The sweat poured down the back of his shirt as he carried his hard-bound collective under the Belgaum sun. But the entrance to his tuition class was in sight now. Was his bag-o-books about to give way? No, it had seen tougher struggles. There was the time he had raided Nutan Stationers for the extra-glossy. Or when he’d refused to leave Navabharat Book Store until his father had filled his rucksack with books.
He entered tuition with pomp, a bespectacled Julius parading Rome after consigning Pompey to ancient history. The unburdened ones only saw this small, scurrying, rucksack-carrying boy and united in cry: “Book-fucker! Book-fucker! BOOK-FUCKER!!”
The day had begun so well. The whirring laser printer had just discharged the last eight-hundred pages of Elementary Physics. Pure excitement coursed through his veins as he bounded toward the paper tray.
His newest copy. Not that the others had failed him in any way, no sir! It was always a good trip back to his older ones, every once in a while. Especially Mother. Her skin peeled in places, sure, but her smell of dusty pages provoked as many thoughts as she did sneezes. He looked at the dog ears, the stains of countless meals, and would see his life’s course in those pages. He could feel the cool air of his memories rush by in a blur when he flipped through.
But the newest addition to this family demanded his attention now. He put their mother aside for the time being. Ahh, that smell of newly printed paper. That smell, that feel, that weight in the palms, like a newborn, warm, full of life. He held it close like that, for more than just a while. His fingers ran over the smooth pages. He could almost hear a beating heart, but quickly snapped out of his reverie, shaking his head. His smile hadn’t died though.
No hint of that smile back at the tuition, however.
The yells had reduced to hisses now- quieter, but no less hurtful. But they were finally in class now. He would sit up front, so he wouldn’t have to be a part of that lonely world.
An air-conditioned classroom with giant screens, the truest sign of educational progress in the 10s.
Elementary Physics. Fifteen hundred pages in length. A brand new copy for a brand new day.
“Now, when we all scroll to page thirty-seven…”
There was no sound, save for a nervous rustle from the front of the class.
“The link at the bottom of the page should point you to the true derivation of Boyle’s law. Line twenty-seven…”
The rustle grew more frantic, the looks in his direction more sardonic.
“For homework, refer to the three links at the bottom, which are from three different books, of course. Thank goodness for technology!”
That, he thought, not which.
“Of course, for those who choose to do it the ancient-fashioned way, I’m sure the tomes are available somewhere in the physical library.” He paused in his thoroughly-misguided endeavor to be relatable to 10s children, and continued with a side-long glance, “For all the one of you.”
The sound of sixty tlocks as everyone locked their screens for the day signaled the end of another usual day.
Her gaze was earnest, caring, like any of those wonderful girls untainted by bad role models and mixed messages of empowerment. He liked her.
“I think it’s great that you’re standing up for what you like. But wouldn’t it be nicer to walk to class without your knees buckling under the weight?”
Ah, what could he tell this innocent soul? Newspapers went on the wire. Then, it was fiction novels. The, non-fiction was Buzz-Fed. It was only the poor old treasures of academics, the books of derivations and labelled diagrams that were still available in print. The only thing he could feel and touch anymore.
“Haha. Sure, why not.”
“Anyway, I need the book.”
Excitement coursed through his veins.
With that, she was done, she bounded away with heavy step, her thick black hair swinging this way and that, just like the good old bag-o-books.
He thought about her on his way back home.
That thick, glistening black. That bound, heavy but undemanding on the surface that it laid on. His thoughts went back to the very first time he laid eyes on her. It had been three weeks since he had lost his father.
“One hundred and twenty grams per square meter”, the man at Nutan Stationery had said proudly. Every beam of light simply bounded off of it. Oh, but he could have judged it by the cover – strong and proud, embossed lettering, a first edition that could be proud of its name.
“Only one question. How do you not have one already? It even has your last name on it!”, he said.
His father would never have brought a free copy home. That was never his way.
“Elementary Physics. One.”
His hands had trembled as he held his father’s work, just as they had shaken after he shook hands with her.
She needs the book! – an opportunity, perhaps? Validation? Exactly what he was waiting for, at some level?
Was this the happiness they spoke of? A new person in your life, one who didn’t just tolerate, but appreciate; who looked at the things you loved with the same eyes as you?
The bag felt lighter than it had ever felt.
He could just see his house at the end of the lane when he stopped.
Oh, oh, oh. He had completely forgotten. Paper day! He walked with a purpose now.
Nutan Stationery. His refuge. Well, apart from his paper palace- a place beyond compare. But this was a close second. A bottomless treasure trove, a beacon of hope even in a troubled time such as this one, one where black screens were triumphant over white pages.
He quickened the pace. Maybe they would have gloss in stock. Or silk! It’d been far too long since he’d partaken in silk. Oh, goody.
And there it was: Nutan Stationery, around the corner, and here, he, went-
A blue shutter. That’s odd. Monday morning at ten. This was unexpected. He looked this way and that, but there was nothing untoward. No sign of life.
The place was still. There was no one in sight. He could have sworn he heard the breezes unite in a pained whisper- “Goodbye”.
Just over two years ago, when Navbharat Bookstore had succumbed to the black screens, he had cried out loud into the night while his father chuckled, shaking his head. Today, he could not make a sound.
The newspaper-vendor-turned-phone-accessory-saleman was passing by. Their eyes met for a second, not more. The man seemed to say: You’re next.
But the man was unaware of the secret weapon.
Once before in his life, he had lost a place of refuge. At the time, he had nowhere else to go. But not today – he had one last place where he was sure of happiness.
He ran back home, caring not of the weight on his back nor the pain in his side. He pushed against the door – there was no resistance, no lock – and charged up the stairs and into his room.
Amongst the walls of regular and gloss, he could feel his breathing slow to normal. He was in a better place now. He could cope here, rest here, deal with loss here.
His paper palace.
He could tell that a new day had begun, the room was bright. He could hear the faint ring of the telephone. Where was Mom? Nowhere to be found, to be sure. He hauled himself downstairs.
Her voice was earnest as always.
“Do you remember, we were supposed to meet today, for the notes?”
He said he remembered.
“Great, I’ll see you at your place then? I’m already on my way.”
Maybe she would understand. He said that would be nice.
Oh, it would be nice, indeed. He had spent all night taking in the printer sounds, the wash of light that engulfed his pages, the perfect clones that emerged.
She approached! He bounded down outside his house in a heartbeat.
She said hello.
He stretched out the parcel in his hands. His baby. His –
Her mouth made a square as her eyes widened and she said “Whaaa- “
He stood there like that, a ship sinking in his gut.
“I’m sorry. You misunderstood. I don’t care for books.”
If he hadn’t felt the blow just there, he would feel it now –
“You have the wrong idea. I just wanted to take pictures.” And she drew from her pocket that murderer of dreams.
Two lenses like eyes. A speaker, like the devil’s evil grin. In between, six and three-quarter inches of black death.
Click. Click. Click.
He could do nothing to stop it. Over and over again, with the monotone of a ticking time bomb.
Click. Click. Click.
It molested the book, in clear sight. The recesses of his mind only said make it stop, make it stop, make it –
He would make it stop. It was a moment of truth.
With a grunt, he snatched at the book she had so wantonly treated, like a whore! The book ripped at its seams, she had held on to it with the devil’s own strength. He gave an almighty tug. That devil’s apparatus, that rapist black screen, went straight into the pavement. Breathing heavy, heart pounding, he bolted back upstairs into his room.
It was in low times like this that the vision kept coming back. He would feel the sticky skin again, the smell of chemicals and poorly scrubbed bedpans, and his father, in bed, saying:
The book is a piece of my life.
His father, stereotypically cancer-struck. His mother, absent.
His eyes had welled at the time. His eyes welled now.
He looked around him, at all the pieces of his father’s life.
Did he need anything else? Maybe food and water. Yes, perhaps. But what he needed now, maybe forever, was only his paper palace.
If he closed the windows, and turned off the lights, he could hear the papers unite in rustle. It was almost as if they were speaking to him.
Nonsense, he thought. Books don’t talk.
“But you can if you want,” she said.
He felt drawn to her. She stood there, with the support of her many newer clones, but at the same time had never looked more inviting.
“I think it’s great that you’re standing up for what you like”, she said.
He liked her. All he wanted was to hold her now. Scores of her own image looked on as he grabbed her. The rustles were cheers.
This was happiness.
A paper palace. Nay, a paper grave.
It would be hours and hours before anyone would think to look for him. When they did, they would have to break down the walls of one-hundred-twenty grams-per-square-metre paper. They would find him in bed, with his favorite book opened across his face, a hand on his manhood, his eyes glazed.