Three hundred and twenty-three. She knew exactly how many books lined the sagging shelves. She looked forward to this annual task, this day when she would remove each lovingly bought or gratefully received book from the shelf, each neat bundle of clipped papers and unclothe them from the delicate raiments of dust. She liked using the soft brush bought many years ago at the Dussera fair, examined and put to work once a year. She liked removing the pheromone traps and sticking on new ones, although there were no more silverfish to catch. She liked running her finger over the fading ink of dedications and good wishes. She lingered annually over the same words…had he really meant that?
To her mind, this yearly ritual was as important as any of the festivals crowding the months after Aadi. What a silly name for a month, as if it were a female goat. She remembered a book about a boy and his flock, set in the high mountains of Albania, a sad story whose details had long been forgotten. Only the memory of sadness remained. Where was that book now? Had she given it to that chitti’s daughter? That child who had seemed so much like herself, content to bury her nose in a book anytime, but who had turned out so different, choosing the kind of career path that left no time or even inclination for the glamourless pleasures of reading.
So many books had resided all too briefly on these shelves, so many whose whereabouts she no longer knew. It would be an interesting project to investigate what happened to those that had left her possession, either given away or taken without consent. Most ended their lives in a recycling factory, she suspected. Some may have been torn out and swirled into those clever cones for serving steamed groundnuts. Did someone unroll the paper after the nuts were consumed and read those snack-moistened lines? Did they live their young lives longing to know what happened next, combing library after library trying to trace a book that had the characters Suprabha and Hru?
She missed some of those that were lost. One titled the Forbidden Sea, about an orphan boy diving for oysters, always looking, hoping, seeking to find the rare and precious black pearl. She recalled little about the book besides the long descriptions of techniques for holding one’s breath underwater. She had unsuccessfully tried them herself, at the age of eight, when a neighbourhood swimming pool had seemed as vast as the sea in the book’s title. She remembered another lovely Russian tale about a little boy who makes a letterbox from an old shoe. And oh yes, the one about the unwell little girl and her elephant. She had cried night after night for the girl in the book with her large, sad, brown eyes, who lay on her bed listless and barely able to speak, longing with the longing known only to children, for an elephant. The memory made her bitter. How could someone just take away the book? Had they no shame? Had they no sense of what it would mean to the book’s owner?
But some of those that had gone had come back, unexpectedly, in shiny new covers, revived thanks to the wisdom of some unnamed soul at some publishing house. A new print of Kamala Laxman’s Thama Stories had been discovered with great delight at a bookstore some years ago. Complete with illustrations by the inimitable RK Laxman, the book simply had to be bought by the dozen and distributed just as impulsively.
She stood on the swivel chair cautiously, risking limb rather than walk to the dining room to fetch one more stable. The top shelf was always the neglected one. Its contents changed over time, but by unspoken understanding, it was where books that were no longer used or read were retired to; too familiar or carrying too heavy a sentimental burden to dispose. The old Pears Cyclopedias sat here. 1977-78, 1982-83, 1992-3. Once treasured, now no match for their electronic successors. Three of the Childcraft series and one of volume of How Things Work. The latter had four names on the inside page, each written after striking out the previous owner’s claim. All boys. She smiled, thinking of how the book had been given to her cousin, but she had spent so many hours pouring over the book’s fascinating diagrams, that he had told her to keep it.
The shelves now rarely welcomed new additions. She was at that age where the immediate always edges out the important. But she would one day come back to them. In a few years the shelves would receive the attention they deserved. A new coat of paint, new glass for the doors. Perhaps if the additions began to trickle in again, a new shelf would be needed. She frowned, thinking of where it could possibly fit. But there was time enough to worry about that, she told herself. For now, the joy of revisiting old friendships, reliving old thrills would do.