I stared out of the long windows as one more green and yellow train passed by. In the distance, I could make out the dull grey of the sea and tiny dots of ships. Down below, cars, bikes and buses paused and progressed in muted chaos, in an ochre background tended by the setting sun.
I looked at my watch. 5.45 PM. Fifteen minutes and I could finally pack up and go home.
It had been a boring day at work. I was one of the very few souls in office, who had not yet been assigned to an audit. Well, of course, I did deserve a good break after two hectic, back-to-back assignments, but the ‘good break’ was starting to wear me out.
I looked at my watch again. Still 5.45 PM. Time is a very cunning spirit!
Just then, a manager walked towards me with a not-so-effortless smile. I sincerely hoped he wouldn’t give me some dreary work as it was nearing closing time. I tried to smile and lighten the atmosphere but it was like he had an anti-smile shield!
Out of courtesy, he said hello and immediately his speech became transactional.
“Anita, I’m sorry for the short notice. You have been assigned to a stock count today at the Connemara Public Library. They close at around 7 PM, so you may report there not later than 6.30 PM. As you know, the Library is over a hundred years old and is a national depository of books. Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head in embarrassment of literary delinquency.
“Well, it means that it possesses a copy of every book published in our country. So, the size of the inventory is very huge. And since, the internal controls are not very effective, you’ll have to physically verify at least sixty percent of the books.”
I nodded, excited about the stock count. If there was any trace of my earlier guilt, it had certainly disappeared! To be in a world of books was my idea of ecstasy!
He continued, “So, I’m estimating that it will probably take around six to eight hours to finish the count. As a consequence, I grant you permission to come a little late to office tomorrow.”
Usually, a long-drawn stock verification would exhaust me even before I enter the warehouse or the factory, but the fact that this was about books and the added fact that I had just bought myself a few extra hours of sleep in the morning, landed me in euphoria.
“By the way, Rhea would be joining you in the count. She’s the senior on the assignment, so if you need any guidance, please ask her.”
“Now hurry up! It’s already 6.03 PM! The next train for Egmore leaves in twelve minutes precisely!”
I hurriedly dumped my laptop, its adapter, my books and my ticket in my bag and hastened out of the door, barely breathing out a ‘Good Evening’ to him.
I made it to the station in time, and boarded one of the trains, the principal object of my bored eyes in the past few hours!
As the train chugged by, rhythmically halting at different stations, the sky changed colours in a slow yet mesmerising fashion. When I got down at Egmore, the sun had completely set and only a few threads of orange owned the heavens.
I walked through the narrow streets of Old Madras and reached the imposing and imperial gates of the Library.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t let you in. We close in ten minutes, you see.” Said the security guard as I tried to enter. Then, I explained the purpose of my visit and eagerly made my way inside.
The building seemed plain on the outside. The only embellishment it could boast of was the words “Connemara Public Library” embossed in gold, just above the portico. Talk about appearances being deceptive!
Inside, in a modest hall, was an old and grimy reception desk where Rhea had been waiting for me. We greeted each other and after pleasantries had been exchanged with the Library staff, we began our work.
The plan was that I finish with the Fiction, Languages and Scientific References sections, while she would go ahead with the Financial, Periodicals and Exam Preparation sections. Then we would proceed to the Original 19th Century building together, where the precious and rare books were housed.
The count progressed smoothly without a hitch and when we met for dinner (at around 10.30 PM), we were both done with our respective areas. We were all exhausted due to the expansive steel bridges of books in each section, but I was still very energetic at the prospect of what lay next.
During dinner, the conversation casually turned to the Old Building.
“So where is the Old Building? I really couldn’t see it from the grounds.” Said I, as I munched on some potato wafers.
“Ah yes, Ma’am, that is true. The old building is just behind the current one, but is seldom noticed. People often think that this is the only building. Fact is, it is only an annexe to the Main Building.” Said Mr Pazhani, the Manager of the Library.
“Any reason to hide such an architectural and literary marvel behind this sober façade?” Rhea enquired.
“Well, it is quite common for famous monuments to be scarred by selfish graffiti, thanks to our thoughtless people. One of the reasons the Modern Building was constructed this way, was to save the Imperial Building from such abuse.”
“And have you indeed been able to save it from such abuse?” I implored.
“You can say that Ma’am. You see, only foreigners are allowed inside the Old Building. Only Indians who show keen interest are admitted inside.”
“As much as I hate to say it, this seems to be the most appropriate solution!” Rhea opined.
The conversation then gradually changed avatars, ranging from topics like the failed monsoon to why humans have no tails.
At around 11 PM, we concluded our repast and declared ourselves ready to delight ourselves in the splendours of bricks and books. Mr Pazhani sent away the two assistants who had helped us with our count so far. Only the three of us remained.
We then climbed to the first floor of the Modern Building and entered the Periodicals section. The ghosts of Rhea’s count still remained, for there were disorganised piles of books scattered around the hall. The poor light from Mr Pazhani’s torch was not of much help as I kept bumping into them. When asked whether we could turn on the lights, we were told that it would attract too much attention and that we would be inviting thieves.
Finally, we approached the end of the hall, with my knee still in place. Mr Pazhani fumbled through his pockets and produced from a bunch, a long rusty key. He inserted it into a camouflaged wooden door and a metallic echo announced its opening.
It was quite dark inside the passage. We could only make out the initial stairs of the narrow ingress to the Old Building. Feeling a little spooked, Rhea clung to my shoulders as Mr Pazhani led the way. I myself was a little afraid, but I did not want to sacrifice my pride in front of her.
The staircase was getting increasingly narrower and I was slowly becoming conscious of my not-so-slim frame. Just when I felt that I would indeed have to mutate myself into the potato wafers I had for dinner, I saw light at the end of the tunnel, literally.
“Welcome to the Imperial Building, the Home of the Ancestors of the Kindle!” Mr Pazhani announced in a grandiose fashion.
I wanted to commend Mr Pazhani for the fine introduction, but as I extricated myself out of the passage, my voice froze.
I found myself in a large round hall with large glass windows guarding its circumference. A pair of exquisite heavy wooden doors were stationed on one side. The floor boasted of the finest marble and shone like a mirror. The spherical ceiling was ornamental and was designed to depict the Heavens themselves. The pillars that punctuated the long windows were all embellished with intricate designs and sculptures. It was as if I had been teleported from Chennai to 19th Century London.
“Oh, this is only the foyer. Wait till you see the Main Hall!” Mr Pazhani said, his voice bordering on ‘I-told-you-so’ pride.
We followed Mr Pazhani inside the wooden door and entered the Main Hall. Once again, he was proven right!
The Main Hall was very long and wide. Above us, rose another floor that traced the perimeter of the Hall. To our right was the wooden Grand Staircase that led to the upper floor. On either side of the hall, kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows peered down at us, belittling our ego and pride. Large round wooden tables occupied the front, with cushioned stools hidden under them. Wooden shelves crowded the hall beyond and the floor above, making way only for a small aisle for us to snake through. The rows of shelves only parted twice, in the centre and in the end for some more reading desks.
“You may begin the count. I shall be here to help you out.” Mr Pazhani said.
We nodded our heads and immediately agreed that Rhea would do the Main Hall and I would undertake the count of the upper floor.
“Just one small request. The books that you are about to count are very rare ones, worth lakhs of Rupees. Please make sure that you handle them carefully.”
We assured him of our mindfulness and began our count.
I made my way slowly up the Grand Staircase admiring the carefully carved designs of the balusters. As I reached the last step, the musty smell of old books invaded my nose, causing olfactory pleasure. Dim lights hung so low from the ceiling that they almost touched my head. I peered down from the railings and saw Mr Pazhani sitting on a high-backed chair in a corner near the entrance. I could also make out Rhea’s slim silhouette crouched over a stool in one of the valleys between the shelves.
I shifted my eyes to what lay in front of me. Towers of books surrounded the open space, making it look like a rectangular doughnut. I pulled a small comfortable stool towards me and went through my count sheets.
“Eighty-six line items. Shouldn’t take much time.” I thought to myself.
And so, I began the most exciting part of the count. Mr Pazhani had been kind enough to provide the description of each item for this phase of the count. My hands had the pleasure of touching pages that were more than four centuries old. I came across an Old Bible dating to 1624. The frail cover of the book was bound tightly in plastic and its pages were yellower than any I had ever seen. A few books later, I chanced upon a very ancient book – so ancient, that it was hand-written. It was a leather-bound book, with cursive patterns populating its content. The pages were pregnant with extensive diagrams and eye-catching designs. It was very intriguing and my only regret was that I wasn’t able to read it! I hunted through the pages for a date. It was published in 1362! I secretly grinned and thanked the heavens for such luck!
It had been quite a while since the count had begun. The list was nearing its end and I was glad as I was starting to feel tired. Even paradise is susceptible to monotony. And this eerie place was a Dark Paradise, what with all its occasional groans and moans, and the treasure of antiques! But, nevertheless, the initial amusement was thinning down.
Only three more items were left. I looked at my watch. 2.30 AM. I smiled in unconscious relief as I walked to the other end of ‘the rectangular doughnut.’ I looked down from the balcony and saw Mr Pazhani taking a light nap in his chair. But Rhea, however, was having a comfortable snooze on one of the reading desks.
I continued walking to the other end and finally arrived at Shelf No UH-23.
“The Complete Translation of the Sushruta Samhita by A M Kunte – 1876” – check.
“Abijnanashakuntalam – By Kalidasa – Published in 1884” – check.
“Devamitra – Unknown Author – Published in 1804” – check.
My work was finally done. I heaved a sigh of relief and sank into one of the stools nearby. Whew! That was hectic but fun!
I fished out my water bottle from my sling bag and took a few sips. I stared around while the water answered my parched throat.
That’s when it caught my eye. How had I missed it!
Just then Rhea’s voice echoed through the hall, “Anita! Are you awake?”
I walked to the railing and looked down at her.
“Unlike you, I don’t sleep on the job, Rhea!” I said with a wide grin.
“Yeah, whatever. Are you done? I still have some twenty-five items to look into.”
Here, my lethargic, self-centred mind took over. Why should I help her? She was the one who slept off! Besides, I have to check it out!
“Are you there?”
Oh, the arrogance in Miss Sleeping Beauty’s tone.
“Yes, I am. As a matter of fact, I myself have around umm…. twenty items to finish. Would be glad to help once I’m done.”
“Okay.” She said disappointedly.
Mr Pazhani, being an alert sleeper, had woken up thanks to our short exchange but quickly returned to his nap. Seizing the moment, I walked back to Shelf No UH-23 and stared at the wall, some six rows behind it.
A rectangular glass cupboard wrapped itself comfortably on the wall. Inside, a long narrow sheaf of papery things crowded the window to the room. I walked towards it and pressed the switch embedded on the side. A soft yellow light illuminated the small cabin.
The contents were now clearly visible. Palm scripts! From the looks of it, they were much older than any of the solid books I had examined so far!
I tried sliding the glass panel, but it wouldn’t budge. It was locked. I was annoyed. What was it with Mr Pazhani imprisoning such treasures that way! Of course, my thoughts were ironical and illogical, but I never realised it then. Curiosity got the better of me. I had to find the keys.
Then, I remembered Mr Pazhani opening the passage door from the New Building that led here. He had a bunch of keys with him. Perhaps one of them would fit.
I walked back to the balcony and looked down at Mr Pazhani engaged in a slightly deeper sleep at the moment. On the desk was the bunch of keys. I was delighted.
I slid silently down the stairs, ensuring that they did not groan under my feet. As I reached the last step, I looked around for Rhea but she was not to be seen. However, I could hear her stacking books at the far end of the hall.
I continued my feline exercise and grabbed the keys with as little noise as possible. Then I retraced my way up the stairs and was almost running when I reached the top. I walked hurriedly towards the other end of the hall and stood before the palm script.
Here, my morality caught up with me. My heart knew that to open the cupboard without Mr Pazhani’s assent, would equal trespassing somebody’s property. But my mind begged me to open it, with a convincing argument that I wasn’t a thief and I was just going to have a look. That’s all. It almost felt like someone, other than me wanted to open it.
Weak as my heart was, I finally started trying each of the seven keys of the eight in the bunch. Each time I inserted one in the rusty keyhole, I could feel my heart pray that it shouldn’t fit. But it lost in the fifth attempt.
In my hurry, I pushed the glass roughly, causing it to sound a screechy alarm in the hall. I was frightened. Had I woken up Mr Pazhani? I ran back to the railing and was relieved to find him still asleep. Decidedly odd, but my sense of relief and stupidity numbed my rationality.
I came back to the glass cupboard and stared at it. Then, I carefully withdrew it.
There were about six palm scripts, tied together with a thick thread, embalmed in a flimsy plastic cover. I discarded the cover and gaped at the scripts. They felt like pencil shavings with a little bit of history. The material of the thread seemed unfamiliar, but the language of the scripts wasn’t! It was Sanskrit!
But my joy was short-lived for though I could read them, I really couldn’t understand it.
I turned the sheaf over and found that only one word was written on it.
I turned the first page and again, there was only one line. The remaining four pages similarly possessed only one line each.
I must have been staring at it for quite some time, for when Rhea had called out to me, I realised that about ten solid minutes must have passed.
“Hey, Anita! Why won’t you respond! Are you alive?” Her voice floated up the stairs.
I looked uncertainly at the scripts. Part of me wanted to rightfully restore it to its throne and leave like a good girl. But another part of me, a part as yet unknown, decided it was a good idea to, ahem, borrow, it.
Rhea’s voice was drawing closer. “Are you there Chubby?”
In a fit, I stashed it in my bag and turned just in time to face Rhea.
“For heaven’s sake Anita, you got me scared! I thought you were dead!”
“Well, obviously as you can see, I’m not dead.”
“Very Funny.” She paused. “Say, what are you doing here?”
“Umm…. Finishing my count?”
“Is that why you were staring at this empty cupboard?”
“No, I was just wondering. You know, I was just thinking about what must have been so precious that it must have been kept locked away separately.”
“Hmm…. Yeah. Anyway, as we can see, it is unlocked. Quite suspicious, if I may say.”
She fingered the disengaged lock and said, “I think we must inform Mr Pazhani about it, anyway.”
“No!” I screamed.
“Wow. You look like you just woke up from a coma.”
She scanned me head to heels twice, as if I were an alien from Zarkos.
“But don’t you think we must inform him?”
“There’s nothing in there.”
“All the more the reason to inform. It might have been stolen.”
The words impaled me like a thousand knives.
“I’m going to be a good citizen and inform him.”
“No! Why would you do that?”
She looked puzzled. “Why does it matter to you so much?”
She stared at me questioningly till it became uncomfortable.
“Have you got something to do with it?” She whispered.
“Why would I? You know about me.” I muttered. “I just… don’t want to get into any mess. Mr Pazhani probably knows about it.”
She shrugged and answered, “All the same, better to tell him. He might not be aware of it. Perhaps he may answer what it contained once upon a time.”
She started walking back to the staircase as I stood, stupefied in guilt-stricken horror. It never struck me though, to put the scripts back and act like nothing ever happened. Perhaps Rhea would’ve questioned but that is easier than spending the rest of my life behind bars.
In a fit of fury, I ran behind her and jerked her shoulder. She crumbled to the ground and looked up in terror.
“Why did you do that?”
“I… I don’t know why. I’m sorry.” I helped her to her feet. Her terror had now faded into confusion.
“What’s that?” She pointed to the floor.
My crime had been laid bare. The scripts were lying on the ground, oblivious to the situation they had landed me in. Before I could pick them up, Rhea snatched it.
She had a good look at them and then at me.
I neither nodded nor shook my head.
“How could you? I ….. I don’t know what to say…”
Then she started continuing her journey to the lower floor resolutely, with the scripts in her hand.
“Stop! I say stop!”
I rushed from behind and grabbed the scripts.
Before she could react, I chanted the incantation written in the scripts.
I don’t exactly remember what took place after that. I just remember my voice sounded very hollow and hoarse, with robotic undertones. Mr Pazhani seemed to materialise out of nowhere and there was dread written all over his face. At the same time, grey clouds surrounded Rhea as she hollered in horror. The clouds seemed to carry her upwards with them as she tried desperately to come down. I continued repeating the incantation unconsciously, not fully realising what it was causing.
The last thing I remember was Mr Pazhani’s face and a book propelling towards mine in full force.
I woke up on cold hard floor. My head throbbed and prohibited me from sitting up properly. The blurred coloured silhouettes in front of me slowly started to show definition. I was still in the library.
Mr Pazhani walked towards me pensively. In one hand was an ice pack. In the other were the scripts, back in their flimsy plastic cover. For some reason, it evoked a sense of fright in me.
“You are awake.” He stated.
I nodded. Even that seemed painful.
“I’m truly sorry for hitting you. I had no choice you see.”
He applied the ice pack on my distended forehead, which gladly accepted the massage it provided. He then caressed my hair and spoke lovingly. “You are such a sweet girl. I don’t know why it chose you. I should have been more careful. Fie on me!”
“Sir, what has happened?”
“Long story my child.”
I looked around.
Here, there was no answer. He simply shook his head.
“Did I kill her?” I asked hesitantly.
“No, my dear, you did not.” He paused. “At least your soul did not.”
“What do you mean Sir?”
“This Library has a life of its own. Having served here for forty years, I have grown used to it. But still, sometimes, I’m afraid.”
I looked at him intently.
“The manuscript you, umm, handled, is a very peculiar one. It is said to be cursed.”
The swollen forehead was now forgotten.
“The incantation you read summons an army of souls. An army for which, you are the chief. They do what you bid them to do.”
“Oh. Is that so? But, I don’t think I ever commanded them to do anything.”
“My child, you are so innocent. They act on the line of your thought. What you think, they do.”
“But what did I think of? I don’t think I wished Rhea to be dead.”
“Most of the time we don’t intend to do what we think. Especially, in anger. What we think or say in anger, we never mean it.”
The realisation was slowly starting to dawn on me.
“For some reason, possibly the fact that Rhea was going to tell on you for theft, made you angry. For a second, possibly for a fraction of it, you might have wished her dead.”
“Oh my God. I killed her.”
“We all think of bumping off someone when we are angry. You are not guilty of killing her.”
“But if I hadn’t stolen them…”
“That was beyond your control. It made you steal it.”
“But why me Sir?”
“I have asked the same question for forty years.”
The night is drawing to a close and the only light in the block is my desk lamp. I have been writing for the past two hours because I feel everyone must know the truth.
The office thinks that The Library is an excellent client with no problems whatsoever.
Poor Rhea’s parents think she ran away from home and eloped with somebody.
My parents do not know that I am a murderess.
I have decided to put an end to it, once and for all. I cannot continue this life, knowing that I was a thief. I cannot continue this life, knowing that I killed an innocent girl. I cannot continue this life knowing that I’ll never be judged for my crimes.
You might think I may have mended my ways after what happened in The Library.
But you’re wrong.
Beneath the very paper upon which I write my story, lies the very piece of palm script, that started all this.
What better way to end your life than to do it with the one that assassinated it.