Love in the Time of Blossom’s
I bury my face in the book, relishing the smell of musty, yellowing pages. It doesn’t matter what book is, who has written it or where it has come from. What matters is that it is old. And smells old. I hold the book like that, open, yellow pages under my nose. Minutes pass. Nobody comes by. Nobody ever comes by this section, the ancient and forgotten books section of Blossom’s. Books that have been deemed to be unimportant in the greater scheme of things, with titles like Weather Conditions in Bengal and The Problems of the Far East, written two centuries ago, outdated and immaterial, reside here. There exists a tragic quality to these books. A history of being discarded and thrown down, unwanting generation to unwanting generation, before somehow they manage to find their way to the section that nobody walks by, except me. I look at these books and imagine the stories they could tell. Not the stories that are contained within their pages, but the stories of their journeys, of being born in the age of Victoria and being alive in the age of Zuckerberg. Stories that only wise old people can tell while sitting in front of a big fire on cold winter nights while chuckling to themselves. The books remain silent though and leave me to wonder.
Sometimes, just sometimes however, I find a small inscription somewhere in the beginning of the book. An innocuous scribbling with the name of the owner and the date. A little dedication, a happy birthday or a graduation present or on rare occasions, a little note of love. I read these inscriptions and wonder where and who those people are. I imagine myself tracking them down, book in hand, and listening to their stories, if they are still alive. Sometimes I add my own slice of history, my own little scribbling with my name and date, hoping that two hundred years from now somebody will pick up the book and wonder what my story would have been.
I look at the front pages of the book in my hand, Human Origins, and find nothing written. I look around surreptitiously, take out my pen and write, ‘If you are reading this, know that this book has been loved, even if momentarily. 29th June, 2014’. I casually place the book in the middle of the pile, look around wistfully and walk slowly away.
Everybody has a place to go to. A place of solitude and meditation. A place for themselves. Some people race cars, others watch movies, some go to coffee shops and others trek into the wilderness. I go to Blossom’s Book House. I go there every week, looking at the organized chaos, at books old and new strewn about. I go like an explorer of old, into a realm that changes itself every week with books that emerge out of unrelated sections, entire sections that go missing and the feeling that you will always stumble upon a book that you had missed in a section that you had scoured book for book the last time around. This is especially true of what I call the ancient and forgotten books section, where I find myself standing once again.
Nothing is as it was a week back. The books have all moved places. A game of leather bound musical chairs. Some books I saw are now missing and others have taken their place. The book I had scribbled in however is still there, lying pretty on top of the pile. Someone else has come by here. I know this without knowing it. There is a certain quality to the air, an electric charge of a kind. I pick up the book and flip open the front page. Someone, possibly the same someone, had scribbled under my scribble, black ink under my blue, ‘That’s nice, but this is too poetic and cheesy for my or the book’s liking. 2nd July, 2014’.
I start laughing, almost chuckling at first before moving onto full throated laughter. That someone had even managed to find this section was reason enough to warrant a response. ‘I am sure the book liked it. It doesn’t seem to have a lot of poetry within it anyhow. 6th July, 2014 ’. I put the book back in the exact position it was in, a small hope building up inside that whoever it is on the other side, will respond.
The week passes by slowly, hours stretching out endlessly as I wait for Sunday. The closer it comes, the longer it seems to take. I can physically feel the longing build up and have to force myself to not rush out to Church Street everyday to check if a reply has been scribbled. I tell myself that in all probability, there is no reply waiting for me. The chances of anybody going to that section even once are remote enough, to find the exact same person there a second time would be borderline miraculous. I try and think of other things, papers to write, classes to attend, beer and rum to drink, movies and TV shows to watch but find the anticipation of seeing a black line scribbled under my blue persisting.
On Sunday I reach Blossom’s and walk slowly up to the third floor, taking my own time, stopping every few feet to look intently at the posters on the wall, at the collection of children’s books on the landings, convincing myself that no one would have written anything, the book has been lying unopened since last week and that only I am foolish enough to write weird things on the front pages of a book that no one has read since 1894. I approach the section cautiously, unsure of what I will find, almost hoping that I will find nothing. That nothing will be written and I will sigh and give myself a sad smile and walk away. This is ridiculous. I cannot possibly be so worked up over one small message in a book, written by someone I have never seen, met or spoken to. I’ll just open the book, see and go away, I tell myself. The book is lying where it was. I open it, flipping from the last page to the first, releasing little clouds of dust into the air. A black line below my blue, ‘This book seems to have a scientific temperament. The Scot on the other hand could tell you more about art’.
I fling Human Origins aside with utter disdain for its age. Somewhere in this pile of old rotting books is a 19th century edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Robert Burns. An old obscure edition of an old obscure book that nobody outside Scotland understands, buried somewhere under an avalanche of books in the ancient and forgotten books section, Blossom’s Book House, Church Street, Bangalore, India. I fling books aside like a maniac, everything around me a blur of red leather covers and yellow pages. Minutes tick by. Scenarios play through my head. The book could have been bought, lost or stolen. Maybe it has moved to the poetry section downstairs or has been dumped for taking up too much of space. Who would read poems in the Scottish dialect in Bangalore anyways?
The book is buried deep under, but it is there. A half eaten, worm ridden, tattered yellow collection of pages loosely held together by the last vestiges of ancient glue, and on the very first page, on the upper left corner a little question in black ink, a whisper, ‘Found this? 9th July.’
I smile, almost involuntarily. ‘Yes, I did. Quite a random work to suggest. 13th July’
Another week, another wait. This time it is harder. The days pass even more slowly. I sit down on Monday afternoon and try and skip ahead to Sunday. I wait around for the other days to roll by. I sit out at night under the red skies and think of who black ink could be. A woman I decide. It need not necessarily be, but in my head it is. It is better that way. I can construct a story, an excuse for myself. Reason out why I want to alter the very nature of space and time to go and stare at little scribblings on old books. Another Sunday.
‘What would you suggest?’
I stop writing dates. I want to give myself the illusion of an actual conversation, a conversation happening in the here and now and not with a time lapse of a week between sentences. Black ink stops writing dates too.
‘That isn’t poetry.’
‘Why do you want poetry? You can’t read poetry. You can only listen to it.’
‘You are the one who brought it up. Ok, not poetry.’
Sundays have become the anchor around which my weeks now revolve. Everything else is secondary. I live from Sunday to Sunday. I seek the banter of black ink on yellow pages.
‘Post-modernism isn’t my thing. Something more sentimental. ’
‘I can see that you have a type.’
‘Do I? I did not know I had a type.’
‘Something slightly opaque, heavy on the sentiments, something that makes you gloomy and contemplative. Go ask the mad ones.’ There is no more space to write.
I run and jump to the floor below, racing through the ceiling high bookshelves packed with thousands and thousands of works, seeking just one. There are numerous copies of On the Road, but I instinctively know I must look for the oldest, the most tattered and broken. I find a grimy, battered old copy, with the upper right corner bit off and worm holes threading through the middle. There is already a dedication in the front, ‘From one hitchhiker to another’ it says. I turn to the end and find on the upper margins of the last page,
‘Read this while listening to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Read it in tune, begin with Spring, imagine the words moving up and down the bars. Do not finish the book until you reach the very end of Winter.’
I spend the week listening to The Four Seasons and reading On the Road. As the violins jump from Spring to Summer to Autumn to the low chilly notes of Winter, I read the book aloud. I read quickly at the beginning, rushing through the words as the violins recreate the spring breezes, I jump through passages to keep time with the storms and slow down as winter is lazily beckoned and in one final flourish read the end to keep with the crescendo of the finale. I read words through music and feel the stirring of incomprehensible emotions within me, turbulent yet comforting, an inescapable madness that builds up inside.
‘That certainly made me contemplative. Any more such suggestions?’
‘Lots. But, your turn.’
‘Toba Tek Singh and Ustad Vilayat Khan.’
No more space. Another switch. Each switch is a test, enabled only by a clue in the last line of the previous book. It is the prerogative of the last person who can write in the space to provide the clue and thereby the book. A game of unwritten rules, mutually agreed upon, a contract signed on decaying yellow pages.
As the seasons pass by, I come to live only on Sundays, my breathing dependent on defaced books hidden across the floors, shelves and sections of Blossom’s. We act as trespassers, trespassing upon the pages of others with our own words, writing around what has already been written, serial squatters moving from book to book, from Manto to Adams, scribbling our conversations and thoughts across Discworld, Sea of Poppies, Things Fall Apart, City of Djinns, Amsterdam, 1Q48, Sputnik Sweetheart and Memories of My Melancholy Whores. We converse, across time and genres, talking about things that don’t make much sense.
‘I want to write books with titles like Marquez’s.’
‘Don’t you want to write like Marquez?’
‘No. That would be degenerating to Marquez. Just the titles will do.’
‘Raag Darbari while listening to Raag Darbari. For the ironic kick.’
‘That is not the correct use of the term ironic.’
‘You don’t say?’
‘That is sarcasm’
‘Really? I wouldn’t have known.’
Thoughts race across my head. My being tossed across the stormy waves of doubt, and feeling and the urge to comprehend what is within me and without. Should I ask to meet her? Coffee and conversation in India Coffee House across the street? Will it ruin this? The relationship in my head? The construct of having something, even if based only on forlorn conversations scribbled on second hand books. Should I atleast see whether it is a her? Does it really matter?
‘Why do you scribble on old books?’
‘I want to leave a part of myself behind, become a tangible portion of something’s history.’
‘I guess invariably, I am now a tangible portion of something’s history.’
‘We both are. Intertwined on the margins of somebody else’s history.’
‘Well, in the case of our current host, it would seem to be Caesar’s.’
I want to go and stand inside Blossom’s from one Sunday to another, stop her as she is scribbling, have a real conversation. Say, the guy you have been talking to all this while? That’s me. Hi, nice to meet you. Would you like to have some coffee with me while I explain the etymology of the term ‘Irony’?
‘You look beautiful.’
‘How do you know? You haven’t seen me ever.’
‘It doesn’t matter. In my head we have met and you look beautiful.’
‘Your head is messed up. I could have droopy grey skin and horrible teeth and bad breath.’
‘But you don’t.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘I am in love with you.’
‘Don’t do this.’
‘Ask to meet me.’
‘I am not.’
‘But you want to. Don’t do it.’
‘Nothing good will ever come of it. You don’t know anything about me and I do not know anything about you.’
‘I know that you write in a beautiful cursive script that nobody uses anymore. I know that you use a fountain pen with black ink and I know that you have a thing for old, forgotten books.’
‘Books like me.’
‘Please do not ask to meet me. Do not break the illusion of momentary beauty that this has created for me. Men are slaves of prejudice.’
Dark clouds descend within me, bringing with them a painful constriction in my chest. I do not have to search this time, a bruised copy of Love in the Time of Cholera sits nearby. Black ink covers the page, margin to margin, leaving no space to reply.
‘I adore you because you made me whore, filled me with the momentary joy of living, but I am condemned now. It is enough for me that this happened, that I could explore worlds with you just by coming here every week. I do not want to know who you are or what you look like. Now, I can go with the happiness of imagining you and having had this, without reality getting in the way. I hope you understand. Love and a final goodbye. ’
There is no more space to write. No switch. The conversation ends. Of a thousand ways it went in my head, this was not one.
I look around the shop and see myself, alone and shivering in a corner. I cannot move, do not want to move. I want to dissolve into the margins, feel the black ink traced upon me till I dissolve into dust. I stand there, unmoving, for how much time I do not know. Maybe this is how it is to end, on decaying old pages, only ink meeting ink. I look around, at the sections around me, at the floors above and below me, at conversations written across the living soul of Blossom’s and cry. I close the book gently and leave it at the bottom of the pile. Maybe someday someone will find it and imagine what our story would have been like.