I almost do not notice her at first. Her face is not visible, turned away from me. She is wearing a yellow sari that gives an impression of lightness. Her hair is short. It suits the sharpness of her pale face, and grants her an air of sprightliness. Though her movements, as I notice, are extremely slow. A woman exuding an air of contrasts always gains attention. She leans on the wooden table looking at the books she is choosing to buy. Her posture might be the same as inside a room she is familiar with. She has a natural unmindfulness for spaces in public. She is in College Street. A bookshop in the street holds the promise of a garden, the garden of books, and she the solitary connoisseur, oblivious to the crowd around her, picking her choices. I ask the bookseller if he has the poets I am looking for: Bhaskar Chakraborty, Nabarun Bhattacharya and Utpal Kumar Basu. The bookseller notes down the names, simultaneously warning me, “I will check on these names, but I doubt you will get Bhaskar and Utpal.” I ask him why, for I think these are among the more popular names. “People don’t read poetry,” he replies matter-of-factly, “so they don’t sell. That makes them hard to find.” There are so many poets in Calcutta, and such few readers?
The woman leaning on the table pays no notice to the names of poets I take. Her hair is partly graying — from life, or a life of reading. I am curious about her indifference to the names of my poets. I peep into the titles of her books for a clue. There are twelve books in all, either by Tagore or on the poet. I find my answer. Tagore inspires monogamy. Childhood love or childhood dreams of marriage, he is the most eligible dead suitor for certain old-world Bengali women. Tagore is a one-god pantheon. There is no place for other, smaller gods on the altar. Bhaskar, Nabarun and Utpal might be bright stars on the horizon, but they can’t gain entry into her monogamous temple.
The woman picks up the books she has bought one by one, pauses at each one, caresses them as she would a smooth rectangular relic, and places them back on the wooden table. Then she asks the bookseller to calculate the cost. The bookseller is ready. “One thousand seven hundred and ninety,” he tells her. The woman grows pale and fidgety all at once. She starts speaking in a soft but swift manner, grumbling partly to herself, partly to the bookseller. “This is the end of me. I am finished. I can’t afford it. What do I do now? I am ruining myself. You are also ruining me. This is the end of me. I am finished. What do I do now? You have ruined me.” I hear her — not moving, not speaking — just a stunned ghost eavesdropping on the scene. Like the poets I intend to buy, I too do not exist. The bookseller smiles. The woman looks distraught, but I suspect it is a painful attempt at deception.
I remember a Bengali woman buying vegetables in Delhi. She too suffered from this chronic unwillingness to pay for what she wanted to buy. “What price for the tomatoes?” she asked the vegetable seller. “Forty rupees a kilo,” the man said. The woman roughly threw back the tomato she was holding: “Their redness doesn’t match your price.” Next she asked the vegetable seller, “How much is the cauliflower for?” “Fifty rupees a kilo.” “Have it yourself then,” she snorted without hesitation and walked away. I wondered if she would have behaved the same way in a sari shop. The status of things is defined by the place at which they are sold.
For the woman in College Street, the price of her books is unfair despite her rich literary taste. Little does she realise her haggling suddenly turns the books into ordinary goods. Precisely at that moment of intersection, that moment of transaction that books turn into goods, nothing more, and nothing less, all profundity falls at the mercy of an unpleasant deal. Perhaps there is a lingering childhood memory of books being as cheap as those once sold from Russia. Memory is the root of all monstrosities. She regains her posture, without much help from the bookseller, who looks at her as helplessly as she looks at her books. She says, “I will have to leave a few of them in that case. I can’t take them all. I will simply have to leave a few.” She begins to pick up the books again, one by one, slowly caressing them, this time more slowly and desperately. I have seen such a caress only in films between lovers in ecstasy. The twelve books are twelve different heads, or perhaps twelve heads belonging to the same man. The woman goes through all the twelve books thrice, unable to decide which one to leave behind. She speaks softly, again partly to herself and partly to the bookseller, “All of them belong to me. I don’t know what to do.” Her voice trails off. She looks away into nowhere. These twelve books are twelve chapters of her life. It isn’t possible for her to leave any chapter behind. The bookseller nods his head and smiles, “I knew, I knew, you wouldn’t be able to leave any of them behind.” The woman pushes the books towards the bookseller with a sign of distressful resignation, “Do whatever you want.” There is a touch of recklessness in that gesture, mixed with a feigned admission of defeat. As the bookseller proceeds to pack the books, the woman makes a last desperate bid for crumbs, “Can’t you at least leave out the ninety from the price?” The man, still gently smiling at her, is firm, “I have made all the deductions, trust me. It can’t go lower than that.”
As she counts the money and hands it with melancholic hands to the bookseller, the woman looks as if she might faint. The bookseller quickly counts the money and calls the old man standing nearby, who is just finishing his tea, “Grandpa, you are the best man for the job. The lady here isn’t feeling too well. She is carrying a heavy load of books. Please help her find a taxi home while I attend to the customers here.” The old man picks up the packet of books, ready to accompany the woman. As she turns away from the bookshop, the bookseller gently says, “Come again.”
The woman, her dreamy eyes sinking into the horizon as the sun sets, looks relentlessly sad. What she sees before herself perhaps weighs heavier than the books she is carrying. She does not respond to the bookseller’s parting phrase. My first impression of her lightness gets transformed into an impression of unbearable lightness. The air around her has grown much heavier. As I watch her leave, imagining where she has come from and what life she is going back to, I am jerked into attention by the bookseller’s voice, “All your three poets have been found.” What a relief to my ears! I imagine these poets streaming out of their hiding places to reach my hands. I buy them without ado.