He was the most enduring fixture of the office. In his 40 years of service, for the most part he had been a peon, and for the last 10 or so, the head peon. He had little work other than allotting duties to peons and supervising them. Sometimes he filled in for a peon, who was on leave. For the few months I was in the office, I had seen him—an ageless, unremarkable figure in a dull blue shirt and trousers—perched on a stool, outside the director’s chamber, facing the garden. The year was 2004.
He usually kept quiet but occasionally muttered to himself or scribbled something in a small notebook that he kept. I was told he was fond of writing and composing devotional songs.
One self-chosen responsibility which he performed with utmost sincerity was to feed the birds in the compound. The old bungalow which housed the office had substantial green cover. A large number of birds—peacocks, mynahs, parakeets and doves found ready refuge in the compound.
He would scatter about a kilo of grain on the platform adjacent to the front lawn first thing in the morning and watch the birds pick it all day. Once a month, he would go from desk to desk to collect a kind of tithe from the staff members. To the collection, he would add a few rupees of his own and thus, meet the expense of feeding the birds.
One day he came to see me. “Saheb, I am retiring at the end of the month. I seek your good wishes.” I was taken aback. I never thought he was so old as to retire. I just made some polite enquiries about his family and future plans. His brief replies revealed the picture of a future as uneventful as his past and to which he had come to terms long back. I wished him the best. He left.
On the last day of the month, an office party was organised to bid farewell to him and two other retiring staff members. Each was given a customary parting gift, usually decided in consultation with the receiver.
The farewell passed uneventfully. There was one jarring note, however. I noticed that the gift packet given to him was much smaller than those given to other officials who were higher in rank. Why this discrimination? At least in parting they should have been treated equally, I thought and felt a little bad about it.
The next day when I met the director for some work, he asked, “You know what the head peon chose for his farewell gift?”
“No, sir”, I replied.
“A mobile phone,” said the director with a smile.
Satish K Sharma