Desikan Lending Library – Short Story

“So how does your business work?” little Divakar asked Desikan. “Why don’t people buy books but borrow from you?”

“The concept of lending library isn’t a new one. I give people the books they dreamt of reading but couldn’t buy for various reasons. I deliver it to them to their door steps. They get to spend the time with their loved books, even for a brief period of time.”

“Will it not hurt them when they give the books back to you?”

“Perhaps it would. But they don’t think about parting with the book for so long but the time they got to spend with the books will stay with them forever.”

“And they will remember you forever because you made it possible for them”

“Perhaps that is the reason I am in this business.” Desikan said as he ran his fingers through the little boy’s freshly tonsured head.

“It is not only that” Divakar’s mother said. “People often think that few books are too good for them. And all they deserve is that few days with the books.”

“I don’t understand you ma” Divakar said. Desikan understood it better.

The sound of water drops hitting the asbestos woke him up. The monsoon has arrived sooner than he thought. It has been two years since the megafloods in Chennai, but still, he couldn’t help but get anxious hearing the first drop of rain or if the rain persisted more than an hour. What was once a very welcome change in the environment, now gave him nightmares. Desikan couldn’t understand why that thought crept into his mind. Like a ritual, after brushing his teeth, he started arranging the books in his room over one side of his bed and covered the books with a heavy blanket. People talked length and breadth about the smell of the books. They were merely talking about the scent of the print ink over the papers which had been stacked for so long. That is something they wouldn’t handle if they were taken to a printing press. But when a book is cut, bound and given a proper cover, the scent becomes alluring and lovable all of a sudden. Packaging is everything, Desikan thought to himself.

In a way, he was happy that it started raining early in the morning. He had guessed the time would be 6.30 but it was actually 8. He had slept more than he intended to. He was tossing and turning the previous night. His nephew, if he can call Divakar that, was supposed to pick him up by nine in the morning. They were to go to the hospital for one more health check-up. His mother, Sarala needed a kidney transplant. Only Desikan and Divakar’s wife were matched. His wife refused outright. Desikan never laughed about the quotes and jibes about relatives trying to steal the money on the Internet. He is related to someone. Maybe they were laughing somewhere, he thought before. But now he was exposed to the naked truth. He had given everything for his family. Even then they couldn’t let him be at peace. They want his blood, sweat, and kidney. It was the same Divakar who said he cannot take Desikan in his house during the floods because Desikan couldn’t use the western toilet. Desikan had thought about the times he had washed Divakar’s backside when his father sat like he didn’t notice it. But that was in the past. When people need you, they will find reasons, to get close to you.

He was running a small lending library two years back. He was too old and tired to start over again after the floods had washed almost all his collection. He moved to this rented portion shortly after that. Desikan didn’t have anybody for himself. His mother died when he was eight and his father married again. His step-mother was not a monster as they had shown in the films. She was largely indifferent. Desikan sought solace in the local library. From Russian classics to children’s book, he had read everything before he was twenty years old. Though he knew and understood a lot of things, he always felt that he didn’t belong in the place he was right then. He was looking for a place to fit in. He was seeking a place where he was appreciated rather than tolerated. He had few acquaintances and fewer friends. When he graduated, he had the option to move out of his native and take up teaching job while he pursued higher education. Life looked settled back then. During the month of October, his native starts getting drizzles. He would wait for the drizzles to start, and then take his cycle and went to the tea shop far off from his house to have a black tea. He knew people respected him because he was a graduate. He liked the attention they showered upon him. He always looked forward to the drizzle to start.

The rain had stopped outside. He walked into the bathroom with a towel. Bathing has become just a ritual since he moved to Chennai. That was around 35 years back. He had the habit of dipping into the pond in his native, he would spend quality time in water throwing his hand in the water, kicking it as he lunged forward, and taking bath was a form of exercise back then. In a ten to ten room, with people pounding the door shouting him to come out, he lost interest in bathing itself. He came out exactly in three minutes, dressed up and took a handful of holy ash and applied it on his forehead. There was a perfume in his cupboard; Divakar’s brother had bought him when he came to India the last time. He was coming down next week this year. They didn’t know why he doesn’t apply perfumes. “Uncle stinks” they would say when he tried to lift them when they were kids. Their mother would give an awkward smile. Only she knew why he didn’t wear any perfumes.

Back in the days, Desikan loved wearing Javadhu[1]. It was at the time when perfumes didn’t hold the market share in India. Elders joked that Desikan’s arrival can be known from the smell of javadhu wafting in the air for a kilometer. It all changed when he met Sarala. She had come for holidays and stayed in her aunt’s place to learn Hindi and tailoring. She borrowed books from Desikan and sometimes came over to his place to read from his collection. Once when she didn’t come for two days he saw her coming out of a nursing home. “I get wheezing trouble when I am near strong perfumes. I can’t ask you not to wear javadhu.” She said shyly. Desikan didn’t wear the perfume since then.

“I am going to nursing home alone tomorrow” Sarala said to Desikan. She was leafing through the book she took from Desikan’s library. “Oh I am not coming with you” Desikan said. “I am afraid of injections. On me or anybody else. It scares the hell out of me.” A smile played around Sarala’s lips. “I will remember it” she said.

“Why?” Desikan asked. It was time for his step mother’s afternoon nap. They wouldn’t be disturbed for at least two hours.

“Just like that”

“What else would you remember?” Desikan asked.

“The smell of you mixed with these used books.” She pointed out the cupboard of neatly stacked books. “And this table’s pungent drawer smell. I want to freeze this moment with you standing across the table, with light illuminating you from behind, making you look like somebody descended down from heaven”

“Let us give you some more memories to cherish then,” Desikan said as he moved close to her.

They were caught red-handed when her cousin walked in on Desikan feeling Sarala’s firm breasts in his study room. Her father and brother took the bus to thrash Desikan. He escaped punishment by going into hiding. When he came back, she was married. “I didn’t want you to get into any trouble.  They would have killed you if they’d found you. I can take any beatings. But I can’t see you getting hurt. They won’t understand what we had between us.” She said with tears in eyes when he caught her in dim lit prakaram in the temple which she visited with her husband. Desikan couldn’t stay away from her. In an impulse decision, he took the train with her to Madras, acquainting himself with her husband. Her husband was not a fool. He knew their story. But he didn’t care much since he knew Sarala. There was no romantic link between Sarala and him since then, but it was enough for Desikan to live near her. He started a business of Lending library in Chennai. When his father passed away, he had no reason to go back to his native.

When his husband, in his drunken stupor, made fun of Desikan or when her kids took advantage of his affection, Sarala was the one who suffered most. He accepted everything just to be near Sarala. After thirty-five years, his love for her didn’t get any lesser. He even thought of proposing marriage once Sarala’s husband died. But there was no need and they were afraid of what their kids might think.

To be frank, Desikan was petrified about the transplant. It was true that he would do anything for Sarala. But after all the years, it was only his body and limbs that he had. He used to look at the books that he lent and thought there was no difference between them and him. When people needed it they took the books and when they had finished reading them, got bored of, and returned it back to him. They felt no connection with the book. Some were different but then they didn’t hold the books or thought of buying it from him. They were interested in buying only the new copies.

When Sarala went unconscious, he was there in the hospital daily morning. He was unwelcome there. For the children, he was not the affectionate uncle who bought toys and computers anymore. He was just an irritating old man. But things changed when he gave some tests in Divakar’s insistence. They treated like Desikan was a godsend. Desikan got ready, the time was now nine thirty-five. The rain had eased. He could hear the honks and motorbikes racing on the road outside. They had instructed not to eat before the test. He was getting hungry. He dialed Divakar.

“There is no need” Divakar was curt. “Amma passed away this morning.” He was not crying. Desikan could tell from his voice. Before he took the auto to Sarala’s house, Desikan had two idlies and a coffee. “What happened?” he asked Divakar’s wife. “Her conscious returned only for few minutes. We were very happy. We said we found a donor for her. She asked whether it was you. When we said yes, she closed her eyes and sighed. She never woke up again.”

Desikan looked at Sarala who was kept in the freezer box. “I can take any much of beating. But I cannot see you get hurt” her voice from the prakaram echoed in his ears.

[1] Javadhu is a local perfume. Similar to Attar in Arab countries. The smell is unique.

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