After two years in the factory, I had a prize post in the company’s headquarters, and went to work on an elite street of the city. The hitch was my boss didn’t want me. I had been foisted on him by the works director who believed, inexplicably, that I was ‘a man of ideas.’ My boss wanted his nephew to take the position and treated me as a pariah. I needed to get on his right side. How I had no idea.
My boss was a golf champion. I hated the game. He was a regular club goer. I shrank from the idea of joining a club and drinking beer with him. I had to think of something else.
His secretary was a pretty, short-haired woman. On the briefest acquaintance, Stacia said to me, “You are going to be trouble. With your outlandish ideas, you are a threat to this company. I will call you Menace instead of Manish.”
With that witty renaming, I saw an opening. I knew she had a master copy of all letters sent out. Could I have a copy of the boss’s letters, I asked, say the last 500?
“Why? You will understand nothing without the files,” she replied.
“I don’t want to understand anything. I just want to find out his style.”
“Good grief,” she said, but later quietly passed me a huge sheaf of his recent letters. I could have kissed her.
I studied the letters thoroughly over the weekend. Clearly my boss followed certain iron rules. One, the letter must be short and sweet, reeking of friendliness. Two, it has to strike a positive note, even if you are saying No. Three, any complicated things you have to say should be separate, in an attachment. Four, cut out legalese or formal phrases, say things simply. The biggest rule: always sound like an affable, eager-to-help uncle.
I meditated on these rules as if my life depended on them. I swallowed them all.
The following week two of my reports came back from the boss with the notation ‘Good,’ followed by a third that had ‘Excellent’ scribbled on it. More ‘Excellent’s in the next two weeks. The third week the boss called me in.
“You have a way with words,” he murmured. I had never seen a smile on him before. “I want you to do something for me.”
He had been invited to give a talk to the Material Management Association and he wanted me to prepare some talking points.
He eagerly took the papers and glanced. Then he nearly jumped.
“I am supposed to talk about managing materials. You start off with golf!”
“Nobody wants a stuffy discourse. They would be bored to death. You need to tell a story about materials management. What better story from a golf champion than one that starts with golf?”
He was still dubious, “This looks pretty short. I have to speak for at least a half-hour.”
“People go to sleep after twenty minutes. Even if they are listening to Demosthenes. If they want more, let them ask questions.”
I left him still shaking his head in disbelief.
The next week he called me in his office and, miracle of miracles, offered me tea and biscuits.
“Your speech was a great hit.” That ‘your’ was honey in my ears.
“They listened,” he practically beamed, “and then asked a lot of questions. Wow!”
On the way out, I crossed Stacia in a fetching blue dress. She inquired, “Menace, what is he so jolly about today?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. “Maybe he is in love with you.”
She struck me with the folder she had in hand, but I quickly sidestepped and returned to my office.
The next five years I wrote every speech and presentation my boss made anywhere.
Years later, when I was working in the World Bank, the President intended to prepare a note endorsing Mother Teresa for the Nobel Prize. Since I was the only staff member who was from Kolkata and knew the Mother personally, I was asked to contribute.
I don’t remember what I wrote but, later on, found myself ghostwriting quite a few speeches. I still believed in stories instead of discourses.