The bureaucracy in India in perceived as being wooden and bureaucrats are often accused of lacking in a sense of humour. My experience as civil servant in the Indian Revenue Service was, however, quite contrary. My colleagues in the Revenue and other Services often displayed sparks of humour and sparkle of wit to prove that they were doing an effective job of cutting red tape down to size in the file-strewn corridors of power.
The fun started early in the IAS Training School itself (1959). Two IAS probationers, one reed-thin and the other with a pronounced paunch happened to be together. The supercilious “Reed-Thin” (he later became a Governor) addressed the other as “Beer-Barrel” only to be shot down with the stinging retort — “I would much rather be a beer barrel than a Chinese noodle”!
At the introduction session on the first day of training, an IIT alumnus, who had been selected to the Indian Defence Accounts Servcice (IDAS) said, he had given up his post in the Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE) to come over to the Civil Service stream. When someone in the gathering commented that the loss to the Railways was a gain to the defence services, our Director, A.N.Jha, retorted deadpan that it could as well be the other way round!
Later on, in the Income Tax Training College, during the new batch introduction, when M.P. Agarwal of my batch announced his name, Director, R.D. Shah interjected and asked him whether he was related to P.K. Agarwal of the previous batch. Prompt came M.P’s reply — “Not yet”!
When we were recruiting stenographers in the Income Tax Department, the test paper had a question which required the candidates to write a letter applying for a stenographer’s job. One woman concluded her well-drafted letter saying — “Given the opportunity Sir, I will discharge to the entire satisfaction of my superiors.” Her embarrassing omission of the crucial words “my duties” after the word “discharge” was sportingly overlooked and she was selected on merit!
One Assistant Commissioner who had a compulsive urge to refer to judicial pronouncements, whether relevant or not, once noted on a file that came to him for approval — “The ITO may please peruse 27 ITR 273 with profit before finalising the assessment order”. The ITO sent back the file with the note — “Perused 27 ITR 273. No profit derived, order passed.” The file went up and came back without any comment!
The same Assistant Commissioner, who was adept at avoiding responsibility, once made a noting — “Please speak with file”. The file came back in double quick time with the noting — “Spoke with file. File did not reply. For further orders please.” That put paid to further such demands.
Mr. K.M.S. Reddy, who was Income Tax Commissioner in Bangalore, was a Bar-At Law. Once his steno misspelt his letterhead with the legend — “K.M.S. Reddy, Bad-At-Law.” The sporting Mr. Reddy caught the error (or was it?!) and admonished the steno: “I say Menon, I know and you know about my knowledge of law. But should you broadcast it to the entire world?” Poor Menon, he did not know where to hide his face.
When Mr. J.P. Singh was Income Tax Commissioner in Madras, he had two PAs — one an over-clever person and the other, a less intellectually endowed but pleasant officer who had come through the sports quota. Mr. Singh would always introduce them together to visitors, saying “One is wise and the other one is otherwise.” The discerning visitors could always make out which attribute referred to whom!
What takes the cake for the most ingenious circumvention of the red tape was what my IRAS batchmate, R. Srinivasan, did when he was Railways Personnel Manager at Guntakal Junction. As the Railway School did not have a budget provision for buying musical instruments for the school band, he asked the engineering department to make a requisition for pipes and drums and used the money to get flutes, clarinets, drums, tablas, etc!
(The writer’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org)