By Cecile Rischmann
I must have been 17 the first time I stepped into Eswari Library. Mr. Palani was sitting with his famous logbook, head bent in deep concentration as he scribbled away. I was in my green pinafore, white blouse, broad green belt, white keds, and the famous bag wrapped around the shoulders to enable us to bear that heavy load of books.
Eswari Library was then a little hole-in-the-wall, but the collection it had was worth that twenty minutes walk from school. I’d hurry past St George’s Cathedral’s cemetery gate, afraid an extra minute there might attract a visit from a dead soul. I’d think of my favorite author, Carole Mortimer, and my stride would turn longer and swifter. Don’t ask me the reason why but I got hooked after reading Forbidden Surrender.
“How much?” I’d ask Mr Palani digging into the pocket of my pinafore, clutching at the precious remains of my birthday savings.
“Five rupees. But you must return the books on time,” he’d say in a stern voice.
“But I want to buy them.”
He’d frown at me. “Buy?”
I’d nod and try to appear important so that Mr. Palani would take me seriously. “She’s my favorite author. I want to own her books. How much would it cost me?”
Mr. Palani would look slightly doubtful, however, he’d still oblige and calculate the cost price. I think he used to give me great discounts because I’d always managed to buy the books. After settling the bill, I’d remove my textbooks and notebooks from my school bag and tuck in all my Carole Mortimer’s novels. Then I’d rush back home, my mind immediately preoccupied on which book to start.
Twenty-nine years later, I was travelling that road again with my own title tucked in my bag. The streets of Gopalapuram seemed familiar as we drove down Damodaran Street. My eyes began to smart as I saw the house where I met my first boyfriend, a rather good-looking guy with light brown eyes. He’d come to that house and wait for me. A messenger would arrive home as if he was asking for a bottle of chilled water and it would be me who opened the door to give it to him. I’d dress quickly and pretend as if I was going to Eswari Library and instead meet this boy. Nothing extensive, he’d look at me and smile and I’d look at him and smile. What a thrill.
As I continued down the street, I could see the terrace of the house where I lived for more than ten years. That used to be the place where I’d go when I wanted to be alone, a place where I’d weave those impossible dreams. Not really impossible come to think of it because those dreams were realized. My eyes filled as I thought of mom and the conversations we used to have. She might not have been highly educated but she never mocked my dreams. She’d caution me however, that we didn’t have that kind of money and I’ll have to work to reach the place where I wanted to be.
It was 3 PM. The school traffic on Lloyd’s Road ran in all directions. An autorickshaw driver wore the cap of a policeman trying desperately to bring order to that maddening disorder. I watched in growing dismay as we got stuck in the middle of a traffic jam. The chauffeur reassured me that he had a way out and took a sudden left into the area where a petrol bunk stood. He circled the vehicles that were getting their tanks filled, and coolly zoomed out the other way into a nearly empty road.
My heart began to race as we neared Eswari Library. I could see Mr. Palani stacking books outside just like he used to do those years ago. But instead of a hole-in-the-wall, his library was now spread over1000 sqft. It had a wide entrance, camera surveillance, an official desk, and a high-back chair.
Mr. Palani’s head lifted as he saw me. “Mr Satish, will be here in a few minutes. Please come inside, Madam.” A girl was sitting at the reception. She picked the receiver and began dialing as I gave her my card.
“Is it okay if I look around?” I asked, as I strolled towards the shelves neatly arranged according to genre. I began sifting through the books, going down memory lane, remembering a former rival, Lizzy, who’d sometimes buy the title of my favorite author just to annoy me. She was an Emma Darcy fan.
“Is there a particular author you are looking for?” Mr. Palani was watching me aimlessly shuffling his books, some of which were so worn that they were taped and re-taped several times over.
“Do you remember me, Mr. Palani? I used to stay around the corner. I came here often.”
He smiled and shook his head regretfully. “Was that a long time ago?”
“Yes, long time ago.” I continued to go through the books feeling some kind of urge to jolt his memory. I felt like I was being denied a treat. “I used to buy Carole Mortimer’s books.”
I’d swear there was a flicker of recognition in those eyes but by then his son had arrived. Satish ordered tea and introduced me to his father. “Cécile Rischmann used to stay in our area. She’s an author now.”
“What book have you written?” Mr Palani seemed very thrilled and rather proud of me. I dug out my novel, pretty excited myself, and gave it to him. He ran a quality control check and nodded. “We’ll send your books for binding first so that they’ll last longer,” Mr Satish said, and gave instructions to the librarian, Priya.
“Where would you keep them?”
Mr. Palani looked around him and pointed to the entrance. “Over there.”
Mr. Satish shook his head. “At new arrivals, behind Priya’s desk, we’ll keep a copy in each of our branches. Do you have any posters?”
“I’ll mail them. Do you have Carole Mortimer?” This time Mr. Satish and his father strode inside and a few minutes later I was holding ancient titles I didn’t have. I placed them carefully in my handbag feeling that prick of tears again.
I clicked pictures of Mr. Palani and Mr. Satish and The French Encounter, knowing that my novel was in safe hands. It sat in a treasured cove established over 55 years ago by a man whose love for books steered him into creating 11 branches around Chennai, a man who remained humble despite his success.
Cheers to Mr Palani. Cheers to Eswari Library. Cheers to Mr Satish and Mr Saravanan.