Murthy was a second division clerk in one of the government offices; knowing which one makes no difference because most of them are alike in their appearance and functioning, lacklustre. He was retiring that day. Murthy was a man of average height and weight. His skin had wrinkled and seasoned and tanned over sixty harsh summers; the skirting of a thinning grey strip of hair running along the back of his otherwise bald head stood out in contrast. The bridge of his nose supported black framed spectacles. He was extremely conscious of not having risen above the average in any of them: looks, education and status. This complex had maimed him with an incorrigible slouch.
Like all other days Murthy finished his share of work in the kitchen. He diced the assorted vegetables that were to go into the day’s gravy and placed each variety in distinct,tidy mounds on the cutting board covering them with a lid to keep away the warts from feasting on their virginity. He emptied the milk pouches into a steel vessel and let it simmer on the gas stove.He put away the peels and empty milk pouches in the dust bin and left after a final inspection, taking care that his wife Sarasu found the kitchen just as she wanted. As a thin layer of cream rose to the surface and crinkled, Sarasu entered bringing in with her an aura of sandalwood and a rhythmic chant of stotras in favour of her favourite deities. She took over the kitchen with a natural aplomb.
Murthy ironed one of his white full sleeved shirts and a black trouser. “It is just another day for them, they wouldn’t even notice my absence from tomorrow” thought Murthy about his office mates. He picked up his changing clothes and went for a bath. He rehearsed a few lines before the mirror in the bathroom. After performing the ritualistic puja he settled on the cane sofa in the drawing room for breakfast. A plate with two phulkas and a bowl of vegetable gravy along with a tall glass of water waited for him on the centre table.
He called out to his wife, “Sarasu, come here”
“What is it?” she came out holding the rolling pin coated with flour.She appeared as endearing to Murthy as she was thirty years back; age had added grace to her along with silver streaks to her hair.
“If you have called me to ask the same thing I better go and finish up my work. From tomorrow we have all the time in the world.”
He so wanted to ask, “Are they coming?” He missed his daughters who had dispersed to different cities following their dreams. He wished they were with him that day. He did not want to start his day setting her off on an unpleasant topic. He knew what Sarasu would say “The poor girls have such a hectic life already. They are such workaholics, both of them, no different than you.” She would then veer off to blaming him for their family having split in three and he was the one who inspired them to do all that he couldn’t do: He had done a degree in commerce because the college in his town had only the commerce stream; he had stuck to the government job because he had feared the unsteadiness of private jobs.
Folding the gravy in with a piece of phulka he asked the nth time, “Do you think there will be a farewell party for me in the office? If they ask me to speak something what should I do Sarasu? I don’t know what I am going to say.”
“Looks like you are secretly expecting that. You will be disappointed if they don’t. And don’t tell me someone will succeed in getting you to make a speech.A speech of all, they wouldn’t have heard two sentences in a row from you in all these years.” She said on her way to the kitchen; Murthy slouched all the more.He had told Sarasu not to pack lunch in case his colleagues planned it outside.He slipped his feet in a pair of black mules and left for office with a semi-prepared mind.
The office had occupied the first two floors of an old building. In thirty years of his service the building had seen only one renovation and one coat of yellow paint. The most unscientifically built staircase led to the top floors. At the corners of the landings the Gods had descended in square tiles placed at spots most vulnerable to spittle attacks. Gods’ strategy to prove their omnipresence had worked. The office had three cabins in all out of which one was in the first floor at one end of the rectangular hall. The rest of the space had three rows of teak tables and chairs.Only few of the tables had desk top computers and the rest of them,except Murthy’s,had piles of pending files. He had handed over all the files to his subordinate Mani the previous week except one, which he thought Mani needed a briefing on.
That day Murthy had nothing much to do except receiving his relieving order.Murthy went and settled in his place at the rightmost corner table. He bent his head over the file he had to look into.
“Murthy Sir, always on time” Mani came in announcing his arrival by the customary line.
Murthy looked up at the thirty year old Mani in a bright red and blue checkered shirt- tucked in and sleeves rolled up till the elbows- and off white trousers.
“And Mani, always late” said an irked Murthy.
“Murthy Sir, I don’t have anyone to make my breakfast. I have to wait my turn to use the bathroom; you know sir, there is only one for five occupancies.”
Mani pulled out his chair and threw himself on it in a carefree posture. He took out his beige lunch case and shoved it in the drawer.
“So Mani has brought his lunch box” thought Murthy “Should I remind him it is my last day?” He decided he shouldn’t. “He might think it is an indication for him to return the hand loan of two thousand rupees. Who knows whether he even remembers? It’s been a year already”
“Mani, you have to sit with me for two hours. I have to clarify few things.” Murthy said pointing to the sepia pages of the green dog-eared file.
Mani grinned ear to ear running his fingers through his long hair,patting the displaced waves back in place. Throwing a sideways glance at the girl who was just a week old in the office, Mani said, a little louder than necessary “Why are you so tensed Murthy Sir? You take everything so seriously, office has just begun and we have the whole day ahead of us.”
Mani had succeeded in bringing a smile on the girl’s face. This girl had breezed in leaving a trail of her mystic perfume behind her when Mani had almost given up hopes of encountering a day like that. Mani had almost swooned that day. Most of the female staff was forty-plus; they discussed recipes and family problems. This girl was pretty and came to office in jeans and colourful tops and left her hair loose. Mani had observed on the very first day that she had an interesting tattoo on her upper right arm. He thanked the formation of his stars; they had rearranged themselves overnight preordaining his brighter future.
Murthy had seen in his tenure, affairs blooming like lotuses in still ponds. Finding respite from the lethargy and monotony of office life had been the only motivation for some of them and they had withered notwithstanding the demand of long lasting relationships. Murthy wished that this one would not end up like one of those. The manager sent for Murthy. “If Sir asks me whether I am free this evening, I shouldn’t say ‘yes’ at once. Only after he coaxes me I should agree” thought Murthy as he headed towards the cabin. He knocked softly on the door and went in. The manager asked him to sit and continued to stare into his computer screen for a while. Murthy sat on the edge of his seat and waited for him to speak.
“Mr Murthy here is your relieving letter. We appreciate your long and committed service. Actually we were thinking of a get together in the evening. But I have to go somewhere and nobody seems to be free this evening. So, don’t mind Mr Murthy. Drop in sometime when you are free and I wish you good luck.”
Murthy mumbled the lines he had rehearsed in the bathroom “Thank you Sir, you were such a nice boss. I will miss this office and my colleagues.” He stopped trying to remember some more lines while his manager stood up “Ok then Mr Murthy; I have an urgent meeting on the ground floor.”
Murthy looked around returning to his seat “Sarasu was right, I should not have expected any special treatment today. I have been invisible to them all these years. When Rao retired last month a lunch was hosted at the Nandini Palace. Our manager had garlanded him and had spoken in his praise and then Rao had given a short speech. We had bought him a bouquet and a gift. It is wrong to compare Rao with myself. He was my superior and the manager’s favourite. He cracked witty jokes and made him laugh and he dressed so well.”An image of the ravishing Rao sailed before his eyes as he sat feeling the pinch of joblessness a day earlier than its onset.
Mani had disappeared. Murthy looked at the girl’s seat, it was vacant. It was nearing lunchtime and Murthy felt foolish not having brought his lunchbox. He went to the nearest restaurant and ordered a plate meal and ate leisurely for the first time in his service and went back to office. Mani and the girl had still not returned “and what did I expect that this cupid struck Mani is going to sit for two hours with this old hag?”
Murthy was looking at the wall clock and feeling miserable. He didn’t know what to do. He went up to some of his colleagues’ tables and said his goodbyes. The women were never up to informal talking in the second half of the day. They were hurrying to wind up work and get back to their homes. He walked up to Shakuntala’s table, she was the senior-most, next up to retire and they had been colleagues for the last ten years. She was a reserved lady, her lips pursed beneath stern eyes and a wide nose. She was tall and well-built with a solemn voice, quite an intimidating personality for someone as meekly as Murthy. She had almost slept over a huge open ledger trying to read into some detail at the top of the page. Murthy coughed thrice before she sat back and looked at him.
“I thought I will say bye, today is my last day, so…”
Shakuntala stared at him blankly for a few seconds; she was so absorbed in her work. “Yes Murthy, sorry I didn’t get time to talk to you. Wish you all the best for your retired life.” Murthy thought he saw a faint smile on her lips. Not having anything more to say he stood wringing his hands. She nodded and gave him a ‘you can leave now’ smile.
Murthy left office half an hour early and went straight to the flower market. He bought a bouquet of roses and a garland and went to a gift store. He bought a big clock to hang in the drawing room, Sarasu had been asking for a bigger one since long. He looked at his watch; “One hour later than my usual time would make it believable” he thought and hired an auto.
Murthy got down from the auto and knocked, Sarasu opened the door in a silk sari and a jasmine string wound around her hair tied in a bun. Murthy was pleased “At least Sarasu has made my day special”. Before even stepping in Murthy said bringing excitement to his voice “Sarasu I told you no, they will have a farewell party. Thank God I had thought of a few lines to say. Mani, that boy made it a grand success; he had arranged everything, bouquet, garland, this gift and snacks”
Murthy walked in, the garland hanging on his left arm and the bouquet sleeping diagonally over it, his right hand holding the gift-wrapped clock. The whole of his section staff along with his managerhad gathered in the drawing room. His daughters stood smiling amidst them. Murthy felt like a fool for the second time in the day. He looked sheepishly at every one: Mani sported an impish smile on his face. The new office girl had changed into a sari and there was Shakuntala smiling broadly shedding all her reservations.
Murthy’s manager spoke, “It was Mani’s idea to have the party at your house Murthy, he wanted your family to be a part of it and we knew you were too shy to bring them to the office. He has been planning this since a month, talking to caterers and getting this collage framed” he handed Murthy a two by two feet collage of photos of Murthy along with his colleagues, taken on different occasions. He garlanded Murthy and offered him a bouquet of yellow roses. He spoke of Murthy very highly and said that the office had to let goof one of its most hard working employees that day.
Delicious aromas wafted in the house as everyone helped themselves to the appetising spread. Mani came up to Murthy and whispered “Murthy Sir what will you do with that garland and bouquet?” his eyes pointing to the ones Murthy had brought. After a while he added “Give them to Madam, she will be happy.” He took out a cover from his trouser pocket and gave it to Murthy “Your money sir, it helped me a lot.”