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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The End of an Era

In a few months, my father will retire from a 36 year long career as a bureaucrat in the Indian government. Like others before him, he will have a short ceremony to mark the occassion, full with praise for his years of service, a cheque or two typed up with amounts owed to him and some goodbyes. In a single day, a routine that he has grown into over a lifetime will swiftly and surely be sliced away. 

Had it been my mother in question, I would have worried. The hustle and bustle of her life as a teacher, complete with exams and invigilation, meetings with parents, and the challenge of dealing with errant students in her care, are the very centre of her life. It is in her daily ritual of rushing from home to school and back in which she seems to find meaning and comfort. 

My father is different. The best parts of his day, I think, are his morning walk in nearby Nehru Park in the company of birds and dewy grass, a morning dose of hot tea and The Hindu that no earthly force can compel him to rush through, lectures on the state of the Indian economy addressed to anyone he can claim as a captive audience, and phone calls with his brothers in Kerala, on which he displays an interest in distant family several branches away from him on his family tree. Retired life will hopefully be an opportunity for him to better connect with these, and other finer things in life. 

Still, I cannot help but feel a pang because this will be the end of an era, as it were. My brother and I felt much more a part of my father's workplace than my mother's. On the rare unanticipated day off from primary school, it was my father's office that we tagged along to, given the absence of a formal childcare system. Leaving us at home by ourselves would not have been a sensible option. We were, after all, at an age at which we were truly greater than the sum of our parts.    

My memories of his office in those early years are dry, to say the least. "Red tape" acquired a distinctly literal meaning, as I fingered the red string that bound together his office files. I was enamoured by his pale green official note paper, with its trademark blue line marking a generous margin, that I was never allowed to claim. 

One of his offices stands out in my memory. For reasons that I have yet to fathom, one of the decorative items that inhabited his room was a vintage doll encased in glass. Of course, for the men and women who worked in Jaisalmer House, the doll held little charm. Things were different for me. To me, she was the bureaucratic Barbie that Mattel failed to manufacture. I used every opportunity to study her hair and clothes as closely as I could from my distant vantage point outside the glass barrier that separated us. 

She was an anomaly. With very little to entertain us in the office, my brother and I were each left with pencils and (regular) paper to amuse ourselves with drawing graphite trees, mountains and birds, while my father busied himself with files in the box marked "urgent" on his desk. There are only so many trees and mountains that you can draw in a day before settling into a state of hopelessness. It was always with tremendous relief that we welcomed the end of one of these rare "office days" to return home to bask in the comforts of Cartoon Network and Star Plus.    

As always, the food was the highlight. One of my father's office canteens served delicious, melt in the mouth, milk burfis that we looked forward to eagerly. They were bigger and better than any commercial burfi that has ever come my way. I was sold despite my affinity to syrupy rasgullas and crunchy jalebis. Had they been more widely accessible to the public, I have no doubt that Nathu's burfi department would have had tough competition to contend with. Outside another of his office buildings were sold sweet, juicy oranges by a man on the street. When we returned home from our "office days", it was usually with a few of these in hand.  

As we grew older, the need to tag along to my father's workplace was lost. Although my brother and I continued our long tradition of bickering well into our teenage years, we were deemed old enough to manage at home by ourselves. Unsurprisingly, our connection to my father's office loosened as time wore on.  

Like my father, some of my friends' parents are also retiring from what have been active, successful careers. With years of work behind them, all are respected for the wisdom of their years. Some are lucky to have chosen careers in academics and law, which allow for an indefinite innings at the crease, subject to good health and spirits. Happily, many invested love, time and energy in pursuits outside of work, be it family, a trusted circle of friends, or a treasured pastime. And so, even though this may be the end of an era for them all, it is equally the beginning of another one, opening up the possibility to indulge in their loves outside of work. For my peers and I, who are in an age in which the promise of a successful career tends to obscure all else, there cannot be a better reminder to spare time for pursuits beyond the office.