Standing with legs planted on facing shelves, his head
hidden in clouds of dust, one hand pressed to his throat to control
an imminent sneeze, he seemed, as I craned my neck to look at him,
a good, obedient genie conjured up with a rub of the wonderful lamp.
"What is there at the top, sir?"
"No, sir, I mean what books!"
"I'll see, madam. People write
many good books without having to do all this climbing. This is
rubbish, madam, just rubbish."
"If you like, I'll climb up, sir!"
"No, madam! This is my duty."
He let fly ten sneezes.
"These are just women's books. Do you
"Throw then down, sir."
They fell with a thud. Volumes of Penmadhi
Bodhini and Jaganmohini, followed by lots of others. The sight of
them crashing through the roof, splitting openeven this grew familiar.
For someone who doesn't believe in miracles, here was an overdose.
As my finger touched the spine of a mended, nineteenth-century book,
a tremor rose from the sole of my foot, like an orgasm. Anna Sattianandhan
on her deathbed, asking her husband to pray and, on the third floor,
only the squirrel and me to grieve. The woman who first set out
on horseback to spread Christianity broke through the meshed windows
of this very third floor. A Bengali girl writing to her father,
pleading that he should not sell his only house to meet her marriage
expenses, set fire to herself and the killing flame chased through
this room, like a snake. The flame spread through the third floor,
its shape visible to the squirrel and me. The Telugu cataloguer
wasn't there that day.
What had appeared on the third floor were
not mere books; they were whole generations throbbing with life.
Stately matrons wrapped in nine-yard saris, wearing shoes and carrying
rackets, playing badminton with the white women. How best can young
women please their husbands? So many sermons on the subject, preaching
untiringly. Addressing her as "my girl," trying to sound
kind, they preached the dharma that women should follow. Nallathangal,
chasing her son even as he pleads with her to let him go, pushing
him into a well, and jumping in herself. A brahmin priest, stubbornly
refusing to perform the last rites for a girl because she is an
unshaven widow. Knee-length tresses shorn as she lies dead. The
devadasis dedicated to temples, dancing to exhaustion, singing,
"I cannot bear the arrow of love." Gandhi addressing women
spinning at the charka. Uma Rani of the journal Tyagabhumi
declaring, "I am not a slave." "Kasini" giving
new patterns for bangles in the women's section. The Ananda Vikatan
cover girl walks, swinging her arms, while her husband carries the
shopping bag. Tamarai Kanni Ammaiyarthe lotus-eyed onesaying,
"Let us give up our lives for Tamil." Her real name in
Sanskrit: Jalajakshi. Ramamrutham Ammaiyar angrily confronting Rajaji,
who wrote: "Gandhi won't come unless you pay him money."
They are all here. I am also here. Sometimes they are like wisps
of smoke, weightless, shaved, a heaviness in my heart. Razors appear
all around. Each lock of hair falls with a harsh sound and rubs
against my cheek, roughly. It is only when the squirrel taps his
tail twice and raises dust that my senses return. It is leaning
on Kalki with Ammu Swaminadhan on the cover. It has finished eating
I look down through the hole. The librarian's
head is leaning against the chair. On the table, a file titled "Subject:
String." His favorite file. Three years ago a shining violet
file, now mouldy, corners dog-eared. The file began with a letter
saying that a string was needed to separate old magazines, here
by month, there by year. The letter in reply said, "It is not
a practice to supply string to the library; explain the reason for
departing from it." Then the explanation: the magazines that
are not separated by month are all mixed up and useless. Useless
for whom? For researchers. What researchers? Are they from Tamil
Nadu or from abroad? The letters piled up. One day the librarian
pulled out a bundle of string from his trouser pocket, and then
wrote a letter asking to be reimbursed for the string. Which set
off a series of letters beginning with the query, "Why a bundle
of string?" Every evening the file would make its way to the
table. He has not yet been reimbursed.
The squirrel chirps. Keech. Keech. My only
link with reality. My companion in illusions. Keech. Keech.
I know. It is late. Your glue is finished.
But I don't want to leave these women. A magic string holds us together.
I hear them talking. As Shanmuga Vadivu's veena strikes the first
note of the octave, the sound leaps to my ear. "Beholding the
colourful lotus and seeking it, the bee sings a sweet song, utterly
lost," sings K.B. Sundarambal. "Utterly lost," echoes
Vasavambal from behind, accompanying her on the harmonium. On the
Marina Beach, Vai Mu. Ko hoists the flag of freedom. With children
in their arms, the women who oppose Hindi go to jail.
See, this is another world! That glue should
have infused a little of this world into you. A world for you and
"Come down, lady." Smiling, he
"I'm up here."
He comes up.
"The ruling has arrived."
"They find all this mending very
expensive. Not many people use these books. Just one or two like
you, that's all. How can the government spend funds on staff, glue,
etc.? They are going to burn them all. All these old unwanted books."
My mind goes blank. At the edge a small
thought rises. So the file about the string has finally come to
a close. Only the burial is left.
I approach the iron stairs and run back
to look once more at the room. The evening sun and the mercury lamp
spread a strange light on the yellowed books that are to be burnt.
Like the initial flood of fire that spreads over the pyre. He turns
out the light.
The darkness mingles with the dull red light
changing everything into a magical flame, deep red. The squirrel,
with its legs spread out, lies prone before the window as if in
surrender. As I go down the stairs, a little wave of thought. The
window faces north.
Translated from the Tamil by Vasanth Kannabiran
and Chudamani Raghavan.