Sunday, July 17, 2016

Not a word has been changed

Any communication sent from an establishment ought to reflect the thoughts and ideas of its author. The person signing such a letter or releasing the communication is to own the responsibility for it and as such he would be the final authority to approve its language and content. Quite often, such letters or messages given out by very senior functionaries in an organization are actually prepared by others reporting to them. There are different levels of people who prepare such written or spoken material as also approved by authorities at different levels. The knowledge and skill level of both the ones who prepare as well as approve differs from case to case. Pressure of work and deadlines add to the problem. An awareness that such material reflects the dignity and standing of the office enhances the quality of communication.

There are many interesting situations that would develop in this field. Communications were very formal and direct in the decades bygone. There was a system of preparing a "DFA" note (Draft for Approval) and placing it before the signing authority. The authority would go through the note, make suitable changes and then approve the draft. The final letter would be prepared thereafter, signed and released. This inevitably led to delays and double work. But many people in authority insisted that such should be the system in their offices. There were others who were more moderate and advised placing final letters directly and make some changes in a few of them. This would save time and speed up the proceedings. There were yet others who signed whatever was placed before them without worrying much about the language, tone and tenor of the letters. Of course, there were a fourth breed; they did not even understand what they were signing.

Senior officers in organizations had the support of a person designated as stenographer or steno-typist. Such persons had the skills to take down the contents of letters dictated by the boss in shorthand and prepare the final typed letter very quickly. Very senior officers had (and still have) an assistant designated as "Personal Secretary". Experienced stenos and secretaries had the capacity to understand the boss's mind while taking dictation. There was no need to tell them the entire thing. Just giving an idea was enough; they could add all other ingredients and make a fine letter ready for signing and despatch. Such people were in great demand as they were reliable and trustworthy. Trustworthy mainly because they could keep their mouths shut despite being privy to many confidential developments and issues.

Two anecdotes that come to mind sum up the above situations. The first was an instance wherein a senior officer placed a lot of importance to each letter signed by him. Any letter prepared by his subordinate would always come back with some correction or the other. At times the final output would be something totally different from what was placed before him. In the initial days the subordinate officer appreciated it and felt he was learning a lot. At one stage later on he told the boss: "Sir, I am learning a lot each time you correct or modify letters put up by me. But nowadays I have started losing confidence in my own abilities!". The senior officer realized the truth and moderated his interventions later on.

There was another situation wherein a subordinate sent a copy of the draft of a very important letter, to be sent to the Head Office, to the boss but forgot to write the three golden letters, DFA. The draft did not come back from the boss's chambers even after three days. He went to the boss and asked him about approval of the draft. The boss handed over the reply received from the Head Office for that letter! "I had signed and sent it over on the same day. Your letters are always perfect and reflect the content and language I want to convey. Henceforth, do not send any draft for approval. Send final letters with office copies. In case any change is required, which will be few and far between, I will let you know.", he said. The confidence the superior had in his subordinate was another end of the pendulum. Working would be a pleasure when such a level is reached in an office unit. 
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Mass leaders and people occupying highest positions in political fields have their own speech writers and communication drafters. Some of these leaders are themselves good writers with literary bent of mind, but still require support for drafting speeches and communications due to paucity of time. They also have the remarkable ability to spot a mistake in spelling and grammar as well as pick lacunae in them that touch a raw nerve in public sentiment or create controversies. Some of these leaders have the gift of deviating from the prepared text effortlessly and bring in their own golden touch on the spot. A few of them are brilliant extempore speakers; they can create and deliver masterpieces in accordance with what the situation demands. Even their rivals have to perforce admire such remarkable quality. Our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was one such speakers. Of course, there are many of those who cannot even read a prepared text properly and often come out with foot-in-the-mouth stuff.

Former Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was known for speeches which would pass for a literary masterpiece as well. His speeches at the Constituent Assembly on the night of 14th August, 1947 ("Tryst with Destiny" speech) and address to the Nation on the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated ("Light has gone out" speech) were part of text books when we were students. The words "At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom" is still remembered. While there was ample time to write and prepare the first speech, the second was urgent and immediate. It is not known whether a draft for approval was prepared and how many times it was changed. The second is believed to have been delivered extempore as there was no time for approving any draft speech.
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Advent of computers have changed everything. There is no more need to have a draft for approval. A document can be prepared in any corner of the world and mailed to another part of the world for correction, modification and finalization. Steno-typists and stenographers have disappeared. It might even be proper to say that everyone has become a reincarnation of stenographers. Language can be changed, pictures and graphs can be added and fonts can be modified. More importantly, language, spelling and grammar have lost relevance and importance. Some of us from the old school may still worry about them, but this generation too will pass in one or two decades. SMS language and abbreviation have removed the sanctity attached to the three words mentioned above. 

SMS language was being used by the younger generation in their private conversations while sending SMS messages. Now it has become official and accepted as such everywhere. Last month (on 13th June, 2016) RBI came out with guidelines on S4A scheme. S4A is the short form for Scheme for Sustainable Structuring of Stressed Asset.  A friend extended an invitation for lunch at a new restaurant opened in their locality. We were told that it is named as A2B.  There is also a chain of restaurant known as 1947. We thought it was something like that and on the lines of B2B. It was known only after going there that it was our good old "Adyar Ananda Bhavan", a place from which we were buying sweets for the last three decades in Chennai! The language used today is shorter than even the shorthand our stenos were using decades ago!
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There is no method to know whether any document or letter was finalized after changing a few drafts or mere words. But what was the position several hundred years ago when writing the first version on palm leaves was in itself a big task? One never knows. We know many poets of recent times who did not need a pen and paper to write their poems. Whatever they said was poetry! They indeed breathed poetry. Da Ra Bendre was one such poet. Gopaldas Neeraj is another poet that comes readily to the mind. His songs used in Hindi films bear a testimony to this.

One poet whose exact period is still disputed and dragged between 13th and 15th century has categorically declared that there was no such issue as Draft for Approval in his case. Gadugina Naranappa, popularly known as KumaraVyasa, has written an epic titled Karnata Bharata Katha Manjari. It is the Kannada version of entire Mahabharata. He has taken the story from Vyasa's epic, but traced his own path in weaving and narrating the Mahabharata story in Bhamini Shatpadi, a meter consisting poems of six lines each. This full scale epic work is highly respected and used even today. He declares in the beginning of the book itself thus:
ಹಲಗೆ ಬಳಪವ ಪಿಡಿಯದೊಂದಗ್ಗಳಿಕೆ 
ಪದವಿಟ್ಟಳುಪದೊಂದಗ್ಗಳಿಕೆ 
ಪರರೊಡ್ಡವದರೀತಿಯ ಕೊಳ್ಳದಗ್ಗಳಿಕೆ...... 

A slate and chalk piece has not been used
Not a word has been changed once written down
Not followed the path traced by another poet...

KumaraVyasa belonged to a period when paper and pencil, printing press or computers were not known. His work was not a creation in prose. It had the challenging meter where only a specified number of letters could be used in each line. Yet, he had the guts to declare that "Not a word was changed" in his creation. Once written, that was final. Blessed are those who have such a legacy with them.....

14 comments:

  1. so many events knit so nicely to make a final golden touch here

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  2. very nice. will be remembered for a life time

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  3. Well defined -&- definitely an elaborated version of "precise writingof" today's generation ...

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  4. Excellent article on the vanishing tribe of typists/ stenos etc. as also how times have changed with computers and digital channels!!!

    Meena

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  5. VIR (very interesting reading)

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  6. It is brilliant as ever. I think you didn't go through any crafts and re crafts before final posting. I remember you as one trusted colleague who was intelligent enough to understand the issues and bring out reports better than what your boss could think of.

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  7. It is brilliant as ever. I think you didn't go through any crafts and re crafts before final posting. I remember you as one trusted colleague who was intelligent enough to understand the issues and bring out reports better than what your boss could think of.

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  8. Very nicely connected.

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  9. One more classic and very interesting presentation of a topic. I could recollect the period of sailing through the changes from the days of Stenography through this brief but beautiful article.

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  10. As ever, good analysis and superb narration.

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  11. Enjoyed reading the latest contribution.Brings out wonderfully the changes we have gone through in the last few decades in the field of official and formal communication.

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  12. Very interesting. We all had traversed through the stages covered in your article. The art of letter writing has died with the advent of internet and whats app etc., Expediency is what matters now. the S4A scheme of RBI is a wonderful example. Interestingly, an (objective?) question on expansion of S4A may appear in the ensuing BSRB examinations. May be we have to move with times. It is the era of emoticons!!

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