Tuesday, November 21, 2006


For quite some time I have been wondering why civil servants, particularly those in the Foreign Service, become increasingly uninteresting and dull. They have no small talk, no spicy gossip, and no bawdy jokes; little wit or humour. It does not happen to men in the Defence Services or to their wives; they continue to be full of vim and vigour and make lively companions.

I have come to the conclusion that over the years, civil servants are trained to speak in measured tones; restrict their vocabulary to avoid frivolous remarks which might be misconstrued. The more straight-laced they are, the better. In due course of time they become hijras. That is unfair to hijras, who at least have their own style of clapping their hands, making lewd gestures, singing in unmelodious voices and gyrating. Civil servants can’t do any of these. Their role models are spokesmen of the Ministry of External Affairs: Dead pan faces, no smiles or frowns, no raising or lowering of voices, simply reading out carefully worded statements of policy, answering questions in the same tone and manner, while they say: “Thank you ladies and gentlemen.” They are not fit to be invited to mehfils where the cup goes round as Urdu couplets are recited and anecdotes with double meaning recounted.

I have known quite a few performers at mehfils. They happened to be all women of which only one survives. On top of my list was Dharma Kumar, wife of Lovraj Kumar, Secretary of the Petroleum Ministry. She had a vitriolic sense of humour that could tear the reputation of anyone she did not like to shreds. But she giggled and laughed while she talked, which took away some of the fun of listening to her. And she wanted to be the sole performer. If anyone else came out with a wittier anecdote, she could take offence and turn nasty. One by one, her admirers dropped her. The second was Sheila Dhar, the singer of classical Hindustani music and wife of professor PN Dhar, one time personal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was a great mimic and could imitate people’s voices from Indira Gandhi to her chaprasis and sweepers. She was great company. Now there is Ira Pande who is in charge of publications of the India International Centre. I have met her only twice. She did an excellent biography of her mother Shivani. At our second meeting, she recounted her experience of being interviewed by a panel of selectors for her present job. It had me in splits of laughter as I happened to know some of them. Ira is married to a senior civil servant and is the mother of three children. I often wonder how they get along.


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