When we reached the library, we saw the corridor leading to the doors strewn with wrinkled wet feathers, like a rain-soaked trail of a debilitated eagle on its swan song flight. A small crowd of inquisitive bystanders stood bolt upright at the street corner where the road takes a turn to the left towards the river. Strains of a devotional song set to a popular filmy tune of yesteryears rendered in a brittle, old voice were trickling from the tiny, low roofed house nearby. We knew it was the old lady teaching the children to sing. They were following her with unsteady yet cheerful juvenile voices.‘‘Lo, the municipal councillors have arrived’, someone scurrying down the dusty adjacent by lane to join the crowd shouted. I observed he was carrying in his arms like an infant, a turkey painted in red and golden colours.
As we got off our bicycles, the old lady walked out of the house towards us with outstretched hands as if silently wondering how this could ever happen. Feathers were seen dropping off her aged plumage too, of the variety of that on the ground. We know her and her husband as outsiders who came to the town as basket weavers. But for the fact the aged couple sported enormous wings and could levitate a little like poultry, which would be around five feet up in the air, they were impoverished plain looking elders that one could find in all municipal towns with active councils. As bamboo weavers with deft fingers are in short supply, our townsfolk would always like to see such artisans around to take care of all their storage and carryall needs.
Though they were welcome as basket weavers, it was generally feared, mostly by the male elders who chew areca nuts, that the flying couple could adversely impact the general cleanliness and sanitation of the municipal town through discretely easing themselves while in flight. The womenfolk, elderly and chewing areca nuts, too were worried that the feathered pair may inadvertently scare the infants being breastfed by their mothers sitting at doorsteps on full moon nights, with their abrupt short flights, like airborne giant roaches. There was also a genuine overall concern that as the fliers levitate, they may unintentionally exhibit their privates to those below, causing disgust. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that no one can fly without a license obtained from the Central Government.
Taking into consideration all these, there was a line of thought running in the town that the elders should not be granted shelter and should only be allowed in as visitors, whenever the need arises.
But we, the members of the municipal council had the votaries of such thinking vetoed out and decided to issue a renewable license valid for two years to the couple, under local governmental jurisdiction. It would enable them to conduct short flights reaching not more than three and a half feet above ground, during daytime and only when absolutely necessary.
It was on a rainy afternoon the council passed a unanimous resolution to grant them shelter on the above lines. We, the members were busy discussing the ‘M series film lyrics’, that is, those movie songs having as their first word beginning with M. An hour and a half into the absorbed discussions, we felt as one man it was time for a break, comfort and otherwise and for a hot cup of tea and spicy samosas. It was then the chairman of the council suggested that while we were waiting to be served tea, we could transact some minor business like deciding upon the application for shelter submitted by the winged elders. As the tea trays started arriving, we without any dissent voted for providing shelter to them forthwith, purely on humanitarian grounds.
The municipal clerk enthused enormously by this happening, abruptly stopped the accounting he was performing in thick dusty ledgers, absolutely clueless about the logic behind that. He hurried out whistling merrily a catchy filmy tune. Most of us joined him in his cheerful whistling. In a short while, the winged pair of elders in a Thanksgiving mood was observed flying low outside the council building, smiling and waving frantically to catch the attention of us councillors immersed in fresh discussions about P-series film songs.
It was that old lady who approached us now at the library, with outstretched hands and looking grim.
“From when?” our chairman asked her. “It was after last night supper; my old man tried to get up and banged his head on the wall. I pleaded with him not to stir out but he muttered that the books were waiting for him and was striving to go out though he could not keep his equilibrium”, said the old lady.
“Is he a compulsive reader?” enquired the chairman of her. “Do you have a trove of film songbooks at home? How many do you have?” he asked further. The chairman has a massive collection of more than ten thousand film songbooks in his house, as everyone is aware of.
“My old man doesn’t read or write. He knows nothing else apart from basket weaving. I’ve been forcing him for years to become a neo-literate. He did attend the literacy programme for a couple of days, diligently carrying a writing slate and a chalk pencil to write with”.
“What happened then?”
“He dropped out. Then he broke the slate and ate the chalk pencil”, she said looking serious.
“How much time would a child take to learn an old film song?” a council-mate asked her, perhaps to change the subject of the conversation, for what, I am clueless about.
“A day, at the most. I never let them go home without memorizing all the lines of the song including the interlude notes and the humming”, the old lady with a trace of pride evident in her voice replied. “I have formally learnt that way all movie songs fifty years and more old. ``` tried to teach a few of those newly written songs, on the fat content in groundnut oil and the recipe for lentil soup with a dash of asafoetida, to my old man long ago, but he was adamant not to learn them. Sometimes throughout the day, my futile pleadings with him would go on. It was then the noble souls arising from the cemeteries and arriving at our doors for fresh filter coffee laced with molasses suggested that we should move to a house near the library to make him tolerant of the aroma of books”.
There was an intermittent loud noise of someone banging the large wooden doors of the library from within.
“It is he. He is trapped in the midst of book racks. Throughout the night there was a noise coming from there. I think he is striving to fly in the narrow space between the racks”.
As the old ```lady was narrating in a sing-song voice that is assumed for singing dirges in this part of the peninsula, our chairman tucked his dhoti up the knees. He went towards the water tap in the eastern corner of the library premises and picked up a pale blue plastic bucket which he upturned and kept near the tall compound wall that encompassed the library building.
“It should be the dinner you served him last night that is to be blamed for his crazy behaviour”, told the councillor from Oil Monger Street to the old lady. “What did he eat?” I enquired with curiosity. “I cooked for him dosa made of maize flour”, she said interrupting her narrative. “Maize pancakes are breakfast food. It is grossly illegal to serve that in the evening to anyone, even if he happens to be a municipal councillor”, categorically said my Oil Monger Street peer. “Let us discuss the legality of all this later. For now, if the old man is not evicted from the library premises, the whole stock of books, the doors, and walls and the ceiling of the library may be affected with him caught in”, the chairman said.
The next moment he jumped the wall using the upturned plastic bucket as a springboard. Landing safe inside, he was observed through a creek on the wall, walking to the back of the library building. Within a few minutes he was able to open the back door and was heard singing loud a film song of the last decade proclaiming repeatedly, ‘I’ve scaled the wall, I’ll now climb up the mountain”. The old lady cheerfully joined him in a duet and we all sang in the chorus.
The front doors of the library were now opened from within by our chairman and everyone attempted to rush in, singing together. It appeared like a stream of devotees pious and possessed entering a place of worship.
“Please, please listen to me”, pleaded the chairman, unfolding his dhoti to cover his ankles. “Let only the people’s representatives, our municipal councillors enter”, he made an earnest request. Those in the crowd on their way to the riverbank for their morning ablutions and the ones cycling to the neighbouring villages to procure milk and eggs immediately withdrew. Rest of the crowd dissipated soon.
Only the old lady was standing out as we closed the doors shut on entering the library. “She could have been called in to be with us”, the councillor of Oil Monger Street opined whereupon the chairman broke into another song, “emotional backpacks impede our progress, our progress, oh our progress”, from a movie a whole fifty years old. He stopped singing as he realized he did not have any accompaniment.
Contrary to our expectation of encountering a miasma, there was no putrid odour of urine or of human excreta in the building. The only surprise we had was our finding someone sitting on the ceiling fan in the main hall. He was not the old man we came searching for.
The one who was perched on the ceiling fan had golden wings and a face like a bald eagle. Cheeks stretched up and jaw kept straight, he was singing aloud a song we have never heard, in an unfamiliar language.
“I am the god of books”, he claimed. We did not respond to him but were busy with our search for the winged old man. “This celestial being can wait”, I said and all the councillors in unison said that he indeed could. We stand united always and heated discussions like those on M-series songs only make the bonding still stronger.
All the songbooks in the racks were kept dust free and in strict order throughout the library hall. Their aloofness was compounded with the last page note offering a brief snapshot of the story of the film having those songs and always ending: ‘watch the rest on the silver screen of a theatre near your place’. Being in all the languages known the world around and used for speaking and more so for singing, the books gave all of us a kind of disappointment in not understanding them and get benefited from the knowledge they seem to have embedded in them. Not only the words, but even the tunes in which they are to be sung were out of the boundary of our limited knowledge, giving us a complex of inferior beings. Of course, they are not required for meaningful discussions we have in the council as we are guided by our exposure and the knowledge in film songs imparted across the generations, picking up only the best that has survived over the years.
There was no sign of the old man in the library. But for the wholesome overpowering odour of old books and the malodour of the perspiring wings of the angel, no other scent was permeating there. Had the old man dropped dead exhausted, the stench of death would have densely come down there like the furnace smoke trapped in snowfall. Had he hidden, he would be visible after all the diligent searches in the cabinets and racks by us the councillors and our beloved chairman. The old man was not to be seen anywhere.
The old woman was lamenting at the gates that her man would have plucked off his geriatric plume for certain. Bereft of feathered wings, he would have courted death by now, she was moaning. She had raised her voice obviously to catch our attention, we councillors knew.
“We have a huge backlog of municipal duties. We have to complete gathering and indexing a minimum of a thousand songs of the silver era and another five hundred of the copper era, by this weekend. We can’t allow angels and flight-enabled old men and other sundry things to squander our time”, said the councillor of Tank Street with a single row of houses. He is the one who approaches the municipal council discussions with the emotional frame a lover would have courting his lady love when the moment for privacy has arrived and her corset string unties with ease. He would become nervous and anxious if the primal pleasure is denied or postponed. When an earlier discussion was once paused by the unannounced arrival of the townsfolk who barged into the council hall to wish the councillors a happy new year, he could not bear that interruption. Sitting cross-legged near the window, he showed all unmistakable signs of one, experiencing coitus interrupt us.
As he waved his hands towards the stranger angel, the later climbed down from the ceiling fan. The wings of the fan began to rotate and push around dry stale air as the Tank Street councillor sported a contented smile perhaps because he had made it impossible for the angel to climb up the fan again. He impatiently told the angel to self-introduce himself briefly within two minutes.
Anyone responding to a request to tell about oneself by way of introduction would generally commence with details of the geographical location they come from, their family background, educational and professional background and all before embarking on specific details about the individual. However as he was asked to keep the ceremony brief, he only said he is an angel on the flight towards Anandpuri, a sleepy town 134 miles away from here to the East. He explained he picked up the frequencies of the thuds the old man made last night bumping onto the walls of the library after the door accidentally closed, wedging the corners tight against the crevices on the wall, making it difficult to open from inside. He disclosed he does have identification, not a name like most other angels in this part of Earth, but a distinct prime number of 14 digits. He was evidently happy with his unique prime number that in measured tones he repeated it all over again. We the municipal councillors were not prepared to waste any further time and efforts on idiotic pursuits like mathematics or astronomy or asynchronous wave propagation, as we have more important tasks to complete without any further loss of time.
Descending into the library, he said, he was curious to watch the old man flying in circles across the cramped space interlaid with racks of books in rows. He claimed the old man was weeping bitterly lamenting he cannot read even a single book from the lot there. The angel, as he said, promised the elder a fresh pair of wings and unique knowledge of books more valuable than those there.
“What unique knowledge are you talking about?”, enquired the chairman, of the angel with apparent impatience. “It is the knowledge not found in songbooks”, declared the angel solemnly. “Strange but true, one can assimilate it from the books kept in the inner vault from times immemorial. Generation after generation dusted them, rearranged them and worshipped them before closing the vault, as an annual ritual. But none cared to understand what knowledge is waiting to be made available in those volumes regarded by all as plain sacraments”. The real knowledge is the sum total of the vision each and every book in the vault would provide to the reader and at the overall level, it is a symbiotic progression of pristine knowledge one should be proud to possess”.
None of us councillors liked what the angel was telling with gusto. We gathered at a corner out of earshot of the angel. All the councillors hated the temerity and audacity with which he proclaimed that he would empower an old basket weaver, totally a stranger to him, with pure knowledge. The old one, armed with that would share it with ten of his customers and they, with another ten or twenty. And soon there will be clamour for the ancient books in safe custody in the inner vault. None can gauge precisely the effect of taking out the vaulted books. Added to that risk, this angel fellow is compounding it with a promise to enable the elder to shed his ancient wings and fly off with a new plumage. We wondered whether he knew that flying against the gravitational pull requires a license from the government and the entities are to be examined before granting it, through a cumbersome yet totally transparent process. Better not to fly would be our suggestion if asked for our view on this. There can’t be a different set of laws codified for eavesdropping angels in flight descending on peaceful townships. Such acts challenging the legal framework are to be outright discouraged.
Unwilling to expend more time with this queer one, the Tank Street councillor asked him, “All that you mention can wait. Now tell us where the damned old man is”.
“The old man confided in me that he had been told by the dervish running a gambling joint in the town that upon going round these racks with songbooks a thousand times before the night slips into dawn, he will be blessed with the knowledge to read all these books albeit a tad slow at it and also the skills to remember and sing out the lyrics without faltering a single note, a veritable feat considering his age”.
“What happened then?”, with mounting impatience, the chairman asked him.
“Nothing worth recalling. I blocked his way and emphasised that real knowledge is not that hidden in the songbooks but is that lying dark and thick in the vaulted books. The old fool became very agitated and bad mouthed me, my father, mother and everyone in the angel village. He said what I consider as knowledge is the prime equivalent of his greying pubic hairs and untying his vest, was keen on exhibiting himself. He spat on my face when the door further closed tight against the wall and both the wretched old man and me, the inquisitive angel, were trapped inside”, he paused his narrative and with a broad smile, angels are capable of wearing, was looking intently at us.
“That was all that happened?”, I asked him, part out of curiosity and for the rest, propelled by the urge to complete this encounter as soon as possible as my bowels were screaming to be relieved.
“The old imbecile moved away escaping my clutches and opened the inner door leading to the vault. Once inside, like performing a Satanic ritual, he ran gingerly dodging the cabinets containing the books revered but not read. He was screaming and was hopping around with a horrible smile, cursing one and all including you, the councillors, that you are impotent faecal feasting swine”.
“Enough”, we said in unison. “Oh, you should know what happened next”, mentioning temptingly, the angel fellow proceeded with his narrative.
“Then what? I morphed him into a book. A book with life. A book when touched will move. One that can see. Small in stature it sits at the corner of the vault waiting to be picked up. It is a fresh book without any line in any page underlined crudely with a blunt pencil or an ink-soaked fountain pen. No one has folded a page of this book causing pain and deformity. It is a book emitting the fresh fragrance of printing ink, rejuvenating many a life when held near the nostrils and read with relish. It is a book with added fragrance of angel feathers and Eastern cosmetic rose essence. The book when you open once will provide complex algorithmic calculations about the Sphinx will deal in detail with medical jurisprudence when leafed through again. It will provide in-depth analysis and pattern recognition algorithms for reading Indus scripts when someone else opens it and will contain the whole lost epic remaining so for the past one thousand years, a time even angels were not born, for the next reading. And it is a book on God particle, also called Higg Boson and other subatomic particles, in the eyes of an astrophysicist. The winged old man has become an incomparable polymorphic book, to deploy brevity of expression as you would like to have”, the angel delivered a long lecture to our amazement, smiling in all benevolence.
I opened the steel door of the pathway leading to the vault. It was pitch-dark and after a few seconds, I could see reasonably well into the darkness. My eyes fell on something crawling on the floor. It was a book with eyes on the jacket, pleading with me to lift it and carry it along with me as I leave. The eyes of the book were cajoling and plain begging after a minute.
I shut the interior door up securely and walked out. ‘There are thousands of ancient books in eternal slumber there, arranged neat and looking fresh from the press. I haven’t met anyone, old or young there”. I told the gathered councillors, almost in a whisper.
“Where is he?”, the Chairman asked. ‘He would have flown out to a distant land where books are a taboo and wives don’t sing”, I said.
The angel started moving towards the entrance, still in smiles. He exuded the scent of an oriental perfume and a streak of obnoxious vapours as he farted. We waited for him to turn the street corner from where he elegantly took off with wings opening like a lotus. We also saw the old lady back at her doorstep, resuming her basket weaving, after placing a cursory glance at the receding back of the angel.
If we, the councillors, when discussing M-series songs find some respite in between emotionally involved outbursts, in unison we would be passing a resolution to grant a monthly pension to the destitute old lady. When I threw the suggestion at the crowd, there were cheerful claps and loud humming arising from our group of councillors. We all know we shall hum like transformers when the old lady would be laid to rest, sometime in the future.