A String of Words

The first time that Kashyap went to the district library, a sense of discomfort and timidity overwhelmed him. An unease caused, perhaps, by the shut-in, musty smell, darkness and a strange fear that seemed to reach out from old, stuffy, book-lined cabinets….

It was raining—a fine genteel rain—and a single dim yellow bulb that danced on an extended cord cast strange patterns and shadows on the wall beyond.

This fear was a strange taste, but one that he knew well. This was a despair remembered from the fringes of his childhood—and once again he was a lad back in his village, trailing his friends when they’d visit their haunts by the giant boulders on the dry riverbed . . . His friends would race ahead and he’d be left behind, by turns afraid and awed at the majesty, the vastness, the visual treat . . . yes, this despair and awe—it was truly a remembered sense.

Behind dusty, glass-lined panes, large tomes seemed to be staring wide-eyed, calling out to him with promise. His feeble attempts to open one stubborn cabinet or another didn’t work, and he sought help from a quiet peon sitting in a corner.

He was dismissed with a gesture—speak to madam . . .

Just ahead, several cabinets had been arranged to form an alcove—no, a nook. A lady stood with a hefty book by a window.

“Welcome,” she said.

This was the first time Kashyap met Miss Joshipura.

“Madam, references to Gujarat in the Middle Ages . . .”

Like a statue that has been waiting, stock-still, over centuries perhaps, waiting for a lifesaving magic code, these words seemed to send lifeblood racing through her veins. She quickly moved to a cabinet—and these cabinets must be loyal, the way pets are—for they quickly responded to a mere touch, a hint of her delicate, thin-as-a-reed fingers.

A feast of books, expansive, all displayed for his reading pleasure . . .!

“Durgashankar Shastri. Here, take this—A History of the Vernacular Society . . . Any ras in the Rasmala?"

“Todd’s Rajasthan?”

She moved swiftly to another cabinet, and after a few futile jumps toward the ledge, dragged and stepped upon a stool, then just as quickly leaped down with a thick, dust-covered tome.

“As such, we don't lend this—it’s a rare book, reference only . . . but.”

By now Kashyap’s hands were full with books of various shapes, sizes, and vintages.

“Oh, we have lots of books. How would a mere district library boast of such a vast collection, such generous space! But this building belonged to the erstwhile king of this state before Independence . . . A princess, a recluse, and the last of her lineage, who now lives in Paris, she bequeathed this palatial building and gifted away the entire contents of a rich state library . . . In these democratic times read and make merry . . .!”

“There’s a special Sanskrit section in the next building, and a section for handwritten manuscripts you’ll wear yourself out just looking at those . . .”

Kashyap admitted, “Handwritten manuscripts . . . quite beyond my comprehension . . . Too technical . . .”

Curiosity. “You teach history?”

“I was destined to teach chemistry . . . but I like glancing where my fancy leads me . . .”

It was hot and musty, fine beads of perspiration marked her brow. A thin film of dust powdered her face, and she looked like a plough-wielding farmer in his field . . . tired, dusty, in her element. Her zest was that of an owner of the soil, standing in lush, fertile fields, mistress and overseer of all she surveyed.

Signing the register, he said “Thank you . . .”

Miss Joshipura looked a little lost as she followed him to the porch, staring at him.

“What did you say? Where are the readers these days?”

Now, about books Kashyap had mixed feelings, but strong ones all the same—a strange admixture of worry, guilt, fear, and overriding ownership. A fierce sense of scorching ownership. The mere memory of a few books would bring him to his knees. He derived a pleasure from these, rich and almost sensual, as his hands moved over the words on a page . . . he took pride and delight in clothing his books in stiff brown paper.

He had strong memories of his childhood home, the hours spent in the dusty, cluttered third-floor attic, reading long-abandoned books, sitting hemmed-in by old chests, storage bins and relic storage cases, reading by the scant light that filtered in through a narrow slit. This was where he’d first lived the breath and warmth of books.

On his first day there, he was taken aback at her resemblance to a gentle fairy. A lost child, alone and scared in a dark forest, is unsure of his way, confused about the path that leads safely past this panorama of splendid sights. And lo! From the ether, upon the gentlest winds, arrives a fairy, flying ahead on gossamer wings, and she takes him by the hand, “Child, follow me, and I’ll lead you safely through the sparkling realm of words . . .”

“I’ll lead you past the splendors of the Miraat e Ahmadi . . . and together we’ll bow at the shrine of the commissariat. This person, so hefty! Manikrao Bhimrao. And this one, quiet, a little sickly, Maganlal Vasantchand! To soar to the difficult-to-reach parts right above, we’ll borrow a ladder from childhood fables. Here, climb up, and I’ll fly with a sweep of my wings. And so she whispered and puffed, and with every breath and whiff opened a new magic vista. Here—Shivaji Maharaj’s character sketch, penned by a foreigner! Documents of the venerable East India Company! Guess the price of wheat those days?”

Once, after the clerk had taken his signature and Kashyap had arranged his books in two discrete stacks in readiness for leaving, a request was made.

“Please sit,” Miss Joshipura said.

Kashyap was irritated at his bad manners, and hid a smile. This abrupt manner was an old habit, one that his mother often nagged him about. He could never linger over social chit-chat, small talk, niceties—how are you . . . do come over . . . Reluctantly leaning back in his chair, as if he were meeting a stranger, he asked, “Kem cho? Majama?”—Hello, How are you doing?

Miss Joshipura sat still, staring out of the window at nothing in particular.

“This time of the year, with the Navratri season round the corner . . . how it feels . . . doesn’t it now?”

“How does it feel?”

“Oh I don’t know. I feel withdrawn. The morning and evening hues seem a little different.”

“A poet has termed this a winter premonition, an autumnal foreshadowing . . .”

“Far on the horizon, walks a stranger . . .”

“Oh, you have an ear for poetry too!”

Before Kashyap could refute this, another dilemma . . .

“What tree is that?”

“The only trees I can identify are the bawal and the neem, the rest confuse me.”

“The Arjuna! And the stranger who approaches from the horizon is?” 

Two secrets revealed.

Miss Joshipura was rubbing her eyes when Kashyap left,  she’d put away her glasses, and was smiling . . .

*

He’d unearthed an array of books, a treasure trove, and was seated at the corner table on the third floor, engrossed in making detailed notes, opening one book, rummaging through another, and glancing at yet one more, when he was disturbed by an insistent bee-drone that hummed close to his ear.

He looked up, and a mustached peon scared him . . . “Ben was remembering you.”

Miss Joshipura was shielded by her castle of cabinets, and she clutched a container. 

“You keep reading all day long . . . don’t you feel hungry at all?”

“Well now that you ask . . . yes, what have you brought for me?”

 “Here—just open this dabba—I made it specially, early this morning. I thought, he is so regular, reads for hours at a stretch . . .”

Wah! tal-sankali . . . one of my favorites!”

Attacking a largish piece, he asked, “What are you reading these days?”

“Not reading, just flipping through . . . look at this . . .” she said, and placed before him a hefty volume. Seventeenth-Century London.

“This library never ceases to surprise . . . I found six huge volumes hidden away in a cabinet on the top floor . . . letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, court decrees . . . it's a fine collection—recreates the past in an instant.”

Kashyap thought, Well, Miss Joshipura, isn’t that a good thing, you’ve found something you’d like to read . . . but why are you troubled by this . . . what made you cry . . .

A glass of water was at some distance, he pushed it closer. “Drink this.”

“You must write something . . . In all the years that I’ve been working, I’ve yet to see a reader as diligent. When I first joined this library as a trainee, the librarian Pandit Saheb used to say, should you ever meet a reader with a thirst, a yearning for knowledge, open up the cabinet and let him take as many books, as many volumes as he can possibly carry! Issue books by the kilo, not by the number.”

To Kashyap, the words “All the years” seemed to be a cover, a mystery that engulfed her age . . . how old was she, thirty-two? Thirty-eight? Forty-eight? There was an austere nameplate on her table—“Miss A. D. Joshipura.”

He felt like taking apart that A.  That letter was struggling to break free of the confines of the name plate, the same way that the person whose name began with an A was struggling to escape from a castle of cabinets, and go sit under an Arjuna tree. Then she’d wander from tree to tree, converse with them, renew their acquaintance, share secrets and confidences. In the same way every evening that A would put on an armor of two thick books and sit quietly in a bus. Where would that road lead? Where would she go? Armed with that impenetrable book-armor, to what silent house would her footsteps lead? And Kashyap could imagine a beseeching voice from within the deep confines of her home, drawing her in, “You’re home?”

Pushing the container toward A, he said,” You aren’t eating anything at all . . .”

“Well, actually I made this for you. But if you insist! And I must tell you something.”

Kashyap was a little surprised. “Is it something unusual or out-of-this-world?”

“Well, not unusual, not out-of-this-world . . . these days I’ve started writing . . . a little. There isn’t much to do here, and after I get home I get bored.”

“What are you writing?”

“Oh I can’t tell you! I write without any urgency. At my own unhurried pace. The way a necklace is strung, bead-by-bead. The words fall in line, one after the other, at their own pace. I had no idea it would be so joyous, so happy a thing . . .”

“Word-beads . . . it’s a poem then! Can I see it?”

“See it, as in?” And she placed her hand on her forehead, as if she were looking into the distance, “See it from afar?”

“Well, for someone like me, even viewing it from a distance is fortunate. I’ve only heard people say that first one has to see with an inner eye. Then experience it. And then live it. If all this happens and even then only sometimes does one understand. One internalizes, breathes it in.” The last step isn’t compulsory, he thought.

When he stood up, Miss Joshipura fluttered her eyelashes and got to her feet, as a hint of dimples and laugh lines played hide-and-seek all over her face. An important declaration seemed to be struggling to announce itself.

“Yes, Miss Joshipura?”

“No one reads, these days. No one touches a book! What should be done about this? How will this do?"

Kashyap smiled. “Well this is the way it is, and this is the way it’ll be . . . no point in fretting over such difficult matters. I’ve been waiting with these books for a while, my hands hurt. Please permit me to take your leave.”

“Well, I was saying, Can’t you come home some day?”

“I can, but first you have to invite me . . .”

Miss Joshipura was astounded. “Is there any language one can give an invitation in?”

*

Later that night, he was caught up in the magic of words. Ba gently knocked at the door, “Bhai, the phone…”

11.15 PM, his watch showed. That was late for a call, perhaps something was the matter.

“Hello!"

"Kem cho!

Her tone sounded different set against the silence of the night. Separate from, and at odds with the short, pale, washed-out person it belonged to. Her voice seemed to pierce through the ether of its own accord. 

A name matters, hence it was shared, though there was little point.

“Asmita speaking . . .”

When a refugee, broken and lost, seeks warmth and shelter with a midnight knock—one does not question him—It is late, what brought you here! No. He is ushered in, given a place to rest, a compassionate pat on the shoulder . . .

Fortunately, formality works when all else fails.

I asked enthusiastically, “How are you doing?"

“I was worried. I’m bothering you right now, am I not?”

“What bother?”

“Well, for one I’ve called up without looking at the time. It is late . . . you must be thinking, doesn’t she have anything else to do? I have to step to the neighbors and request use of their phone, so I was hesitant. Thought over it first for an hour and a half, debating whether it’s OK to call. Is it not OK?”

Kashyap remembered their earlier conversations, but he didn’t probe.

Now he was at a loss for words.

If he were asked, “What are you reading?” he’d better say chemistry or something general, and while he was deliberating over these replies, the line was disconnected, just as abruptly.

He was taken aback. When one needs to say something which one cannot quite express, such things happen. It was only later when he tried to sleep and could not, that he understood the words that had been left unsaid.

A trembling fear, and a midnight phone call.

No language could be as clear, as sharp.

He remembered that as a child, and even much later, whenever the darkness scared him and crept upon him, he’d check for reassurance. “Ba . . .”

“Yes, beta . . .”

“D’you remember that tale you once told me?”

Then he’d use this excuse to ask her about a fairy tale, or a half-forgotten line from a poem.

In the dreamlike zone in which Ba lived, she found it easy to handle these kinds of questions . . . nothing was ever difficult, or complex, or confusing. The mix-and-match ingredients for a story or dream were close at hand. She’d clear her throat and begin, and they’d talk, though they were in different rooms. The way two children communicate, using a bit of string for a telephone. A dialogue would unfold.

Once again, he was tempted to recreate the magic spell of those stories. Ba, there is a person—pale, washed-out, and thin as a reed . . .

He gave up trying to frame these statements into questions, and tried to sleep.

*

In the old part of the city, past several detours, wrong turns and missed lanes, he finally found the house, right at the end of an old and winding stone-paved lane. A broken door, quite off its hinges, greeted him; it was difficult to imagine that this was an entrance to a human habitat.

One could read the history of the building’s ownership in the physical imprint it had left on it.

Originally, it must have been the residence of a wealthy owner.

Then the home of not-so-well-off relatives.

After which it became the habitat of the pious poor.

This is what he was telling himself when Miss Joshipura peered from behind the door.

“Do come in . . .”

In the stone-paved washing area to the left, an old woman was quite aimlessly soaking, turning, and squeezing clothes in a bucket. She asked, “Yes, who?”

“No one, Ba, it’s Kashyap Bhai . . .”

Closer to the staircase, she said, “She’s hard of hearing, you know, and hence is inquisitive. Who was he? Why was he here? And later she’ll cross-examine, ‘Why were you laughing so much?’”

A thick rope hung by a steep staircase—one could clutch this to clamber to the rooms above. Two chairs and a bed adorned the room. He sat on an old-fashioned swing and looked around. Where did the hostess disappear?

In the conspiratorial silence of the walls he could sense a redeeming finality. The long, winding road had given up, reached a stubborn end, and had dried out.

“The sir I was talking about has come to meet us—Kashyap Bhai.”

How had he missed seeing this person? He gestured a greeting . . . “Jai jai.”

Sitting by the bedside, Miss Joshipura adjusted a shawl that had slipped off her frail shoulders, and said, “Bapuji, say jai jai.”

Now Kashyap could spot the disoriented smile and the black glasses.

“It is indeed the mercy, the benevolence of His Highness!”

Readjusting the shawl carefully, and patting him, Miss Joshipura explained in a low voice, “All his life he’d worked for the erstwhile state, and my library too, is in a building that was once owned by the state . . . so he says these things. When we were young, Gandhi and Marx percolated this home, and now it is poor His Highness, His Benevolence! Such things happen in our country, don’t they?”

A temple in ruins, ten statues stand unworshipped.

A cow, goat, and snake live together.

How could there be room for dissonance in this sea of shuttered calm?

A grimace swept across Miss Joshipura’s face every now and then, her eyes seemed to stretch in a strange manner behind those cover-all glasses. That, perhaps, was a smile.

Suddenly she stood up, “Let me get you some tea. Talk with Bapuji for a while.”

She pushed a tattered curtain aside, and went to the kitchen.

The venerable one pronounced, “Himmatsinghji, the then Thakoresaheb . . .”

Kashyap waited patiently for the sentence to be completed. Then he realized that the announcement of the name had no connection whatsoever with any verb, or adjective or action, it was complete in itself.

Quite as abruptly, an offering was thrust in his face.

“What's this?”

“Do taste this!” Pushing him a steel bowl Miss Joshipura walked away just as abruptly as she’d walked in.

The gauntlet of conversation was picked up again.

“When do vacations begin in your bank?”

Kashyap answered, thoughtfully, “It’ll be a while yet.”

Miss Joshipura walked in again, this time with a cup of tea, and said with a smile, “I have told him about twenty-five times that you teach in a college, yet he keeps referring to a bank, post office, and such like. After you leave, he’ll probably ask, has that sales-tax person left?”

Kashyap thought—yes, all this is children at play, and what you babble makes little difference to who you are. At your command I too can deliver rapid-fire, immaterial, disjointed, and learned discourses.

The German-silver tea cup smelled strongly of ginger, basil, and several such additives. He had just begun to sip, when the ancient kitchen curtain was swept aside to reveal a walking statue with the same features as Miss Joshipura.  Quite unseeing, a stony-faced robot walked past to exit through the door opposite.

He finished his tea, and brought this visit to a close. He stood up to take leave, and Miss Joshipura escorted him out, full of unasked questions.

The sentry at the washing area near the entrance was still at duty, armed with her bucket of unwashed clothes. She looked through him and moved her lips in a strange language . . . Miss Joshipura, the sole interpreter of this language, transcribed, “She’s asking, when will you take her to the temple?”

After this visit, Kashyap swung up that cave entrance twice, and met the shadows that lived in that dark cave.

About four times books were exchanged or—truth be told—returned, and this required visits to the district library.

After all this reading, he’d written a small essay on Jain Gurjar poets.

Now the train of books moved in the opposite direction, and in this manner the accounts in Miss Joshipura’s issue register were evened out, until they tallied one day.

In much the same manner that a grazing animal, wistful-eyed, is led back from lush fields to dark shuttered sheds, Miss Joshipura’s questioning gaze, too, held a million unanswered questions.

Doesn’t any other subject interest you?

Don’t you want to open up any more rooms of books, destroying a beehive that long rested there, explore the rich treasures hidden away in umpteen dust-lined cabinets?

There are many magical books here.

There are many more that can move a man—or two—to tears, to his knees, beseeching for grace.

Among a big city’s advantages is that a man can be found if he so wills it. You are little likely to run into him perchance, at the temple or by the lakeside.

No one turned up demanding a return of imaginary books—neither at Kashyap’s home nor at his college.

At the bus stop around the corner no one sat quietly, wiping away a flood of tears.

No one ambushed him from a tree, blocking his way.

Nor did he stumble upon a trembling shoulder some day in the dark.