Fiction park : Out of time
- Khem Baaje with his long, wrinkled face walked toward the tap carrying a worn toothbrush with yellow bristles in his hand. He hated coming to the public tap for his daily chores but there was no other option
May 17, 2014-
The cantankerous hubbub of people waiting in a queue for their turn to fill their vessels overwhelmed the surroundings. There were some who were cleaning their dishes and others who were washing their clothes. In front, a few women from the neighbourhood were arguing about someone cutting in line. Amidst the noise, clad in a simple faded dhoti, Khem Baaje with his long, wrinkled face walked toward the tap carrying a worn toothbrush with yellow bristles in his hand. He hated coming to the public tap for his daily chores but there was no other option. For the past three days there has been no water in the house he rented. The check valve on the boring pipe had broken; the tanks had all been empty since. The landlord had said it was Baaje’s sole responsibility to fix the pump and he wasn’t going to spend a dime on it. After filling the jug with pint of water he squatted on a nearby rock and started to brush his teeth.
From the crowd a familiar voice yelled, “Baaje, congratulations! When is the party?”
Baaje’s head turned towards the direction of the yeller. As he had suspected, it was none other than Babu Raja, his next door neighbor.
Spitting foam Baje retorted, “What party?”
“Why, you don’t know? Yesterday’s news....Didn’t you watch TV?”
“My TV’s broken. What’s the news?”
“You are getting promoted. That’s what.” Baburaja said smugly.
“Are you kidding?” Baje spoke with his brows furrowed.
“No, I am not. The government has decreed that all government employees who have been serving in the same post for over fifteen years will be automatically promoted. The ordinance has been signed by the president.”Babu Raja replied with a grin.
Baje couldn’t believe his ears. He had heard similar rumour swirling a few years ago but there had been no such indication lately. He had stopped hoping. But now, suddenly, his heartbeat quickened. A rush of ecstasy as well as doubt over took him; his temples throbbed in the excitement. Babu Raja’s words had come as a shock. Meanwhile, the others in the crowd who had overheard the conversation also joined in and yelled “Congratulations!” Unable to react rationally he got up and rinsed his mouth immediately.
“This better not be a joke. Because if it is then it’s very cruel.”
“Why the hell would I be joking? It’s in today’s newspaper as well,” Babu Raja exclaimed.
Without stopping to make any courtesy calls, he rushed towards the nearest newspaper stand. Could it really be that after years of languishing in the same non-gazetted first level, he was now finally a proud gazetted officer? Could it really be that his Sysphian ordeal was finally over? His head was spinning.
Yes, it was true. The ordinance had indeed been signed. It was on the front page of the newspapers. Baje leapt with joy.
It seemed like yesterday but twenty-five years had passed since Khem Baaje had joined the public services as a junior surveyor. He had just completed his intermediate studies and had been searching for a job when he got some volunteer work regarding the black-topping of the Dolalghat-Chautara road. Being good in math he had impressed the contractor, quickly learnt to take readings from the Theodolite, and at the age of nineteen he had been offered his job at survey department.
“You’ll go to places boy. Keep your head straight and mind sharp,” the project engineer had said to him.
It had been a great day indeed. To have gotten a government job, even if it was on a daily-wage basis, was an achievement in itself. He can still recall his father brimming with pride, telling all the neighbours in his village in upper Melamchi, “You see my lad is now a government employee. No need to till the barren earth anymore. Soon we will have a house in Kathmandu. All our ills are cured.”
No, the ills were not cured. Instead they were further exacerbated. After getting the job he was first stationed to Doti where he spent a year hoping to made permanent. The oily food and dry weather had given him permanent gastritis.
Despite the hardship, every day he carried all his tapes and calipers up the hill for two hours and took all necessary measurements hoping to impress overseer sahib. On the contrary, Mr Prasai, who himself was harbouring hopes of becoming sub-engineer one day, considered Baaje as an uncouth country bumpkin trying to bungle up his work. And at the end of the year, the performance appraisal report was blunt and read, “Khem Raj is an incompetent moron without any qualification.”
He would have been dismissed immediately but for divine providence. The restoration of democracy in 1990 made all appraisals made before that year null and void. Unfortunately his luck stopped there. In the following years he was relocated all over Nepal from Tumlingtar to Khalanga, from Lamahi to Chyangthapu; all the while having to work under different supervisors with varied eccentricities. In the mean time his prospect of ever becoming a permanent member of staff got lost in oblivion. Furthermore, because he was only a temporary staff member, he was not eligible for any training, or for any facilities or advancements in career. To sum up, his entire career was one running gag.
But this new day dawned with new promises. News of his promotion and the prestige associated with it brought unparalleled joy to his family. His wife, especially, was extremely excited. “Let us go and present a hundred laddus to Kamaladi Ganesh tomorrow,” said Bajyai. “Of course budhi. Of course,” Baaje agreed. “Thanks to his providence, we can now marry off our daughter and have a secure future,” he added.
Later, when he reached the office Baaje was still brimming with joy. At the door he met his colleague Hom Nath; he, however, was not on the cut off list. His face looked pale, disappointed; he congratulated Baaje perfunctorily. “Bunch of jealous people. Who cares?” Baaje thought. As he was sitting at his desk he anticipated a call from the Director General’s office so that he might assume his new duties. There were a few files on his desk that needed to be reviewed but he didn’t bother to look into the. “That’s no longer my job,” he told himself. Meanwhile some of his other colleagues, who were also promoted, were receiving the call from the DG’s office and were all mirthful. After a couple of hours his patience began to wear thin. The wait seemed longer than his entire twenty-five-year career. He even started to second guess whether or not he was on the promotion lists. Finally at around four he got a call.
Director Madhukar Das was a man with a strong personality. He spoke in a kindly and cautious manner. “Khem Ji, congratulations; you have been promoted to the position of junior metallurgical engineer,” he said. “Given the circumstances I am certain that despite your lack of qualification, your experience over the years have equipped you with good judgment. Please review your new job description. Once again, congratulations and welcome to the officer’s club”. “By the way, you’ll have to assume the new position by the end of the week. And also be prepared for the presentation to the National Planning Commission on the newly discovered bauxite ore in the Rowaling area scheduled for next weekend,” he added.
Baaje became nervous. The words ‘metallurgical engineer’ and ‘qualification’ echoed inside him. Flipping through the job description file cursorily his eyes landed on words like ‘trepanning’, ‘decarburisation’ and ‘Micro-etching’. He didn’t have the foggiest notion about what they meant. He sank down in his chair and started to search their meanings on Wikipedia. The more he searched, the less he understood. He spied the room and felt that his colleagues were being gleeful about his predicament. Anxiously, he opened another file. It contained the details of the impending presentation and was bloated with convoluted instructions on the anodising of aluminium and the Hall-Heroult process. Everything was too painful. He felt miserable.
When he reached his rented apartment, there was loud music was playing. He saw several of his neighbours and relatives coming and going. As he entered, everyone screamed at the top of their voices: “Welcome home engineer sahib!!” Their joy and expectation was too much to take. He slumped and cried. Fearing something had gone wrong, his wife rushed towards him and asked, “What’s the matter dear?”
He spoke, sobbing, “I am no engineer. I am just an incompetent nitwit who has been foisted into a position he knows nothing about.”
“But you can always learn,” the crowd consoled.
With tears in his eyes, Baje spoke stoically, “No I can’t. An old dog can’t learn new tricks. Leave me alone. I am simply out of time.” He went to his room and slammed the door behind him.
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Published: 18-05-2014 09:10