The retirement of a civil officer is not as glamorous as some would believe — marked as it is with anxiety over life outside the comfortable and predictable daily grind
For a government servant, one date in the calendar evokes a feeling of both dread of the unknown and an anticipation of the freedom it promises. It is the date that marks your superannuation day, the inescapable destiny you had signed on the moment you joined government service and had your service book inked and stitched by a stern-faced clerk. It is like a kundli with the difference that it predicts only one thing with an unfailing accuracy — your date of retirement. It records all other events of your work life as they unfold till Judgment Day when another clerk will go through the pages tabulating your acts of commissions and omissions before determining your pensionary fate!
As many prepare to hang up their pencils, pens and other assorted weapons of the trade, some dream of golf on Monday afternoons and leisurely chitchats over gin and tonic while others contemplate putting on the war paint, sharpening their so far blunted weapons and mounting pointed attacks on the policies they had vociferously championed before retirement and wisdom dawned upon them together. A few reach out for the oxygen mask of post-retirement sinecures, which help keep their oxymeter readings normal.
But for the vast majority, retirement does not bring any such succour or distraction. A typical middle rung babu (a much-maligned sobriquet) neither dreams of golf or gin and tonic nor reaches out for sinecures as retirement approaches. For him, retirement chiefly means surviving on half his salary from now on and adjustments to be made accordingly! Believe it or not, most bureaucrats would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a golf club and a club soda!
In pre-COVID days retirement cum farewell functions were marquee calendar events for the department where everyone except the person in whose honour the event was being organized, participated with unmasked enthusiasm. Nothing galvanises peons, hitherto afflicted by a particularly severe form of paralysis, into action more than the announcement of a farewell function. They run around the department collecting contributions smug in the knowledge that like allowances, contributions are also linked to your pay scale and therefore impose the least burden on them. Others too contribute happily comforted by the fact that their own retirement is some time away. And then, everyone loves a good party.
Well, not quite everyone. The person whose upcoming retirement is the cause of much flurry and movement can be seen walking around with a file gently but firmly clasped in his hands. He directs wistful looks at it as if it were a lifetime friend about to be separated. Someone thoughtlessly remarks, "Relax, Sharmajee. Now Guptajee will take care of the matter". But that is unthinkable because Sharmajee has never relaxed his vigil on the files under his charge and the thought that he should now allow someone else to sit on them as he had would be an unkind farewell gift! Like an ageing cricketer whose form and timing have been withered and staled by advancing years, he continues to believe that his durability and relevance is in perpetuum.
With friends, he jokes about enjoying his retirement days and how he is looking forward to them. No memos from insensitive bosses, no cabinet notes to draft and no more keeping a watch on the clock — his days of bondage are coming to an end.
But as he sits at his table surrounded by files, all you see is a small, grey haired man looking lonely, forlorn and vulnerable. After decades of marking files with lead pencils and quoting page after page of OMs and circulars to thwart others, he is now looking at the future with no little trepidation. Like the majority of government servants, he too has got used to the easy and predictable life of a zoo animal. Spoilt by regular feeding times and never having to sweat to bring home the bacon so to speak, the thought of now being let out into the real world frightens him.
He seems little enthused by the cheerfulness with which the office is preparing for his farewell. A man not much liked by his subordinates and tolerated by his seniors only because of his ability to recall any number of OMs and precedents, he now faces the prospect of having to thank everyone for the help, support and cooperation he never received and then listen to others describing him as kind, considerate and ever willing to stay back late in the office, qualities he considers unethical. As if these blatant lies and innuendoes were not bad enough, Sharmajee will also apologise for imaginary and real sins committed by him and in turn, be asked to forgive those who he would rather see in hell! Finally, a small envelope will be handed over to him containing the sum total of a government's equivalent of a thank you note carefully drafted by a penny-pinching accountant.
Retirement like death and taxes catches up with all. And so as Sharmajee hangs up his pens and pencils, takes one last look at his beloved files and moves on the join the queue of lesser mortals, we may do well to remember John Donne who warned, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"!
Present-day Sharmajees have been spared the public display of such raw emotions due to COVID. Like the dear departed souls being given lonely farewells in deserted crematoriums and graveyards from a safe distance by loved ones, they too will walk into the sunset of their lives unheralded, unannounced and often unknown to many. They will quietly disengage from a lifetime of work and leave without even the customary parting gift of a clock or watch. But then the only purpose of a timepiece during their work-life was to remind them when it was time to go home. Now it would not serve that purpose too.
Views expressed are personal