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The Squirrel
Ambai

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?"

"Dust, dust!"

"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 want them?"

"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 Ammaiyar—the lotus-eyed one—saying, "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 the glue.

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 me.

"Come down, lady." Smiling, he looks up.

"I'm up here."

He comes up.

"The ruling has arrived."

"What ruling?"

"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.

"Come, lady."

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.