The library was redbrick, sitting self-importantly in the middle of the college campus. I pushed open the heavy swing door and went into a room with a tiled chessboard floor and many shelves fanning out from a central reception area. Six or seven people were sitting at tables, working. A woman in her mid-forties was sitting behind a computer, peering into a thick register and entering details into the device. She must be the one. I thought to myself and started walking straight towards her. She was dressed in cotton salwar kameez and her dark hair was tightly secured in a large bun that hung languidly near the nape of her neck. As I inched closer and closer, I noticed that even though she didn’t wear a nose ring, her nose was pierced from both sides, there were tattoos in the back of her arm but they weren’t anything modern or chick like I had seen on some of my friends. Amid typing and looking at the log book, she lifted her eyes to acknowledge my presence. This was also my cue to introduce myself. Since it was already past mid-day, I began with a formal greeting.
“Good afternoon Ma’am. My name is Sandhya. We spoke on the phone yesterday about me writing a column about your journey as a librarian here.”
She studied my appearance for a while and then offered me a seat next to her. I sat quietly, waiting for her to finish her work. After sometime she turned her chair towards me.
“I apologise for making you wait. You see there is only one more week left for me in the campus. And before I go I want to keep everything organized as best as possible, so that the new librarian can get on with his work without much difficulty.”
She checked the time looking at her wrist watch. “I hope you don’t have a class right now.”
“Oh no, I happen to have no class on Tuesday afternoons. So no problem at all. Ma’am, you have been working in this library for..”
“Yes twenty years. And in your tenure you have earned a lot of respect from your colleagues as well as the students for your diligence and… Since you have decided to take voluntary retirement, I, as a member of the University literary society would like to write an article about your journey so far. This article will be published in the quarterly University magazine.”
I didn’t know exactly why, but I fell short of words at this point of time. There was an aura of self assurance about librarian Ma’am that was painfully threatening. Clearing my throat I continued.
“I am now going to ask you a few questions.You ready?”
“Ma’am, have you always wanted to be a book keeper?”
As a child, I wanted to be a bird and fly all over the world. I wanted to peer into the oceans that flows over mountains and to the depths of the trenches just the same. I wanted to stare at the castle that stood on the blue beyond. I wanted to absorb the aura of Neon lights that flickered through the small, glass windows into the vast white-dotted darkness of a spaceship. As I grew up I realized that education is the only bridge that can connect my village to the real world. That, books are the wings, the time machine, the spaceship that can take you to your ‘anywhere’. So to answer your question, I would say I always wanted to get education, but, I didn’t know I would become a book keeper.”
“Tell me something about yourself. Your childhood, I mean. Where did you grow up?” I took out a pen and my dairy to take notes.
I noticed that her reassuring smile transformed into a humourless one. As if the question transported her across the brick walls of the library into the open fields, crossing the streets of the city and traveling miles away towards a lonely little village.
She sat there alone in the darkness, her ears pinned to the decaying walls of the den while all the other children played in the fields. The cracks in the wall allowed a little sunlight inside and soon as the Sun began to travel down the horizon, it was pitch dark inside. Darkness has become her world for quite sometime. Although she knew light was there, just around the corner, that day it felt like it was a million miles away.
“The girl is possessed by a demon,” the village women said. And the only way to free her is to starve her body so much that it eaves the body.
And that’s what her mother did. She locked her inside the den just a few feet away from the house.
Initially, it was for a few hours. But the demon was stubborn. It refused to go. It made her eat and write with her left hand. It made her question about things no one in the village dared to ask. She read more than anyone else in the village. She refused to wear the neck plates and the traditional earrings and nose rings. At last her mother decided to lock her inside the den until her demon is out.
She wasn’t scared of the darkness or the loneliness. In fact, it gave her time to think about the huge world beyond the hills. She wasn’t even scared of the bugs and mosquitoes that occasionally invaded her privacy. What she was really scared of, was her rumbling stomach. She knew, if she didn’t get any food to eat soon, bitter lava will start pouring out from her mouth. It has been more than a day that she had been locked inside, without a morsel of food or q drop of water.
She began to scream.
She tried to scratch the walls with her finger nails. But no one would open the door.
The nausea clawed at her throat, she tried to force down the bile, but it was too late. Her stomach kept on contracting violently and forcing everything up and out. Her face was white and dripping bile, sweat, and tears. She lurched forward and sunk to her knees. The pungent stench invaded her nostrils and she heaved even though there was nothing left to go.
And then she saw a light through the cracks in the wall. It flickered and was out in the next moment, just like a shooting star.
She got up and tried to look outside through the cracks on the wall and an image began to form. An angel in white had arrived at her house. She was riding a bicycle like thing but bigger. And now, the angel was talking to her mother.
She didn’t know for how long she was locked that time, or precisely when she lost consciousness. When she opened her eyes, she was lying on a jute mat inside her own house. Her mother brought her food and asked if she would like to go to Bhubaneswar.
The librarian shifted in her chair. She took a deep breath and began talking.
“I come from a small village in Malkangiri. I have eight siblings and I am second from last. My father and mother worked in the fields. We grew turmeric and sold it in the local haat. Our family was large and what we produced didn’t generate enough to feed everyone and so my parents sent some of my siblings to work in Bhubaneswar. I was one among them. I was around nine when I came to this city.”
“Then how did you get your education?”
“Though I was hired as a housemaid, Mohapatra babu and his family made me feel like I am part of the family. They had two daughters. I helped mausi in the kitchen. After babu left for work and both the daughters left for college, I read from the old books mausi handed me down. I asked a lot of questions and mausi answered all of them as best as she could. Kuni apa, their eldest daughter, taught me how to speak in English while Riti apa, the younger daughter taught me how to dress smart and ride a scooter.
I learnt how to speak and write Odia, Hindi, English. I learnt how to cook and bargain at the local market. In three years I was ready for the higher secondary examination. Although around the same time, back in my village, my parents worried about me and wanted me to return.”
“Did you?” I asked.
” I did. For a brief period of time. My family and village was exactly how I had left it. Soon after my arrival, my mother tried to get me married to a boy four years younger than I was. The boy’s family had promised a hefty price for the alliance. My father, like always was a mute spectator.”
“What happened then? How did you escape?” By this time I had stopped writing. I just held the pen between my fingers and listened to the fascinating tales of the lady who sat in front of me.
“When I was a child, my mother believed that I was possessed.” She continued. ” I am left handed and in our community, it is believed to be evil. So, my escape route was smooth. I just had to convince my folks that I was still possessed.” She threw her head back and smiled.
For the first time I saw her smiling with open mouth. She had pristine white teeth and a really small pout.
“What happened after that?”
“I came back to Bhubaneswar and continued to work at Mohapatra babu‘s. In the following years I appeared for the senior secondary school examination and then finally got enrolled into B.A.
Mohapatra babu’s daughters got married one after the other and by the time I was in my final year, the house was empty except for mausi, babu and myself. Just before my finals, mausi became very sick. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Babu and I took turns to care for her but she survived only for three more months more.”
She wiped a tear from her eyes and continued.
” Both the daughters then decided that Mohapatra babu should not stay alone in that house. The house was sold out and babu left for America with Kuni apa.”
“I was once again alone. Just like the time when my mother used to lock me up in the den. Except, this was no den. I had education and I had the freedom to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I took my final exams and applied for Masters. Meanwhile, I kept on appearing for interviews for the position of librarian. And before I knew, I was hired.”
I was still not able to understand the reason for her decision to retire. So even if it was not in my agenda, I asked her the inevitable question.
“Why are you taking voluntary retirement?”
“Back in my village, my brothers and sisters are still waiting, to see a world beyond turmeric, liquor and superstitions. I must go back to my village so that they can come out of the darkness and see the world as it is.”
It was almost five in the evening and we decided to conclude our meeting. I thanked her for her valuable time and we parted ways.
While walking back to my hostel, I could visualise the Malkangiri hills, a patchwork of green made even more varied by the shadows of passing clouds. They are every hue from new spring grass to deep forest pools. Some are more shallow that others, but most have steep paths that take you to one side of their summit and then down to the next valley below. I could visualise a bunch of children, running around the serpentine belt of dried grass while their mothers worked the fields. The women wearing thick silver neck plates neatly stacked one above the other, their torsos, covered in strings of colourful beads.
And then, I saw a little girl.
She was staring at the blue horizon and wondering, who taught the birds to fly. And who decided that the one who can fly, may not swim or one who can swim, may never fly?
Babu – (Odia) Sir
Mausi – (Odia)Aunty
Apa – (Odia) Elder sister
Haat – (Odia) Local market
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