S. K. Chettur, ICS

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Sankara Krishna Chettur, (I.C.S)

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Krishna Menon P.K. and Mrs.Krishna Menon P.K Chettur
Father of Sumangali Chettur
Brother of Govinda Krishna Chettur; K.K.Chettur, ICS and Col. Dr. R. Krishna Chettur

Occupation: Retd. Indian Civil Services Officer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About S. K. Chettur, ICS

The story-teller


BETWEEN THE late l930s and early l950s, I had occasion to read a number of short stories by S.K.Chettur in The Hindu and The Mail. But at the time, the name Chettur meant nothing to me except that he was someone in the I.C.S. It was only recently that I discovered how much he had written over the years and how much he had achieved during his Civilian years. The learning process came through his daughter Sumangali Chettur, formerly of Air India, who recently published a collection of recollections, "Tea with Pandit Nehru and Other Memoirs" (East West Books). Suma Chettur's slim volume is a medley of nostalgia, biography in brief and excerpts from her father's writings. Judging from the exemplars, it would seem a good idea if a publisher brought out an anthology of S. K. Chettur's short stories drawn from his four collections that were published over nearly 50 years. "Muffled Drums and Other Stories" came out in 1927, "The Cobras of Dhermashevi and other stories" in l937, "The Spell of Aphrodite and other stories" in l957 and "Mango Seed and other stories", posthumously, in l974. There's mystery, the unknown, romance, humour and acidic comment in varying doses in these short stories for all times. Writing of things that never seem to change, he notes in "The Pilau Commissioner", from the Aphrodite collection, "This is an age in which practically everybody is corrupt. You know what I mean. The itching palm. The clutching hand. The petty official takes his rake-off in small, hard cash; the big official collects it both in cash and kind, in bush-shirts and diamonds, in stainless steel utensils and in underwear, in frigidaires and whisky."

Chettur may have been more popular as a short story writer, but the trilogy of his years of service are reflections of an era of stern but warmly humane administration as well as a recall of vignettes of history. The autobiographical trilogy, "Malayan Adventure", "The Steel Frame and I" and "The Crystal Years", takes you back to the halls of Oxford where the tall, handsome, sturdily-built I.C.S. probationer spent two years and won his Half-Blue in hockey, to Lord Louis Mountbatten's court' in Singapore where, from l945 to l947, Chettur was India's Representative, to that day in l964 when he retired as Chief Secretary of Madras State and retired to that home he had built in l950 as one of the first settlers in Gandhinagar. While he was in Singapore, he had made arrangements for Pandit Nehru's visit to meet the people of Indian origin in Malaya. It was also the first time that Mountbatten and Nehru had met. Of that historic occasion, Chettur writes, "... the memorable meeting between two such dynamic personalities as the Pandit and the Supremo which was fruitful of so much political good to India in the future took place in Singapore with me as the humble deus ex machina."

Back in India, he was, a decade later, to be associated with, as Chairman of the Madras Electricity Board, the Periyar and Kundah hydel schemes. And then, a few years on, he was to retire, only to be faced with waning health in his last years When Rajaji, then Chief Minister, wrote Chettur a farewell letter on his retirement, he said, "So you walk out of the Secretariat with honour and with my blessings... "; it was a reflection of how successfully Chettur had during the years since Independence dealt with numerous ministers. He was to later comment on this so, "I have been often asked whether it was pleasant to work with ministers after ruling the roost' in the old I.C.S. autocratic set-up. My answer has always been that the I.C.S. man has been trained to accept the discipline of his Superior Officers'. In a democratic regime, I made the transition easy by the tacit principle that elected ministers responsible to the public were my Superiors', however much I may have doubted their individual intellectual superiority to me. I regarded them as the bosses who were in the position to give the orders, and while I had the right to offer advice to them (based on my own knowledge and experience) I had to accept and implement the orders even in cases where my advice was over-ruled. And I took very good care to record my views very clearly and unmistakably so that they could know exactly what they were up against in over-ruling me. I found that my refusal to be a yes-man' had a most salutary effect on ministers. Apart from the respect it created for me personally, they knew they could get genuine advice from me and that I would not lightly let them down. As a result, I got on very well with them and when they found that I had the sense of discipline to implement orders, once I had been over-ruled or differed from, there was no difficulty at all in our relationships. And that is as it should be." Perhaps it's time Chettur's trilogy was re-released; I'm sure many an administrator would benefit from the Chettur experience.

Footnote: Chettur also had a volume of poetry, "The Golden Stair", published. Yet another example of his versatility when it came to the written word.



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S. K. Chettur, ICS's Timeline

- 1934
Age 24
Oxford, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

Life begins at College: England

(A Sketch of Life in Oxford University)


I have been asked to convey to you my impressions of University life in England. The request has come to me most opportunely. It is now exactly ten years since I left Oxford University, and a decade is an interval of much importance when appraising any form of life or art. I can look back with a certain sense of philosophic detachment and review the many "crowded hours of glorious life’ I spent there.

To the popular mind, Oxford is a city of phenomenal "rags" and youthful ebullience, of a devotion to lost causes and baggy trousers, of a particular manner, and in more recent years, a University with an unfortunate habit of losing the Boat-race. How deep a source of chagrin this last has been to Oxford men, only an Oxford man can know. As regards the Oxford manner, the Cambridge man is said to walk along as if the whole world belonged to him, whereas the Oxford man walks along as if he does not care a damn to whom the world belongs! …..Perhaps the latter gait is preferable in these days when the totalitarian States have usurped the Cambridge man’s right. Oxford is a place where the hilarious antics of the young catch the eye and get much publicity, especially in the columns of the London afternoon Press. It is supposed to be a place where you spend one half of your day playing manly games and one half of the night evading the attentions of the Proctors and their "bulls." These, by the way, are the couple of stalwart prize-fighters who supply the timid and retiring don who is the Proctor with the necessary muscle and sinew to enforce his orders. Oxford insists that its undergraduates should wear a short black gown over the shoulders after sunset to demarcate them from the townsfolk, and the absence of this black rag is a red rag to the "bull"…..The usual first fine for the offence of being found without a gown in the streets is 10 sh., and is cheerfully paid.

But Oxford is something more than all this. To my mind it is a place where life is lived to the full, where the young men who are taken into its portals, and who live within the walls of this "rose-red city half as old as time," systematically adhere to a life where equal importance is attached to the culture of both body and mind. From nine o’clock to one p.m. one dashes about attending lectures in various colleges and institutions and reading up one’s particular subjects beneath the stately dome of the Radcliffe Camera or in the dim coolness of the Bodleian Library with its suggestion of sacramental dust. After a meagre lunch of bread and cheese, fortified perhaps with fruit and cream, one is out for a couple of hours practising some form of sport or other which may vary from rowing or rugger to fencing, squash-racquets or water-polo. And then at four o’clock comes the inevitable quick-change before tea, the most sociable meal of the day, at which you usually have other undergraduates as guests or are bidden elsewhere as a guest. The lively chatter, the leisurely discussions which attend tea take one on to dinner. This is the communal meal taken along with the other under- graduates in hall, with the Fellows and the Master of the College dining in state on the dais at the far end. A most enjoyable meal, eaten with typical British haste, and with many strange Customs as for example, the "sconcing" of anybody who commits an error of taste at table. One such is a reference to the fair sex, which is considered taboo. It is sound practical wisdom, this: the keeping apart of the two elemental urges of hunger and sex. The offender is sent by the head of the table a "sconce," a measured quantity of beer in the lovely pewter tankard, and he has to drink it down and the cost thereof goes to his battels’ or monthly bill, unless he be stalwart enough to drain it off at one sitting without removing his lips from the festive bowl. This feat is acclaimed by much rapping of knives on the table. In which case the cost is put down to the inflictor of the "sconce." A sconce can therefore have a kind of boomerang effect. The four-course fare is solid and simple and the irreducible number of forks and knives employed, a typical Oxford habit intended to save college servants the labour of washing up afterwards.

And so to night-club life in Oxford. This night-club life, in sharp contrast to that of the leading cities of the world, is purely intellectual. All the Oxford clubs meet at night after dinner, taking their cue in this respect from the venerable Oxford Union. But there are several other clubs in the ‘Varsity and each college has one or two clubs of its own. These clubs are mostly devoted to the fostering of cultural interests among the members. The Indian students have their club, the Majlis, which meets on Sunday nights in St. Aldgates’ and models its procedure in its debates after the practice of the Oxford Union. Another club composed equally of Englishmen and Indians with the President alternately an Englishman and an Indian, called the "Lotus Club," was specifically designed to promote cultural unity between the two races. Then there are of course the purely political clubs, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal, which are affiliated to the respective political party organisations. In the more intimate cultural clubs, meetings are usually arranged in the college rooms in the college of one or other of the members, coffee and chocolate-biscuits are plentifully supplied and a paper read and discussed. On special occasions some distinguished don of the University or public man of the day is invited to address the members. The subsequent discussion (amid dense clouds of cigarette smoke) is often luminous and covers a very wide field. There is little doubt that these extra-university discussions in intimate clubs of this kind, do much to develop the undergraduates’ mind, and broaden the outlook. That is why the hall-mark of the Oxford man is his readiness to understand the other man’s point of view.

I have reserved to the last the Oxford Union, an institution which has achieved international reputation as a debating society, and to be President of which is considered an honour equivalent to that of becoming a Cabinet Minister in later life. The Union is the club of the undergraduates as well as a debating society. The Union easily maintains a high reputation for wit and repartee. Question-time is usually productive of much humour. A gentleman, anxious to investigate the cause for the deterioration in the quality of the writing paper supplied, put the incautious question, "Is the Treasurer aware, Sir, that the paper supplied in this institution is of a very inferior order?" and was promptly met by the reply "Where, Sir?–an obviously indelicate reference to quite a different brand of paper, which evoked rounds of laughter. A stylish President, who invariably wore a white button-hole with his evening dress suit and who changed it one night to a red carnation, was at once challenged with: "Now, Sir, that you have given up wearing the white flower of a blameless life, may we know what you have bin and gone and done?" Another President who had been flirting with a pretty girl attendant in a book-shop called the ‘Octagon’ was put the embarrassing question, "Mr. President, Sir, have you succeeded in squaring the ‘Octagon’?" References to the gallery (comprised of the fair sex almost entirely, with an occasional man-visitor or two) are not uncommon, but the most brilliant was the one where the debater lifted his eyes adoringly to the gallery, with the apostrophe, "Where every prospect pleases and man alone is vile." Every term there is a rag-debate in which some well-known humorist like the famous Ronald Knox, that master of quip and jest, is invited, and some delicious hours of pure fun and absurdity indulged in. The subjects of these rag-debates have been "That Brown Bread is better than White," "That the line must be drawn somewhere," and "that London is a Rotten Borough." Epigrams are often the order of the day and are freely coined, such as, far example, Aubrey Herbert’s definition of "Gentleman." as "a mall who knows when to say when." The Speaker referred of course to the delimitation of that delicate point, where the whisky ends and the soda begins. There are usually only four speakers on the order-paper each week, and to be put down for a Union paper-speech is no mean achievement. A very high level of debate is maintained and there is much versatility and good humour. The Union is a valuable training ground in the art of public speaking and is also an excellent preparation for the more serious business of life for those who are political-minded.

From the serious grandeur of the Union I now proceed to the organised "rags" which are sometimes perpetrated within this hoary University which sets such store on enterprise and on achievement. Some of these "rags" take place on bump-supper nights when the lucky ones of some college which has secured a "bump" in the inter-collegiate boat races, and who have dined not wisely but too well, set forth to indulge in the pleasant pastime of securing helmets from the bobbies as trophies, and generally to paint the town "red. Each of these gentlemen is accompanied by a friend more sober than he is, to guide his footsteps and direct his exploits and afterwards lead him back to college before the fateful hour of midnight. (To be out after midnight is a serious Proctorial offence.) But perhaps the best iapes have been carried out in more sober moments. One of the happiest surely was that in which two hundred and fifty forged Proctorial notices were sent to various undergraduates in lodging summoning them to meet the Proctors at 9 A.M. at the Clarendon Buildings. When this vast army of summonees thronged the steps and clamoured to be admitted for their interview, the harassed Proctors were at their wits’ end to deal with them, and incontinently fined the first few. But all proceedings had to be postponed, as with great ringing of bells and fan-fare of trumpets the local Fire Brigade turned out having been misinformed over the phone by the same genius that the Sheldonian was on fire and their services urgently needed! This was a first-class hoax and will live in the minds of men. More individualistic and yet more scandalous was the enterprise of the undergraduate who climbed the stately spire of Lincoln College at night and placed on the extreme pinnacle an article of base domestic utility which defied the efforts of the college servants and could only be removed by the same individual next night under the benison of a free pardon promised by the Dean of the college. Sometimes these japes descend to sheer acts of thoughtless vandalism, as when three undergraduates of my own college twisted the railings of the Shelley Memorial where there is a most lovely statue of Shelley recumbent, and climbed in and painted Shelley’s face a bright black. They were rightly sent down and no one regretted their loss.

"Time flieth onward fast and in a little while my lips are dumb." But can I leave Oxford without dwelling on the pleasures of summer-term and of punting in the river Cherwell? If you are not a votary of tennis or cricket, then there are those long luxurious afternoons when you set forth after lunch with a friend in a punt, well supplied with cushions and books, and spend idyllic hours of languorous ease, tied up in some cool nook under the willows in the farther reaches of the river, with some wonderful vista of shady trees overhanging the limpid stream to frame your gaze, and with idle fingers trailing in the water, meditate on the meaning of life…..its depths, its mystery, its infinite treasure……And you feel poignantly the philosophy of Masefield:

"The flies are happy in the summer day,

Flies will be happy many summers hence."

- 1940
Age 30
Palghat, Madras Presidency, India
- 1964
Age 42
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Age 67
- 1945