When a pack of cigarettes was a secretary’s perk at ITC

Typing away
Typing away
Image: Reuters/Desmond Boylan
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The book Office Chai, Planter’s Brew, through a clutch of brief biographies, chronicles the transition of Indian business houses over the past many decades. The following is an excerpt that describes the changes at ITC, India’s largest cigarette maker. 

Maria Menezes* joined ITC—or Imperial Tobacco as it was then—in 1967 as a secretary on a temporary assignment in the Printing Department. Maria was younger than most. She had completed a secretarial course from one of the best known institutions in Calcutta at the time. And, as often happened at the time, the temporary assignment had been mentioned by a family friend who had worked in a senior capacity in the organisation.

Maria recalls how timid she was when she entered Virginia House on Chowringhee, Imperial Tobacco’s Indian head office. There were many expatriate Directors and senior executives with the firm at the time. But Indianisation was underway. Ajit N Haksar was made Deputy Chairman in 1968 and took over from the last English Chairman of Imperial Tobacco, C A Bone, the next year. Secretaries to Directors and senior executives were Anglo-Indians; Indian girls joined much later. The terms of employment for secretaries were the same for all, though there were junior secretaries and senior secretaries.

Rules had to be strictly adhered to. In her first month in the Printing Department, Maria had gone across to the Production Department to help a colleague, also a secretary, with some work. But a Mr. O’Rourke, the senior expatriate in the Production Department, had shooed her away. He was a stickler for rules.

Another rule she was soon to find out was that office hours were sacrosanct. Everyone worked from 9 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the evening and took time off for lunch. On Saturdays, the office worked half a day till lunch. A colleague, who was also a secretary, had one day approached the Head of Accounts with a query at five in the evening. The person in charge, a Mr. Spreadbury, had looked at her, pointed to the clock and told her to “get home.” The expatriates stuck to such a strict working framework. 

Mary d’Santos, the senior Anglo-Indian secretary, would oversee the transfer of the girls from one Department to another. When the Legal Department wanted a Secretary, Maria was sent to them and she spent her working life thereafter in the Department. She got a good salary and Dearness Allowance. A perk was a carton of cigarettes! The system would change only after restructuring and rethinking in the late 1970s, when, among the changes, secretaries were provided transport.

The senior secretary would also advise newcomers on office behaviour and imposed discipline as best she could.  She kept a watch on office timings and procedures. She also attempted to keep herself informed about salary increments, but, fortunately, on this the Department boss’ word was final.

All employees, no matter what their designations, were treated with respect by the English bosses, a courtesy continued at ITC even after it Indianised. Most of them stayed because of this, even after salaries jumped in the late 1970s and early ‘80s in the corporate world in Calcutta.

Technical progress was underway and the office did away with the secretaries’ Underwood typewriters, which had once been indispensable for typing eight copies at a time of legal documents on thin sheets of paper with carbon between the sheets. Underwood typewriters went the way of Gestetner Duplicating Machines. Cyclostyling machines too were moving into the next generation with digitised scanners and copiers. However, even if time-saving measures were put in place and copies obtained through electronic means, the workloads were getting greater and the jobs were getting more stressful.  But Secretaries’ designations would change to fit in with the times. They would go on to become Assistants to Managers and Administrative Assistants.

In the mid to late 1980s, ITC was slapped with two major excise and foreign exchange cases. The Company tackled them head on.  This also meant that the Legal Department was most affected; personnel worked late into the night and, sometimes, all night. Maria found herself living and working not in Calcutta, but in Delhi where her skills were now needed. But it could be claustrophobic “living and working in offices set up in the ITC Maurya Hotel.”  She also badly missed her young family in Calcutta. She considered Voluntary Retirement, but her work was beginning to be recognised: she was promoted as a Paralegal Assistant in the junior management cadre.

By the 1990s, all senior executive and Directors were Indian, barring the BAT representative, a non-executive director on the Board. “The British left behind (in India) their discipline, their working framework and their pleasant sensibilities,” says Maria.

*Maria Menezes who joined Imperial Tobacco in 1967 as a temporary secretary, retired in 2005 as a Paralegal Resource Person.

Excerpted with permission from Westland Ltd.