“Have I died and gone to heaven?” Kreesha mused.
When she was told “Book Lover” was an incredibly delightful little haven tugged away in the outskirts of the narrow, buzzing lanes of Chandni Chawk, she had almost chuckled at the idea of Old Delhi being hipper than the ‘with it’ bookstores sprawled across the eagerly emergent New Delhi, seething with modernity. Her avidly reading, connoisseur of sorts of a landlord had been a little more than usually insistent, even by his own standards on her going for this little treasure hunt that took her almost two hours to reach to the periphery of Delhi from her whereabouts. He had been going there since his grandfather’s time, which itself seemed to be establishing its credibility. And as she had devoured all of the books in the roomful of his humble library in the last two years of her college life in Delhi, her own modest means now left her with little choice but to rummage through the streets of din and madness to satiate her interminable hunger for good literature.
She often wondered how anyone could replace the enchanting epiphany of holding a book tenderly in his hands, with the sans-emotional experience of almost cruel clicking on the computer keys, to read a book. Technology had made information easier to access but literature difficult to enjoy. She could think of no way of swapping the pleasure of lounging in a corner of her room with the crisp feel of a best seller or a classic in the hand, thumbing pages or reading with such an invasive interest that you lose any sense of time or existence. Ah, the subtle delight of putting a finger to your lips and turning to the next page because the curiosity of the suspense can barely be constrained in your insides! She was still old school in this- Something in the hand is better than “virtually” everything at the finger-tip. She had a cupboard full of such riches back home in Jammu, squirreled away when her family had seen better days. How she achingly missed them now almost just as much as she craved for her mother in the simulated pace of Delhi!
Kreesha had taken extra time to dress that day for Mohinder Uncle had advised her to wear something traditional and go to avoid unwarranted attention, since she was going alone and was still relatively less aware of the capital per se. She had tried justifying how the western attire is no longer scandalous in any part of the country, but having gone through Delhi’s lust laden glares, she didn’t laugh the matter off. There are two different worlds within and outside the bookshop he said and he wanted her experience to be nothing short of an affable one. Kreesha had just one salwaar suit, bought for her school farewell, as otherwise she lived in and out of two pair of jeans and some ten tops. She knew her widowed mother was doing way enough already than to expect her to provide her with a life of an ‘ordinary’ twenty one years old. She had come to Delhi with the focus of becoming vocationally independent to support her mother now and nothing came in track of that. Books were her only escape route when life’s drudgery became excruciatingly grim. She knew she was a little overdressed for a trip to a bookstore, but heck, wouldn’t everyone at Chandni Chawk be anyways?
‘Book lover’ was a reader’s paradise alright. Piles after piles of neatly stacked books adorned the meticulously well-laid shelves and the sombre ambience in itself she thought was enough to keep her meandering around its little by-lanes for days. Criss-cross rays of sunlight played along through the airy chamber providing it a vintage feel and despite many people trudging around with their keen eyes, the serenity inside was unfathomable. She was feasting her eyes at the beckoning volumes as a glutton would if he was left by himself in a shop full of delicacies, almost sniffing with a rare fulfilment, the muggy smell of paper. How could such a store be obscured in oblivion like this? But it seemed it wasn’t really, for students, the aged, housewives-everyone seemed to be indulging there to their heart’s content and yet leaving so much to explore. Books there were available on rent, discount, second hand or for just sitting there and reading-you name it and they had it-the rarest of first editions, the silent yet eloquent manuscripts lying there from ages perhaps, waiting for someone to swab off the thin veil of dust and open them to life again.
“It is idyllic just standing here, isn’t it?” said a calm voice from behind her, that almost startled and broke the all pervading trance. She smiled as she turned, for that was exactly her sentiment. “I have an expression of a child, who’s somehow found his way to fairyland, haven’t I?”
“I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats over vales and hills,” he said, as his tall frame rested upon a rack that housed the romance section, as though he had was just come to life from there.
“When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils?” she replied with the grin that only enhanced her dimples puckishly and a grin that only books could hitherto evoke from her and a grin of remembrance that would have made William Wordsworth proud in his heavenly abode. “I don’t know where to begin from here...it’s massive. Despite me being a very frequent traveller to bookstores, I don’t think I have seen so many books at one place in my life. I could live here forever.”
He chuckled, “With books-when there is a vast city calling you out to mingle with frivolity and mirth?”
“Bah, humbug-Uncle Scrooge style, eh? Outside is a world that would teach you with experience. Inside books is a world that has been experienced and waiting for you to take a dip- to enjoy the greatest of highs-conquer the Himalayas or triumph over territories and the self -watch generations go into submissiveness and eventually revolt to liberty! People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading!” And there was a pregnant pause, “Aaa...I am sorry, sometimes I don’t know where to stop.” She broke a little awkwardly thinking she just gave an unwarranted lecture.
“It is true. You remind me of Helen Keller. She once said that Literature was her Utopia,” he smiled and though it was warm, she somehow felt it was not used to of making very frequent appearances. “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one, you will feel that it all happened with you and after that it all belongs to you.”
“Aha, wasn’t that Ernest Hemingway who said that?”
“Damn, it is difficult to please a well read woman!”
The well read woman blushed, half so for the compliment and half so for the need to having please her. “The well read woman is called Kreesha and she assumes the better read man is not called Ernest Hemingway?”
“You could call me Earnest if you do so, so very earnestly Kreesha!”
“And would you be reading all of those?” she pointed to some ten books lying on his arms. “And these would all be reading me,” he said again in his puzzling ways. “Come let me help you select something that you may not have read before and what you may not be able to not-read again and again. And by the way, did I tell you, you are among the few truly beautiful things I’ve seen around here?”
“Are you flirting with me Mr Ernest and if I say I am not, would you next tell me true beauty is skin deep?”
“No, I am not referring to adorable pancreas here, something like ‘A thing of beauty that is a joy forever, its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness’...”
“So we moonlight as Keats too, either that or you just got lucky with all the quotes that you mugged up.”
“Either that or I just plain simple got lucky today....”
Kreesha did not remember when she had last flirted with someone-was it at school? And then when he had opened his mouth to use his limited hoard of verbal skills like they all did, she was so thwarted by what emerged from it that she gave up on the idea altogether. Words make worlds for how else can beauty be seen and felt if not worded?
“Would you mind holding my books, till I do something to satisfy the lady?”
“That won’t be easy, but the lady seems to realise that the gentleman does not like taking up tasks that promise to be a cakewalk.” And she followed him around like a puppy as he picked selections from famous authors, romance, autobiographies and philosophies of life. As much as she was enjoying delving into her passion, at the back of her mind was a faint flutter of how she might shell out for them all. Before she could decide, they had reached the payment counter. “Thank you so much. I think I will manage from here, I have wasted a lot of your time,” and they exchanged the piles of books.
Much to her surprise, the young man walked over to the other side of the counter and gave a gentle pat to the man sitting there who at once vacated it. Without a word, he took her books and put them in a jute bag and put pen to paper on a ‘Book Lover’ card kept there. He looked up and smiled and just like that left. She asked for a bill from the man who took over and he said that the books were with compliments from the store. Kreesha mumbled an insistence knowing it would be futile.
She walked out of the store and crossing the lanes, came upon the main road and called for an auto. As she boarded it and began her two hours journey back home, she looked again at the card,
“Greetings from one book lover to another,
Divya Vardhan Singh,
P.S. Writing is nothing more than a guided dream. And a dream is no longer a dream if shared. Ernest hopes to see you around so that we could decide who pays for the next set.”
Her hands somehow instinctively picked out a book from the bag to begin it without further ado. Needless to say, it was romance and the title was ‘Making love, out of nothing at all.’