Brevity is the soul…

As an undergraduate economics student in Delhi University, I was required to submit tutorials every Monday to my tutors on subjects ranging from Soviet economic development to the problems of economic development in the Indian economy. As always, I postponed getting down to writing one of these tutorials till late Sunday evening. Fortified by strong South Indian coffee, I completed my 21 page magnum opus at 2 AM on Monday morning. My tutor, a former debater in the university, gave me an excellent grade for my effort, along with a rather wry comment “Brevity is the soul not only of wit, but also of exams.”

I took this message to heart for my subsequent postgraduate venture. But where it really paid dividends was in the examinations for the Indian National Lottery, also known as the Civil Services. I had resolved to stick to four or five handwritten pages per question: I felt the poor evaluator would be fed up reading regurgitated knowledge on reams and reams of paper. I was just comfortably reaching the end of my first answer (forty minutes or so after the start) when a loud shout for extra sheets of paper from an old classmate of mine jolted me. In the next hour, there were many such requests, when I was barely through ten pages or so. I must mention here that the answer sheet provided to us in the beginning was twenty pages, so people had crossed the 100% margin when I was still to cross 50%. My faith in brevity was not jolted at this point by a recollection that it was the time honoured tradition in British varsities for the senior don to collect all answer papers the night before results were to be declared and climb to the top of a flight of stairs. From there, he would throw the papers down the staircase. Answer papers that lodged on the nearest landing were failed, with progressively better grades being given to papers as they progressed further and further down. The papers that reached the bottom of the staircase were evaluated “first class first.” Presumably, the heaviest papers, obeying the laws of gravity, were expected to make it to the lowest landing. Be that as it may, I did not waver in my resolve and, thanks to lady luck (and possibly a relieved examiner) managed to make it into service. Since then, attempts at brevity have been my constant companions in my travels through the minefields of government file noting and letter drafting. Of course, I do recognise the limits to brevity, exemplified by this tale you may have heard before:

A man set up a fish stall displaying the advertising signboard FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. His first customer said “Why do you have to say ‘fresh’? Surely you are not selling rotten or stale fish!” Out went the word FRESH. Another bystander remarked “Why mention the word fish! Anyone can smell your wares a hundred feet away.” FISH joined FRESH in the dustbin. It was the turn of a well-wisher next “There is no need for the word SOLD. You are obviously not giving it away free.” SOLD met the same fate as its two word-brothers. The final nail in the coffin came from a cousin “Why mention HERE? You could hardly be selling it anywhere else!” With HERE gone, there was nothing left on the advertising signboard.

NOTE: There is no indication whether the fish seller prospered in the absence of advertising.

My philosophy of KISS (Keep It Short and Sweet) has stood me in good stead on many occasions. Never more so than when the Secretary of my Department informed me at ten in the morning that he wanted a note to be presented to the Cabinet that very afternoon. Placing my trust in brevity, I stuck to a three page Cabinet note, in an age when no respectable Cabinet note was less than twenty pages in length. The proposal went through, probably because the Finance Minister was the learned Dr. Manmohan Singh and the Prime Minister the well-read Narasimha Rao. The same applied to speeches to be made by the Minister: find out the allotted time at the international conference and prepare a speech that finished within the given time slot.

Brevity, however, can be reflected not just in the written word but in actions as well. I have always been a strong votary of the Minimum Energy Movement. Since all matter is energy, what does it matter anyway? The advent of the personal computer (PC) in ministries of the Government of India by the early 1990s had already revolutionised the Cabinet note. There was no need to check the full retyped version for errors: cut and paste ensured that amendments suggested by the bosses could be incorporated in the draft in minutes. I carried the revolution a little further in the matter of preparing the Note for Supplementaries to Starred Questions to be answered by the Minister in the two Houses of Parliament. Since Starred Questions allowed MPs to ask supplementary questions to clarify the written answers given to them, which the Minister had to answer on the floor of the House, it was necessary to brief him on the answers to possible (generally uncomfortable) questions that might be raised. Since these supplementary questions could be on themes tangential to the main issue, my Ministry colleagues and I devised a master copy of answers to supplementary questions. The subject that was the immediate focus of the question was dealt with in the first part of the Note for Supplementaries, with the rest of the material being attached thereafter. The PC played its cut and paste role well, so we were always ready to trot out the note at a moments’ notice.

Since “brevity” is the subject matter of this blog, I must be mindful of the length of this piece. With apologies to what Shakespeare wrote in another context, nothing in my career became me so much as the manner of my leaving service. True to my commitment to brevity in words, my notice for voluntary retirement from service was just three lines, as below:

“I propose to retire from government service with effect from xxxx. As required by Rule 16(2) of the All India Services (Death-Cum-Retirement Benefits) Rules, 1958, I am giving notice more than three months in advance of the date of retirement.”

My tutor, who passed away over a decade ago, must, from his perch somewhere on high, have smiled approvingly at his former student. 

18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sindhu on January 1, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    Very entertaining!

    Reply

  2. Posted by ashwinimehra on January 1, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    Nice one! Yes, i am a bhakt of brevity myself. The Fish stall one, tho’ , was really funny.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Kamal Kumar Pal on January 1, 2021 at 5:54 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed!!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Dr Arun Gupta on January 1, 2021 at 6:05 pm

    So nice to read your blog on Brevity . Wonderful expression with examples
    Being brief
    Arun

    Reply

  5. For once this is in comparatively lighter vein. Enjoyed.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Varsha Joshi on January 2, 2021 at 2:18 pm

    Obviously, brevity is an art that needs to be painstakingly mastered.
    but predicting and writing out all the possible supplementaries must have been a challenge.
    very impressed…your tutor must have been pleased.
    Regards,
    varsha Joshi

    Reply

    • Varsha, the trick is to study previous starred questions over a period and the types of supplementary questions raised. MPs responses are quite predictable. Then prepare a paragraph or page on each of these and prepare a consolidated note. Place the material relating to the specific question at the beginning and add the rest in order of decreasing relevance to the question. Guaranteed to complete work in half an hour max.

      Reply

  7. Posted by V. Ashok on January 2, 2021 at 8:02 pm

    Delightful piece. The Fish Stall story reninded me of the Biblical story of the old man, his son and his ass.

    Reply

  8. Posted by bch1950 on January 3, 2021 at 1:35 am

    Wh

    Reply

  9. Posted by Gautam Mukherjee on January 31, 2021 at 7:53 pm

    Enjoyed reading this article. One of my bosses would frequently cite “fresh fish sold here” to those of us to drill the brevity is the soul philosophy – tautology!

    And his sarcasm disciplined us to be very economical with words! Enjoyed your blog.

    Reply

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