Book title: The Pensioner
Author: Adam Said
Publication year: 2019
Publisher: Gerak Budaya
In ‘The Pensioner’ by Penang-born author Adam Said, the reader follows Khalid Arshad’s story as he journeys on into retirement with his wife, Azizah. This has been a very delightful read to me, especially when it involves places familiar to me in Penang Island, where I spent four years as an undergraduate of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Minden.
The even-paced plot (or lack thereof, since it is a character-driven story) mimics the even-tempered Khalid. This novel feels like the type of story you recount at an old-fashioned kopitiam while it is raining outside — a Malaysian plot with a poke at various aspects of our society (especially on corruption and office politics). At the same time, it lauds others (our pluralism and unity in diversity).
Episodes in the book are not necessarily in chronological order; the novel is written in two parts that are not time-sequenced, one dealing with Khalid’s current life and the other with the unfolding of his career. The first and the last two chapters are set in the present, and it is in these that we learn about the neighbourhood in which Khalid lives, some of the characters he encounters there, plus the routines in which he has accustomed. These chapters are punctuated by Khalid’s random reminiscences of his childhood and ruminations about what he sees as the unwelcome direction in which the country is moving.
His many ponderings, typically occurring as he sits by himself on his veranda, gives us insights into our lead character’s personality, revealing him to be a person who is sensitive, level headed and intellectually curious. Although inclined by any nature to mind his own business and to remain private in his ways, the thoughts that go through Khalid’s mind make it clear that he is a person who in fact has a deep interest in public affairs and is an astute observer of political trends in the country, Malaysia which is featured in the novel as a newly formed federation. Unsurprisingly, not all of Khalid’s musings turn out to be significant or thought-provoking, some being those of any ageing person with a memory and fondness of the old days.
Adam Said uses the three middle chapters to devote to his novel’s second theme, namely chronicling Khalid’s modest progress through the ranks of civil service. Given the favourable circumstances under which he began his career in the wake of the country independence, the road ahead ought to have been an easy one for him, with clear opportunities for smooth, possibly even rapid, advancement.
It seems the four years that Khalid spent in the University of Malaya, then in Singapore were unremarkable. He was not as tedious or as hardworking as many of his contemporaries but did well enough in his examinations to graduate with a Second Class (Lower Division) Honours degree in chemistry.
His studies had been supported by a bursary from the federal government. He enjoyed playing football while in the varsity and was made team captain in his final year. Once he had obtained his degree, Khalid had a well-defined career path ahead of him. He would be selected for appointment to the Department of Chemistry and, barring mishaps, would find himself would find himself promoted to a coveted superscale position in good time and as such should be privileged to enjoy other perks that go with the appointment.
However, things turn out differently. If Khalid’s initial decision to turn his back on his main asset, namely his training as a scientist, in order to join the general administrative service was ill-advised, it was ultimately his misreading of the civil service culture that leads to his professional stagnation.
Khalid got a job in Kuala Lumpur where he was given two choices, namely the Department of Statistics and the Agriculture Ministry. He had no hesitation in choosing the latter and hoped his knowledge of chemistry could be an asset to the Ministry of Agriculture, knowing that this might enable him to have postings outside KL, possibly even with field responsibilities.
In his office Khalid found that his colleagues were friendly, and his division head Ravindran helpful but he found himself in low spirit. It was neither due to heavy workload nor the deadline and reports he had to make regularly. These might be irksome but these did not wear him down. The real problem was the scope of and nature of his duties, in other words, his job specifications. He starts finding his chair uncomfortable, his room too small and lacking an outside view, and the overall office cheerless, poorly ventilated and overcrowded. As it turns out, Khalid stayed in Ravindran’s division for 24 years.
Only Ravindran was on superscale position there. For Khalid, his earlier frustrations gradually wore off but he never acquired any enthusiasm for the work he was doing.
He was later transferred to his hometown Penang and found out the situation at the Balik Pulau District Office (where he was ADO) was similar to KL’s.
The core element of the office culture, namely its conservatism and its blind adherence to rigid procedures, are the very ones that are alien to Khalid’s personality; but he also falls victim to private intrigues and to situations that are not of anyone’s making, but is used to discredit him. For example, in one of the episodes he is asked to explain about receiving a gift of five durians (left by a stranger in his car porch) that he and wife share with two friends).
Khalid’s friendship with an old classmate Bala (Sundramoorthy Balasingam), and his extended encounter with another old friend, lawyer Suhaimi, constitute important sub-themes of the novel but what holds the story together is the quiet warmth of Khalid’s domestic life and the simplicity of his and his teacher wife Azizah’s daily existence. A variety of minor characters mentioned later in this review, also make their appearance in different parts of the story, making their own contributions to the structure and flow of the narrative.