The Office Secretary – a vanishing breed

No one needs a word processor if he has an efficient secretary. Robertson Davies.

Let me declare at the very outset I had no idea who Robertson Davies (1913-95) was, when I came across that quote, and like any diligent writer I looked him up. Evidently one of the foremost novelists, playwrights, journalists and poets to come out of Canada; if I had not heard of him, that is down to my ignorance and no reflection on the man’s reputation. His relevance to this piece is his quote on the office secretary which I came across quite by accident, and the subject on which I was spurred to expound. Now the curious thing about that particular pearl of wisdom by Mr. Davies is that in the context of the present day automated, mechanized world in which we live, it could so easily be flipped, with much relevance, the other way round, viz., ‘no one needs an efficient secretary if he has a word processor.’

I have no wish here to wander aimlessly into a meaningless debate on the numerous advantages in terms of overall efficiency the word processor and the computerized age, with its improvements by the nanosecond, have brought to our lives. Ipso facto, nor will I get into the relevance or otherwise, in this day and age, of a human secretary, expert on Pitman’s shorthand, typing and making a nice cup of tea, adding to our overheads as conventional present-day wisdom appears to suggest. That is old hat, and not germane to this piece. Au contraire, I am about to get misty-eyed about an age when our work places (I abhor the term work stations), were full of bright-eyed and bushy tailed lady secretaries, smart as a whip, sashaying through office corridors with a welcoming smile first thing in the morning, ready to face anything you had to throw at them, barring the glass paperweight.

During my early working days in Calcutta, from the early 70s till the end of the 90s, I had the good fortune to put in a long stint in one of India’s best known multinational tyre companies. In keeping with the practice of nearly all such establishments in the city, and indeed the country, the company I served had an impressive retinue of lady secretaries working exclusively for officers of a certain grade and above. On the very first day that I joined the company, I was guided to my ‘chamber’ and introduced to my secretary. Never having worked with one before, I was a bit lost. My own personal secretary? Crikey! My earlier jobs in a couple of advertising agencies, in a far more junior capacity, involved using pool (or shared) typists to whom we would hand over handwritten notes to be typed up as drafts, followed by the final version. Suddenly confronted with a bright secretary, armed with notepad and pencil and a sheaf of correspondence to be attended to, it dawned on me that I had to dictate my letters. A new experience. After a few days of stuttering and stammering, I got into the groove of things, and became more comfortable with this business of dictating letters and notes. ‘Dear Sir/Madam, with reference to yours of blah, blah, blah, I find your quotation for printing 5000 radial tyre posters in 4-colour offset unreasonable and extortionate. Kindly revise your estimate drastically downwards else I will have to look at other options. Yours blah, blah, blah.’ I was beginning to get the hang of it, and my secretary was full of words of encouragement. ‘You seem to be a natural. Nice word, extortionate. Your predecessor was a nightmare.’ Well, I mean to say! I was chuffed.

There was a clear pecking order in the way in which corporates of those days arranged the boss-secretary set up. In ascending fashion, at the junior level, once you were entitled to your own secretary, she sat in the same room as yourself. If you wanted to have a confidential chinwag with someone, you had to politely ask her to leave the room. Also, slyly picking your nose was out of the question. One level up and there was a partition between the two of you, allowing a certain amount of privacy. At the very top of the tree, general managers, vice-presidents, directors and the like worked out of what seemed like plush 5-star suites. The boss himself had a large room, with wall-to-wall carpeting and at least one window overlooking the street, a corner office would fetch you two windows; their secretaries wallowed in their own luxurious ante-chamber, with a sofa thrown in for those who had to wait anxiously in the queue to see the big chief.

That was the broad geographical set up. The secretaries themselves were an integral part of the company’s working. Without them the office would not have been an office. I don’t hold with the cynical smart aleck who said, ‘happy is the man with a wife to tell him what to do and a secretary to do it.’ That is so old hat. Our secretaries brought colour, positive vibes and a sense of frenetic activity. If our offices, at times, resembled beehives it was thanks to the whizzing secretaries. Some of them just walked around, it seemed, for the exercise but it all added to the atmosphere. At a junior level, we executives made it a point to ingratiate ourselves to our boss’ secretaries. With our own we were equally informal, but we had to earn their respect by frequently establishing our sense of importance with those at the top. My own philosophy was to be always friendly and approachable. Be pleasant, crack a few jokes, compliment them on their dress sense, anything at all, just the right balance of friendly banter and business-like efficiency. Anything more would have seemed like flirting. ‘Mmmm, lovely perfume you’re wearing’ was strictly to be avoided. Not that that didn’t happen once in a rare while, if corridor gossip was to be believed. Once you won over your secretary’s confidence, you were half way through to corporate success. Peerless British actor and writer Stephen Fry’s words spring to mind –  ‘I’m afraid I am very much the traditionalist. I went down on one knee and dictated a proposal which my secretary faxed over straight away.’ As for me, every once-in-a-while I would stroll into my office, dead serious, poker-faced, and tell my secretary to book me on a round-trip flight, first class of course, to London / Paris / Geneva return. After the customary double-take, she would burst out into a tinkling laugh and bring me my correspondence to sift through.

Our band of secretaries, and that included the receptionists and the telephone / telex operators, were from all sections of India’s multi-cultural, polyglot society. Anglo-Indians topped the list, but there was no dearth of Bengalis, Parsees, north and south Indians and quite a few from further east and west as well. Nationally integrated. As you would expect, they all spoke good English and at least one vernacular. Their dress sense and grooming, by and large, was impeccable. Skirts, dresses, sarees, salwars – you name it, they were perfectly attired. They were trained in every aspect of their skill set and job description, including the human side of things. All the bosses during my time in the company were men, so the ladies were well-versed in the art of their version of ‘man management.’ Always remembered our birthdays, with a nice card waiting for you first thing in the morning. Barring the rarest of the rare case of improper funny business between boss and secretary, I think every one knew their place and behaved in an exemplary fashion. There were so many instances of intra-company politics and feuds and the secretaries would be fully aware of the goings-on, but they were the very soul of discretion. Once in a while, when you needed to let off a bit of steam after being given a dressing down by your boss, your secretary was always there to lend a sympathetic ear. ‘Don’t let him get to you, his bark is worse than his bite.’

As the British influence waned and Indian tycoons took over these multinationals, things started changing and not for the better. Many of the new bosses preferred to bring in their own male secretaries. Sacré bleu! Cost-cutting became the watchword, and personal computers virtually rendered the human secretary redundant. It’s not that they don’t exist even today, but you have to hunt for them with a long-range telescope for a sighting – a vanishing breed. It was during this period of turbulent change that I myself put in my papers. I am proud to say that I was one of the very few, if not the only one, who was given a rousing farewell party by a group of about twenty-five secretaries. Not with the company’s blessings, I might add. They shelled out from their own pockets. Or handbags. There was cake with a nice message, some lovely (and teary) speeches to which I had to respond with equanimity and a lump in the throat, which I just about managed to do. I consider that the best unwritten assessment or appraisal I received from my company. If anyone took a photograph or three on the occasion, sadly I do not have a copy. This was well before mobile phone cameras came to plague our existence.

As I conclude this paean to all the secretaries and office doyennes I knew – the Diannes, Sarasus, Gayatris, Saritas, Bakhtus, Michelles, Roses, Felicitys, Olives, Mayas, Bimlas, Stellas, Colleens, Jackies, Marys, Maureens, Christines and so many, many more whose names I cannot off-hand recall, I say thank you for being part of a culture that added so much value, spirit and happiness to a work place that could otherwise have been a drudgery. It is also a matter of immense satisfaction that many of these outstanding ladies went on to take up positions of responsibility in other organizations, realizing their full potential in executive capacities. Clearly multinationals of those days proved to be fertile training grounds for them to actualize their dreams of higher goals. This piece started off by comparing the virtues of the human hand against the machine and vice-versa. Today, there is no liveried bearer who walks in first thing in the morning with the tea fixings on a tray (liquor, milk and sugar kept separately), and your secretary to utter those magic words, ‘shall I be mother?’

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. A wonderful read, Suresh. I was married, for over 25 years, to one of Calcutta’s top secretaries so I know first hand what a difference they made. Thank you for “putting in a good word” for a vanishing breed.


  2. True. How one misses this tribe. An endangered species which is now to be found only in the very top echelons of large organizations. When one is a mere cog in the wheel and the secretary of the top dog would call long distance, one would be literally standing up from one’s chair to take down her instructions. They would exercise the kind of soft power which would be the envy of many other bosses one would be reporting to. To be on their good books was the key to one’s survuval in the corporate jungle.
    A well written piece, as always!


  3. Very well written Suresh. I will share this with a couple of lady secretaries from the days as colleagues in the multinational tyre company.


  4. A real good waw piece Suresh, as usual. Turned nostalgic reading this note. Luckily, though I was in a relatively much small company till late 90’s, I had the privilege of a secretary for over 11 years!


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