South Indian Brahmins. I still have fond memories of these colleagues finishing their home-cooked sambar rice or curd rice in double quick time and spending the next 50 minutes of the lunch time in quiet slumber in their chairs under the slowly-revolving ceiling fans.
Photo Courtesy: Roberrt's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Searching for the Invisible Light Switch

My friend Hemant loves to crack jokes. Some of his jokes are so convoluted, only he understands the punch line. But then, you don’t mind. Watching Hemant narrate the joke itself is a performance to be enjoyed.

Like all great raconteurs, Hemant dead-pans when he builds up the story and only the occasional mischievous twinkle in his eyes gives him away. The narration is deliberately slow, with long pauses, and programmed to heighten your anticipation and increase your impatience. And finally when the joke is out, his whole body seems to sag helplessly and he is convulsed in quiet laughter, one shoulder more hunched than the other, face tilted to one side; suddenly you also find yourself infected with the same crazy virus of helpless merriment.

This is a story Hemant related to me about an incident that happened when I was on an extended overseas trip and thus away from the office.

It is Neils Moltzen’s first day in office. Moltzen has taken charge as the new General Manager. Moltzen with his round, plump visage and round glasses is a mild, soft-speaking individual with a perpetually confused look. The poor man has absolutely no idea what a devilish practical joker Hemant can be when he catches the mood. Hemant, being responsible for office administration, takes Moltzen around, introducing him to other colleagues, showing him where the photocopier and the fax machine are located and how to operate the coffee machine. The tour ends in Moltzen’s cabin which Hemant opens for him with a flourish; after which, Hemant walks back to his cabin.

Moltzen is very soon back in Hemant’s cabin asking where the light switch is. He has looked everywhere but cannot locate the light switch.

Hemant looks at Moltzen for a moment as if he hasn’t understood the question. Then he suddenly brightens up and says: “Ah! The light switch! It is sound activated. Just go back to your room and clap your hands. One clap for on and one clap for off.”

Moltzen trots off dutifully back to his cabin and, to the utter astonishment of the rest of the office, starts clapping his hands inside his cabin. No lights get turned on. In frustration, the poor man runs back to Hemant.

Hemant looks at him sternly. “You would not have clapped loud enough,” he says. “Clap more loudly. One clap for on and one clap for off.”

This time around, Moltzen’s claps are like gunshots and pretty soon the entire office is standing outside his cabin laughing their heads off with Hemant looking mournful and serious in the background.

It took Moltzen weeks to recover from the trauma.

“You are joking!” I tell Hemant when he narrates this story for the first time. “You are just making this whole story up, aren’t you?”

I get no reply from Hemant. He has dissolved into a jelly and is quietly laughing himself silly into his glass of beer.
Photo Courtesy: Kate's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Whistling Wiles of Ramani

According to the wife, my blog posts of late have degenerated into little more than stories of uncouth middle-aged men getting drunk and making silly fools of themselves. So let me give my readers advance notice that this post too, is in the same genre, but with minor variations.

Except that Ramani was neither middle-aged nor uncouth. When I first met him he was already in his early-fifties and surprisingly fit and in great shape for his age. As a colleague, when I got to know him better, he divulged to me the secret behind his glowing health and vitality, which was the practice of yoga for an hour every day.

Ramani was not overly fond of alcohol, unlike my friend Ravan. Ramani imbibed rarely and always restricted himself to a glass or two of beer, which he pronounced like most South Indians the way it is spelt, rhyming with Indian words like vir or kheer or mir.

One evening we are at the rooftop restaurant of The Savera hotel called Minar which was pretty new at that time and apart from offering authentic Mughlai cuisine, offered magnificent night-time vistas of Madras city. A blind musician accompanied by a sparse orchestra is singing soulful ghazals of Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali. We are a fairly large group, maybe ten or twelve in all, and it is a very relaxed, long drawn-out dinner. The food, the music and the overall ambience have made all of us loose-limbed and languorous. We are ready pay the bill and call it a night when suddenly Ramani who uncharacteristically has been drinking whisky instead of his usual beer, gets up from his seat and walks unsteadily across and whispers something to the orchestra.

Before we know what is happening, Ramani has grabbed the mike and introduced himself. He is an enthusiast of Carnatic Music, he says. He is also a good whistler. So, if the audience does not mind, he would like to whistle a few popular kritis set in such ageless ragas such as Kalyani, Todi, and Shankarabharanam to entertain the diners.

Without further ado, Ramani launches into his repertoire and for the next 10 minutes we are treated to the extremely difficult art of bringing out the finer nuances of complex Carnatic ragas through the simple act of whistling. Despite his inebriated state, Ramani does an excellent job and finishes his performance to enthusiastic applause.

Recently, the Minar restaurant celebrated its 25th anniversary as part of which, they conducted a week-long kebab festival. One evening I went there for dinner with a small group of family and friends and felt extremely nostalgic. True, the restaurant has undergone some renovation but the ambience was the same. The quality of food was still very good. The service was as attentive as I remembered it to be. To my surprise, even Syed Laiq Ahamed, the blind singer, was there in the designated corner with his haunting ghazals.

I missed Ramani though.

Image Courtesy:

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Camera Capers: 2

My second SLR was a Minolta 3xi and a gift from my brother-in-law.

Compared to the humble Yashica FX-3, this one was packed with awesome automation, at least so it seemed at that time. The 3xi came with a power-assisted, wide-angle zoom that was a delight to operate. The focusing was automatic. You could play with different priority modes and could even operate it in manual mode, though not so elegantly. It was lightweight, compact, and took beautiful pictures. I was very happy with that camera.

But somewhere along the line, I lost interest in photography. To start with I was never a very creative photographer and considered myself, at best, efficient or workmanlike in my approach to the craft. I could be counted on to take a decent picture, but never a great one, if you know what I mean.

I believe that to be a good photographer, you have to see beyond what you see within the confines of the viewfinder and search for a certain truth, a certain essence that the others either ignore or cannot see. In great photographers, this happens automatically and without conscious effort and everything else—subject, framing, composition, lighting, colour—automatically falls into place. This is why Raghu Rai and you can stand side by side and take pictures of the same landscape and when you look at the final results, yours is just a nice photograph while his is imbued with a certain spiritual aura and speaks to someone deep inside you.

No. I did not stop taking pictures because they were not “great” or because they lacked a “spiritual aura”. I stopped taking pictures because I was getting tired of opening the camera bag, taking the camera out, removing the lens cap, looking through the viewfinder, composing, shooting... the whole process. I also started feeling that photography and the whole paraphernalia associated with it somehow distracted me from the act of simple observation. The camera was getting in the way of that beautiful sunset or that magnificent monument silhouetted against the fading light.

Or, maybe these are all noble excuses and the real reason could be something as mundane as sheer laziness!

Anyway, these days I carry no SLR. My present camera is a Sony Cybershot T10 which is slim enough to fit in my shirt pocket and on those occasions when I have to be the family chronicler of get-togethers and birthdays, it is such a relief to put it in “auto” and click on mindlessly.

The pictures turn out invariably to be surprisingly decent.
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.