There was a time when everyone I knew wanted to retire early. These were people of my generation, the Gen X-ers: 40 was the magic number to call it quits and take off to a log cabin in the hills or a place by the sea (I even knew an overly ambitious life champion who wanted to end her worklife at 30). It was a number where you were not too old to rock and roll, and yet you had probably had your fill of the rat race (when you are in your mid-20s, 40 just seemed like such a definitive end of the line). There were glossy (print) ads taken out by financial planners asking: ‘Do you want to retire at 40?’ Subtext: “Invest with us, we’ll help you achieve your dreams.” A photo of a man or woman, or man and woman with a furry dog, atop a mountain peak, gazing into the sunset, soaking in the stillness of life, smelling the roses — all that jazz.
Of course, very few people I know actually went on to live that dream. And the ones who did, emerged out of “retirement” in a matter of months to hit the ground running… in fact, running faster than ever.
I tried to retire a couple of years ago. I think those glossy adverts from the 1990s encouraging you to retire before time had cast a deep impact on me. While I was perfectly content with my choice, it didn’t seem to augur well with anyone else.
“What are you doing these days?” I’d be asked.
“Nothing,” I’d respond.
“What do you mean nothing? How can you not do anything? Why are you wasting your time? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you get bored? Don’t you feel brain-dead? Aren’t you scared you’ll have an early onset of dementia?”
Questions, questions, questions. In the eco-system I lived in, I realised how much “what you do” was directly proportionate to the company I keep. So even if I didn’t feel “irrelevant”, I was forcefully made to inhabit a vacuum by the rest.
For me, my paternal grandparents have remained a retirement benchmark. They retired to a house (built from their life savings) with a gorgeous garden in a small town outside Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was called then) the day my grandfather — a civil servant — retired; he was 58 or 60. They never wanted to extend their “earning life” beyond that in an attempt to remain put in the mainstream — or remain “relevant”. From thereon, they embarked on, what I felt back then, a “perfect life”. The way we had a daily/weekly routine, so did they. Ladies club gatherings (where the men had their own corner), book club meets at the local library, morning breakfasts savoured while reading the day’s paper, afternoon siestas, evening Darjeeling tea in pretty chinaware, set on doilies, accompanied by biscuits topped with sugar sprinkles.
Two memories stand out, culled from the frequent times I’d visit them. One, was them listening to Bengali songs from 2pm to 3pm on All India Radio while lying in bed, post-lunch, pre-siesta. The other was their fortnightly gardeners’ club meeting, where tea would be served on a beautifully-manicured lawn to members — all of who were their friends — while everyone discussed a particular species of plant or flower, and how it could be best cultivated.
And yes, whenever there wasn’t an “occasion” in the evening, they would visit friends scattered around the leafy green town. They would walk. Slowly, deliberately, my grandfather’s walking stick going “tap tap”, my grandmother’s Bata sandals pinging along daintily. I’d accompany them whenever I’d be with them, and their friends became a parallel set of indulgent — and very cool — grandies. The bonhomie, the familiarity they shared, I was almost jealous of. “One day, I hope to have friends like these,” I’d say to myself.
Most importantly, my grandparents — and everyone in their suburban circle — never felt their lives had “less” meaning now that they were “retired”.
And yet, today, thinking of retirement is like a flying kick to civilisation. No one wants to retire. One person said the other day, “I want to die while I’m working: can you imagine doing nothing?”
It’s not nothing, I wanted to say, but somehow he had already made up his mind. Unless you are seen and heard doing something that invariably has a close link to that word “pecuniary”, you are supposed to be peculiar.
In the days to come, I suspect the word “retiree” might become a pejorative.