Wednesday, October 15, 2008

RETIREMENT DAY by seshadri balaji

For months, no years, he had waited for the day. "When I retire" he had said. To his wife, his children, his relatives, colleagues and friends. Thirty-five years of work. Youth, marriage, children, middle age, the marriage of his daughters, the death of his parents, hundreds of life's little duties. He had fulfilled them all. And now, finally, the long-awaited day.

The morning was no different to any other. He caught the same bus to Parry's corner, and was at his desk ten minutes ahead, as usual. Time enough to open his drawer, take out the picture of Lord Rama, and mutter his brief prayer. Soon, his colleagues and subordinates arrived, greeting him each in his own way. He attended to some paperwork, not willing to while away his time. By late morning his work was done, the papers all neatly filed away, each labelled with instructions for his successor.

At lunchtime, Mr Datta, the manager, walked into the large, high-ceilinged room, clapped his hands to summon everyone and made a solemn speech. Thanking him for his years of service, mentioning his steady rise from simple clerk to senior clerk to divisional clerk to assistant supervisor to supervisor to section manager. Presented him an umbrella with a curved handle and a pocket-watch engraved "To Mr K. Ramaswamy BA, with gratitude for 35 years of exemplary service from his colleagues, Hindustan Insurance Company, Madras, December 1985". His colleagues crowded around him, shaking his hand. Many of the men (and even some women now, unheard of in the early days) were young enough to be his children. "Enjoy your time off Ramaswamy sir," said one. "Come and see us now and then sir" said another." "Take the rest of the day off Mr Ramaswamy. We all know you deserve it," said Mr Datta.

"Thank you my friends, thank you" he mumbled, his throat all raw and lumpy. A small sob, almost like a startle passed his lips. He stood there in his polyester trousers and simple white shirt, his slight figure bowed. "I shall miss you all," he thought. I shall miss these musty rooms, paper and leather smelling rooms with their noisy half-hearted ceiling fans, these pigeons growling at the window-sills, these quick-lime-washed walls streaked with betel-juice.

He handed the keys to the safe to Abdul Jabbar, his designated successor. Twenty years younger and already a section manager. "Don't forget that the weekly accounts deadline is on Thursday," he said, for the fourth time. "Don't worry Ramaswamy sir" laughed Jabbar.

"I know, I know. I am sorry to repeat myself."

He packed his uneaten lunch into his plastic shoulder bag. Opened his drawer and took out a cracked laminated picture of the God Rama, and placed it carefully into his bag.

"Goodbye my friends" he said for the last time.

"What Ramaswamy sir, leaving early today?" joked a young man.

"There is a first time for everything" he smiled, walking out.

New umbrella slung over his left hand, cracked mock-leather plastic bag over his right shoulder, plastic sandals slapping on his soles, and the few grey wispy hairs on his bald head flying in the breeze, he stepped out into the mid-afternoon throng on beach road. The sea breeze came up from the harbor stinking of diesel and fish as he walked to Parry's corner. He was glad it was December, the air light and dry, the sun bearable, even soothing. He decided to walk home, to Triplicane. After all his wife wouldn't expect him for a while.

At Parry's corner, he waited to cross the road. A mass of busses, cars, auto-rickshaws, scooters, bicycles and bullock-carts went by, all shrieking their horns. When the policeman on the traffic island blew his whistle he joined the crowd crossing the street. Young. Old. Suits. Loin-cloths. Sarees and jeans. The never-ending pageant of city-life.

Along the high court compound wall, through the underpass below the electric-train line, the warm sun beating on his bald-head, he came to fort St George. A convoy of white Ambassador cars sped out of the fort compound, their red lights flashing. At the war memorial he sat down to eat his lunch. Rice with curd and a slice of mango pickle. Drank water out of a red plastic bottle from his bag. A couple of crows came near cawing; he shooed them away. He washed his hands onto an oleander bush and set off across the Cooum river, onto Marina beach.

The beach was almost empty; it was early. He walked to the waters edge, took off his sandals, folded up his trousers and waded into the water, feeling its coolness against his legs. His loose shirt-sleeves flapped against his thin arms. A group of young college girls, all giggles and shrieks, their anklets jingling, waded in beside him. He went back to the sand, picked up a shell and sitting down, closed his eyes, letting the girls' laughter wash over him, above the waves.

How long he stayed like that he didn't know. A peanut seller broke his reverie. He looked around. Some fishermen were working on the nets sitting on their makeshift catamarans. A little towards the road a makeshift funfair was getting started. A small Ferris wheel with four wooden bucket seats, a hand-cranked merry-go-round, and a shoot-the-balloon stall. Nearby stood a few snack stalls, some bangle shops and some plastic toy-shops. A small crowd was gathering. Two stocky men worked the lever of the merry-go-round, their bare shoulders shiny with sweat. Women and children sat on the garishly painted wooden animals, horses, deer and tigers, squealing with laughter. Their men stood outside, waving each time the merry-go-round came around. The Ferris wheel was starting to fill up; the girls he had seen before sat on one of the large buckets. The wheel was moved to bring the other buckets to the loading area; they squealed as the sat up high on the wheel, covering their mouths, and hanging onto each other.

The bangle sellers called out to him. "Get some for your wife, your daughter." The food-stall men called out to the crowd. "Bondas, bajjis, samosas." There was a small group around the shoot-the-balloon stall. Tacked onto jute cloth stretched on a rectangular wooden frame were a mass of colored balloons. For one rupee you bought a bunch of lead pellets and then shot as many balloons as you could. If you hit a certain number, you won a prize, a small plastic toy. After each shot the balloon-man or his boy reloaded the little gun. Another boy sat on the side blowing the balloons with his mouth, deftly tying a knot each time.

A middle-aged man walked in carrying a teen-age girl on his hip, her paralyzed legs dangling by his side. Her face was newly washed and powdered, her hair freshly-plaited with a sprig of jasmine, her bright cotton blouse and skirt flapping in the breeze. "Want to shoot balloons" he heard the man ask. Saw her shy smiling yes. Watched her shooting, laughing each time she hit one.

He looked around again. Saw the Ferris wheel and the roundabout, the bangle and toy stalls. Smelt the frying delicacies and the sea. Heard the shrieking children. Felt the breeze flapping his trousers. His heart exploding with sorrow and joy he walked up to the balloon-man, handed his rupee and picked up the gun. With each shot he laughed as the paralyzed girl next to him squealed with delight at his success.

Later he went to a flower-stall, got a length of braided jasmine for his wife and walked on home. His wife meeting him at the threshold, looked strangely at him. "Are you alright? You are so late today. Is anything the matter? How did the day go?"

"Let me have a wash." He handed her the jasmine, the umbrella and the pocket watch.

"What's all this?" she said, her care-worn face lighting up.

"I'll tell you all about it" he replied, heading for the bathroom.

--Brought you by RK

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