The chicken curry had more curry than chicken. So, he threw it at her. She dodged the fiery droplets with a practiced ease. They fell instead, on Lolita, staring silently from a corner of the room.
The book had stood there for a long time, mute and un-thumbed. And now, rivulets of gravy and spice disfigured Lolita’s face.
The curry-hurling husband settled into a sulky haze of whiskey and soda. His wife cried herself to sleep, blaming the considerable dowry of poorly-written cookbooks for a marriage that had turned rancid.
When the separation happened, after a bout of intense fighting over a pea that had no business to be in a mutton korma, she packed hurriedly for the midnight flight to her mother’s home. The lone suitcase she had brought with her as a young bride was pulled out from under the bed. It was dusted, unzipped and loaded with her worldly belongings – a few silk sarees, salwar-kameezes for everyday wear, her nightly kaftaan and underwear that was swiftly pulled off the clothesline.
She was about to fasten a tiny lock on the suitcase, when she remembered the books on the shelf in the living room. The remnants of what was once a prosperous collection, the books were meant to remind her that she had a master’s degree in English Literature, even if destiny had relegated her to the grimy interiors of a kitchen.
She threw the books into the suitcase and zipped it up. Lolita landed in Delhi.
Between the two of them lay Such a Long Journey. The book wedged itself in the middle of what could’ve been a first hello. She sat on the opposite berth, her eyes fixed on the length and breadth of the tome, as the train slithered through anonymous landscapes.
She never looked at him.
He longed to brush that lock of hair that had escaped the tyrannies of a tight braid. He longed to inform her – because she was unqualified to read the signs that had revealed themselves to him – that there was life beyond Such a Long Journey. And love. And if the family approved, babies.
The train came to a halt. And Such a Long Journey was cut short by the arrival of a station. Her relatives crowded into the compartment, to claim the girl who had done the unthinkable – traversed the distance between Patna and Delhi unaccompanied by a responsible-adult-male family member. Her aunt examined her with the apprehension of a wholesaler examining fragile cargo for damages.
A suspicious look was cast upon him, who sat on the opposite berth and watched as she was ushered out of the compartment. She didn’t turn around for one last look or a silent goodbye that could’ve conveyed itself through a brief flutter of those luxuriant eyelashes.
Fortressed by a throng of relatives, she left the train compartment, and him, for good.
Such a Long Journey was left behind. It sat on the vacant berth, proclaiming its sudden abandonment to the travellers in the compartment.
He picked it up, and gazed at the pages she had held, a few moments ago. And then, he saw it. Staring at him from a corner of the foreword was a name scribbled in convent-school cursive writing. And a telephone number.
During their brief courtship that unsurprisingly led to marriage, they walked for long hours in the lanes that dissected Delhi University’s north campus. Often, they sat under the shade of a Gulhomar tree that bloomed uncontrollably and pelted passers-by with orange flowers that had overstayed their tenure on its branches.
He carried Such a Long Journey with him, whenever he met her, in a gesture both romantic and practical. The book, that covered their faces adequately, was scrutinized often. For it hid their sessions of addictive kissing, from the prying eyes of the university’s loveless public.
Dracula was doomed to bare those famous fangs at a one-eyed doll. The book languished in a cupboard meant for odds and ends.
The one-eyed doll was a far cry from the goose-bumped flesh of virgins and if Dracula could’ve spoken, it would’ve protested against this misuse of its abilities.
One day, a shaft of light fell into the old cupboard. A chubby pair of hands examined the contents of the musty darkness.
The hands recognized the soft plastic contours of the one-eyed doll, and rejected it instantly. Curious fingers inched deeper into unknown shelves. They navigated the interiors of the cupboard like a forklift, picking up shapes that seemed familiar and dropping them the moment they were identified as unworthy playthings. A chipped mug, some beads from a necklace and an old hairdryer were examined and returned immediately, to the blackness of the cupboard.
The hands unearthed the book. Delighted by the familiar feel of a rectangular paperback, they lifted it from years of hibernation.
The little boy who belonged to the hands was disappointed by what he saw on the cover. The creature was unfamiliar and unfit for the game he wanted to play. So, he took a crayon and drew an eye patch on Dracula’s right eye.
“Now we’ll play pirates,” said the little boy, to the book.
Daryaganj, where the pavements are lined with all kinds of literature – from pompous to pulp to kunjis that simplify textbooks for last-minute cramming – is Delhi’s oldest second-hand book bazaar. The books are displayed in makeshift shops that erupt on footpaths and sometimes spill onto the road, congregating under cylindrical pillars that support the commercial hub of Old Delhi – offices of lesser-known publishers, an abandoned stock exchange and several joints that served char-grilled meat, dangling from skewers in the midday heat.
Leaning against a stack of Better Photography, National Geographic and Harvard Business Review, Bhola, who owned the tiny shack, lamented the rampant dullness of those who squatted here for a quick read. “Sirf self help aur porn selling,” he said to Mustafa, who looked like a customer with literary taste.
Mustafa, who had ignored the stock of “Dummy” series – Bio Data Writing for Dummies, Divorce for Dummies and Puppies for Dummies – and was examining an assorted pile-up of Orwell, Shaw, the Bronte sisters, Kipling and Ezekiel, had won Bhola’s respect. The shack was crowded with books on computers, management, engineering and competitive examination. Textbooks, discarded by students and collected by kabadiwalas, also contained a meticulous alternative narrative – notes scribbled on the edges of a page, like hasty lanterns on the sure path of scholastic doom.
Mustafa had waded through this swamp of orphaned literature to reach the pile he was now examining closely. He had travelled all the way from Tehran, chasing a story for an international news service. He was alone in the motel room they had booked him in. And something racy would take his mind off the lack of air-conditioning, the mosquitoes and the loneliness that assaulted him in the nights.
“Grreat story sirji…a real gem,” said Bhola parroting words he had picked up from the agents who sometimes visited his stall to pick up books in bulk. “Pirates, ships, big adventures,” he gushed, as he handed Mustafa an old Dracula paperback, with an eye-patch drawn on its cover.
Mustafa took the book from Bhola and put it aside, after examining it politely. He wondered what other “gems” there were in this seconds stall, with its crowd of disfigured and maimed books. He had flipped through a copy of Such a Long Journey, but the book was fat and serious, although the fading name on the first page had caught his attention – Savita Chandra. Was she beautiful?
Women. They were everywhere, but Mustafa was on an important assignment and a romantic escapade in the midst of stories to file was bad for his editor’s peace-of-mind.
But they found one another. Lolita’s face, crisscrossed like boundaries running wild on a careless map stood out from a pile of pulp. He took the book back to his motel room.
Bhola sighed. “Sirf porn selling,” he mused.