It is 42 degrees Celsius,107 Fahrenheit. Mumbai must have broken itself off the face of the Earth and moved closer to the sun all by itself. An old fan in the corner, blades caked in dust, is blowing on me. It is trying to oscillate, but it makes a forty-five degree turn, a soft thud and returns to face me. It doesn’t provide any respite from the heat. Instead, the dust is making my throat itch.
A rotund clay pot sits at the far end of the office. There’s a steel tumbler standing upside down on its lid, glinting in the sunlight streaming through the dusty Venetian blinds. The thought of that refreshing, cool water makes me more thirsty, but I gulp down my cough and stay put. I don’t want to lose my place in the line. It has taken me two hours to get to the chairs. The chairs, ten gleaming white chairs at the very front of the line, are a prize for patience. My knees creak in relief as my legs collapse into one.
I wipe the sweat off my face and take off my slippers. Their soles have worn off, probably from standing in this line every day for the last three months. A peon comes by with an aluminium tray full of little glasses of chai.
“Back again, Patelji?” he laughs and walks away without waiting for an answer.
I glance back to the people standing behind me. Almost at the beginning of the line, Mrs. Kumar, a war widow, is struggling to stand on her arthritis-troubled feet. We’re line-acquaintances. I nod a hello to her. I get a weak smile in return.
Mr. Sharma, the pension officer I’m waiting to meet, is away from his desk. Nothing new there. On the table is a dusty mountain of files and a stacked lunch box, both vying for his attention. I say a little prayer for the person whose paperwork is in the file at the very bottom. The lunch box always gets precedence over the files.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting in front of Mr. Sharma, who is chomping on his rotis and aloo gobhi with gusto. I stare at his balding head and wait for our usual conversation.
“Patelji, why do you waste your time coming here everyday?” He points two curry-covered fingers at me.“You should be enjoying your retirement! When your pension papers are approved, we’ll inform you.”
“It has been 6 months since I retired, Mr. Sharma. I really need the money. If you could check if my file has been passed, it will be a great favor!”
He replies with an irritated tsk.
“It has to go through many levels, Patelji, you don’t understand! If the Accounts department doesn’t clear your papers, what can I do? Now please, let me have my lunch in peace.” He nods vigorously.
My shoulders slump. I get up to go. But he will see me again tomorrow.
“Ahem, Sir, actually Patelji’s pension check is here. We got it this morning.” Mr. Sharma’s secretary brings my file to his desk. I wasn’t expecting this.
He wipes his hand in a hurry and snatches the file from her hand. “See, Patelji? Didn’t I tell you I’ll get your check for you? You should bring us some laddoos!” he grins.
I understand what “laddoos” means. I’ve distributed “laddoos” to officials in every department to get my file passed. I fish out a hundred rupee note from my pocket, crumple it in my palm and shake his hand. His eyes don’t flinch for even a second.
I stop to buy some laddoos covered in silver foil for Nina and me. She deserves some real ones for having stood by me for forty years, and I feel like an achiever today, almost like how I used to feel after a good day at work.
I don’t have to stand in line at the pension office anymore. What will I do tomorrow? A strange emptiness takes over and follows me all the way home.
The following day, the dusty fan, the meek secretary and the line are in their usual places. The peon with his tray of chai glasses stops in his tracks and looks back at the chairs, his eyes wide with surprise.
“Patelji, you’re back? I thought you got your pension yesterday!”
“Oh, I’m here for a friend.” I smile and clutch Mrs. Kumar’s file tighter in my hand.