Book of life
Indrani Rai Medhi
Just when dawn was breaking in the eastern sky, Jivan Chowdhury woke up with a start. Waking up early was a crucial part of his plan and by dozing off, he had almost botched it. Chinks of light now glimmered though the curtain partings on the window. He could faintly hear the cawing of crows and the rattle of milk cans on the lane below. All night long he had tossed and turned, weighing the consequences of his intended action, buoyed by bravado and deflated by cowardice, grappling with the alarming swings of his mood, trying to convince himself that his expiation was over, that 20 years was too long to suffer and he had now the right to go back to his first love.
Anyway, after the deed was done, it would be too late for Saudamini to do anything. This time he was prepared. Only last evening, on his way back from work, he had bought a lock.
He propped himself up on one elbow and peered short-sightedly at his wife. She slept facing him, snoring gently. Age and grief had long robbed her of her beauty. Two deep lines ran down from her nostrils to her mouth. Her lips were pursed in an expression of stern disapproval. A frown creased her brow. Maybe in her dream he had done something to exasperate her. Maybe in her dream, he had brought home yet another rotten hilsa or had entered the house with mud on his shoes. Maybe there were ink stains on his punjabi or he had forgotten to post her letter to her sister Suravi. The smallest error on his part let loose a torrent of barbed words from her. The small things she accused him of did not rankle him so much. It was only when she blamed him for Babu’s death that guilt leaped up like a rekindled flame and he sank into a painful void of muteness. How long ago it seemed. 20 years. Seven-year-old Babu. The apple of Saudamini’s eye. And his too. Only, the child never came to him. A waif like figure with kajal ringed eyes and his thumb perpetually in his mouth, trailing after Saudamini, the pallor of his face heightened by the black dot on his forehead to ward off the evil eye. It had been a slight fever that went on for three days. He had been so sure it would subside. After office hours, he had forgotten all about it and gone to College Street, six hundred rupees in his pocket. A princely sum in those days.
For months he had dreamed of buying The Collected Works of Charles Dickens. For months he had begged the bookseller to reserve it for him. That day it was his – a splendid leather-bound set of six volumes, the gold embossed lettering on the spines glinting in the July sunlight. He remembered carrying home the set joyfully, lovingly, planning to read aloud to Babu, to awaken his ear to the magic of the English language, the sheer artistry, the majesty of the prose, its power to reveal untravelled realms. So determined had he been to ignore his wife’s disapproval of his frittering away money on what she called worthless things. What would she understand, the unlettered village shrew. But Saudamini had not berated him that evening. She had not even noticed him. She had sat stunned on their four-poster bed, surrounded by commiserating neighbours. Babu’s head in her lap. He is still warm, she had repeated like a prayer, an invocation to the gods. The box had fallen from his nerveless hands. He had stared at the still form of his only son, gripped by a numbing sense of loss, of infinite regret that the little one had gone without entering the world of books, that he would never read Tagore and Tolstoy, Homer and Maupassant. He had so keenly looked forward to leading his little boy along those enchanted paths, acquainting him with the multitude of well-loved characters conjured up by the imagination of great dreamers.
The memory of the dead child lay inert between them, in silence one could slice with a knife, and in violent explosions of anger on her part. It maddened her to realise that he had not wept at the loss. She suspected that his grief was somehow assuaged by his escape to other worlds, between the pages of his beloved books. Then he had come back one day from work to find the doors of his almirah agape, all the shelves bare, his collection of books handed down from generations or assiduously collected from his college days, the entire lot missing. Sold, she said, to the kabariwallah. Something died within him then and he had knelt in front of the empty almirah, covered his face with his hands and sobbed in long ragged gasps, his shoulders shaking, utterly desolate. And she had stood beside him, gloating, arms akimbo, going on in her rasping voice that Babu would have lived if he had come home straight from office instead of going in search of those stupid books, the money he had spent so foolishly could have bought life-saving medicines.
He never bought a book after that, as the thought of losing it was too much to bear. During the day, he typed out petitions for a living in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office. By night he was back in the cramped flat at Lakshman Road, slumped on the sitting room sofa, doing nothing, a faraway look in his eyes, absently listening to the click of her needles as she knitted, like Madame Defarge. Outside lay a teeming, soot encrusted city with its stinking gutters and diesel fumes darkening the air. Millions crowded the pavement. Trains caught fire in the Metro. Pre-pubescent girls were raped by policemen, taxis collided with bellies of trams and traffic jams choked intersections. Red flags fluttered, dilapidated buildings collapsed and a living saint brought succour to the wretched and the dying. And all the while, Jivan Chowdhury and Saudamini lived out their empty days and emptier nights, the shadows of the dead child and the banished books stretched out accusingly between them.
Slowly, stealthily, so as not to awaken her, he crept out of bed. Groping under the pillow, he found his spectacles and put them on. He tip-toed out of the room, not daring to put on his slippers – in case they made a noise. There was no time to clean his false teeth or perform his morning ablutions. The moment had arrived. Soon, Bela, the part-time maid would arrive. He would have to act fast. Last evening when Saudamini had been at the Kalibari, he had searched the bedroom and the sitting room without finding it. Now he entered the tiny kitchen. He did not switch on the light. The darkness would camouflage his furtive actions if she came in suddenly. One by one he opened the lids of the plastic bins and felt inside. Flour, rice, masoor dal, cheera. Nothing else. He felt under the newspapers lining the shelves. Still nothing. His arm brushed against the handle of a saucepan and it clattered to the floor. In a trice, he was back in the bedroom.
“What was that?” she asked sharply, struggling to sit up.
“It’s only the cat,” he said soothingly “Go back to sleep, I’ll make myself a cup of tea. It’s still quite early.”
She lay down again, pulled the quilt up to her chin and closed her eyes. He went back to the kitchen, filled with doubts. He lit the gas, filled a cup of water on the kettle and set it to boil. If she came in now, that would allay her suspicions. Five minutes later, he found it. It was inside the tin containing incense, in the little alcove where Lakshmi, Shiva and Ganesh jostled for space and where marigolds smothered them daily. A thick wad of soiled notes, money she had scrimped and saved from his meagre earnings over the years. Money she was now planning to fritter away in a futile, meaningless gesture. It was his neighbour Sarat Chowdhury Babu who had told him about it.
“You know your wife has quite a lot of money saved up. She was telling my wife the other day.”
“It is her money,” he had said shortly. “What does it matter to me?”
“So you don’t know what she is going to do with it?”
“How should I know? “ he had smiled mirthlessly. “Maybe she is saving to go to Kashi after I am dead.”
“No, no, it is all for your Babu, Chowdhury Babu.”
“Babu?” he had asked, taken aback. “I don’t understand.” “She is going to pay for a marble plaque on the wall of the Kalibari.” “A plaque, what for?”
“To preserve his memory, what alse?”
“And what good will come of it?” He had asked, his anger rising, “Will it bring him back to us?”
“Well, no, Sarat Babu conceded. “But devotees will see your son’s name, the year he was born and the year he –”
“I will stop this nonsense at once.”
Sarat had given a knowing smile. “Jivan da, you will need a few pegs of my White Horse whiskey inside you to take on Didi. She always has her own way, if I am not wrong.”
Sarat was wrong. This time he would have it his way. Confrontation was unnecessary. He would do it with silence and cunning and exile, well, not exile. That was for James Joyce. It pleased him to know he remembered.
He thrust the wad of notes hurriedly into his pyjama pocket. It made a discernible bulge and he pulled down the hem of his vest over it. The kettle was boiling. He made the tea and sipped it, scalding his tongue. A fresh problem troubled him. If he dressed now to set out of the house so early, it would rouse her suspicions. But if he lingered, she would get up to take her bath, go to the kitchen and the theft would be discovered. The solution lay in preventing her from taking her bath till he left.
Saudamini was up and about. He could hear her bangles tinkling as she folded the quilt and opened the window. Then he heard the crackle of the radio and the sombre strains of a bhajan. He felt a quick stab of panic as he heard her heavy measured steps moving towards the balcony. A clean, starched sari and a towel hung on a clothes line there. It meant she was getting ready for her bath. After the bath she would light the earthen lamp, the joss sticks, open the incense tin and all hell would break loose. He followed her to the balcony.
“Look,” he said awkwardly. You do not have to hurry with your bath for me. No need to cook rice also. I am not feeling hungry.”
“Who said I am hurrying. I will only heat last night’s khichdi for you.”
“Alright, alright. By the way, you are looking a bit pale today. You go to the balcony and get some sunlight. I will warm the khichdi myself.
“Alright, but after my bath.” He must not lose control of the situation. He said “Bath, in this cold weather? At least wait till Bela comes and heats a degchi of water for you.”
“Why?” she gave a deprecatory snort, “Have I lost the use of my hands and feet?”
“The bathroom floor is very slippery. You will slip and break your bones. At your age, a broken bone is hard to heal. Let Bela come and scour it first.”
She looked at him for a moment “Alright,” she said grudgingly. “All of a sudden you are full of concern for me. Why?”
“Oh,” he gave a short laugh. “Who else is there to look after you?” He knew then he had said the wrong thing. A shadow flitted across her face.
“Babu would have looked after me. He would have been 27. We would have chosen a girl for him…”
He said nothing. He carried a chair to the balcony. She sat down with a heavy sigh. For some moments, seared by her grief, he was filled with remorse over the theft of the money. What a low, despicable scoundrel he was; stealing money from her. But a voice kept on repeating inside him. A name on a slab of marble means nothing. I have a right to be happy, to do what I love doing. For 20 years I have forgone my first love. My only passion. Not anymore.
Bela was scouring the bathroom when Chowdhury Babu began to dress, swiftly, guiltily. Nine o’clock the paper had advertised. He would be among the first to enter. He struggled with the folds of his dhoti, cursed himself for wearing the punjabi inside out. He transferred the wad of notes from his pyjama pocket to his coat pocket. The coat was small for him and was shiny at the elbows but he never noticed these things. Least of all today. He poured some Jabakusum oil into his cupped palm and applied it briskly to his head. Then he slicked down his thin, straggly grey hair with a comb. Warmed by the sun and soothed by the gentle strains of a Rabindra sangeet on the radio, Saudamini was napping. Calling out in a low voice to Bela to bolt the door behind him, he descended the stairs. Walking briskly along the narrow lane, he began to breathe more easily. Now and then he patted the bulge on his breast pocket. He smiled benignly at two school children who passed him. Shopkeepers were pulling up their shutters. A bull ambled by, a cabbage leaf protruding from its mouth. The barber squatted on his haunches on the kerb, expertly shaving a man with neat flicks of the razor. A horse clip-clopped over the uneven road, dragging a cartful of sacks, as his master ran alongside, whipping its flanks.
“One, Maidan,” he told the bus conductor, clinging to the over-head rail as the bus sped forward. He handed the change and put the yellow ticket in his coat pocket. There was a mad rush for the door when the bus reached the Maidan. Jivan Chowdhury clambered down the steps, anxiously feeling the bulge in his breast pocket. So far so good.
It was perfect, just the way he had imagined. A book fair. Hundreds of stalls in a giant circle all around the Maidan. Banners of all colours. And thousands of books stacked on the shelves… Jivan Chowdhury hurried to the nearest stall, picked up a book at random and drank in the smell of new paper, caressed the spine with his gnarled fingers, rifled through the pages. Soon he lost all sense of time and wandered from stall to stall, his eyes magnified by his spectacles, his face flushed, his hand trembling as he handed out the money. A biography of Picasso, an interpretation of the Vedas, the world of the short story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. Six packets loaded with books and his money all spent. His feet ached, his throat was parched, his temples were throbbing. But a singing joy coursed through him, as heady as an opiate. He felt he had regained paradise after 20 years of exile. And when the moment came he would tackle Saudamini. Shake her by the shoulders and remind her that the past was dead and gone, the future a vague uncertainty. It was the present that mattered. With Sarat Babu’s whiskey inside him he would give her a fine speech. Time to forget grief, forget old age and travel to timeless worlds, Saudamini, how wonderful it is to receive messages from human souls we have never met, but who have the power to arouse us, teach us, comfort us, open their hearts to us… books, the only immortality in a transient world…
Jivan Chowdhury ran his tongue over his lips. He could do with a cup of tea. The tea stalls were a little distance away and he was too tired to lug the heavy book packets with him. He went to a book stall that was not too crowded.
“Can I keep these packets here?” He asked the salesman. “I will be back in five minutes”.
“Alright.” the salesman took his bundles and deposited them under a table.
Garam singara! Garam chop! A youth intoned loudly from a tea stall. He ordered tea and sank down gratefully on a folding chair, his elbows propped up on the formica topped table. A small boy set a cup of tea before him. He poured the tea into a saucer and sipped with loud slurping noises, lost in a world of his own.
The sound of the explosion was so unexpected that he spilt his tea and the scalding liquid splashed onto his left thigh. There were screams and shouts as people ran helter skelter.
Then he saw the flames and the smoke billowing from a tea stall a few hundred yards away. Before his horror struck gaze the flames rose in a roaring fury and touched the blue sky above. People pushed back each other in a mad scurry to reach the exit.
He began running towards the stall where he had kept his books. His eyes were glazed and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. He would not allow this to happen. No, never. He kept on running.
“And you mad?” a policeman gripped his arm. “That is not the way to the exit.”
“Let me go! Let me go!” he screamed agitatedly and with the last ounce of his strength, broke free.
“I am coming. I am coming!” he called out. Everything was going to be all right. He would retrieve his beloved books, make his way to the exit and take a taxi home… the empty almirah would be filled up again and he would lock them, safe from Saudamini…
He stood on the edge of the conflagration, a little old man in a faded coat and a crumpled dhoti, a desperate look on his face. He took a few tottering steps forward and within moments was swallowed up by the roaring flames.
Firemen doused the flames. The papers carried pictures and lengthy reports. The Publishers and Booksellers Guild pegged the loss in the fire at over Rs. 12 Crore. The police said only one man had died, his body charred beyond recognition. The fair opened again after two days. A minute’s silence was observed in honour of the unknown book lover.
Indrani Rai Medhi is a journalist, columñist and author. She has won the Kunjabala Devi award for investigative award for women issues and the Yamin Hazarika award for excellence. She has authored 12 books.