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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 52 December 23 & 30, 2023

Notes on the Dismissal of an Office Clerk in Late Colonial Malabar | Sreejith K

Saturday 23 December 2023



Lying in the lower rungs of what constituted the middle class, the clerks, though inhabiting a slightly different cultural milieu, in sheer economic terms, were not far removed from the world of the labouring classes. And like the latter, they too did not leave behind any writings, except, ironically, when, following transgressions, they would be called upon to respond to show-cause notices. By examining the records available at the Kozhikode Regional Archives of one such case, this essay seeks to bring out what it meant to be a clerk in a government office in late colonial Malabar.
Keywords: Colonial Malabar, Clerks, Subaltern, Everyday Resistance, Archives.

We cannot bring back to life those whom we find cast ashore in the archives. But this is not a reason to make them suffer a second death. There is only a narrow space in which to develop a story that will neither cancel out nor dissolve these lives, but leave them available so that another day, and elsewhere, another narrative can be built from their enigmatic presence. —Arlette Farge, Allure of the Archives

One day, in the month of September, 1941, the Sub Collector of Palghat would receive a curt letter from the District Collector drawing his urgent attention to the woeful state of affairs in the Ponnani taluk office, and directing him to “carefully examine process registers, records” and “frame definite charges against all persons who were responsible for this unsatisfactory state of affairs” and to “conduct enquiries into the charges and submit the records to him with the findings.” [1] It was crisis-time for the British government in India, and it was in no mood to brook perceived inefficiency or insubordination in its offices. The Second World War had reached the borders of the country over which the foreign government, in any case, had been slowly losing its grip with the steady advancement of the national movement. The afore-mentioned letter from the Collector, consequently, would set in motion a series of events with cascading effects on the careers of the staff in the Taluk office at Ponnani. Most would weather the storm with minor setbacks to their service lives – a censure for instance, in one case, and delayed increment for another. But for K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar, a clerk in the taluk office, and identified as the main culprit for the mess the office found itself in, the consequences would be far more serious – dismissal from service. It is through the story of this unfortunate clerk, meted out the ultimate punishment in government service, that an attempt is made here to trace what it meant to be an employee in the lower rungs of the bureaucracy in late colonial Malabar.

The ‘Locational’ Subaltern

For the prestige it carried and the security it offered, a government job was much coveted then as well. An element of informality in the recruitment process persisted well into the twentieth century inspite of a prescribed system in place. Applications through the years praying for the condonation of excess age or absent qualification at the time of appointment or promotion abound in the bound files kept in the archives. [2] The rather impromptu way of getting things done is reflected in a somewhat weird letter one Edakkara Achuthan, on hearing that peons were being recruited to the Income Tax office in Kozhikode, wrote to the District Collector where, after mentioning that he belongs to a respectable Thiyya family, goes on to add that he can read and write Hindustani, Malayalam and Tamil, and had served as a water-carrier at the medical mobilization stores in Mesopotamia during the war, but as he had lost the certificate for the same in transit, the Collector could contact his then medical officer to verify! [3] The government employees, then as now, were not a homogenous group but instead constituted a variegated cluster with individuals belonging to the extremes of the spectrum leading contrasting lives in different cultural milieus at uneven levels of affluence. In late colonial Malabar, like elsewhere in the country, more and more Indians would get appointed to important posts in the bureaucracy, and, consequently, be feted and paid handsome salaries. Alongside them, however, in the lower echelons of the various offices, plenty more eked out a bare existence. Records kept at the regional archives in Kozhikode are replete with instances of the stratified world these men, for the most part, and a few women inhabited. In the History of Services of Gazetted and Other Officers in the Madras Presidency published in 1939, we hear, for instance, of one Rao Sahib Kotieth Adiary Mukundan who after joining as a Serishtadar in 1922, worked his way to the top serving in various places in Malabar, Canara and the Tamil country, finally retiring as a Revenue Divisional Officer in 1938 after coming back from a stint in British Malaya, earning, in the process, an M.B.E. from the British crown. [4] The less fortunate ones, meanwhile, scraped through their often unremarkable careers with not much to look forward to at the end of it. In a Statement listing the names of non-gazetted officers in the civil establishments of the Madras Presidency who would have attained their retirement age of 55 years in 1887-88, we come across, among others, one Ananta Kurup, head clerk at the district Munsif court in Nadapuram drawing a monthly salary of Rs. 40/-. [5] In the decades which followed, there would be hardly any increase in the salary of this class. K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar, whose blighted career, as we shall presently see, would come to an abrupt end, had a substantive pay of Rs.50/- before he went on suspension and ultimately got dismissed. [6]

In the agraharams of Palghat where he hailed from, K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar must have had a privileged existence, at least, socially. And, he must have carried, along with him, a little bit of that prestige to those offices in Malabar where he served. Not for him, thus, the indignities the Thiyya, Churayi Kanaran faced when his Nair superiors provided him with only a mattress to sit and work on in the office after being appointed as Head Munshi at Ponnani! [7]But it would not have been smooth sailing in all respects, either, for Ayyar. If his reply to one of the show-causes is anything to go by, the office was a miserable place which broke him down both mentally and physically, and the home was the haven to which he escaped every evening. [8] It was his delay, infact, in once returning from there that would trigger a series of developments which would prematurely end his career.

In his study on the Tamil Brahmins, at one place, C.F. Fuller terms them the ‘anti-thesis’ of the idea of the subaltern. [9] This may have been so in those localities where traditionally they wielded power and were accorded prestige. But in the struggles of K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar, away from the familiar world of his, in coping with deadlines in an office where he was placed, more or less, at the bottom of the hierarchy and paid a lowly income, you can, perhaps, detect traces of subalternity. Overwhelmed by the tyranny of clock time [10] which left one with little time for oneself, let alone the family, and a job which involved, bereft of any agency, the blind carrying out of orders of one’s superiors, the world of the clerks was far removed from the one inhabited by those from the more elite sections of the middle class.

The Offence and the Defense

Those who joined the government service during the colonial period, for the most part, plodded along their uneventful careers towards superannuation. A few, though, would have their services terminated for reasons which were well-defined, one being conviction by a court for a criminal offence. To give an example, in the summer of 1945, E.P. Krishna Ayyar, Head Clerk at taluk rationing office, Perinthalmanna was charged with section 420 of the Indian Penal Code for cheating. Following a trial, it was proven that he had been collecting two annas more than the actual price of 3 annas while selling forms to ration shop dealers and, subsequently, was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment by the SDM court, Malappuram. [11] To save his career from the inevitable consequences of such a verdict, Krishna Ayyar would, in an emotional letter to the collector, claim that the story of cheating had been concocted by his enemies, and that he was now forty two years of age - with eighteen years of service behind him - and had a large family to look after, but was neck-deep in dept after trying to defend himself in the case. [12] All to no avail, however. Even though, on appeal, the Sessions Court in Calicut would reduce his punishment to a fine of Rs. 75/- and the time already spent in jail, Ayyar not only got dismissed from service, but was debarred from future government employment, with the matter consequently getting published in the gazette. [13] Those who retired were also expected to maintain good conduct in order to avail pensionary benefits. It was laid down that “future good conduct is an implied condition of every grant of a pension, and that the local government, the govt. of India, & the secretary of state in Council reserve to themselves the right of withholding or withdrawing a pension or any part of it if the pensioner be convicted of serious crime or be guilty of grave misconduct.” [14] The regulation was acted upon, often. We come across, for instance, how one Thachambath Chennan Nair, pensioned peon of the District Munsif court, Parapangadi, got his retirement benefits stopped after being sentenced to six years’ rigorous imprisonment for offences under sections 304 and 334 of the I.P.C in a murder case which was upheld by the High Court. [15] These, however, were unambiguous instances where a protocol was in place to decide the fate of the employee on the basis of a verdict given by the court. But when a crime, as such, had not been committed, and the authorities, instead, had to take action against someone for alleged inefficiency or disobedience, the process was far more complex, as we shall presently see.

When the British government came to know that Indians employed in the government service were being dismissed according to the whims of mostly white officials, in 1888, an order had been passed by which it was made clear that, hereafter, “in all cases of dismissal of public servants, the charge against a public servant should be reduced in writing, his defense should be either taken in or reduced to writing, and the decision on such defense should also be in writing.” [16] Not only did this make those officers who took punitive steps against their subordinates, sometimes unjustifiably so, accountable for their actions but also ensured, on crumbling pieces of papers in the dusty files of the archives, an opportunity for future researchers to extract those small voices of people who otherwise would have passed into oblivion without leaving behind any footprints.


It was in the year 1941 around the month of August, when the monsoon will be at its peak and those with chronic illnesses tend to struggle a bit with their health, that the troubles for K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar, clerk at the taluk office in Ponnani, actually began. A persistent cough combined with a flare-up of asthma had prompted him to go on a long leave, and when asked for an explanation about his absence by the tahsildar, submit a certificate from the ayurvedic practitioner whom he had consulted. This was outright rejected, expectedly, by a regime and its Indian adherents long accustomed to frowning upon indigenous healing practices, and he was, instead, asked to appear before a medical board. When, after the examination, Ayyar failed to turn up at the office within the date prescribed by the Civil Assistant Surgeon, he was suspended for disobedience and unauthorized leave, pending further enquiry, and transferred to the taluk office in Tellicherry. [17]

One immediate effect of the disciplinary proceedings initiated against him was the financial problems he now faced following a salary cut. In a letter he wrote to the District Collector through the Tahsildar of Ponnani, he lamented that “I am made to live on nothing and if enforced holidays are to continue indefinitely I submit I will find it quite difficult to live honestly under the circumstances” and “if still your honour thinks it justified to keep me in suspension indefinitely, I request I may be permitted to take up private employment...” [18] While on suspension, Ayyar was paid just a subsistence salary amounting to just one-fourth of his substantive pay, on which he now had to sustain himself at a lodge in Tellicherry, and his family at Ponnani. His repeated pleas to the Tahsildar at Ponnani taluk for an advance of pay for meeting the incidental charges while shifting to Tellicherry also fell on deaf ears. [19]

Though the cultural capital they possessed through the little education they had and the smattering of English they knew made these clerks distinct from the labouring classes, in pure economic terms, there was very little to separate the two. Pay-cuts and suspensions, as in the case of Padmanabha Ayyar, aggravated their miseries and led to indebtedness. The financial mess he was temporarily in should have been the least of Ayyar’s worries, however. Behind his back, a bigger storm entailing far more serious consequences, was brewing. The Collector and the Sub Collector, both whites, as it transpired, would show him no mercy, nor would, alas for Ayyar, K.P. Govindan Nair, the tahsildar. The latter had, in one of his reports to the Sub Collector, which was passed on to the Collector as protocol demanded, mentioned how Ayyar had been feigning illness to escape from the mess he had created in the office due to his inefficiency and lethargy. [20] When show-caused for the delayed files, and the non-maintenance of process registers, among other failings, Ayyar would finally realise the seriousness of the situation, and in the longest and perhaps most eloquent yet of his replies, try to defend his work and, indeed, his work ethics. To quote him,

….I was working in the fair copying seat before I was put to this seat and there was no complaint against me. I was for most of my days a typist and this is one of my disadvantages as a clerk. ….The work was too heavy for myself as well as to any other clerk. It is an everyday experience that clerks go on leave if ordered to work in that seat on account of it being unmanageable even after sitting very late in the night. Such heavy work as usual brought in me chronic cough and fever and my continuance in the seat, a coughing man at all times, brought the work in arrears in spite of myself. If I am to be punished for this, it will be a monumental injustice done to a hardworking subordinate….


English, the language of the ruling class, held a strange fascination for the clerks. However, since for the most part, their official writings comprised of what was dictated to them by their superiors, they never really got the opportunity to exhibit their proficiency in it, except, ironically, on occasions like these when, to save their careers, they had to write letters and reply to show-cause notices. The authorities, alas, were not impressed with Ayyar’s eloquence, or if they were, did not show it. The Sub Collector, in his final report, wrote,

…Mr. Padmanabha Ayyar was punished for bad work in 1933, 1934, 1939 and 1940 (twice), and he has now been found guilty of charges covering seriously bad work in 1941, as well as a charge of absence and of disobeying the tahsildar’s orders. A man like him is really not fit to continue to draw his pay from government and it is obvious from his record that he is simply a nuisance to the head of any office to which he is posted. He is not an elderly man approaching retirement, but a comparatively young man of 40. After careful consideration, I have decided that he must be removed from service, and I order accordingly, the order to take effect from the date of his relief from the D.C.T..’s O[Deputy Commercial Tax Officer’s] office…


In many ways, Padmanabha Ayyar was not the typical clerk whose timidity Chekhov lampoons in a famous story of his. [23] When all those past actions of his, finally, caught up with him, inspite of the many years of subordination, and with no employee association to take up his cause, Ayyar exhibits, nevertheless, with his back to the wall, a certain willingness to fight. In the initial stage of the saga, he had highlighted some technicalities in his defense. For instance, he is seen pointing out that the medical certificate issued by the Ayurvedic practitioner had been accepted on earlier occasions, and that the tahsildar was not the competent authority to issue orders to him for appearing before a medical board. [24] By the end, though, he was a broken man, and when more serious charges piled up and it became clear that his service was on the verge of being terminated, he could be seen pleading that he be allowed to medically retire, perhaps, to escape the stigma of dismissal as well as to avail post-retirement benefits. [25] The government, however, was in no mood to oblige. In a letter from the Deputy Commercial Tax Officer in Tellicherry to the Commercial Tax Officer stationed at Calicut, the district headquarters, we learn that “Sri K.V Karunakaran appointed to relieve K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar, clerk removed from service, has reported for duty in my office on 4.12. ‘42 forenoon.” [26] Men may come and men may go, but the system, the message was loud and clear, will go on. More than a year after the last of his indiscretions, K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar’s career was finally over.

We pause, at this moment in time, to reflect on what could have gone wrong for Padmanabha Ayyar. It could not have been because he was not equipped to do the job, for, apart from the informal ways in which one learnt the tricks of the trade, there was, as well, in many offices a system in place to train the new recruits. One comes across, for instance, the entries made by a recent appointee at the Chirakkal taluk office, M. Kunhunny Nair, in a diary he maintained while undergoing training at the office of the Head accountant from whom he admits to have cleared doubts he had after reading the sub-treasury manual, and learnt, among other things, the way bills and cheques are passed. [27] Ayyar too must have had his opportunities to develop skills while on the job, and there were Clerk Manuals available from at least 1889 onwards. [28]

This brings us to the intriguing question - does his actions then constitute everyday forms of resistance? [29] This was clearly not any structured form of dissent which, given the circumstances – lack of associations, organs and the consequent political will among the clerks – is highly understandable. Long years of subordination in a highly hierarchised work-place with the threat always looming large of pay cuts, increment stoppage, promotion delay, suspension and dismissal ruled out any open resistance to the trying circumstances they were forced to work in. But as other vulnerable groups in history have done, individually, Padmanabha Ayyar too stretched the system to the maximum possible limits in trying to reduce his ever-increasing work-load and bring it down to manageable levels. The slow work, the missing files, and indeed, his illness, if feigned, constitute acts of everyday resistance overworked and underpaid slaves and subordinates have engaged in through the ages. Ultimately, though, he stretched the system too far at a juncture in history when the authorities, with his previous service record in mind, had no other option than dismiss him.

The archival files are silent on him, thereafter. He himself did not leave behind any writings, nor did anyone else think it worth the while to write on him. He could have, perhaps, gone to Bombay, the land then of new opportunities, and like others from his community, settled in spots like Matunga and made the grade, finally. Or, likelier still, he could have gone back to his agrahara in Palghat around which by then had sprung up many commercial institutes where, in familiar surroundings and not constrained as much by the tyranny of clock time as before, he could have made a decent living. We shall never know for sure, for, these are men and women who make their way into the pages of history only for their indiscretions, and once the state settles scores with them, return once again to a world of utter anonymity.

(Author: Sreejith K, Department of History, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Government College, Newtown, Kolkata. Published volume The Middle Class in Colonial Malabar: A Social History (Manohar/Routledge - 2021)


(Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Urmita Ray for her comments on an earlier draft of this essay)

[1Letter from the Collector of Malabar to the Sub Collector, Palghat dated 29th September, 1941 (Kozhikode Regional Archives, hereafter KRA).

[2To give an example, the G.O exempting T. Damodaran Nair, Head Clerk at Palghat Muncipal Office from the educational and special test qualifications prescribed in article – 24-A of the Muncipal Account Code for Managers of Municipal offices. G.O. No. 847 M.Mis dated 15th May, 1917 (KRA).

[3Letter from Edakkara Achuthan to Malabar Collector dated 17.1.1924 (KRA).

[4History of Services of Gazetted and Other Officers in the Civil Department Serving in the Madras Presidency, Corrected upto First July, 1939, Printed by the Superintendent Government Press, Madras, 1939, p.174 (KRA).

[5Statement showing the names of non-gazetted officers on the civil establishments, Proceedings of the Board of Revenue, 23rd March, 1887, No.576, p.5 (KRA).

[6Last-pay certificate of Mr. K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar of the Taluk office, Ponnani, proceeding on transfer to Taluk office Kottayam, Tellicherry (KRA).

[7‘Churayi Kanaran’, unsigned article in Deepam, no.7, Kumbham 1930 Cited in Sreejith K, The Middle Class in Colonial Malabar: A Social History, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, 2021, pp. 130-31

[8Letter from K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar to the Sub Collector, Palghat dated 10.6.’42 (KRA).

[9C.F. Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan, Tamil Brahmins: The Making of a Middle-Class Caste, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014, Introduction.

[10In his writings on the traditional literati who, for the most part, occupied the lower rungs of the administration in colonial Calcutta, Sumit Sarkar, refers to the trauma caused by the sudden imposition of clock time. Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997. By the 1940s, most would have got adjusted to these changes, but there must have been still a few who could not cope.

[11Record of Investigation, Case Diary no.21, Perinthalmanna police station, First Information Book No. 46 of 1945 submitted to the District Magistrate on 19.1.’46. (KRA).

[12Krishna Ayyar’s request to be allowed to resign in case the government stuck to its decision to terminate his career so that he can get gratuity and other benefits, as well as his plea to be given an extract of the list of revenue subordinates since he had lost the certificates for the tests he had cleared also, expectedly from someone being dismissed for what authorities called ‘moral turpitude’, fell on deaf ears. Letter from E.P. Krishna Ayyar to Collector of Malabar dated 14.5.1946. (KRA).

[13G.O.Ms. no. 1931 Public (Services) dated 24.6.1947 (KRA).

[14In Art. 35.1 of the Civil service Regulation cited by Sub Collector, ’Note to the Collector’ 2nd September, 1911. (KRA).

[15As had become mandatory, the judge of the Sessions Court of Malabar informed the Collector of the conviction (letter from the judge of the Sessions Court of Malabar to the Collector of Malabar on 12th Aug 1911), and the rejection of the appeal by the High court (Letter from the Judge of the Sessions Court to the Collector of Malabar, 23rd October 1911). The G.O. stopping the pension of the convicted would be passed on 3rd January, 2012 with effect from 2nd June, 1911, the date on which the offence had been committed (KRA).

[16Extract from the Proceedings of the Government of Bombay, Judicial Department, No.7170, dated Bombay Castle, 16th October 1883 (enclosure) in Proceedings of the Board of Revenue (Land Revenue), 20th December 1888, No.1039 (KRA).

[17In one of the many show - causes Ayyar had to deal with before his ouster, the Revenue Divisional Officer, A. Appu charged him with “bad work and failure to hand over charges …before he absented himself, ….did not prepare a list of registers, records and files…to the head clerk or some others after obtaining the orders of the Tahsildar or the Taluk head assistant...delayed a large number of files...did not prepare agricultural statistical returns etc.” The Proceedings of the Revenue Divisional Officer dated 16.2.’42 (KRA).

[18Letter from K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar to the Malabar Collector dated 15.10.41 (KRA).

[19Letter from K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar to the Malabar Collector through the Tahsildar of Kottayam, Tellicherry dated 3.1.1942 (KRA).

[20The Tahsildar wrote “The clerk wants to make out that the Ayurvedic physician from whom he obtained the certificate was a better medical authority than the civil assistant surgeon…the memo to produce the certificate of the civil assistant surgeon should have indicated to the clerk that better medical opinion was required in respect of his illness ...He made a mess of the whole section and when he found that it was impossible for him to manage the work, he, instead of adopting the straight-forward and honest course of expressing his incompetence, chose to stay away from duty, on the pretext of illness without even handing over papers.” Letter from K.P. Govindan Nair, Tahsildar, Ponnani to the Sub Collector, Malabar dated 20th Sept 1941 (KRA).

[21Letter from K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar to the Sub-Collector, Palghat dated 10.6.’42 (KRA)

[22Order of the District Collector, Malabar, 27 October 1942 (KRA).

[23The Greatest Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, Fingerprinting Publishing, New Delhi, 2019.

[24Letter from K.A. Padmanabha Ayyar to the Collector of Malabar through the Tahsildar, Ponnani, 25.9.1941 (KRA)

[25He also here reminds the authorities of his loyalty to the government by pointing out that he had twice applied in vain for release to military duty. Letter from K. A. Padmanabha Ayyar to the Malabar Collector, 28.9.1942 (KRA)

[26Letter From Deputy Commercial Tax Officer, Tellicherry to the Commercial Tax Officer, Malabar dated 4.11.’42

[27Diary of M. Kunhunni Nair, L.R.I. who underwent Head Accountant’s Training in the Chirakkal taluk office. The Diary was sent at the end of the training by the tahsildar to the Collector along with a report mentioning that the employee was now fully equipped to deal with the tasks at hand on 21.12.11 (KRA).

[28Charles R. Hardless, Clerk’s Manual: A Complete Guide to General Office Routine, Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, 1889.

[29James Scott has shown us how every-day resistance (consisting of, among other forms of non-cooperation, foot-dragging and evasion) though predominantly practiced by peasants in the rural areas, can be located among other sections of the population including the middle classes in the urban areas. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1985.

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