The last page in the story of a library.
I walk down the road that I once thought was familiar – but as somebody once said, “It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”
Today, though, it is different, and there is a marked and poignant change that I notice in the road. I had earlier entered a bragging contest with someone that ended in me being unable to best the feat of having stolen from a library – well, not so much stolen as “librarian gave up hope in getting it back from me” – and I thought I’d change that, as I walked towards the library. Anyway, I walk towards my old, old library, and I see little huge crowd gathered in front of it.
Modest collection of books that the library had, it had only received such a crowd – this is markedly poignant – the last time its owner died. It was quite sad, and it happened in between my library-visiting days of the week: One Tuesday, I go, and he greets me—a bald, averagely Indian-looking guy with a moustache that never came close to being as menacing as it was supposed to be–with the familiar smile and the familiar reprimand: I was always taking away more books than I was returning. I call the moustache un-menacing from a purely personal perspective: we’d known each other since I was 11, and we shared a burning hate of Stephenie Meyer; and I could sympathize with his sadness over girls that came to his shop, borrowed a Chetan Bhagat book, and returned it, only to never come back again.
And the older I grew, the more I understood the fact that his face always had a slightly depressed undertone, the one that can only be found on the faces of the owners of small businesses in the country: he was wallowing either in debt or in guilt, because the fair means are going to take you nowhere in a business like setting up a library—huge costs of setting up and very slow rates of return. At any rate, one Tuesday I go to the library, borrow a book, he sends me off with a pat on my back, I come jogging back because I’ve forgotten my bicycle keys, and he holds it up with one of his rare grins, and I say “thanks uncle, bye”. Those were the last words I’d speak to him.
The next Tuesday, he was replaced by a lady, the sorrow on whose face was still fresh, and she tells me a story about a sudden heart attack that the doctors could do nothing about. She invites me to his eulogy. My father strongly prohibits me from going, for he predicted (quite rightly at that) that it would get nasty—it turns out that the sad undertone was because of debt indeed. I listen to him, and for a day, I do not know quite how to feel.
I went back anyway, that Thursday, because after its fourth reading, “Shall we tell the president?” had grown quite dull. I walked into the library, and greeted the lady. I paid her fifteen rupees for the book, and she motioned for me to read my card again. The fifteen had become twenty-five: “Late fees, Rs 10”. Two thirds the original rent, as a fine? The injustice rankling in me, I dumped my fifteen on the table, left the book, and started walking away. I heard my name being called out behind me—a voice I’d never heard before: I was still expecting Library uncle’s voice. And in all the years I’d known the burly, moustache-sporting man, I’d never heard my name being called in a menacing tone—and this lady was almost certainly enraged. I froze in my steps, terrified for a moment. My voice was called out again, and now the tone was entirely different. I turn back, and the lady’s face is visibly distressed, and in a flash I understood. She had no choice but to somehow raise money, and every penny counted—and the distress of having angered a customer was wrought large in her face. I ran back, and she tried to explain in broken words—she’d quite lost the ability to converse because she kept losing her voice—about her predicament. I told her I understood, but she never took the extra ten rupees from me.
A few months later, college came—and with it came the need to say my goodbyes to the city and by extension, the library. I do not have the heart to cancel my subscription, though, and the lady doesn’t mind anyway. And college came, and it took my old life away from it—I no longer read books with the same voraciousness, and my college’s library, though a beautiful place, is sadly filled with technical books and the fiction section is woefully inadequate for my needs. Anyway, a year and a half passed, and these days, I just glance at the library from the corner of my eye with a sort of wistful longing for the days when I would visit it twice a week. Days when I could just get lost in the world of the books—and not get disturbed for hours.
Today, I happen to pass the library: well, I like to think that vehemently volunteering to visit the baker for supplies was just a pretext for me to pass through the street. And there was a huge crowd outside it. And this time, it was not a person that had died—it was a library that had.
I hang around, and learn that the lady had succumbed to the loan sharks, and with the meagre income from what, twenty people a day—it was inevitable. They were taking the library down, and I really do hope that she did end up repaying what she owed by giving up the piece of land, but that wasn’t on my mind. They were selling the books at half-rate.
“Well,” I asked one of the people standing around. “What the hell do they mean, half-rate?”
It was a valid question—I remember borrowing an old, harrowed copy of “Around the world in 80 days” that literally had Rs 20 printed on its back cover, I think it dates way back to the 80s. I also remember scribbling “Not an Indian name!” near the introduction of the character Aouda, and having an argument later with the librarian as to how in the world one pronounced “Aouda”.
My limbs have a mind of their own as they push through the crowd and find their way into the corner of the library where the classics were kept—sure enough, the area is relatively free of curious passersby trying to find a nice, commercial book that they could get a good profit off buying. I frantically search for that copy of “Around the world in 80 days”.
I find it in a godforsaken corner, dusty. I turn the pages, dazed, until I find the one page I’d scribbled on. For a moment, I feel guilty for the desecration to the book my 12-year-old self had done, but that feeling is fast overpowered by the overwhelming sadness that I feel as I walk out of that library, and ask about the half-rate when I saw the librarian.
She had stayed true to their word, and I was only ten rupees and a library poorer.