Indrani Ganguli is that rare personality; an interpreter of languages, a salon-keeper of resolute character and a friend to many. She’s as adept at staring down recalcitrant witnesses in court while taking down their depositions as she is compassionate with those who clearly are devastated at being there at all. Her stories are rich in classical allusions even as they explore the social consciousness (or lack thereof) of the times we live in. Here is a story of love, of faith, of a sordid world in which love and faith bring hope.
She hugged the steaming mug of aromatic coffee with both hands and once again looked with helpless longing at a book on a shelf across the open arch that was the bridge between the cafè and the shop. Ayesha always sat at one of the end tables of the snug little cafè that fitted into the book shop like a tiny, gleaming diamond in a platinum band.
This is what unrequited love must feel like, she thought up herself. This anguish that claws at the heart.
Ayesha’s experience of love was limited. As far as she could remember she had been promised to her first cousin, Jahanzeb. It was a neat way of preventing the family business from going out of the family. This also kept her brother, Afroze, free for any another matro-business deals that may be struck as and when required. That was something that Ayesha had never really thought about.
There was school to go to and school was a buffer against the reality of the family. Her father had enrolled her in one of the best Catholic missionary schools in the city, despite the onslaught of her grandparents’ rants.
“The world is changing. She will have to be educated well enough to take her place in it”, he insisted.
Grandmother had said,”She’s only going to run the house.”
“No.”her father had said, “She’s also going to work. Marriage will happen in its own time.”
So she went to school, made friends with girls she could never bring home, Supriya being one of them, and absorbed all that she was taught with the eagerness of a sponge.
By the time she got into fashion designing in college, her grandmother was too infirm to make much noise and her aunt was extremely pleased because she had a ready made designer for the boutique that she had started and which was doing great business among the families they knew and was gradually expanding by word of mouth.
Ayesha hadn’t wanted to do a course in fashion designing. Her heart had been set on literature, English literature like Supriya, Shirin and Gurdeep. But her father wouldn’t hear of it. She could read as many novels and poems as she liked, as a hobby. A recurrent topic for conversation in social gatherings was Ayesha’s fondness for Shakespeare. Her father would shake his head fondly.
“But what will literature do to help you in the world eh? Waste of time. Let those other parents do what they will. You must get into an useful course.”
So she joined Zubeida chachi in her boutique and life seemed set. All that was left to do was to make the business prosper so that her would be mother-in-law would be proud of her. Ayesha tried her best. And her designs did catch the fancy of the customers.
And then, there was that evening.
No one in the family really understood why she was making such a fuss. Okay, the young man had got a little too carried away, he was a bad boy, but then, he’s the one you are going to marry aren’t you? Chalo, let’s set the date then. What do you mean that you won’t? What do you mean that you won’t go to the boutique any more? What do you mean that the place reeks of sordidness? We are telling you, na, it happens, you two were alone there, and he lost his head. Of course we have scolded him for it. He shall say sorry to you.
But Ayesha seemed not to hear, or see. Or even speak, after a few days.
Her frightened mother called up Supriya and asked her to come and meet her friend. When the rest of the family was away at work, Supriya came, heard and quietly pressed a peacock feather into her palm.
“He will look after you. Don’t worry. He will give you the strength to fight.”
The next day, Ayesha had packed a small bag, written a note for her mother and left, never to return.
Around her, every table in the cafe was full of the chatterati and the glitterati of this part of the old city, that had been recreated by the brute force of Mammon in full flow.
She almost jumped at the soft voice and looked up to see a young, dark man standing apologetically looking at her with coal black luminescent eyes, that held the hint of a smile. He didn’t look very well heeled. Certainly not like the others. He was wearing scruffy jeans and a startling yellow Fabindia short kurta.
“Can I sit here and have my coffee and sandwiches? There’s not a table to be had, and I’m hungry. I wouldn’t bother you, but….”
Ayesha was a veteran of unwanted male gaze and unwelcome solicitations but this man gave off no negative vibes.
“Please do.”she said, forcing a smile to her lips, dry because she again forgot to use the mini balm that Supriya had thrown into her bag with a muffled fruity curse.
They sat in silence. Each busy with the food in front of them.
Then the young man said,” I have never been here before. But it’s heartening to see a book store so full. I thought people had stopped reading real books. How many have you bought today?”
Ayesha said,”I work here. ”
“Oh”, and he lifted a shapely eyebrow.
“This is my lunch break. I prefer to spend it here.”
“You are lucky to work among books”, he said in a level voice, devoid of any expression.
That very blandness of the reply seemed to goad Ayesha into unnatural garrulity.
“I, err, my school friend Supriya is the owner of this shop. I had another job but, it, you see”.
She came to an abrupt stop, realising, with dismay, that she had been about to confide her innermost troubles to a total stranger.
“It wasn’t for you, was it, that job?”said he, wiping his long fingers carefully on the paper hanky. “So it was good that Supriya had this opening for you. I think friends are better than relatives. ”
“They are. I also needed a place to stay,” she said, quite unable to stem the flood. “And it’s so convenient to be just a floor up. You can keep an eye on the establishment.”
He took a tiny sip of the espresso double shot.
“I wonder what made her choose to open a book shop here where the only thing that seems to sell are foreign brands of consumer products.”
Ayesha had now firmly got into her hobby horse.
“Supriya had promised herself that she will make the wealthy want to buy books. That’s why we have tacked on jewellery and bags and shoes onto the shop. You have no idea what we do. We give theme parties here. Books with jewelry, that was one of our most successful themes. Almost half our stock of hardbounds were sold.”
“And books with a shoe theme?”, he dimpled at her.
“We had that too! And I promise you, the books almost outsold the shoes, Jimmy Choos too!”
And both of them had a hearty laugh. Then suddenly Ayesha’s eye fell on the cuckoo clock and she scrambled up.
“I’m so sorry. I need to go now.”
The young man immediately stood up.
“It was a pleasure talking to you.”
“Please take a good look around. We have acquired some old, genuine first editions this month. If you’re interested.”
“I’m interested in everything,” he said, with a smile that you could warm your frozen hands at.
Ayesha had to call upon her most managerial demeanour and say, “Have a good time. And do keep coming.”
Those coal black eyes suddenly glittered.
“I do you know. Keep coming.”
Ayesha looked at him a bit amazed. Then she gave him her professional smile and passed through the arch to the shop. But before she went to her open cabin, she couldn’t stop herself from going to that designated shelf and caressing the volume, like one caresses one’s beloved. Then with a deep sigh she walked away.
The day passed in a whirl because Supriya had another fabulous idea to sell books to the Great Unwise, as she called the droves of the nouveau riche that thronged the shop, now that it had become fashionable to do so.
At six o’clock, Sulekha, the cashier, came up to Ayesha with a wide smile and a gift wrapped parcel.
“Someone has left you this. Enjoy yourself. ”
Flummoxed and befuddled, Ayesha picked up her paper knife and neatly undid the wrapping paper. And then gasped. And then looked and looked again.
The book. The coveted first edition. The book that would have cost her a year’s pay. The first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets that had the scrawled name of John Keats written in his own hand with a date.
That book was gifted to her? To her? But by whom? Feverishly she rummaged into the wrapping paper.
Then she reverently turned the cover to see the fly leaf, and, there it was, a note paper with a single sentence.
“You don’t need another human to make you complete. ”
And tagged to the note was one very bright peacock feather.