The Lalbujh Affair
A short story.
Every evening, on his way home from school, Ravi Singh would sit on his haunches outside Mahajan Sweet Shop, the most inconspicuous sweet shop in Aulapur, to play a game of marbles with his friends. It was a short but tense wait for Shah Nawaz, who usually began the evening's proceedings. Ravi Singh considered himself an expert at the game, which he had learned by watching his older brothers – both marbles champions in their time, he was told – until they had traded the round and colourful trinkets of their youth for bus tickets to faraway cities with unpronounceable names. At precisely five forty-five in the evening, Shah Nawaz, a tall boy always clad in a tea-stained kurta, would use his toe to draw a circle in the ground as his scrawny, squinting companions searched the orange haze for any sign of their fathers, and stood poised to sound the alarm at the slightest threat of being harangued.
But not one parent came.
Only Ravi Singh sat on his haunches in utter blankness as he waited; every other boy found his own engagement. One would sit in the sweet shop itself and finish his homework early, picking at chapped lips. Another would hunt for the lice in his hair. Yet another would sleep under a nearby banyan tree, after having slept through all his classes. The most daring of them all would pay his cousin at the general store for the usual Marlboro Red. On some days, a group of girls on their way home from school would pass by, all the while glowing under the boys' wandering gazes. Some of them laughed, some blushed at the attention, even though to them, the boys were no more than local equivalents of out-of-fashion movie stars. Ravi Singh knew only one of the girls properly: Pushpa. She had a cautious look and her brown, resolute eyes would often scrutinise Ravi Singh when he waited to run into her outside the classroom. She was never to be found without a textbook in hand, and her sharp nose shot up into the air when she bore witness to any sort of demotic recreation, like marbles.
Shah Nawaz, arbitrator for all potential arguments that could erupt mid-game, would sit down on his haunches first, followed by Ravi Singh and the rest. Shah Nawaz would then draw, erase, and redraw the circle until it fit his notion of perfection. Each boy played his part. They whooped, they hollered, they shoved each other aside, and in the end they counted their winnings (or losses) and counted them again, when dusk finally surprised them. They would return to their homes and take great gasps of air as they sat down to eat, and their parents would smile – inwardly, of course – at their children coming home from a day of rigorous academic pursuit.
All in all, the ritual of marbles almost always made for a routinely fulfilling day for the boys, notwithstanding the slight chance of rain and a few thrashings from parents who might discover their children's pastime. However, Ravi Singh was not prepared for a break in this routine on the third Monday of a deliriously humid June. It began with his charade of an early morning splitting headache, a trick he diligently tried with his parents every month in vain. The impossible childhood exploits of a genius or world leader would be thrown at his face with the force of a rolling pin, and sometimes the rolling pin, accurately aimed but without the accompanying anecdote, would drive home the subtle point that acting was not his forte.
Ravi Singh's father was a proud schoolmaster, often referred to as the most knowledgeable man in all of Aulapur. When Ravi Singh was no taller than his father's knee, he used to believe that his father's study was home to every book in the world. Now he knew better, but at a very early age he had been acquainted with the works of John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy, and several other writers whose names his classmates could not spell. Most adolescents progressed from simple and easily understood writing and children's stories to more complex works, but Ravi Singh enjoyed no such luxuries. He was not necessarily fond of this literary yoke, but his father had nonetheless drilled zeugmas, double entendres, and even chiasma for good measure, into his skull.
Having been made to learn In Xanadu by heart the night before, Ravi Singh floated through all his classes that Monday, seeing everywhere the ghost of Samuel Coleridge smoking a bidi with an equally ghostly Kublai Khan. As soon as the bell delivered him from his tedium, he ran to Mahajan Sweet Shop and assumed his customary position, waiting.
Shah Nawaz did not appear. Squatting outside Mahajan Sweet Shop in the glare of the setting sun, Ravi Singh began to feel himself sway as he stared at the owner, Mukesh Mahajan, regally fanning himself with a folded-up newspaper and looking unusually distressed at his customary lack of customers.
The sun fell a little further out of the sky when he decided that it was too late for any marbles to be won. Kicking a pebble as he strode all the way to the bridge across Aulapur's muddy creek, his head struck an enormous sign blocking the road, which bore the mark of jaded adult workers – "Road is closing for constructing."
Ravi Singh's mouth twisted into a disapproving scowl. All he wanted now was to go home and rock himself back and forth under the eye of his parents in his usual pretence of studying. He deviated from his return route and took to an unfamiliar street, all the while humming the tune of an English song he had heard on the radio. He passed a fleeting glance over all the once-colourful houses that lined the street, and soon began to imagine all the faded colours splattering the fabric of Pushpa's salwar kameez.
As he poked his head around the corner, his eye caught the crimson hue of a large brick building. It must have once been the sole building on that street, but now it was flanked by tin-roofed shacks and smaller shops. Despite that, it was clearly the most brightly-painted and noble structure in that part of Aulapur. Perhaps its out-of-place appearance was what made Ravi Singh stop in his tracks and squint up at it. It was immensely large, perfectly rectangular but for a small box-like extension of the front wall, forming a kind of shaded porch area with steps leading up to the front door. Ravi Singh finally stood right before the steps of the mammoth building. The discoloured signboard beside the door read: "Lalbujh Library."
"Are you lost?" a voice rang too close to his ear. He jolted and spun around to find a set of crooked teeth uncomfortably close to him. Taking an astonished step back, he found that they belonged to a hunched, balding old man with eyes hidden behind folds upon folds of patchy skin – skin that might have paled due to hours on end spent indoors. He stood with one foot swapped for a wooden peg, and the other presumably in the grave, but he seemed to stand nonetheless.
"Are you lost?" The old man frowned. His manner of speech was strange: his lips took their time contorting to produce vowel sounds, unlike the rapid elocution that Ravi Singh was accustomed to in Aulapur.
"Why does the sign have 'Lalbujh Library' written on it?" Ravi Singh asked, his eyes riveted on the man's wooden peg.
The old man was clearly stumped. He had almost certainly never been faced with such a question before. His knobbly hands reached up to fix his frayed collars as he replied, "Because it's a library called Lalbujh."
Ravi Singh flushed after realising his foolishness. After the old man explained he had been the librarian at Lalbujh for over 26 years, Ravi Singh asked whether he owned the building.
"No, no," the librarian replied, sniffing the air as he examined Ravi Singh, "The owner is a very rich and important woman."
He led Ravi Singh into the building. The floor of the library was tiled and two-storeyed. Each floor boasted a labyrinthine grid of bookshelves, their wild geometry at once welcoming and terrifying. The white tube lights that lit up the whole building were the kind that Ravi Singh had often seen in government offices. There was a staircase winding up to the upper floor like a vine and a raised platform at the very back of the library whose bookshelves stood apart from the rest. Not a soul was to be seen on either floor.
The librarian left Ravi Singh to explore as he pleased, which he did with no regard for the time. He ran his hands over all the new and ostentatiously bright children's books and lifestyle magazines. Many of the books he knew already, but had never seen their exteriors so colourful. The books that resided in his father's study did not have an identity – their covers were as decrepit as the librarian himself, and bereft of any title. So it excited Ravi Singh to find such an array of designs, and patterns on all the familiar books – Middlemarch, The Arabian Nights, Ivanhoe.
He even hazarded stepping gingerly onto the platform at the back of the library, which rose up from the ground floor like some god himself had ordained it thus. The librarian spotted him while he was gazing at yellowing hardbacks in the bookshelves on the platform. "Those faithful old things are going to go any day now," he said almost in a whisper, though in that enormous space, it came out like thunder. "Haven't been borrowed for many, many years."
Ravi Singh went home long after the sun had set that day. Even when the cane ravaged his palms, he could not help but recall the books housed on the raised platform at the back of the library. His mother shook her head as she exclaimed, "What'll become of you, Ravi Singh!"
Ravi Singh absentmindedly waited for Shah Nawaz to appear the next day and was once again disappointed. Where the hell was he? Ravi Singh wondered whether this was a reprise of Shah Nawaz's brief disappearance when they had been younger, far younger. At the time it had, in fact, transpired that Shah Nawaz had run away in search of work. He had made it some two kilometres out of Aulapur before being delivered back by concerned holy men coated in ash and vermilion.
His usual parliament of friends soon began to disband, wary of squabbles in the absence of Shah Nawaz's mediation. Shah Nawaz, having grown up in a gully that was absent on most maps, was more or less already a man. During the game, his word was law. More importantly than all that, it was Shah Nawaz, Ravi Singh's first and truest friend, who had invited him to play marbles for the first time. But Ravi Singh was not too disappointed, for he now had a new place of pilgrimage in the evenings.
When the sun had almost set, Ravi Singh rushed into Lalbujh Library. He shoved the door open carelessly and heard a great thud as he stumbled forward. To his shock and regret, Pushpa lay on the ground before him, grimacing and clutching one side of her forehead.
Ravi Singh merely stood there. His vision was normal for a moment, before reeling into a montage of horrifying images: Pushpa's face attached to an oxygen mask in an ambulance, Pushpa's mother wailing and beating her chest, Pushpa writhing in her death throes, Pushpa's skeleton withering away with the passage of—
"You ass!" Pushpa managed to cry out.
If Shah Nawaz were here he would have picked her up gently and placated her using Urdu words like alfaaz and maazrat. Ravi Singh made a mental note to learn Urdu. Meanwhile, Pushpa continued to curse his clumsiness.
It took a few moments but Pushpa finally stood up, with no help from a petrified Ravi Singh. She dusted herself and stormed off without a word. He watched her leave, taking any hopes of courtship along with her. The whole town knew that Pushpa had a head for opportunity, and like the other schoolgirls of Aulapur, she hid it well under her headscarf. He thought she had left the building, but when Ravi Singh sat down with Palgrave's Golden Treasury, she was back in mere minutes to prod at him.
"Do you read, Ravi Singh?"
Ravi Singh nodded eagerly, indicating that they must be a part of the same secret society of readers.
Pushpa smacked his arm. "Stop looking so excited. What are you reading?"
In this manner did Ravi Singh and Pushpa soon become the ghosts of Lalbujh Library, drifting in between the bookshelves and fishing out cobwebbed editions of books they had already read, but had never really been interested in. Pushpa began to frequent the library at the same time as Ravi Singh and their movements in between the bookshelves began to become more and more familiar.
A few days passed. When Ravi Singh would borrow books and bring them home to read them for a second or third time, his father knew immediately where he had been but said nothing. Instead, he would pass an observant glance at his son and stick his nose back into his newspaper.
One such day, Ravi Singh found himself staring at the copy of Aristotle's Poetics that Pushpa had just thrust towards him. He had never read it, but his father would often use its contents to explain other texts. He ran his hand over the gold-and-silver etchings on the cover. The title was embossed upon the leather. He craned forward close enough to go cross-eyed so that he could make out the scratches on the spine in detail; each one, he was certain, had a story behind it – one caused perhaps by being pulled out from a splintering bookshelf by a book hoarder, or by falling from a dying professor's withering hand, or being hurled in anger by an uncomprehending student.
Suddenly, he slammed the book shut, remembering what the librarian had told him some time ago. This gold-and-silver Poetics was bound to be trashed, or worse – given to somebody who would never read it. Ravi Singh gawked at the book, then at the entire library surrounding him, the beautiful collection of old and new manuscripts that had kindled an almost obscene fascination within him. The book was indeed beautiful, partly because it had been virtually untouched for so long.
Ravi Singh decided that he was going to rescue Aristotle.
"What?" Pushpa asked, puzzled at his strange expressions. But to Ravi Singh's ears, her question was almost accusatory, a cry of disbelief at his depravity. When his answer was silence, Pushpa rolled her eyes and went away to the biographies section in exasperation. Ravi thought that perhaps he was a monster. A fiend so wicked that even winning the most colourful marbles could not possibly redeem him. He thought all this even as he slipped the book inside his t-shirt. The leather was warm and mellow. The one-legged old man was checking the reference numbers of some books by the counter just beside the door. When he saw Ravi Singh, he smiled warmly. Ravi Singh smiled back, but only with his mouth. He gulped. He began a measured walk to the door, his ears straining to hear Pushpa's footsteps. The book was already hidden. It was as good as pilfered. There was no turning back, not now. He hoped she would eventually realise he was missing and follow him out.
Ravi Singh was acutely aware of the slapping noise that his worn-out shoes made against the tiled floor. It hit his eardrums like the sound of crashing waves, but he kept walking nonetheless. He realised his spine was oddly straight as he walked. It made him feel like a tree with legs. Even his legs became heavier and heavier, and in his mind's eye, morphed into roots that refused to carry him forward any longer. But no, he had just about made it. Ten more steps and he would be past the counter and out the door. Eight. Five. Three.
"Stop right there, Ravi Singh," the librarian called out. Ravi Singh froze. The book under his t-shirt seared him like a branding iron. He watched the old man limp in his direction and rested his arms on the librarian's counter. His eyes locked on Ravi Singh from beneath the folds of his skin. "You haven't borrowed your customary book today."
Ravi Singh feigned laughter and scratched the back of his head with a sweat-soaked hand. "Sorry, Uncle. Not today. Exams are upon us."
"But aren't your exams in September? That's more than two months away."
Ravi Singh gulped. His hand unconsciously wandered to his abdomen, where Aristotle himself was being drenched in perspiration.
The librarian stared at him for a moment longer, and then flashed a look at his t-shirt, a heartbeat in which the horrors of a life sentence played out in Ravi Singh's mind. Finally, the old man smiled. "In any case, you must be busier now. Carry on."
Ravi Singh could finally breathe. He could not believe it. He was out. The doorknob felt like butter as he clutched it and he felt the heavy, humid air hit him in the face as the door creaked open. Out of nowhere, Pushpa's voice ensnared him like a fishing net. "Abbey wait, Ravi Singh! Where are you going without me?"
Ravi Singh could bear it no longer. He broke into a run. He dashed through the narrow streets until he was unable to hear her voice calling out to him. One day, he would do with her all those things that film stars did with actresses, or that Shah Nawaz did with the girls in his class, but today all he wanted was to disappear.
The next day, he came back and realised from Pushpa's unrelenting glare that she knew exactly why he had deserted her. She poked his belly several times while inside, checking for any hidden books. When she surprised him by hiding Mulk Raj Anand under her kameez, it became their custom, falling into place in the patchwork of their lives almost as if it had always belonged there. The two accomplices would even smile at the librarian on their way out.
Novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, travelogues by Ibn Battuta, essays on Dante's Divine Comedy, rare books on the lives of mountaineers – nothing was spared and everything was split like plunder between pirates. Ravi Singh became addicted to this routine. He felt that Lalbujh Library was where he belonged, even when it was practically emptied, and where he would finally make love to Pushpa under the watchful eyes of Edward Gibbon and Herodotus in the 'History' section.
One such afternoon of fanciful imaginings, Ravi Singh's father called him into his bedroom. Ravi Singh was certain he had done nothing wrong. In fact, he was already coming up with a hypothetical (but not too bold) defense of any actions that his father may have misunderstood. Instead of tearing through him, his father's eyes were distressed, almost moist. He folded the newspaper he was clutching and held out the bottom half of the page so that Ravi Singh could read it.
Shah Nawaz had been shot. It was reported that a gang of drunken delinquents had attacked him in an unlit gully while he was coming home from Mahajan Sweet Shop. The body had been found only two days ago as it decomposed in a pile of garbage. There was no photograph accompanying the article. Ravi Singh read the 92 words of the report again and again, hoping that, like one of his father's books, there was some scope for further reinterpretation. His father grimly led him away from the newspaper and sat him down on the dining table, his faraway voice saying something or the other about the many debts owed by Shah Nawaz's father. Mumblings about law and order, about the homicide statistics of Aulapur, and about a waste of young human capital, wafted over Ravi Singh's head. So, too, did images of the one-legged librarian, Pushpa, and their audacious book heists, but they were all slipping through his mind like sand through his fingers.
His mother, unusually quiet now, prepared his favourite sweet lassi for him.
All that could be heard was the sound of Ravi Singh's fingernails scratching the wooden table with his fingernails.
Ordinarily, his father would have admonished him for it, but today he was silent.