In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And then God committed one of his periodical goof-ups, the second after the original mistake of creating Eve and involving us for perpetuity in sexual molestation cases: he created the Bureaucracy and the Bureaucrat took over the Word. Originally intended to convey meaning, the Word now became the polar opposite-a means to conceal- a mechanism which even the RTI Act has not been able to dent. But let’s not scoff at this, for concealment is an art- given the sheer scale of goof-ups and gerrymandering constantly going on in the labyrinths of power, concealing them behind just a few words requires far more skill than merely revealing to us that our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Shelley may well have been right when he said that, but could he have hidden behind words a hefty kickback in danger of disappearing? That’s what one Minister was once required to do, without Mr. Vinod Rai finding out about it.
Having successfully negotiated the required payola from a contractor, a Minister called for the file and wrote on it “Approved.” The contractor, secure in the false illusion (like Mr. Fadnavis a-la Mr. Amit Shah in Maharashtra) that the Minister was now committed and could not go back on either his word or file noting, refused to pay up. Unfazed, the Minister requisitioned the file again and simply added the word “Not” before “Approved.” The now chastened contractor, acknowledging defeat at the hands of a master, prostrated himself (like Mr. Kalyan Roy a-la Mamata Didi) before the icon of democracy and begged for his contract back, wondering at the same time how the worthy would find a way around the neological cul-d-sac. The Minister, a wordsmith par excellence, extracted the file from his drawer and just added the letter “e” to the word “Not.” The final noting read ” Note Approved”- two simple words that concealed twists worthy of a Saki or an O’Henry !
In the mid eighties in Shimla a powerful Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, whose wife wished to devote all her time to disciplining other IAS wives and thus delegate her culinary responsibilities to a cook, moved the Finance Deptt. for the creation of a Class D post. The file duly reached the JS in Finance. Now a JS, compared to a Secretary to Chief Minister, occupies a slot in the bureaucratic food chain comparable to the position of the plankton in relation to the sperm whale, and in the normal course the file should have been cleared without a whimper, or whatever sounds the plankton emits. In this case, however, this humble organism (born and bred in the badass corridors of Hindu College) refused to accept his lowly station in life and rejected the request ! A livid Principal Secretary to CM, accustomed to worms squirming before him instead of turning, returned the file with the noting: “Has this file been seen by the Finance Secretary? If not, it may be put up before him.” (Senior Secretaries belong to the same lunch club and are usually more adept than the macaque monkey in scratching each others’ backs). The JS returned said file after recording on it the standard default noting of all Finance Deptts. ever since Moses refused to sanction funds for the purchase of a golden calf : “FD regrets to reiterate its rejection of the proposal.” In the Queen’s ( now the King’s, English) this means: Get lost- nothing doing! An epileptic Principal Secy to CM decided to teach this callow fledgling a lesson. Confident that he now had this amoeba cornered, he put the ball back in the JS’s court with a thunderous ace: “At what level has this decision been taken?” The JS, having dealt with seven foot Jats on a daily basis in Jubilee hall, was unfazed and responded with a classic cross-court of his own: “Secretary to CM is respectfully informed that the decision has been taken at the competent level.” Game, Set and Match. No actionable information revealed. no one to hang. The sperm whale retired shortly thereafter, sans cook.
Another story which comes to mind is that of a young Deputy Secretary in Shimla (now grown long in the tooth and safely parked in the USA) whose newly acquired wife happened to be in Delhi. He kept applying for leave to spend some time with her, especially during those long winter nights in Shimla when a quilt is not enough to keep one warm. His applications were invariably rejected by the Chief Secretary who had long ago replaced his wife with a bottle of triple XXX rum. The DS then changed tack: he requested for leave on “compassionate grounds”, stating that he had to check up on his ageing parents in Delhi, lest he be left out of the Will. Even this crap did not cut any ice with the CS (the mixed metaphor may be excused). The increasingly desperate DS then made his final gambit, taking a huge chance: he applied again, this time on “passionate grounds” viz. that he was only recently married and had not seen his wife for many months and would not be able to recognize her if he did not see her soon! It worked! Quite clearly, the milk of human kindness below the Chief Secretary’s ample Plimsoll line had not been entirely replaced with the demon rum . Off went the Deputy Secretary to Delhi and he has not left his wife’s side since then- much to her annoyance, of course. The power of the word- the deletion of three letters- made all the difference between marital bliss and enforced “vanprastha”. Why, he may even have joined a sangathan if denied leave again, left his wife and become a Prime Minister !
My own favourite is the one about the officer who wanted a bigger garage built in his official residence to park his two cars. He sent a note to the Secretary PWD requesting that the “garrage be constructed immediately.” The latter’s response revealed his stout English Literature background: “Request approved. However the officer may be informed that while a garage can always contain two cars it can never contain two ‘R’s’! ”
The good Lord need not worry- His Word is in good hands.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/