Within a week of emerging from the university, I went to work for a large European company and the Eurasian secretaries there played a large role in my life. They belonged to a community that was incorrectly called the Anglo-Indians, because their forebears were not just English, Scottish and Irish, but also French, Portuguese and Dutch. They spoke English, affected western dress and had a unique culture that melded Indian with occidental ways.
Mine was an affluent British firm and it hired only Eurasians as secretaries, probably a legacy of its colonial heritage. The Indian executives tended to look down on the secretaries because of their biracial antecedents; the secretaries in turn usually despised their Indian bosses, usually regarding them as uncouth. Fortunately, I was assigned Pamela, a pleasant elderly secretary who somehow looked on me as a wayward youth and treated me with maternal protective care. This proved a lifesaver, for I was young and totally unversed in the ways of a narcissistic bureaucracy. She saved me from a thousand pitfalls and a million gaffes.
I defied company tradition by inviting Pamela to an elaborate lunch the very first week. It was my idea of starting work with a person I considered an ally. She graciously reciprocated by inviting me to her home the following week and introducing me to her husband. Thanks to her I gained a sterling reputation among secretaries. In those pre-computer days, we dictated letters to our secretaries who then typed them out. I was aghast that most executives dictated a draft, sometimes a second draft, before signing the finally typed letter, forcing the secretary to print it several times. I disciplined myself to think ahead and dictate fast and only once, telling the secretary the paragraphs and punctuation. Result: I dictated only once, saving my time, and she typed letters only once, saving her time.
My reputation as a dictation wizard spread fast. Whenever the director wanted me to prepare a draft, Sharon, his secretary, would say, “Perhaps Mr. Nandy can dictate it to me, and I can get it to you in the next fifteen minutes.” I liked that because Sharon was the prettiest secretary in the whole office, and she had a great sense of humor. At our first encounter, she named me ‘Menace’ and claimed that my rapid-fire style reminded her of a hoodlum in a Hollywood movie. She mocked what she called my show-off erudition because I used words she declared nobody else knew and I also used punctuation marks such as a colon or semicolon that no other executive used. She was amazed but complied with my request for the Director’s last 500 letters, which I analyzed to work out the kind of letters he preferred, and, from that point, he never took issue with anything I wrote. Rather, he started sending me others’ drafts to change and improve.
Janine, an earnest Catholic secretary, wrongly inferred that I was a devout Catholic because a Jesuit priest used to visit me regularly and I occasionally took him out for a meal. He was my friend, not my cleric, and our common interest was literature more than religion. But Janine took our closeness as a sign of my piety and would invite me to all kinds of church events. I went to a couple of social events and even danced the whole night with her at a gala. She impressed me genuinely by her generosity, for I retained her high esteem – she even spoke well of me to other secretaries – despite failing to turn up at St. Thomas’s ever for a mass. When our company made a significant donation to Mother Teresa’s charities, she came breathlessly to hug me, not incorrectly guessing that I had something to do with it.
It is my perverse belief that I learned from these encounters as much as I ever did from any of my bosses or colleagues, let alone the myriad conferences and training sessions I suffered through. They taught me that little gestures and signals often mean more than your words, spoken words deftly spoken could convey more than looks, and a little care about how you present yourself might count more than the appearance you were born with. I learned to deal with different types of persons, respond to their preferences and aversions, and enjoy the whole darn learning process.
A decade later, when Pamela, who never stopped causing an irrepressible throb in my heart, left the company and immigrated to Australia, I knew the time had come for me too to look for another job. My days with Eurasian secretaries were over.