He stopped the car… “ I need to take a break, my back is sore”
“Shall I drive?” She asked…
He shook his head and got out of the car. He stood there looking at the vast expanse of the dusty Sahayadris. The hills seemed barren, devoid of life, vestiges of vegetation burnt by an unforgiving summer sun.
“This place could do with some rain”, he thought, “Something to cool things down a little. Heck, we all could do with something to cool things down a bit”
He got back into the car and revved the ignition as he stared straight down the road. Dive Agar was still a good 2 hours drive away.
He still could not believe that he had agreed to this trip.
It was insane. She had been unusually silent for the last few days. She did not say much anymore anyways. They were both well into their thirties and the marriage had lasted a decade… A house and two kids, great careers… they were living the Indian middle class dream….
Not that the dreams amounted to much these days…
Three days ago she came to him as he watched TV after dinner and said, “ I want to go to Dive Agar this weekend. With you. Just you. We can leave the kids with my parents. If you are ok, I will check at the Prasad Homestay if they have any rooms available.”
“Dive Agar? Prasad Homestay? Are you crazy?” he retorted ,“That place probably closed down years ago. And do you really want to go there? Let’s go to Goa instead, if I am going to drive for half the day I would rather have a beer at the end of it !”
She looked at him, her eyes on the verge of tears, “Please….. lets go.”
He began to say something, but stopped short as he saw the look of longing on her face…
He knew that look… and thought he knew why it had to be Dive Agar…
“Ok, if that’s what you want.” He shrugged as he went back to watching the news.
They had left Bombay early in the morning and headed to Dive Agar. A sleepy coastal town in the Konkan, 6 hours away by road. A silent journey except for the incessant music on the radio…
“How did we come to this?” She thought to herself.
She remembered her wedding, in all of its excruciating detail. Her trousseau, all red and gold and silks… the lavish wedding feasts, his crinkly silk kurta and the moment her hands were placed into his, covered with betel leaves and showered with grains of rice.
She hardly knew him then… even though they had been brought up in pretty much the same neighborhood all their lives. Their fathers had been friends, and decided that marrying off their offspring was the logical thing to do.
They did get a chance to meet before the wedding was finalized. He had arrived at her home with a troop of relatives, who had then left the two of them alone in a room to talk.
She smiled at the memory. The two had sat in silence for ages, before he asked her, “So what else are you interested in?”
“Nothing much” , she had replied, “ What about you?”
“I like reading, and I like writing too, but I have a bad handwriting”
They had both laughed. More with relief at having something to laugh about rather than anything else…
Her father had seemed immensely satisfied when his family called up in the evening to confirm the match. Her mother congratulated her, beaming with pride at the fate that awaited her daughter.
She had gone back to her room trying to understand what she had committed herself to. A fifteen minute chat with a stranger had lead to a commitment for life. Her mother usually spent more time browsing through saris before deciding not to buy any.
Was marriage so easy, so inconsequential, so trivial?
My father had decided even before we went to her place that the two of us were going to be married. And as usual, my father got what he wanted. I had just started working at Bombay then, my training with the bank had been over but a month ago. The days would rush by filling up inane forms and tallying up numbers, the evenings would leave me wandering alone on the streets of Bombay.. wondering what happened to my dreams of becoming a writer, publishing books and articles and chain-smoking my way through the day. Now my life seemed submerged in processing loan applications and in a two hour commute on the Bombay suburban train…
At least I still had the fucking cigarettes…
And then, my father decided that my mother needed a daughter-in-law. I tried to reason, but my father went into one of his interminable silences… till the time I agreed to get married. And before I knew it, I was set to be married to a girl from my town, a girl I barely knew.
I hated it all. The ostentatious wedding, the unnecessary relatives, the relay race of photographs at the wedding reception. After a whirlwind of a week, I found myself headed to Prasad Lodge at Dive Agar dreading the thought of spending 10 days with a person I barely knew.
It had been a long dusty journey to Dive Agar. His father had loaned us his green Ambassador for the journey. He drove so well. I kept sneaking peeks at him sitting next to him. It took us four hours before the Prasad Lodge came into site. It was a single floored wooden structure. Green coconut palms and betel nut trees huddled around the house in an intimate embrace whispering secrets to the gentle breeze. The wind carried a promise of rains and the evening was punctuated by the low roar of the waves on the nearby seashore.
Prasad Anna, the proprietor showed us to our room. A large airy room with a teak wood bed and a sprawling desk facing a window. The window opened into the orchard outside.
“There is not much to do at Dive Agar”, said Prasad Anna, clearly amused that someone should have chosen to spend their honey moon at his lodge.
“The beach is beautiful but it gets too warm to stay out in the day”, ..”You can go to the Ganesha Temple, but how many times will you go there? Unless you are religious like my neighbor who goes there twice a day I don’t know why !”
“You must tell me in case you are not planning to eat here, otherwise the food will go waste… and be careful in the evening, there may be snakes in the orchard. They don’t come inside usually, but you never know.”
“And yes, If you really don’t find anything to do, take the keys of the library from the chaukidar. He has them. Just be careful with the books please…”
I started to unpack our luggage while he lay back on the bed exhausted. Before I knew it, he was fast asleep.
It was barely lunch time, and I could see the play of lights among the leaves from the window. The orchard looked cool and inviting. I stepped out for a look.
It was so quiet. The birds seemed to be subdued by the afternoon heat and warbled quietly in the shade. The sound of a slumbering sea was ever present.
The grass was cool under my bare feet, a warm fragrance of ripe jackfruit wafted in the air. She walked all around the old building… examining the low verandah that surrounded it. She sat on the steps to the verandah and savored her first true moments alone since the madness of the wedding carried her away.
“Am I selfish to cherish my time alone when I have been married to him for barely a week?” “Or perhaps, getting married had been the easy way out. Everyone is happy about the match. Who knows, we will figure out a way to be happy too”
I walked over to the small door where a wooden plaque stated ‘Library’ rather grandly. The door was open and I stepped inside.
The room was strewn with books. Some on the ground, some on the wooden ledge running along the wall, a few on the chairs and then some piled on to the shelves. The corners of the library were fighting a losing battle with cobwebs and a patina of dust overlay everything. In the center of the room, Prasad Anna sat engrossed in a book, immersed in a languid pool of yellow light underneath a green lamp shade hanging from the ceiling.
She bent down and picked up a book lying next to the doorstep… “Pride and Prejudice”… its cover torn and dusty, the pages falling apart.
“Jane Austen”, Prasad Anna exclaimed as if the two words were answer enough for any questions she might have asked. “ I have all her books, I am just not sure where they are”.
“Are all these books yours?” She asked, somehow a treasure trove of English classic literature seemed incongruous inside a rural Konkan cottage.
“Yes, they are mine.” Said Prasad Anna as he walked over to take the book from her and opened a page and read aloud…
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
“Funny, Jane Austen might just have been talking to me…” she thought. “ Anna, can I ask you something?”
“Do you mind if I clean up your library a bit? This is such a wonderful collection and it will be a shame if I don’t help you sort them”
Prasad Anna seemed a bit taken aback, and then gradually looked around and said… “Well this place can do with a bit of cleaning up I think… strange, now that you say it, I should have kept it cleaner myself. I really am getting old ! “
“Wait, I will get the brooms” he said as he scampered away.
For the next 2 hours she swept and cleaned the small room. Gathered the books in piles and placed them in the center of the room. She made a list of supplies… brown paper, glue, labels, needles and twine and sent Prasad Anna to the small market to fetch them before the shops closed at sundown.
He woke up to the sounds of flocks of birds returning to their nests…hundreds of them, chirping noisily as they raced each other back.
“Well all of us have a noisy commute”
She was not in the room. He thought he should go looking for her, but hesitated. “What will we talk about even if I do find her? Accha hai.. at least I have some time to myself finally”
He walked across the orchard to the main house… it was a structure made of brick and wood.
“Not a bad place to retire at… away from the teeming masses of Bombay, just like Prasad Anna”. He knew Prasad Anna had sold off a family business in Bombay before settling down here.
“No family, no liabilities… some people have it all figured out!”
He walked purposefully to the library he knew so well. Having spent hours there during his earlier visits.
The door was ajar and the room inside was dimly lit.
She sat hunched over a book, her legs drawn up on the chair. Wisps of her hair set ablaze by the overhead lamp, a eye brows knit together in utter concentration… she barely noticed as he walked up to her and peered over her shoulder to see what she was reading…
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“You are reading Pride and Prejudice !” He exclaimed, surprised to find her reading Jane Austen.
“Yes” She said, delighted that he could recognize her favorite book.
“Elizabeth is perhaps my favorite literary character… don’t you think that strong women are so much more interesting to read about? I mean look at Lady Macbeth” He asked
“Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under it..” She said with a with a wicked smile.
Prasad Anna walked back to the cottage with bags in hand. He stopped short at the library listening to sounds of laughter and animated conversation.
He smiled to himself, his eyes gazing at a distant memory as he turned back and returned to his room.
They spent hours together over the next 10 days, browsing through the books. Selecting favorite passages to read aloud, cataloguing the books, lining the shelves with paper. They glued back the torn pages, covered and labeled them. He crafted the labels while she wrote the titles in a cursive hand…
Book by dusty book, the library came together again. The books were arranged simply and neatly, the floors clean, the walls white-washed and the room lit up with new bulbs.
Finally they stood back, and admired their first endeavor together.
On the 11th day, as they were ready to make the long journey back to Bombay, Prasad Anna gave them a bundle of books.
“Your wedding gift… sometimes , the real gifts take a bit of waiting for.
“Damn these roads !” He exclaimed as he clutched the steering. “Well we are almost there”
The gates came into view rather abruptly as they rounded a bend in the road.
“It still looks just the same!”
The new caretaker came to greet them as he parked his car. Prasad Anna had passed away 3 years ago and his caretaker now had the run of the place.
Their bags were taken to their rooms. And he went to take a shower.
She was gone when he returned to the room. And he had a feeling that he knew where she was.
He found her sitting in the library, her hands in her laps, her eyes glistening with tears. The library was in disrepair, termites covered many books, cobwebs darkened the corners and the glass windows were so covered with soot that they barely let in any light.
Ignored, uncared for, unloved, the library was dying… much like their own marriage.
The books were the same, a bit tattered maybe but they can always be fixed… the room was dirty, but that could always be cleaned up, and then there were the two of us. Could we somehow ‘fix’ us also? Burnish our memories so that they shone again with memories of happier times ? Wash away the tiredness and frustrations of bringing up a brood of kids, managing a career and preserving your own sense of self? Or maybe, just paste a new label on a shining cover and turn the page to embark on a fresh adventure together.
He looked at her again. She was staring straight at him, the tears in her eyes made him wonder how they had fettered it all away. The money was important, so was taking care of family.. the business trips that kept him away for months.. they were important too.
Or were they?
He pick up a book off the floor and dusted it with his handkerchief. He held out the book to her and smiled, “Come on now, we have a job to do…”