On bosses and stenos

Long ago every covenanted executive in a commercial organisation who enjoyed the privileges of a chamber had a stenographer attached to him who at his beckoning breezed into the chamber with a note pad and sharpened pencil to record in Pitman’s wriggles and squiggles the pearls of wisdom he was to cast.

Invariably they were Anglo-Indian ladies, neatly turned out in their crisp frocks with high heels, a mild cloud of feminine perfume heralding their entry in advance, cherry red lipstick, nail polish, arching eyebrows — the works! Their English, though not literary, but mercantile, was impeccable, spelling commendable and typing on a heavy-duty clickety-clack Remington or Underwood neat.

Special skill was required to type without mistakes since a wrong word cannot be banished from the text by pressing the backspace as now easily done on desktop. In absence of photocopying facilities, carbons were used to generate the letters in duplicate or triplicate, the handling of which was a bother under a whirring ceiling fan that made all things flutter, including their skirts. Jokes were aplenty about bosses and stenos. One such defined an optimist as one who would marry his stenographer and still expect to dictate to her.

With the departure of the Englishmen who were their bosses, the second or third generation Anglo-Indian stenographers had to work under Indians, some of whom were not adept at dictating, being weak in English. Yet they put on a brave front by writing the letters in advance in long hand and making a pretence of dictating it with half-closed eyes, hiding the paper in the partly open drawer of the desk.

Most of the girls doubled as a spell-and-grammar check of their bosses’ English. We had one gentleman transferred from north east whose dictation would tantamount to water boarding the language of Shakespeare and Milton. His stenographer a statuesque lady living in St Thomas Mount had to summon all her self-control in not laughing aloud when he was leaning on his swivel chair and torturing her mother tongue.

I read an office copy of one such letter thus dictated but understandably rewritten by her. As she was watching me with amusement, I asked her the reason for leaving one or two mistakes I detected. “I kept them deliberately, she said laughing, “or else how would the head office know he had written that letter?”

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