December 2, 2021

Meera Raja



10 a.m.

I am standing outside, on the topmost step of my shop. Water is gushing on the street, angrily collecting more from the streets that it connects to, like a particularly belligerent political rally.

Babu, the tea boy from Sree Ganapati Bhavan next door, drops in with a cup of tea, and he is completely drenched. “Looks like Sembarambakkam lake is breached anna,” he says.  I nod in reply; the rains have been the topic of conversation the past few days, and will remain, for the next few. I gratefully accept the tea, and he leaves. I enter the library section and go about my business. It is dark inside, even at this hour, and an eerie feeling creeps in slowly.

Murugan thatha, the one after whom the bookstore and library was named, is hanging from the nail, dangerously rocking back and forth like an eternal pendulum, confined by the wooden frame with a gold outline. The frame, picked out in a hurry with no other consideration but budget, glistens in the dark, swaying this way and that, seemingly amorphous. It is as if Murugan thatha is shaking his head, disapproving, as he often did when alive, of me.

Now, Murugan was my father, you see, but thatha to everyone else. The last memory I have of him was his body being shoved into the Kannammapettai ground, with none of the theatrics that accompanies the lighting of the pyre. All too efficient and practical, unlike him. He had collapsed on the same wooden chair I am sitting on now, over a book he was reading, just like that. (I have the book too: Alai Osai by Kalki.) When his staff of one, Mary Amma (I suspect her actual name was Miriam, which no one could pronounce right) returned from her lunch, she saw my father and tried waking him up. She crossed herself, and then the road, before bringing help from the snack shop opposite. It was too late.

And thus this business, the 425 square-foot library-cum-bookstore, with one feeding the other, and neither feeding the family, became mine.

So it was only natural that after his death, I would try to dispose of it. I had had enough of the library with its musty smell and old books, of dreams unrealized penned down by depressed people, of dangerous murders and unrealistic romance stories, of fantasies that misled children into a feeling of invincibility. I had a degree in Physics, and although Murugan thatha had tried to groom me into learning the ropes of the library, I had resisted. Until he died, that is.

When we pulled out the papers for “Murugan Stationary and Library”, we realized it was probably not a misspelling. He had intended for it to remain, as solid as the earth we stand on. My lawyer friend looked over the papers and told me, solemnly, that I could not sell the library. Not without running it for one year. It was in his will.

“Is that even legal?” I asked my friend, even as my mother, whom I had brought to the office against my better judgement, started wailing. “That library will be the death of us, you see. It swallowed your father, and it will swallow you as well. Whole.”

My friend looked doubtfully at my mother, but I had made up my mind. I would do as my father desired and then get the damn library out of my hands. I guess I owed the old man this.

The day I met these buggers as their owner, I was repelled. The library, you see, is tucked away in the base of the L-shaped shop. The door opened to the bookstore, the bright face of it all, with the books’ shiny new plastic adhesive covers still intact, and the brightly coloured pens and charts beckoning all and sundry. Like that whorehouse I once visited. And people did come in.

The library, in contrast, was hidden from the view of the street, like the women of a zenana. Dark and dingy, the books so tattered. Impossible to control and shelve regularly. Their musty smell clung to me like the wet sari on a Tamil movie heroine. There were fifteen racks, with three vertical shelves each. Each shelf could accommodate two rows of books, one behind the other. Sometimes, the books in the row behind were the ones banished to oblivion and at other times, they were books secreted away by passionate readers, for a later rendezvous. Like a precious treasure buried in the backyard.

That darn phone. It keeps ringing. I’ll have to do something about it. Wait a minute.

I finagle around in the dark and return to the entrance of my store. There are people sloshing about, here and there. The rain is unrelenting in its fury (or glory, depends on where you stand). I had let Mary Amma take the day off. It seemed like the decent thing to do. But I could not. I could not leave them alone.

2 p.m.

The waters have reached the first step of the library.

The hotel next door had just one step, and water would soon enter it. Babu has worked overtime for his boss, the hotel owner, moving up whatever he could single-handedly. He asks me to leave too, but I just shrug.

I sit down on the rickety old chair, the one with one leg shorter than the other, looking at the computer that stares me in the eye. The one where all the books are catalogued, a neat database to be called up whenever required. I realize I will have to move it someplace safe, but I wait. You know how funny that is, that the easiest decision made is usually to do nothing. To hope, that like the garbage that this water gushing outside has now collected, that somehow, things will happen, that you will be transported to the sea, through no effort of yours? You know how unlikely that is, right?

Look at me, for instance. I made this shop what it is today. I ensured the books were not just catalogued, but also divided by most frequently borrowed, with a report that told me which authors did well. And then, I had to read those books, of course.

What I hadn’t counted on was falling in love.

I first picked up, sentimentally, no doubt, Kalki’s Alai Osai. That was just the beginning. I looked within its pages for my father. The book was but an entrance to a secret land, like that cupboard in that Narnia book. I went into the world often, rarely coming out, in fact. I entered the world looking for my father, but ended up finding myself.

Slowly, I learnt what it was to love and lose honourably from the classics, desperately from the romances, psychotically from the thrillers. I learnt to take the giant leap and fly, from the fantasy books; that you could (but probably won’t) learn from history; and how to murder, or solve one.

I learnt how to love, in exclusion of everything else, and how to include everything in my love. This was my undoing, of course. I could enjoy the company of a chaste Sita, a promiscuous Draupadi (OK, you can shoot me now), a steadfast and manipulative Kundavai (Oh wait, you have not read Ponniyin Selvan? Please do pick it up. We have the translated version in English too, at Murugan), all for the picking, as my mood suited me. In my ideal life, my wife would help me choose the woman of my mood, if only she didn’t think it was some sick obsession. Hey, I’m all for equal rights: she could find, within the pages of a book, whoever she wanted. Of course, she could not understand. And I don’t blame her. If it weren’t for Murugan thatha, I wouldn’t have either.

Why, just yesterday, my mother repeated her litany of woes for the nth time: There is no money, there is no proper food, why couldn’t I take my wife out somewhere, if only she could erase my father’s genes from me, etc. etc. My wife, of course, was standing by the door of our bedroom, no doubt glad that her machinations had borne fruit. I will spare you the details, but I love books for exactly this reason. They had made me smarter, sort of. The earlier me would have taken my mother at face value. Now I knew there was more to it.

And this morning too: “Why do you have to go in this rain? You know NASA has predicted rain up to 50 cms, right? And it is even said in our traditional panchangam. It’s amazing how our forefathers knew everything, even things modern science cannot gauge.”

They do not understand. I need to be with my, how do you call it these days, peeps. She couldn’t let me go, how could I abandon mine?

4 p.m.

The water has now officially entered Murugan Stationary and Library. It is grazing the bottom shelves, but I don’t bother.

A couple of customers walk in, urgently.

“Sir, you will have to vacate,” they say. “It will rise even more.”

I nod. “Just something I have to do,” I say.

Something about me must have stopped them from insisting. They walk away quickly. I use all my strength to close the door. And lock it. I cannot abandon the books. Not now.

The light was anyway out. No one would know I was inside. I have to do what I have to do.

I go over to the shelves, and run my fingers over their spines. I can feel them shudder under my touch. The water goes slosh slosh, under my feet. I hate it that my walking creates waves, which wet the books on the bottom shelves.

Shelf C1 is the first to go. Water grazes the spines of Leon Uris and David Connelly. I allow myself a smile; I am not particularly fond of them anyway. I must let the Dame know. “Don’t worry, they are gone,” I walk over to Agatha Christie, sitting high on her perch with her compatriot Ruth Rendell, and whisper. I look over some of the others—misshelved, being where they shouldn’t be. But that was alright with me. That was expected of books, one would say.

By the time I return to C1, all bottom shelves are wet, probably shivering. They are now huddling together like refugees, forgetting their worn plastic covers, meant to differentiate them from the rest. They are now wet and sad and hungry.

You see, a long time ago, well, less than a year really (but it seems like a long time to me), I discovered that books derived their energy from others reading them. .Like an idol reenergizes with each abhishekam. I had read the most obscure authors that no one had checked out yet (thank God for the software), and could feel the words gaining in strength. I swear that many of them were borrowed multiple times after I read them.

I know I must save some of them, move them to higher shelves. But I know they will want to stick with each other. I cannot save all of them. I cannot choose. The family must be together.

What’s this? A book floats down, down to the water that is now over a foot high, down to the brackish water that stinks. The air is getting heavy now, and the stench is becoming unbearable. I must open the books, to let their smell overpower that of the garbage water.

Just then, I hear a scream.

6 p.m.

I am tired, I’ll admit. I am sitting in the corner of the L, where Mystery meets Romance, cuddling as many of the books as I can. I have moved my chair to the corner. The water, grey and thick and smelly, reaches up to my neck. I remain seated.

“Don’t worry,” I tell them as they perform a grotesque dance around me, nymph-like, floating as if entertaining me one last time. “This too, shall pass.”

I have thrown my phone in the water. Its constant vibrations were no solace.

Oh, right. The scream. Forgive me if I digress. I can’t seem to think straight.

It was my father’s voice. I regret to inform you that Alai Osai has drowned. Perhaps a victim of his own heaviness, he drowned at around 4:30 p.m. He was old, so it’s not much of a loss, I guess. He’ll reappear, like my father certainly will, in another avatar, in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

My books are all around me now. I don’t feel alone. I try to shake out a few shelves that are tightly packed, like illegal immigrants in the back of a truck. One comes loose, and the rest will follow. And we can all be together.

It’s getting late, and my torch is dimming. The batteries won’t last much longer. Perched on my chair, I have to stand up if I want to escape the water. But my feet are rooted to the ground.

Nothing like a crisis to bring a family together, they say. And here they are, now together, at long last, forgetting all their petty differences: the spirituality of a Swami Paramahamsa with the atheism of a Richard Dawkins. The old Balakumarans, all sex and illicitness and the new ones, after his spiritual awakening: all on temples and saints. The sweet romances of the Mills and Boons and the horrors of a Stephen King.

I spread both my hands out, and churn them all like the mythical heavenly ocean, so they finally touch each other, deriving each other’s energy. Pages come loose, a few sink. The book soup collects more books; a vortex of past and present and future and fantasy.

The water’s now gushing in with great force into the library, angry that I had intended to keep it out. I really hadn’t.

I rise from the chair, and water’s now just above my hips. I bend down, and swirl the water to collect as many as I can with one hand, for one for one big group hug. I am still clutching the back of the chair for support. Water, if you can call it that, enters my mouth and nose anyway.

“Don’t worry,” I say softly. “You are the only species in the world who will live eternally, and also be reborn, in another time, another place. Come close.”

The water is rising, inch by inch.

“Meet you on the other side, my friends,” I whisper.

Through the remaining light from my red plastic torch, I can see my father’s photo swaying on the Z-axis. Impossible according to the laws of physics. His face turns into a smile. He approves.

It’s time to let go.

Meera Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based writer obsessed with issues of identity. When her parents moved to Chennai, her classmates asked her a question, which she is still finding answers to, through her writing: What are you?