Calling it quits?

M. A. Sarfraz has advice on how some of our politicians could retire from public life this year - if thus inclined, of course

Calling it quits?
Living in Pakistan must be interesting. On frequent visits, a few things always strike me. I cannot fathom why our people do not know how to say “No” or for that matter “I don’t know”. As a result, you are never sure whether something would get done (misuse of Inshallah is widespread!) or the person claiming to run cars on water or to have found a cure for cancer is actually serious. Even if you happen to miss out (in person or in print) my friend, Orya Maqbool Jan, you are bound to come across soothsayers who are supposed to have the ability to predict your and the nation’s future at the snap of a finger (with credible witnesses to vouch for their authenticity). And finally, there is no shortage of people who claim they are indispensable for the jobs they are doing (despite graveyards being full of their predecessors!) and how the system would collapse if they moved on.

As a rule of thumb, no one is indispensable. Therefore, all working men and women retire by a certain age. The best time to start thinking about retirement is before your boss does - General Raheel Sharif did exactly that. This, however, did not stop the Shakespearean plots in the media about the warrior itching to help lead his people into battle. I made sure that I woke up early that day and went out for an autumn walk in the woods. I carefully checked the trees to see whether leaves had re-grown or the Sun had set in. Not far from where his offspring is schooled, I could only feel a cold wind blowing across the landscape.


Scanning the newspapers later that morning, I came across a list of senior civil servants due for retirement. One name jumped at me from the broadsheet - Haseeb Athar. How could this be? It was surely a mistake. He looks about thirty-five; rides his Beetle to work (his bicycle is in disuse after donation to his successors in the Lahore Secretariat!); listens to prudently chosen gramophone records; never ducks a (dirty) joke and laughs out loud like a child. I called him promptly to point out the rumour being spread about him. He laughed, and told me off (as my ex School Prefect and Medical College senior) for forgetting and not acting my age. He confirmed the news that he intended to retire in a few months and live disgracefully ever after as long as the Lord grants him senility to forget the people he never liked, the good fortune to run into the ones he does and the eyesight to tell the difference.

Why is it that people who shouldn’t retire have to retire? And those who should retire, like some of our politicians, carry on despite everyone praying for it? Common sense requires that people retire when they can no longer be effective at any aspect of their job.
You could cash out like Shaukat Aziz by burning the bridge behind you

Before we plan retirement, let us get a few things straight about our politicians. We can easily figure them out through well-known clichés. Their perceived job description, for example, is to prevent people from becoming involved in the affairs that concern them. They do not feel unworthy of their possessions as they believe they deserve everything they have misappropriated from the public. There is no difference in our political parties because they represent a tiny percentage of the populace. They have, therefore, invented diverse means to achieve their own ends. One party gets votes from the poor and its funds from the rich with an unwritten promise to protect them from each other. The second party seems to have perfected a fast food business model - give people squidgy, concrete and fried things made out of disgusting ingredients and they would want more. The third party doles out entertainment in the name of justice; believing that sex and politics are similar and therefore one does not have to be good at either to enjoy them. The rest of the national parties perhaps feel that people only come to them when they have run out of better ideas.

It is said that in the beginning, there was no such thing as retirement. There were no old people around either. Everyone was in full employment until the age of approximately 20, by which most of them died of unnatural causes. Anyone who happened to live long was either worshiped or eaten as a sign of respect. In those days, you were expected to carry on until you dropped dead regardless of your age. When a patriarch could no longer farm or herd cattle, he moved to less labour-intensive vocations, like prophesying and handing down commandments. Times have changed since.  Having a job that fosters independence, provides for the welfare of the family and savings for retirement - it appeals to everyone. However, by the time you reach the tender age of 30 in Lyallpur (Faisalabad), your friends just disappear. I don’t mean they die. They all move to Lahore or Islamabad, which is worse. If you do not believe me, just have a look at Abid Sher Ali and Raja Riaz, who stayed. Imagine, where all of us could have been if we stuck around?

Some people fear that retirement is like a “never-ending weekend party except that they are not be able to drink, hook up or stay up all night even if they want to”. PM Nawaz Sharif is not one of those. He and I have one or two habits in common. For example, we have a history of enjoying the company of older folks. Not long ago, I was also a baby at my place of work. Life was treading along in an overprotective milieu until colleagues triggered the escape clause and started retiring at the age of 55 (Psychiatrists in England can!). I have since kept the company (with benefits) of people who are at least ten years younger - just like CM Shahbaz Sharif. Leaving people like Governor Sindh to (in?) hospitals, it is time for the PM to realise that he is the oldest person in the room. He may rest assured that we already appreciate how he does not underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things he can’t hear, and not bothering.

The link between politics and retirement is not of my making. It was a politician, Bismarck, who designed the first plan for retirement in 1881, hoping to defuse a threat from the Marxists, who were gaining popularity throughout Europe. You cannot think about retirement without thinking about old age and vice versa. Some people think that in old age, “First you forget names; then you forget faces; then you forget to zip up your fly; and then you forget to unzip your fly”. We want to live long, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone. Therefore, most of us are imprisoned for a good portion of our lives by our jobs, followed by serving time according to the retirement manual. Our politicians have no such constraints but they do not opt for retirement unless they are banned or dead. Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif are not going anywhere without claiming their “World Cup” (premiership) or “destiny” (read premiership, again) but what is stopping Asif Zardari (in self-destruct mode!) and Ch. Nisar (going in parts!) from calling it quits? Puritan zealot Cotton Mather is credited with stimulating the national appetite for Witch Trials in the 18th century USA. Few people know that he first tried to force the elderly to retire… but nobody listened.

There are some great ways out there to take permanent leave from public life. You could cash out like Shaukat Aziz by burning the bridge behind you? On your way out, call a press conference at the airport to declare that you are now so goddamn rich that you have placed yourself beyond the reach of any earthly justice - “So long, losers!”. The cynical public could only say that at least this one was completely honest about why he got into politics. But, getting a serious disease still tops the bill. You could start with “Death has been circling my office for the past three years looking for a place to park.” before finishing on a somber note, and heading off into the sunset. Otherwise, one could always die from something that is inoperable? The idea sucks, no doubt, but there’s definitely a silver lining because anybody who chooses to bring that up before your first posthumous biography would look like a total idiot.

Dr. M. Aamer Sarfraz is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Director of Medical Education in London. He is the author of People, Place & Pickles and Talking Points

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and visiting professor