Saturday, 18 October 2014


“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it”    ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What he did for a living is not important for this tale.  He might have been a politician, a murderer, a post man, God himself or any one of those countless mundane things a man is forced to do to earn his daily bread. The only thing that mattered to him, the only thing that made sense, the only thing he loved, was books.

He was not a rich man and books could be expensive. But his ancestors had enough in their coffers to leave him with a mansion and just enough money for him to indulge in his obsession. And indulge in it he did. He collected books of all kinds, in every language he could understand, on every science and philosophy he enjoyed, in all genres that excited him. He collected books and he collected a lot of them. And he knew each one of them intimately, whether he has read them or not, like his children.

It was in the ballroom of his mansion where he setup his library. The library had 8-feet high wooden shelves stacked to the point of bursting with books of all shapes and sizes. The shelves were arranged in the room as if someone threw them from above while playing a game of chance, a chaotic maze. During nights, the dim lighting combined with the play of shadows between the shelves made the library a treacherous labyrinth. A maze of diabolical complexity which was enough to drive a man mad and humble him at the same time. But there was nothing more he enjoyed than getting lost in this maze, because for him it was not a mere labyrinth of bookshelves, it was a labyrinth of books, a maze of words and stories.

It was not that he didn’t know his way around his library, but rather he enjoyed those aimless wanderings. He loved to walk through the narrow alleyways the shelves made, surrounded on both sides by books. He walked casting random glances at the shelves relishing in the thread of memories that each book spine triggered. Sometimes when a book caught his eye, he used to take it out of its perch, run his thumb through the pages, read a few lines, and perhaps even smell it, winding his mind back to the time when he first read that book or casting it forward into the future, imagining that moment when he will finally read it. He didn’t know how the human brain works. But if he had to guess he would have said that it was a library. An edifice of bookshelves stacked with memories, a nexus of the past, present and future.

It was raining that night. Loud drops of rain tore through the thick blanket of darkness spread over the countryside. The incessant bombarding of drops on the window panes filled the library with the irritating chatter of glass. Unperturbed by the cacophony of nature outside, he walked between his bookshelves. He was its Theseus, its Daedalus, and he was Ariadne who had the ball of string to lead him out. But he didn’t want to be lead out, for the dreaded Minotaur, the quotidian life, was out there.  His books were his refuge from life. He wandered on enjoying the heady smell of moist air mixed with dry paper. He was looking around, searching for a book to tide him through the night. Then suddenly something caught his eye.

It was book, a green spine with gold lines traversing it. Snuggled between Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ it almost seemed to wish that no one would notice it between these great works. What perplexed him was that he could not remember the book. He went near it, took it out and opened it. The book was called ‘Abibliophobia’ by Jay Garcia. He read the title and his mind hit a brick wall. He held the book in his left hand and ran his right thumb cover to cover as if to jog his memory. Nothing. There were many books in his library that he had not read, but each had a story to tell. About the blind man near his old house who used to sell used books or about the clear-out sale the local library had when they closed down. Every book he owned had a story, an origin, or so he thought.He examined its front and back covers to see if there was any clue about where it came from. He found nothing. He was irritated by his inability to recognize the book or its author, but somewhere deep inside he felt a tinge of elation. For he had found a new book, a new story, a new ball of thread, that would take him deeper into his maze.

He sat down at his table to read the book. It was a small book, a collection of three stories. Its green hard bound cover made it look twice its size. He opened the book carefully as if something rash might shatter its aura of novelty. He was an old man who had nearly exhausted his list of favorite things to read. A new story, a new book was a thing of his youth and he was extra careful not to let it go.

The first story was called ‘Funes- the murderous’. The title set off alarm bells in his head. Funes was one of his most beloved characters in literature. The sad lonely man with an indefatigable memory, whose story Borges told the world. The Funes of this story shared the same curse, the curse of memory. And to make matters worse he was a hit-man. His head did not help him forget his guilt, every kill was fresh in his mind like his last one. Every scream, every drop of blood, every plea for mercy was etched in his heart and he did have the gift of forgetting to wipe them off. Crushed by the weight of his own guilt, torn apart by the forces of duty and remorse, Funes decide to take one more life, his own. Suicide is not an easy thing for a man so accustomed to death. He couldn’t shoot himself because the scream of a young girl he once shot still rang in his ears. He couldn’t get him to hang himself for the dying gasps of a man he once strangled mercilessly were still vivid in front of his eyes. Finally he decided to take his life using a method that was not tarnished by his guilt. On a rainy night Funes sat up in his bed and popped sleeping pills one after another into his mouth. One became two, two became many and finally the number of pills he had swallowed exceeded the amount a man who wants to wake up the next day should be having. Slipping away slowly, somewhere in the murky middle ground between life, death and sleep, Funes realized that he no longer remembers what he had for breakfast or the address of his last victim.

When he finished the story he was gripped by a great sense of déjà vu. The story didn’t seem to be written by Garcia, but rather buy a pantheon of different writers, many of whose acquaintance he had made in his maze. Unnerved he proceeded to the second story.

The second story was called ‘The village of Jose Enrique’. Once again he thought that he had heard it somewhere. But he shrugged off the feeling and proceeded. The story was set in the village of Jose Enrique. It was a magical place surrounded on all sides by wheat plants twice the height of a normal man. The inhabitants of Jose Enrique were hard working people, they toiled through the seasons to harvest this gift of nature and bartered their wheat for other goods from outside. The wheat from Jose Enrique soon became famous around the world and the village economy boomed. Even when the rest of the country was hit by drought or flood, Jose Enrique stood unfazed by the whims of nature.  Then a new priest came to the village and he changed it forever. The priest spoke from his pulpit on every Sunday on how the abominations of the devil was used by man to satisfy his greed, on how God would never conceive wheat taller than men that would stand through flood and drought. The villagers already had their doubts about the opinion of God regarding their prosperity. The priest turned their apprehension into a raging fear of the divine castigation that was to befall them. The village slowly transformed from a socialist utopia to a hell hole of religion and superstition. As a final attempt at saving their souls, the villagers decided to torch the thousands of acres of wheat farms surrounding their village. The great fire of Jose Enrique raged on for twelve nights and twelve days. On the thirteenth night the inferno got out of control and incinerated every man, woman and child in the village.

He read the story in frantic pace and at the end he remembered were he had heard of Jose Enrique before. In a novel he had read long back, the protagonist stops at a village where wheat plants grew taller than men. It was a novel he loved. The presence of the village in the book made him uneasy, He felt as if the book was a sort of a collective structure of whatever he had read before. He felt his literary privacy violated, his life trampled upon. Filled with trepidation he proceeded to the next tale

The next story was called ‘Abibliophobia’. He knew that it was a term used to describe the fear of running out of books to read. He, to some extent, suffered from this illogical fear. Once again he felt the book staring back into his soul.
The story was about a library and the man who owned it. It was no ordinary library, but one of magical properties. The library possessed the power of creating books; new stories, novels, text books materialized from nowhere. The man loved his library and it seemed that the library loved him too. He could read Plato and Marx, and the next day the book shelves would sport a book about the classical underpinnings of Marxist philosophy. But one day the cosmic forces that made the library work made it stop. And it drove him mad. He was gripped by the morbid fear of one day having no more books to read. He bought more books to read, brought wizards to rejuvenate his library, pedantically went through each and every page so as to slow down his pace of reading, but all was in vain. He felt as if life had lost its meaning for he couldn’t live without reading, but he didn’t want to finish the precious little pages he had left. Disillusioned by this cruel enigma of life, realizing that the letters have abandoned him, he burns the library down with him inside it.

The last tale struck him as a wonderful one, for he found a bit of himself in the story. He too as a young man had this lingering feeling that he might run out of books to read. Every book became an agonizing ordeal because he feared the vast nothingness that awaited him after the last page. It was for this precise reason that he built his labyrinth of books. Every time the fear caught hold of him, he could look up at his shelves and be assured that the books would win the race of time against him. His imminent defeat made him happy. But he was also sad for he would not be able to read them all. That equilibrium between his mortality and the infinite nature of his books evaded him. Suspended on this thought, he dozed off…

The morning light crawled in through the window panes, sneaked between the book shelves and filled the giant room with refreshing illumination. The glistening droplets still on the window panes were a far cry from the destructive force with which rain had ran riot the night before. He was woken up by someone knocking furiously at the library door, she was screaming
“Wake up! There is someone here to see you”

Disturbed by the unnatural posture he had slept in, he made a futile effort to make sense of what was happening. But somehow he managed an almost mechanical reply
“Alright, send him in”

A few seconds passed. A young, bespectacled man opened the door. He peered in with great interest and trepidation. He approached the table slowly, one step at a time, and spoke with great difficulty as if from extreme shyness or even euphoria.
“It is such an honor to meet you sir! I have waited my whole life for this”, the visitor said in a quivering voice.

He didn’t understand what was happening, who this visitor was or the undulating admiration that filled his eyes. His perplexity was perhaps reflected on his face and this seemed to scare the visitor.
“Sorry Sir! You must be really busy. Can you just sign this for me?”

The visitor stuck out a book across the table. He took it in his hands, the book looked vaguely familiar. He opened its green hard cover to look at the title. It was ‘Abibliophobia’ by Jay Garcia. As if by habit he took his pen to sign it, opened its cap and put the nib on paper. But he had forgotten to sign his own name.
What he did for a living is not important for this tale. But perhaps he was a writer.


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