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A letter of decorum

Sometimes, even a basic understanding of a subject or profession can be a lifesaver during a seemingly insurmountable crisis. Let me illustrate this with an incident from my time as the Under Secretary to the Government of Karnataka (Protocol) in 1995. My office was located on the third floor of Vidhana Soudha, and I made it a habit to stay there until at least 8:30 pm to address any late evening messages. Those were pre-mobile days. A steaming flask of tea kept me company, providing the motivation to soldier on. I was often the last person to leave Vidhana Soudha.

On this particular day, the Chinese Ambassador to India was visiting (then) Bangalore, and I received word that he wished to meet with the then Chief Minister, H D Deve Gowda. I got a message from the CMO that the CM had agreed to a breakfast meeting with the Ambassador the next morning at 9 am. I was tasked with conveying this message to the Ambassador in person, and I received this message around 8 pm.

The message needed to be typed, but my staff had already left the office. The only person left was my attender, Jaffrey. Since there was no typist available, my initial thought was to draft the letter myself, as I had good handwriting. However, I reconsidered, it might be inappropriate given the official decorum and dignity of the government. I scoured the corridors of Vidhana Soudha in search of a typist, but all the rooms were locked. The bustling hub of political activities during the day was now deserted, shrouded in silence.

Not knowing what to do, I slumped into my chair. Jaffrey, my attender, inquired about my predicament, and upon hearing the issue, he praised my handwriting and encouraged me to write the letter myself. When I explained my reservations about using a handwritten letter, he offered to provide “technical assistance” since he had recently taken typing classes but refused to type the letter himself. This was a lifeline for me, and I readily agreed.

Jaffrey set up two sheets of paper with a carbon paper between them on the typewriter’s drum. He guided me through the typing process, ensuring proper alignment and spacing. With only my right index finger, I painstakingly typed out the letter. It took nearly 30 minutes, but with Jaffrey’s “technical assistance,” I felt a sense of accomplishment. This was both the first and last letter I ever typed on a manual typewriter.

I then dashed off to meet the Chinese Ambassador at the nearby Taj West End hotel. To my surprise, he spoke English fluently. I assured him that I would be there at 8:30 am the next day to accompany him to the CM’s residence. Then things went on as planned without any glitches.

When I later shared this incident with my personal assistant, she laughed and told me, “From now on, I won’t do the typing work; I’ll only assist you in typing.” To this day, I fondly remember how my attender’s limited typing knowledge preserved the official decorum of the state government. 

(Published 26 October 2023, 19:32 IST)

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