“What do you like to do in your spare time?”
It was the mothers who asked the questions. Always the mothers. The fathers were too busy stuffing bajjis and semolina fudge in to their mouth and the sons usually sat there fiddling with their watches and readjusting their private parts.
Lalita imagined her potential mother-in-law on the way over, adjusting the pleats of her silk sari and instructing her husband.
“Now, just let me do all the talking. You always get excited and agree to things too soon. This is our child’s future after all. And you” she would have said turning to her son, “None of this going in to another room and ‘talking’. I don’t want any of that. Everything in front of me, understood?”
A sharp prod from her own mother brought Lalita back to the bored faces waiting for her answer.
“I like to read” Lalita murmured wincing as her mother’s fingernails dug in to the soft mound of flesh at her elbow. It was not an answer she approved of. Lalita’s mother was of the belief that more traditional answers such as singing, cooking, and, if the family was from Delhi or Calcutta – knitting were what boys and more importantly, their mothers liked to hear. They were answers that indicated a woman’s usefulness. But past experience had taught Lalita that such answers left her floundering on humiliating territory. When she said she could knit her mother would scuttle inside, emerging moments later with a sweater Lalita had made in class ten for a trip to Ooty. Ma would then hold the ridiculously small scrap of wool against Lalita’s frame that had expanded considerably in the last two decades, and invite those present to marvel at the hideously pink creation that smelled of naphthalene and damp. When Lalita said she could sing there were half-hearted requests for a small performance. She would render Bharathi songs while her youngest sister vigorously worked the yellowing ivories of her harmonium box.
‘On the river bank – If I wait
in the flower garden at the southern corner
you’ll come you said – with your
friend when the moon is high.’
There would then be an embarrassed smattering of applause and polite questions about her music tutelage. And so reading was a safe answer. No one ever asked for proof or a live demonstration of that.
How many more years of this would she have to undergo? How many more years before Ma gave up trying to get her ‘settled’? The giggling anticipation of those first few ‘girl seeing’ ceremonies had worn off and the queer sensations her body once experienced had all but died out. All that remained was a feeling of exhaustion . The same snacks, the same questions, the same pearl jewellery set Mother made her wear. Even the boys looked the same. And Mother, trying desperately to make her look younger than she was with each passing year. Contact lenses that itched. Make up that gave her a rash. The switch from traditional silk saris to more modern chiffons that clung to her sweating thighs and buttocks. Like an ageing actress sent out in bright, gaudy clothes and badly applied make up Lalita auditioned for a role she was destined to perhaps never get. Her mother’s pathetic air of hope and her father’s dogged determination were egged on by the fact that everyone else seemed to be getting married. Junior lecturers, neighbours, cousins and even Lalita’s students were handing out invitations daubed in turmeric and kumkum. Lalita no longer brought them home. It only made her mother more maudlin and her father overly cheerful and optimistic.
“The astrologer has predicted that this is the year” he would say. He had been saying that every year since Lalita’s horoscope had made its debut in the marriage market.
Lalita wondered when these people would leave. It was almost 3:30 and the library closed at 5:00 on Saturdays.
Lalita’s library was nothing more than a single, cavernous room divided by green shelving units in to a series of rabbit warren like alleys. There was no door at the entrance, just a metal shutter that went up every morning and came down in the evening, pausing mid-way at noon, half-open or half-closed depending on how you saw things. It was the proprietor’s way of saying he was having lunch or taking a nap; daily rituals that only a few brave patrons dared disturb. Piles of newspapers and magazines were bundled near the entrance like the ragtag coterie of beggars huddled together outside the Amman temple – old, decrepit and ignored by most except for the stray cats and dogs that pissed on and slept near them. The front area of the library was monopolised by a large wooden bench and desk, not unlike the ones Lalita had sat at through school. The bench was The Proprietor’s throne, it was from here he ruled his kingdom and ordered about his sole subject – a scrap of a boy whose job it was to bring him his mid morning tea and butter bun and half heartedly search for books that customer’s requested. Lalita was a member of the library for two reasons. One, it was equidistant from home and the college where she was a lecturer. And two, the library had an unrivalled stock of books that nobody else wanted to read. Hidden in the back, where it was darker and an odour of unwashed clothes, damp and other forms of wetness lingered (She had once caught a man relieving himself near the Classics shelf) was where Lalita found her books. Histories of extinct tribes, diaries of colonialists, biographies of minor Nawabs, anthologies on walking and poetry that was far removed from the dull stanzas she had been forced to memorize as a school girl. They were the ones no one else read. The ones with just two rubber stamp dates on the slip of paper that guarded the pages within. Some had not been checked out since 1979 (year of establishment), others were ageing virgins, their ancient spines unbent having never felt the urgent pressure of a reader’s hands. It was her ambition to read all of them. To save them from being left on the shelf and forgotten. It was a miracle the library had these books at all, and when she first started borrowing them even The Proprietor seemed surprised by their existence. Lalita suspected he had not been to the back of the library for years. And why would he. He stayed out front, near the rainbow hued romance paperbacks which were his main source of income. They were also why his library was patronised by a never ending stream of young girls and women. If there was a woman in sight, The Proprietor pretended not to see the boys who pushed the soft core ‘detective’ books down the fronts of their blueish-white school shirts. His eyeballs, magnified by his spectacle lens would bulge, as though straining to break free from their transparent confines. He always took longer than usual when it came to making their entries in the ledger, scrutinising the more suggestive covers with a raised eyebrow and a leer. Sometimes he would read the title out in his excruciating English.
“Her ill-i-git-ee-mayt lo-wer. This one very good Madam? You have borrowed before no?”
Apart from her father and the college watchman, The Proprietor was one of the few men Lalita spoke to.
“Madam, we have new books. New Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins have come in. Can I get for you? Eh! Get for Madam.” He ordered the peon “New Madam. For special customers only.”
But Lalita would smile and shake her head.
“Reading?” the mother repeated “Even my daughter – she is a software engineer in Delaware – even she reads. Her favourite writers are Sidney Sheldon and Perry Mason”
“Perry Mason in not a writer. He is a fictional creation. You mean Earl Stanley Gardiner.”
Lalita’s mother simpered. The boy’s mother glowered. His father looked up from his plate.
“Oh. So you’re clever are you ? Tell me then, how many novels did William Shakespeare write? Eh? Eh? Don’t know-a?” He laughed crassly and reached out for another bajji “It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s a hard question.”
The ‘boy’ remained quiet. In fact he looked like he wasn’t even paying attention to them. Lalita looked at the 40 year old man her mother and father thought would make her a husband. Not an ideal husband or a good husband. Just a husband. Any husband. It had come to that. This one seemed more interested in a framed painting of a bosomy forest nymph than he was in Lalita. She was glad he had a plate on his lap.
His parents had moved the conversation on, trying to find out how much Lalita’s father had saved, so, that if they deigned that a wedding should indeed take place, he would have the funds to pay for it. All Lalita could do was think of The Proprietor.
At the library last week there was a fresh lot of romance novels. The Proprietor tried to convince her to take a few.
“Why Madam, same old books you read? No one else wants, only you. I am to throw out all these old books. Then there will be more space for nice new ones no?”
The stricken look on Lalita’s face made him hurry on.
“Not to worry. You are best customer here. I won’t get rid of the books. Just for joke I say,huh.”
And then he had reached out and patted Lalita’s hand. Just like that. His dark and hairy hand rested briefly, twice, atop Lalita’s. She stared at his hand with faint revulsion and fascination. His fingernails were all short, but for his left pinkie which was long and curved like a scimitar, painted blood red. She had often seen him scratch the outer shell of his ear with the nail, before plundering its depths, scavenging for ear wax. They were vile hands.
But now, they were all Lalita could think of.
“When did you become so arrogant?” Lalita’s mother whined as she gathered together her library books. “Do you know how hard it is to find boys who will come and see a 37 year old girl? And then we find one and you act all smart, showing off about your books. I have always said – no good can come of reading. Please kanna” her mother’s tone suddenly turned gentle and coaxing “Don’t you want to be happy? Have someone take you away and give you a new life? If you get married now, why, you might even be able to have children. How long will you be here with us? See everyone else is married and happy, why do you insist on being left alone? Now listen, next week your Uncle is sending over a family he knows. The boy is divorced. A little hard of hearing. When they ask about your interests – say singing, OK? Good girl.”
(Updated to add: the Bharathi song lyrics are a translation by Chenthil)