Babunama- The ghosts of retirement

A bureaucrat is like a bottle of medicine: he comes with an expiry date. He knows right from his first day in office, the exact day and year on which he has to hang up his boots

Representative image
Representative image

Avay Shukla

But this habit can occasionally work miracles. When the Chief Commissioner referred to earlier handed in his pail in the fulness of time, his widow could not find his Will, which posed a problem in probating his considerable estate. When she had just about given up, the old gentleman appeared in her dream one night and told her to look in the pages of John Grisham’s book The Testament in his library. A bureaucrat is like a bottle of medicine: he comes with an expiry date. He knows, right from his first day in office, the exact day and year on which he has to hang up his boots, and yet most of them are caught unprepared on the appointed day, scrambling to adjust to the changed realities.

On one occasion, when I moved into a house being vacated by a senior who had just retired, I found him in his pyjamas, furiously packing mounds of “raddi”- three years’ worth of old newspapers (he was entitled to five every day), a pile as imposing as any in the National Archives. Seeing the perplexed look on my face he sheepishly explained: “Just to tide me over till the pension starts coming, you see...”. Bureaucrats don’t retire, they are filed away and become a PPO (Pension Payment Order) number in the AG office. The smarter ones among them refuse to accept the expiry date and consider it the “best by” date at most, and adopt various Yogic postures in an attempt to get five more years, one reason why Yoga has proved to be so popular with civil servants. The most practised asana is the “Sirnamaskar”, a variation of the “Suryanamaskar”- the posture is the same, only the God has changed. It’s nothing but old wine in new bottles, but it usually works.

Retirement is, of course, the great equaliser, as I’m now finding out in my village of Puranikoti. I may have retired in the apex scale, but I have to bow and scrape before the IPH key man or the Electricity Board lineman every time I have a water or power supply problem. They are the new VVIPs for me, along with the Patwari, the driver of the single HRTC bus that serves my village and the postman who comes once a week if you are still in his good books. Our “Acche Din” depends on them and not a distant Prime Minister expounding on Atmanirbharta.

This was very well explained to me one day by my good friend and IPS batchmate, Heimant Sarin: “A retired babu is like a fused bulb, Shuks, it doesn’t matter whether the bulb was of 120 watts or 10 watts- once fused, all bulbs are similar.” Had he studied English literature in Delhi University instead of guzzling “chhang” at Tib Dhabs, Heimant would perhaps have couched this wisdom in more poetic language:

“Scepter and crown shall tumble down

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade....”

But the gist of what Heimant says is certainly an improvement on a First Information Report, which would have been his favourite bedside reading when he was yoked to the harness.

It is said that a criminal always returns to the scene of his crime, which is why retired bureaucrats just can’t tear themselves away from their former offices. They haunt the corridors of power like Banquo’s ghost, but unlike this Shakespearean spectre, they insist on dishing out unwanted advice, recounting hoary tales from their undistinguished pasts, and drinking endless cups of sarkari tea while the files keep piling up.

But their effect on the serving babus is the same as Banquo’s ghost on Macbeth- making them feel guilty that they are still in service while the old geezer has retired, that they have taken his place unjustly. I would strongly recommend that all bureaucrats read Macbeth, so that they can exorcise all such ghosts when the bell tolls for them.

Retired bureaucrats just can’t forget their heady days in power, when they were fawned upon hand and foot, and confuse this with genuine popularity. This misconception sometimes goes to their head. An ICS colleague of my father-in-law, who had been Chief Commissioner of a Union Territory, convinced himself that the populace loved him to distraction, and after retiring stood for election to the post of MP from that UT. He received, I am told, 17 votes, mostly from people who mistook his name for that of another candidate.

However, there is one positive trait that we carry into our twilight years--the habit of meticulously keeping all papers in files. I have files for every subject under the sun, including the names of blighters who have asked me for copies of my books but have not paid for them.

It’s a different matter that I can never find the right file when I most need it. My doctor tells me that this is a sign of AAADD- Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder. But I won’t blame you if you thought the acronym was another one of Mr. Modi’s pet schemes, announced on Republic Day and forgotten by Independence Day. She did, and sure enough the Will was there!

Who says civil servants don’t have a whacky sense of humour? (This is a true story, I swear, though I may have got the title of the book wrong. It could have been Where There’s A Will There’s A Lawyer by Confucius)

And finally, there’s this thing about bureaucrats writing books after they retire, something which has assumed the dimensions of a plague or pandemic. These books fall into two broad categories: toolkits for fixing the civil services, and memoirs of a life generally mis-spent. I have yet to figure out which is more lethal, but it’s a close call.

In this respect one can’t but agree with Christopher Hitchins when he says that “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that is where it should stay.” Which is why I also support the government’s latest diktat that bars retired government servants from writing about their experiences in service. Retirement is a time for blessed forgetting, not recollecting. For the latter we have the blood curdling Partition Horrors Remembrance Day now, don’t we?

Which reminds me that my birth certificate is nearing its expiry date and it’s time for me to write my own Will. But is it worth the effort, I ask myself ?

By the time I get that one-way ticket (with a 50% discount for senior citizens, thank you), Mrs Sitharaman will in all likelihood have ensured that there’s nothing left in my bank accounts, my car would have been scrapped by Mr. Gadkari, my Mutual Fund investments would have been squirrelled away in the Dominican Republic by some fat cat, and my Mashobra home would have been demolished to make another six-lane highway for tourists from Karol Bagh and Kotkapura.

Maybe I’ll just spend my remaining years in that Kedarnath cave when Mr. Modi vacates it to move into his new mansion on the Central Vista.

Must remember to ask Heimant whether I’ll need any bulbs there.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer. This first appeared in his blog, View from Greater Kailash)

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