Tuesday, 24 June 2014


Innu njan nale ni, innu njan nale ni’
                                                                                        -   G Shankarakurup

            As he descended the steps of the library he could feel the weight of his jute bag, now full with books he had just got issued, on his shoulder blades. Its strap like his shirt was slowly getting soaked by his uncontrollable sweating. The books for him never felt this heavy, they were always light, even the biggest tomes, anticipation of an encounter always made them feel weightless. But then were they heavier when he brought them back here to return them? Yes, always, books to be returned weighed like bricks, a cruel trick of the mind. But things were different now, things were older.

Even when he walked out of the library gates, his old mind was still thinking about what happened at the issuing counter. He had kept the books on the counter with his library card on top. The girl at the counter took the books and started entering their details into her computer at her own government-official leisure. And he, as he had been doing since they opened this library, began looking at the books people who were behind him in the line had chosen from the library stacks. Immediately behind him were two young chaps. The sight of young men at the library made him happy, fresh blood for his club of letters, a club that had in it every man and women who loved a good book. He tried to read the cover of a book one of them had kept on the counter. A blue dust jacket with big letters in white. But for him the letters were white wisps on a blue lake, as they had been for some time now. He was reminded once more by his weak eyes that his ability to read had left him, and once more, in half arrogance and half hope, he took from the library books he could no longer read. He had been ‘growing old’ for some years now, but it had really hit him the last few weeks. His eyes, his memory, his knees, his manhood, were being eroded away like an ancient temple caught in a slow yet unstoppable current.

He reached the bus stop and got on a bus that would take him home. He had to ask the passengers through the window before he got in, because the board on the bus no longer made sense to him. He got in, there were no empty seats and little place to stand. He got himself to a little clearing in between the dangling, swaying crowd and held on firmly to the steel bar attached to the top of a seat. The little girl sitting there took notice of him, she turned around and looked intently at his wrinkled fingers gripping the top of her seat and then, as if convinced of his ancientness, she got up and offered him her seat. He wanted to tell her to sit back down, that he was fine standing up, but his creaky knees were faster and he was seated before he could tell her that. He just smiled at the little girl and over the hum of the engine, in a barely audible voice, said ‘Thank you’.

By the time he reached home he was tired down to his every bone. Even the short walk from the front gate to the veranda felt like a grueling ordeal. Sweat had completely drenched his clothes and its stickiness added to his feeling of exhaustion, his shortness of breath. I need a glass of water and a cool bath, he thought. His wife, her hair not fully white like his but with streaks of vanishing black, was standing at the veranda. She him a towel to wipe his sweat. He gratefully plunged his face into the white fabric and handed it back to her. He was about to undo his shoes and get in when he noticed three pairs of smaller footwear scattered in the most careless way near the steps. He looked up at his wife with a question in his eyes.

‘Maya and Vinod went for a movie. They left the kids here. Vinod will pick them up  in the evening’ she answered him and continued with a question of her own ‘Did you buy the medicines I told you to get?’
He had forgotten, he wanted to smack his own head in reproach but was tired even for that. He sat down on one of the chairs in the veranda and shook his head.

His wife smiled, ‘I knew you would forget, so I asked Maya to get them when she comes back’
He felt a melancholic anger in him, the kind of feeling you get when you see your team lose a football match. More than his forgetting it was the certainty with which his wife knew that he would forget that irritated him. He let out a long sigh and asked her something to get his mind off it, ‘Where are the kids?’
‘Inside watching TV’
‘Hmm….those kids are always watching the damn TV’
‘They have nothing better to do here. But the first thing they asked when they got here was where there appupan* went’ she said
He smiled at her, at the sweetness of his grandchildren.
‘Water’ he said, motioning his thumb towards his dry lips
His wife went inside. He removed his bag from his shoulder and took a book from it. As he opened a random page he heard a familiar voice, a familiar cry of joy.

‘Appupa!’ the small boy ran towards him and without hesitation jumped on his lap. His knees creaked in pain, but he didn’t mind. The joy he got from seeing the boy run towards him was still ringing in his head, all pain was trivial.
The boy looked intently at the book and asked him ‘What book is this?’
‘A collection of stories my child’
‘Can you read a story for me? Please!... please! Like you used to before’

He nodded and held the boy close to chest and kept his forefinger at the beginning lines of a story. He tried as he had never tried before to read. To make sense of those damned letters, black wisps now on the yellow page. But he couldn’t, what little his eyes could make out his head refused to string together into words and sentences. The tears that were welling up in his eyes made the page look even cloudier. He failed once more to read.

He gave up, closed his eyes and let a tear roll down. He hugged his grandson closer and said in a dry, cracking voice, ‘I can’t read anymore son, I just can’t read anymore. I wish I could read for you, but I can’t read anymore’

The boy, oblivious to the turbulence abound in his grandfather’s weak heart, was still engrossed in the book. Without looking up he replied ‘Oh that’s ok. I can read for you. I read best in my class. I can read stories for you just like you used to read for me’
The old man brushed his cheeks, moist with tears, with the tender cheeks of his grandson ‘Really? Would you do that for me?’

‘Yes, yes. Listen to this’, the boy put his tiny finger on the same place his grandfather had failed and started reading slowly, in breaks at first, steady and surer as he went on.
The old man leaned back on his chair, closed his eyes and listened. Each word filled him with joy, there was a smile of content on his lips. And then from the depths of his waning memory, a poem recollected itself and reminded him that what he hears was the circular symphony of life. ‘Innu njan nale ni, innu njan nale ni’**.

* Grandpa
** ‘Today it’s me, tomorrow it will be you’