Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A reticence to light

No one knew at what time exactly Pali was born. Her mother knew only that the birth had happened at twilight, on the terrace of a small building during an anthakshari session.

Pali happened at twilight, in that period of the day’s schizophrenia.

She was born a girl of twilight, a girl of quiet. As a child she sat in sand pits while the sun slanted over her and insects burrowed destinies in the soil.

Mia, her mid-western aunt, settled and camouflaged in Mid-Western USA, took photographs of strange Pali when she visited. Her affinity for Pali came from the thick belief that Pali’s silence indicated her intelligence and the likelihood that she would be great someday soon.

The child’s first visit to Gogo Library was, really, a mishap on the part of her USA aunt, Mia. Mia had problems, see. Mia ,with the moody and recalcitrant fiancĂ©e, a PhD thesis to draft in two weeks, a bony body to be made sensuous for the wedding.

And on that tight quick November evening, her problems bludgeoned some part of Pali to a hot, uncertain edge.

Pali was sent to Gogo Library to pick books up for her aunt. (The thesis was going awry! And Mia needed a smoke and a pedicure and some time away from her pernicious fellow. So many things and all this muddle and it was just convenient to send Pali out to get the books she needed.)

They are heavy books, Pali was told. Get the Library Uncle’s help in finding them.

She entered Gogo Library with the awe that accompanies young people on first time missions to places many times their size.

There was no counter, no bellied Baba she could turn to with her list of books. The Library was a block of cement, shaped like a beaker: a beaker block of cement. At its centre was a quadrangle with leafy plants and the hum of a disturbed insect. Spawning forth (and sideways and backwards) from the quadrangle, was a tapestry of passages, runnels of time and distance that opened into airy, but still dark rooms.

It was a place built in a reticence to light. Windows lay pat against the walls, and though open, had thin green sheets over them, so that the floor was like a turquoise moor. Above the windows were thin orifices through which light staggered in, fondling air-motes.

Pali’s first impression was the darkness. It wasn’t that she had an aversion to darkness, only that the library managed to remind her of the intestine in Human Body Series 1 at school. The image of the intestine from that book haunted her like a congenital affliction, giving her dreams of warm stretches of dark poultice. And this library, see... it was dark and warm.

Studied from the quadrangle, the library did not look like a library. It had no books. Only the passages and their ante-rooms yielded to search, for they were stuffy, like an oedema, with books.

Pali was not afraid, not as long as she stayed in the quadrangle. She sat at the rim, feet dangling, and called a “Hello”, young and quivering and polite. With just enough scare in her voice to get noticed. Oh sure enough, from the swaddle of library, a person was brought forth: a big man who came to Pali with the ample machinery of belly and moustache, and made for her instant relief. He twinkled, maybe in kindness, maybe blindness, frowned through her list, got a tall stool and entered a corridor.

She waited in the quadrangle for a time, and as she sat there, she began to notice eerie things like the gnats on the windows and the one half of lizard jerking in a sty of blood. So she followed the belly-man.

But corridors have a way of seeming endless. And this girl Pali, well... she was a girl. To get rid of her settling dread, she started to skip. Skip skip skippity skip; she skipped like it was her mantra, like her steps were the rudraksh. Finally, and without climax, she skipped into an airy, but still dark ante-room where the belly-man was sitting wordlessly beside a boy with eyes like sceptres.

Sceptre eye Sceptre thrill, Pali was obsessed by the desire to scream or say something loud to axe that silence. A girl of ten, right? And all this hogwash about axing things. Plus, it turns out that you are right, that she didn’t do anything, didn’t even run. She only tilted her head, looked for one trusting moment towards the boy, turned and huddled out.

Years later, in the semi-light of her shrink’s apartment, where her thoughts appeared hygienic, Pali was told that the root of her nightmares - those lesions that kept her from sleeping more than an hour at a stretch - lay in Gogo Library. Pali had known this for some time, of course. But it had seemed necessary to pay someone to know it for her.

How should she redeem it, she had wanted to know. How should she find second grace? He had answered with the expected, in the expected tone and phrase. She was to go back, revisit, and walk down the corridor again to understand the irrelevance of that once-felt-fear.

***
Gogo Library was transformed now. The green screens were cleaner, there were more people; a smart-looking woman in a skirt was located at a desk with great files. New fluorescent lights worked like a maestro against the animal dark that Pali had been witness to, and the library was brisk (strange layout notwithstanding).

“A decent place,” said her mother, who had gone with her to the Library. They walked down each corridor, examined each book-vault. Her mother clapped her hands and said “It’s over. We’re done! Now we can put it behind us, whatever it was.” As if she had just pulled the finishing curtain and provided the canned applause.

Pali had felt a curious release, but she knew it was not over.

Day after day, she visited Gogo Library, her mother trilling to friends about how well Pali had coped, how she had found the lungs and heart to confront her fears (It’s the schools, I tell you, they put the fear of God in little children: make them hate libraries, hate books.)

***

Pali knew it was him not very long after she saw him for the second time. His sceptre eyes followed her all around. She looked at him too, always between the shelves or through the wedges in the carrels. He was the library attendant, tall and gangly like a tuber.

Their point of contact, for they had to have one, was a shiny addition to the Library: something about Calculus and Cosmotronics. She would walk to the shelf, raise her arms in an arc, lift the book off the metal, and hold it to her chest. She would leave it on her desk for him to replace. And in due course, when she left the Library at dusk, he would take it, swivel around the chamber in wary circles, and hold the book to his warmth.

This ritual continued. And they were drawn to each other like moths to a flaming pit. Somewhere, I suppose, something had been exchanged; and they had traded trust in one arid, mutual moment.

Then one evening, when Pali was at the Library, and everyone else in her room had left for home and family, the boy-man with sceptre eyes entered. This time, his entry was different from every other time, and Pali sensed this from the choppy eyes that sought her.

She waited.

I could end this story right here, but I will not. For what happened next intrigues me.

As Pali waited, with fear and longing and who knows what else, the boy-man started to close the windows of her room. One by one, he lifted the green drapes and drew down metal shutters, closing them in. It was at this point, roughly, that something inside her was lit with the boldness of understanding, and she screamed a scream that was in some sense overdue, and in some sense not.

Then she ran out of the room, out of the Library and never returned.

It was in this way that Pali and boy-man, two childlogged human creatures with bullet-point histories, became adults.