Volume 1, Issue 2, pp. 12-16
A student of English literature, he had heard his professors raving about the erudite portals of the National Public Library and decided to explore its eclectic collection.
When Charles Babbage designed algorithms for the computer, he hardly realised he would ‘byte’ off the love for books from the mind of the human race. As fingers mastered the keyboard at a furious pace, they gradually loosened their hold over a crisp, fresh-from-the-press page of a book.
However, every age has an exception and Rishabh was the one for his. Young, inquisitive, and intelligent, Rishabh Sen was different from most of his peers because he loved books. While his friends frequented plush city malls, multiplexes, and sports pubs that had mushroomed across the city in recent years, Rishabh loved visiting book stores, and particularly libraries. Every waking hour of his life would be spent with a book.
However, if there was anything else that managed to hold his affection in equal degree, in addition to books, it was the gold watch that had adorned his wrist since his school days. It was a gift from his father on his 16th birthday. It had a beautiful golden dial with shining golden numerals and displayed the month and year in a small rectangular box inside the dial. None of his friends possessed such a beautiful watch. So whenever he went out with his friends, Rishabh would proudly hold up his wrist to check the time frequently.
It was the year 2005 and Rishabh was preparing for the final papers for his master’s degree. A student of English literature, he had heard his professors raving about the erudite portals of the National Public Library and decided to explore its eclectic collection.
“Excellent decision!” his father exclaimed when Rishabh had expressed his desire. Professor Sen was a renowned restoration architect with a great interest in history and historical buildings. He was frequently called upon by the Archaeological Survey of India when they took on the restoration of historical buildings. He was an extremely well-read man and was the proud possessor of a huge collection of books from all genres that included history, literature, and philosophy among many others.
Despite his own collection, the National Library still held its own aura for Professor Sen. It was he who had instilled in Rishabh the love for books. Over the years, it gave him immense pleasure to see his only son gradually shaping up to follow in his footsteps. This final decision of his son to visit the Mecca of all books gave him an immense satisfaction and made his heart swell with deep pride. He was sure his son would one day achieve the dreams that he had silently cherished over the years. He was happy that his perseverance and guidance of all these years were about to show positive results.
However, his wife, Sudha, had other views. A quintessential housewife, she did not like the idea of Rishabh travelling so far. The Sens lived in a small mofussil town on the outskirts of Kolkata. Travelling to the National Library, located in the heart of the city, would take Rishabh almost an hour and a half, one way. Like all mothers, she was apprehensive that the distance, the late hours, and the maddening traffic would all end up taking a toll on Rishabh's health.
Nevertheless, as always, she failed to provide substantial grounds for her objections to either the father or the son, neither of whom would be moved by mere emotions. Therefore, on a clear December morning, Rishabh found himself standing within the hallowed precincts of the pristine white structure, waiting to devour the treasures lying within.
Gradually, as expected, it became one of Rishabh’s favourite places. He would reach the Library by nine every morning and leave only when the Librarian would wait at the door jangling the keys. With very few people visiting the Library, Rishabh soon became a familiar figure and the Librarian, Mr. Bakshi, would always give him an extra hour while he packed up for the day. In return, Rishabh would also sometimes help him put back the books left behind on the tables by other readers.
One evening, Rishabh was deeply immersed in a very interesting book and had not realised the time. He was almost on the last page when he felt the presence of someone standing behind him. Rishabh assumed it must be the Librarian.
“I am almost done Bakshi Da.” said Rishabh, without looking up.
“Excuse me!” said an unknown voice.
Rishabh turned around on hearing an unfamiliar raspy voice instead of Mr. Bakshi’s polite greeting, and found himself looking into a round, spectacled face. The man had small beady eyes that smiled at him from behind his black rimmed glasses. A healthy growth of white beard hung around his cheeks and extended slightly below his chin. The hair growth on his head was, however, not so generous and sparsely bordered the fringes of his crown, leaving a shiny bald patch in the centre. His mouth, which was mostly hidden by his facial hair, was now spread in a wide grin while he looked at Rishabh.
“Are you the boy who puts the books back on the racks?”
“Er....Yes...I do help Mr. Bakshi sometimes,” said Rishabh in a confused voice.
“Wonderful. I thought as much,” said the man, sounding pleased. “You see,” he continued, “my name is Botukeshwar Dutta. I am Mr. Bakshi’s replacement. He could not come in today so he asked me to seek your help in putting back the books.”
“Oh is it time already?” said Rishabh, looking at his watch. “I am sorry. I was reading this book and lost track of time.”
“That is no problem at all,” said Botukeshwar, amiably. “It is a good habit to put all your energy in the task you are doing. However, I would still recommend that you learn to value time. That is the most precious and significant factor in your life.”
As he said the last words, Rishabh was surprised to catch a slight sternness in his tone that seemed to be in stark contrast to the amiable expression on his face. Rishabh shook his head and dismissed the thought, telling himself that he was unnecessarily reading too much into the stranger’s words.
“Yes... Of course!” said Rishabh, feeling a bit chided. “I am sorry as Bakshi Da never actually bothers about these things so...” he trailed off.
“Ah well! Mr. Bakshi is not here today and I am in charge,” sighed Botukeshwar. “You see I have been trained by my employers to be a stickler for doing the right thing at the right time.”
“So, if you are done for today, can we start packing?” he continued in an urgent tone.
Rishabh nodded and got up, feeling a bit strange. There was an archaic tone in the man’s voice that he had not heard in any of the library’s current staff with whom he had interacted, least of all Mr. Bakshi. Also, he was surprised he had not noticed Mr. Bakshi’s absence even once during the whole day.
“Are you from Kolkata?” Rishabh asked the man, casually.
“Yes. I could hardly leave,” said Botukeshwar with a peculiar melancholy in his tone.
Wondering what he meant by that, Rishabh observed that Botukeshwar shuffled his legs as he walked, and had a habit of rubbing his hands together, continuously, as he spoke.
Botukeshwar felt that Rishabh was looking at him and smiled back saying, “It has turned quite cold today, hasn’t it? I am an aged man, you see, and the cold is ruthlessly cruel to my old bones. It is, I must say, however more benevolent towards you youngsters.”
“Let me help you with the books first,” said Rishabh as he picked up the books lying on the tables before him.
He pulled a ladder and promptly climbed up its steps to start putting the books back on the shelves located on the higher racks. Botukeshwar stood looking at him with the same smiling eyes.
“You did not look at the titles nor the racks you were putting them back in,” he said after some time.
“Huh?” said Rishabh, looking down at him. “Well, what difference does it make? Who will notice? Very few people who come here actually realise the difference,” he said, casually.
“Do you?” said Botukeshwar as his eyes suddenly took on a steely look.
“Me?” said Rishabh, turning to look at him with surprise. “Yes I do!”
“How much?” continued Botukeshwar.
“‘How much’ what?” asked Rishabh, confused.
“I mean, how much do you value books?” he enquired in a softer voice.
“Oh! Books make up my whole life!” said Rishabh, passionately. “I cannot dream of an existence without them”.
“Really?” said Botukeshwar as a glint came into his eyes “Can you think of giving up your life for books?”
“Well, have never thought of it that way,” said Rishabh after pausing for a while. “Maybe, I think I can,” he continued, smiling as he silently caressed the book he was holding in his hands before putting it back on the rack.
“Do you think you can prove your love?” asked Botukeshwar. As he slowly moved his tongue over his lips, Rishabh noticed his lips were cracked, dry and almost bleeding. Something in the manner he licked his lips made Rishabh suddenly feel uncomfortable.
“What do you mean?” said Rishabh, warily.
“All I mean is, can you do something to prove this deep love for books that you profess?” said Botukeshwar, looking intently at Rishabh and rubbing his hands together.
“Like what?” said Rishabh, “What is it that you want me to do?” he asked, beginning to get suspicious.
“To begin with, you can start putting each book on the right rack,” said Botukeshwar as he pointed at the label of the rack where Rishabh was about to put the book he held in his hand.
The Library organized all books by the name of the author. All racks were labelled by the first letter of the Author’s surname. The rack label that Rishabh was about to put the book in, read ‘LMN’, while the Author’s name on the book he held started with a ‘B’.
“Oh is that it?” said Rishabh as he gave a relieved laugh and moved to the shelf labelled ‘ABC’.
Botukeshwar let out a slow chuckle. “You look relieved. What did you think I would have asked you to do?” he asked Rishabh.
A voice inside Rishabh’s head was telling him to leave, he knew not why. However, he had to finish putting back all the books first.
“Well, you know, I have noticed you often put the books in the wrong racks. I remember M’Lady always chided us if we....”
“M’Lady?” asked Rishabh with a surprised look.
“My employer, who else?” shot Botukeshwar, obviously not happy at being interrupted. “Well, M’lady always used to say, ‘Dutta, true love always demands attention. If you love something, give it time and care.’ Oh she was a great lady, but a stickler for keeping things in order. I have followed her orders word by word and given my heart and soul to maintaining this place except for once. That proved my undoing,” he finished, slowly.
Then, as if to change the topic, he continued “I know Bakshi is a worthless fool. However, you seemed different.”
“You know me?”said Rishabh, incredulously
“I have seen you often while substituting for Bakshi. You are the first to enter the library and always the last to leave. Of course you will not have noticed me. You are always engrossed in your books. Such diligence and dedication in today’s times is rare indeed. Bakshi always favours you. So I thought I might ask you to help me,” he said looking at Rishabh with narrowed eyes.
“I am only too happy to help,” said Rishabh as he got down from the ladder.
“It is not about this that I need your help. There is something else,” said Botukeshwar, slowly, as his lips curled up in a sinister smile.
“What is it?” said Rishabh, realising that it was really getting late now.
“You see, since you love books so much, I was wondering if you could do me a favour. Do you have some time?” asked Botukeshwar
Rishabh looked at his watch. He saw it was almost nine. It would take him another one and a half hours to reach home. He knew his mother would start getting worried if he stayed back any longer.
“Not really. I will have to leave. You see, I stay quite far and it is getting quite late,” said Rishabh, getting restless.
“Indeed it is quite late. All those books will probably never see the light of day,” said Botukeshwar with a sad expression in his eyes.
“Books?” said Rishabh with a questioning look at Botukeshwar.
“Yes. These are all rare and unique editions of books that have never been read by the public. These books need to be looked after. They need to be labelled, indexed, and sorted. As I have not been able to get to them they could not be put on the shelf. I have been tending to them, but, you see, I am getting old. I need someone young and energetic. Someone, who really loves books to help me get them shelf-ready.”
Rishabh was hooked. He said, promptly, “Can I take a look at them?”
“But you were getting late. I don't think I should delay you further,” said Botukeshwar, innocently.
“Oh that is no problem. A few more minutes will not make any difference,” said Rishabh, getting restless to see the collection. “Can we see the books now, please?”
“Of course”, replied Botukeshwar, brightening up. “If you will, please follow me,” he urged Rishabh as he started moving towards the large staircase to the left of the reception counter, where Bakshi stood issuing books every day.
“I can take a look and tell him that I will start working on them from tomorrow,” thought Rishabh.
Just the thought of being the first to touch these rare pieces of literature gave him goosebumps.
Just the thought of being the first to touch these rare pieces of literature gave him goosebumps.
The Library’s reading room was a huge hall surrounded by tall book shelves made of teak and mahogany wood. The long reading tables stretched from one end of the room to the other. Throughout the day, the presence of people diluted its massive space. Now, as Rishabh walked with Botukeshwar through its vast walls, its emptiness helped him realise its actual size. The halls echoed their footsteps, the soft thud made by Rishabh’s rubber sneakers and the shuffling monotone of Botukeshwar’s leather sandals. As the huge wall clock at the head of the hall struck nine, its loud gong reverberated through the area nine times, amplifying its emptiness more profoundly.
Rishabh moved as if in a trance. He was like a tiger that had got its first taste of blood. The thought of being able to handle such rare treasures drove out all other thoughts from his mind.
Just before they reached the staircase, Botukeshwar turned to his left and moved towards a small bookshelf located at the corner. Rishabh had seen that shelf and knew it hardly had any good books. Wondering why Botukeshwar was moving towards that shelf, he began to feel a bit disappointed at his decision. He was surprised to see Botukeshwar pause for some time, as if he was counting the books on the shelf. Then to his utter amazement he saw the man part a few books and press something. Slowly with a loud creak the bookshelf gave in.
Botukeshwar looked at Rishabh with an elated expression. “Come,” he said to Rishabh. “Follow me. Be careful, lower your head before you enter.”
Botukeshwar entered. Rishabh followed, hesitatingly, to find himself at the head of a long staircase that dropped down into a faint glow of illumination. The light at the end of the staircase indicated a room. The musty, dank odour was surprisingly overpowered by the familiar smell of good books. For Rishabh, that was strong enough a reason to climb down the rickety and slippery steps towards the flickering light that beckoned him, ardently.
Botukeswar led the way down holding up a candle that he had produced from somewhere. As Rishabh climbed down after him, he noticed how the older man’s silver mane shone and glinted in the faint light.
Botukeshwar stepped down with caution, one step at a time. He warned Rishabh to be careful, as in the absence of a handrail, it would be disastrous if he slipped and fell.
They finally reached the end of the staircase. Botukeshwar held up the candle for Rishabh to take a good look at the surroundings. The place was a windowless dungeon-like hole that appeared to have been simply dug out of the ground. It was barren except for a small table on which Botukeshwar had placed the candle.
For Rishabh, however, the place was probably the most beautiful place on earth because of the piles of books heaped together in a corner of the room. He ran his hands over them, only to find them caked with dust.
He dusted one to find that it was a unique collection of Saki that was rarely available. The D.H. Lawrence he picked up next was what he had been looking for everywhere. Rishabh soon realised that there were more books here than he had probably seen in any of the shops he frequented.
“This is a treasure trove you have here,” he said, excitedly.
“Yes, I know,” said Botukeshwar, slowly. “This is what I have worked for all my life. Taking care of these treasures till I found somebody equally worthy to do what I have been doing. I hope you remember what you promised. You will look after these books, won’t you?”
“Yes,” said Rishabh, lost in the books and not looking at him.
“Good,” said Botukeshwar. “I will take your leave now then.”
“Take my leave? What do you mean?” said Rishabh, spinning around.
“Well, you see M’Lady invested this responsibility on me. I have been obeying her orders dutifully all these years. It is now your turn to do the same.”
“But I thought you said you will help me?” said Rishabh, not quite understanding what all this was leading to.
“I fear you got me wrong, my friend.” replied Botukeshwar in a hoarse whisper, as he started heaving himself up the stairs. “I said you will help me and I am ever thankful to you for that.”
“Wh....what is all this? S...S..Some kind of a joke?” stammered Rishabh as his hands started feeling cold and clammy.
“Wait, where do you think you are going?” he shouted as Botukeshwar came back to pick up the candle from the table. Rishabh’s eyes widened in horror realising the full impact of what was about to happen.
“This was my penance for committing the grave sin of defying Lady Metcalfe’s orders. I was unable to keep her books and her house in order. I sinned and I deserved to be punished. You have sinned too. You have sinned without remorse. You have defied M’lady’s desires. You shall atone for them too,” his raspy threat rang down the stairs.
“And don't you worry about the chill and the darkness,” he continued with an evil sneer. “You will get used to it as I did.”
As Rishabh felt the darkness slowly engulf him in its murky clutches, he began to sweat profusely as he ran towards the stairs. None of what Botukeshwar was saying made sense to him. He did not want to make sense of anything now. All he wanted was to find a way out of there. In the dim light produced by the single lamp that flickered weakly in one corner of the room, he scrambled towards what he thought were the stairs on which he had climbed down. The shadows played a dirty game on him, and he stumbled and fell.
“Please let me out,” pleaded Rishabh as his voice cracked with sobs.
“I cannot let you out,” said Botukeshwar in mock disappointment. “There is no way out.”
“Of course there is,” shouted back Rishabh, terrified. “How did you manage to go out?” he cried out, miserably, trying to find a reason behind all this madness.
Botukeshwar had now reached the top of the stairs. He turned towards Rishabh with a still look in his eyes as he said in a calm voice “Don’t you understand? I never managed to get out.”
A sudden gust of wind blew out the candle, leaving Rishabh in an inky blackness that stifled his screams till they choked to silence.
Five Years Later
“Sir! Sir! This way please!” shouted Shibnath, a junior conservation engineer, to attract the attention of his supervisor, Mr. Bhadra.
Debangshu Bhadra looked towards where Shibnath was waving frantically at him from.
“What is it Shibnath?” he asked, running towards him.
“Look at what we discovered,” said the young man, excitedly.
Debangshu looked beyond him to see what Shibnath was referring to, and his eyes widened in surprise. The team from the Archaeological Survey of India was deputed by the Ministry of Culture to renovate the National Public Library, a building that had almost attained heritage status. The erstwhile residence of the Governor Generals of British India, including Lord and Lady Metcalfe, the palatial structure on Belvedere Road in south Kolkata had been converted to the Imperial Library in 1903. Post Independence it was renamed as the National Library of India in 1953. Since then, the building has been revered by academicians, scholars, and students alike.
The team from the Archaeological Survey of India was young and energetic, as it had among its members several young engineers, such as Shibnath. They were enthusiastic about this project and had provided some wonderful suggestions for improvement. Moreover, they had also made some amazing discoveries — one of them being an underground room hidden behind a set of book shelves at the foot of the main staircase. The existence of the room was hitherto unknown to any of the Library staff, past or present. That was a revelation, indeed.
However, today’s discovery was like the icing on the cake. They had found a huge collection of old, moth-eaten books and an actual human skeleton. Something about the skeleton seemed strangely familiar to Debangshu. He asked Shibnath to collect everything in a box and carry them to their office for further study.
They went into Professor Sen’s cabin and Debangshu updated him about the latest findings. The elderly professor listened patiently to the details. Debangshu felt sorry for the old man. His face had aged far beyond his actual years. Five years ago, his only son had mysteriously disappeared from within the precincts of this very library. However, the man had never let his personal losses override his professional responsibilities. Debangshu hoped that today he would be able to bring some form of closure to the elderly gentleman.
“There is a strange thing I found in that room, Sir. It was hanging loose from the skeleton’s wrist. Maybe it would be of some interest to you,” said Debangshu, softly.
Professor Sen looked on as Debangshu placed a packet in front of him. As he took in the contents of the packet, his eyes slowly widened with shock and disbelief.
In front of him lay a beautiful gold watch, its shine slightly diffused. Its broad strap, though blackened at its edges, failed to hide its identity.
Its dial, visible through the frosted and cracked glass, displayed the time, month, and year that read -
Amrita Chatterjee is a history graduate from the prestigious Presidency College, Kolkata. She has worked as a professional writer with several notable organizations in Kolkata, Bangalore, Gurgaon, and Pune. Currently, she is working as a freelance writer and is based out of Pune. Her travelogues have been published in Coldnoon and GoWorld Travel Website. Her short story The Window Seat was published by Juggernaut Books. She has several self-published stories on Amazon Kindle Store.
Loved the story..
Had me hooked for 20 minutes. Made me forget that I’m in the hospital emergency room waiting for patients and tolerating mosquito bites.