The matriarch, Sunehri, squared her shoulders as the impending exodus loomed. A sense of melancholy washed over her as she recalled the words. The place that had housed her and her children and grandchildren. And now soon-to-be great-grandchildren. It was here that she had arrived as a young bride, metamorphosing into a mother, and then, with the passage of time, a grandmother. And now, a widow. She called upon the steely spine she didn’t possess, and she started to make a list of things to take. Brushing aside the debris covering it, a song emerged. She hadn’t thought about it in ages. It was passed down generations as old as time. Sunehri hummed it under her breath, the words coming out naturally now and in tune.
Har sidhe raste ki
Ek tedhi chaal hai
Their living conditions in the book, Sant Sufi Rumi, had depleted over the years. The starch–their sustenance, was in short supply. Sunehri stopped creating her mental list and looked across the expanse of the pages where words in the Devanagari script glowed. Sunehri knew she had a good run, and in all her wondrous years, had resided in many books. Sampled many kinds of starch and papers. Her grandmother often narrated stories to her about the governments and their tryst with the Official Language Act.
While in school, Sunehri recalled the incident where she had fallen sick after eating an entire chapter dedicated to Prime Minister Mansohan Singh’s failing attempts to bring India under the umbrella of one language, Hindi! That memory made her smile at her naiveté. Triggered by it, another one floated up.
She and her seven sisters were once visiting their uppity relatives who stayed in the PMO bookshelves. They always had a bee in their bonnet and resorted to the nawabi style of speaking, plush with Urdu, while looking down on Sunehri and her family’s more local Hindi accent. They, to show off, had taken Sunehri sightseeing around the office and even made her sample of Mansohan’s official speeches. The Urdu words tasted so different from the Devanagari ones Sunehri was used to! It was with fondness that she recalled how the speech to make Hindi language the official language for government work was written in Urdu. Her uncle had proudly stated that not a word of the Devanagari Hindi, our official language, was legible to India’s PM! Surprisingly, she swallowed those pages without a hitch.
The government of her time was gone now, replaced by the other one. The tenets replaced the same, just the voices ordering them, varied. Maybe, we can send one of our kin, ‘Learn Hindi in 30 days’ to the ex-PM. It’s not that he has anything important to do.
Sunehri loved hearing the book’s conversations in their little nook– loved being a fly on the wall. Well, a wingless insect in the book would’ve to suffice for an analogy. Sunehri dropped all pretences of packing and eavesdropped shamelessly as the books bickered amongst themselves. The worn-out cupboard housing them was used to the ensuing argument. It happened every other day. The abandoned cobwebs swayed in the fury of the words spoken. In Hindi, of course. Their dark, dusty corner saw a lot of action. Only amongst themselves, though. The human footfalls were far and between.
“I do not think we are outdated, not at all!” A smirk sat on the relative newcomer, Masala Chai, as his pages flipped forcefully. “I’m still relevant in these times.”
The dog-eared pages of Godaan curled. “Take a look at the other shelves. The books there–their pages are used! They’ve all been read and re-read several times. And then, take a look at us! We are as useful as cow patties to a metropolitan.”
The fight was interrupted by the bell tinkling, which meant someone new had entered their library. All the books perked up, putting their best covers ahead. Could it be my chance today? the books spoke collectively.
Sunehri craned her neck to see who the new homo sapiens was. It was a lady who approached the librarian, Millie, and soon they got busy discussing pricing. The books sighed, their excitement dampened. Sunehri tuned them out and chewed her nails. Was this a good time to shift? Maybe she should delay their departure. Her eyes fell upon the latest patron. After swiping her card, the lady perused the titles on the shelves.
“Come here, oh beautiful one,” words erupted out of Apsara. Her delicate cover turned red with exertion. “Pick me up! Palat! Palat!”
Nirmala, Apsara’s arch-nemesis, piped up. “Tsk, such bawdry language you use, dear Appu! It’s not beneficial to resort to such pedestrian levels. We must maintain our dignity.” Her nose wrinkled in distaste as her chin came up for air.
The shadow of the lady fell upon their neglected corner. Sunehri hid between the pages of her saviour book. Apsara’s visage blossomed, and she lit up. “Aha! It’s OUR lucky day! She did a palat! Hooray!” She clutched her best friend, Godaan’s hand in joy. “I told you, she will do a palat.” Godaan nodded.
“How about this section?” the lady asked Millie, seated at her desk and whose face settled in a frown as she lumbered towards the patron.
“If it walks like a duck. Talks like a duck, it must be Satan,” quipped Masala Chai.
“Shush! She may hear us!” Madhushala warned, a stern expression cramping the book’s cover.
Millie’s nasal twang flooded their section, and the books covered the ears. “Oh! That’s our vernacular section. We’ve some… ahem… Hindi novels here. They aren’t very exciting or even… any good. Also, I think they are infested with icky silverfish,” she said with evident distaste.
“That woman is the spawn of the devil,” Apsara yelled.
“Of course, you should know.” Nirmala’s snide remark threatened to start a Page War III till Madhushala’s soft-spoken words calmed them down.
Sunehri bristled at the spoken insult as she saw Millie lead the newcomer away to the well-lit section at the fag end of the library that housed the fiction novels. The English books. Icky silverfish! She is ickier than us, silverfish.
“Why don’t you try the fiction section out? We’ve got the latest best-sellers,” said Millie.
Sunehri perched on the top of her house and watched them. The warm yellow light made that area appear so inviting. Someone regularly dusted it, with all their book buddies aligned in a straight line. Large comfortable-looking chairs dotted the floor, and the aroma of freshly made tea stayed in the air. Sunehri took a whiff of her arena and coughed out the dust! I wonder if the silverfish in those books are hoity-toity. Or are as icky as us. I wonder if there are silverfish in those books!
The sagging shelf creaked as the books moved. “I think no one wants us anymore. We’ve become a pariah in our own country.” Godaan hugged Apsara, who wiped the tears that flowed.
A wrinkled page patted her cover. “There! There! It’ll be okay. Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win. We can’t bow down to depression.” Madhushala, the patriarch, smiled encouragingly at the kids. “Depression can lead a book to tear its pages out. Say no to depression.”
“Chachaji, you tell us, when was the last time someone took you home? You’re one of the first few books here. How many times have people chosen you? How long should we wait for people to deem us worthy of a read?” questioned Masala Chai.
Sunehri looked at Masala Chai. Furrows settled in his glabella, and the watermarked lines of his name on the cover were losing their sheen. Even though he belongs to a lineage of tea books, his pricey attitude is costlier than the price of fuel! No wonder his hard copy cost 2000 rupees! The contents inside were full of false promises and held up a mirage of better days!
“You mustn’t consider yourself to be any less than the other books. Just because people haven’t read you often. Your worth lies in your words, and not your circulation levels,” said Sufi Sant Rumi. Sunehri’s eyes popped out of her head when she heard him speak. For a book of poetry, he seldom opened his mouth. But when he did, all of them listened.
“But, why doesn’t anyone want us?” persisted Masala Chai.
Madhushala spoke, his pages gently swaying. “The reason lies in the fact that we don’t encourage our youth of today to read books in their mother tongues. Their last tryst with Hindi was in their tenth board examinations, after which they drop the second language. The older folks who want to read us, don’t have a spare moment. They are too busy funding their offspring’s reading habits.”
“You are right, as usual,” ran the general murmur.
It was peak afternoon, and unlike the airy English section, theirs was hot and muggy. The heat made the books drowsy. Everyone caught their quota of forty winks.
A heavily accented voice, in broken English, interrupted their snooze-fest. Sunehri’s antenna stood at attention. “Are you be keeping Hindi books? Like the Premchand and Dinkar sahib?”
Suddenly, a voice in their clique chimed out. “I’m here! I’m here! Premchand scripted me! Come here to me, my dear boy!” It was Nirmala, screaming at the top of her voice.
Apsara turned to Godaan and stage-whispered. “Sheesh, talk about decorum.” The two friends giggled, and high-fived as Nirmala glared at them.
Millie raised her head, her proverbial horns gleaming, from the computer she was working on. Sunehri took in the kurta-pyjama clad, bespectacled man. All he needs to complete the stereotype is a middle-parting head full of oily hair.
“Excuse me? Did you ask me something?” The spawn spoke, her Queen’s English shining like pearls. A prim countenance added to the façade.
“Yes, yes. Are you keeping Hindi novels?” the man asked, again.
“Do you mean to ask if we stock Hindi novels?” The haughty expression on her face kicked out the prim one. Sunehri felt bad for him, but Millie’s next action shocked even her!
The devil sneaked a quick look at the vernacular section, and back at the object of her derision, and made a snap decision. “No, we don’t stock Hindi books. You’ll have to try somewhere else.” Millie dismissed him by returning to her computer as he slunk out of the door.
“That woman is the spawn of the devil” Masala Chai screamed.
“And you need new dialogues.” Apsara’s comment made Sunehri snigger. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Just as the clock’s hands were inching towards six, a group of men clad in white-coloured kurta pyjamas and saffron cummerbund, entered the library. The fervour of their slogans wiped off the cobwebs on their shelves. Aided by the slamming of thick wooden hockey sticks and swishing of the flags they carried.
“Hindi is our national language, and we must support it.” Sunehri loosely translated one of their slogans.
“Simon, go back!” That one split Sunehri up. Really? Simon, go back? He went back several decades ago. But, well.
The six goons surrounded Millie’s desk as the books fell uncharacteristically silent. Sunehri’s antenna twerked in danger, and she withdrew in her book but craned her neck to peep.
“Do you keep Hindi books or only English ones?” One of the mob-ling demanded. His moustache quivered under his fat lip. The meaty hand, grasping the hockey stick, tapped it on Millie’s desk, close to her computer. Before she could respond, he suddenly swept the items on her table onto the floor. Her cup with the ‘Books rule, small talk drools’ crashed on the floor along with the pens. The books, too, fell, some half-opened.
“Hey! Why did you do that? Of course, we house vernacular books.” Millie stayed cool under their withering glances. After her hands had moved in tandem to cover her bosom with the dupatta, she moved the computer away from the metal-covered rear end of the stick. Lest it went the way of the books.
“Whom are you calling vernacular? Do we look like vernacular to you?” Moustache shivered at supersonic speed and he bent closer to Millie while his feet crushed the spine of the book under them. Sunehri stared at the hairy abomination. Ten of her children could hide in it. What a lovely shelter it would make!
Bosom secured, Millie held her own. “Well. Now that you’ve brought it up.”
Before she could finish her sentence, good sense prevailed and Millie re-adjusted her attitude. Mr. Moustache wasn’t pleased with Millie’s response, or her attitude. To express his anger and reinstate his masculinity, he picked a book from the floor and slowly tore its pages. One after the other, he destroyed the works of Raag Darbaari. He flung a few pages at Millie and the rest in the air. The torn pages flittered and fell over them like confetti. “All books are like Goddess Saraswati. Respect them!”
Millie, with substantial effort, bit her tongue and smiled at him. “Yes, we do house Hindi novels.”
Sunehri’s book and his brethren let out a breath. Disaster averted. Millie led them to their dimly lit section.
“We host the works of Premchand, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and other writers, too. Our collection is small, but it’s very well-rounded.” She pointed at the books.
“Where are the textbooks? I don’t see any textbooks.” The leader, Moustache, questioned, stepping into Millie’s personal space.
Millie held her ground. In a calm voice, she responded. “Sir, this is a circulating library.”
“So? Library keeps books. A textbook is a book. Books should be in the library.” All the other men hooted and clapped. Their leader was smart and brutal!
“Sir, a circulating library, like ours, keeps novels and magazines. A school or college library has access to textbooks. What seems to be the problem, sir?”
“We don’t know. We were asked to check if you keep Hindi books or else burn the library down. If you want to know the problem, come to our party office. We’ll show you the problem.” Mr. Moustache winked at Millie and collected his minions, who mumbled amongst themselves. “The next lane has a jewellery store and last week they released an advertisement. Let’s go and demand justice there. We’ve already been paid for one day,” he thundered.
Murmurs of yes faded as the men moved out, their kurta pyjama flapping behind them. Sunehri swarmed out of her book and watched as Millie slid into the chair, her head in her hands.
“Phew!” she said, looking up. Glancing over at Sunehri’s side, she smiled. “You guys saved my library today! And possibly, my life, too. Thank God, for you guys.” Sunehri nodded; she understood her sentiment. She remembered her wise grandmama’s song.
Har sidhe raste ki
Ek tedhi chaal hai
Sidhe raste ki ek tedhi chaal hai.
“Gone!” Millie picked up a broom from the utility cupboard and swept the shards from the floor. She examined the desecrated book. “This is beyond repair. I’ll just take it home.” A deep sigh escaped her, and she vented out aloud.
“We bear the brunt of the language war between the governments. Each day, a new diktat is thrust upon us! Write the establishment’s name in English, now by Hindi, add Marathi, then Punjabi. We should keep a blank board outside, claiming we don’t follow any language. Or resort to the pidgin ones!”
Sunehri kept silent.
“The UP government converted 5000 of its Hindi medium schools to English, and here we’re being hounded for not stocking Hindi books. It’s so unfair.” Millie fumed.
Sunehri felt the decision to part ways with her book was made for her. The arrival of the mob ensured things were crystal clear. We’ve got to leave. Our current PM Bodhie may use Hindi as his frontstage language, but he lapses into his native one when he is backstage. Like his predecessors, irrespective of the party line, the intent was the same. We cannot expect any logic from them. We must leave. A trip to the English section is warranted. A break for my old knees that are tired of squatting on the ground, maybe, sitting for a change is much needed. Maybe, the words of Shakespeare and Hugo might have some more meat on them. The silverfish family bade their farewells to Sant Sufi Rumi as they trudged out. Rumi watched them go as he looked within himself to find solace. His words soothed him as the pitter-patter of their many feet faded away.
Their new abode was like something from a fairy tale. The clean, scented air, the thick plush chairs, and the bookshelves. Endless rows of them were stacked against the painted walls. A chai-dispensing ketli held a prominent place dispersing its aroma in the air. Ah, life was good. So many spots for us to call home. Choices, choices!
Sunehri took refuge in the shadowy section of the English books–the classics. It was placed behind the best-selling fiction racks. The shelves were clean, but the books were old.
“Old books are the best! Their starch quality is top-notch. Come on, troops, let’s find the biggest, fattest book to live in,” Sunehri said. After a quick search, they settled in their new abode, Iliad, by Homer. Not only was it an enormous book, spanning over 500 pages, but the starch was superb! Sunehri swooned over the quality and fragrance. So many generations of mine can survive on just half the book! Life was looking up. No more dust, no more dialects. After all, no man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny. No?
Sunehri and her brood settled well in their new home. Few visited their part of the library, more than the vernacular, of course. But classics wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Millie’s nasal twang didn’t echo so much here. She was almost likeable. Almost. Though Sunehri did miss the soft-spoken Rumi, she was enjoying the verbose Homer.
Many moons later, the gang of imbeciles was back! And this time, they brought more of their stupidity, along with a change of weapons. Javelins replaced hockey sticks. After rolling her eyes, Sunehri’s eyes fell on the calendar. 14th September. Of course, they’re back. Her antenna beeped danger signals ‘. . . . – – – . . .’ it went. Her mind hummed.
Har sidhe raste ki
Ek tedhi chaal hai
Sidhe raste ki ek tedhi chaal hai
Golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai.
Mr. Moustache’s hairy abomination was still the best feature of his face. “Where are the banners?” He asked Millie, who sighed dramatically.
He turned to his coterie. “Get your javelins out. We’ve some bashing to do!”
“What are you harping about?” Millie’s arched eyebrow questioned.
“Our party office has got the orders. All official communications are to be in Hindi only.”
“We are a library.”
“Yes. You are part of social media, so you’ve got to talk in Hindi. And hang the banners celebrating the day.”
Millie’s mouth fell open, and using all her self-control, she asked. “And which day is that? Please enlighten us.”
“Fake Hindu, you are! It’s Hindi Diwas. Our orders are to cause havoc where banners aren’t hung.” Mr. Moustache twirled his mouth fungus as he gazed around. “I don’t see any.”
Millie stuck her thumb out, pointing to the wall behind her. A white-coloured placard was tacked onto the wall with nails. Hindi Diwas, written in large Devanagari script.
“Oh. But we’ve already brought the new javelins. How can we leave before their inauguration?” With one head movement and unrestrained glee, Moustache unleashed the zombies who made their way to the English section, and their reign of terror commenced.
The books fell in a heap, Iliad, one of them. Sunehri cowered in her book. The irony, besides the sticks, hitting her.
Once the goon left, Sunehri took stock of the carnage. Millie was at her table talking to someone over the phone. “Utter nonsense! We had hung the banner, despite that, they vandalized us!”
Sunehri ploughed back to the Hindi section. Life was safer there–it was a language-driven haven. Her family song bubbled up, and her three tails moved in rhythm.
Har sidhe raste ki
Ek tedhi chaal hai
Sidhe raste ki ek tedhi chaal hai
Golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai
Golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai.
She droned under her breath as she huffed, reaching the Sant Sufi Rumi. There, she vibrated within her exoskeleton, shocked.
Rumi had been re-starched! And, dusted. The entire section looked… clean.
“How! When did this happen?”
“My beautiful Sunehri, Millie felt it was essential to revamp your old friend, as per the whims and fancies of the government. Today it was the chance for Hindi. Tomorrow who knows what will their flavour of the next month.”
“But your spine’s holes persist, Rumi!”
“Wounds are where the light enters you, Sunehri. Welcome home.”
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