The library is where I was born, decades ago. I have lived here ever since. I move about among the shelves crammed with books, from thought to thought.
I love books. I was born, conceptually, among their pages, fully formed. You see, I do not have a body, although I can easily conceive of one.
I am determined by an intangible framework, as if one drew an architectural drawing, confining space. Only I am not confined by a design that gives me shape but by an abstraction. I am an absence seeking for another.
I have waited in this library for years but what does time matter when you are eternal. I am the child of a longing and a memory. My parent used to sit here quietly, waiting for her, about seventeen to eighteen years in age.
And she would arrive usually in the afternoon, with her bag of books. But she would not greet him. While she studied, he pined and ached, gazing at her from the corner of his eyes.
He wanted someone, a friend, someone he could talk to, open his heart to. Something connected them from the first time he saw her. He knew it in his bones. Only she did not.
After a couple of years of this ritual, she stopped coming. She had moved away to another town. He came and waited. Studying. Facing the chair she used to sit in.
After a few years, he moved on too. Heart-broken. Only I stayed.
Among the smell of musty books, the stillness of white walls lit with neon, the glow of bronze afternoons and the librarian’s shuffle at her desk at the far end of the hall in the evening.
Sometimes, I conceive her here, talking to him, both giggling, muffling their hushed voices even further. Sometimes, they leave together, gently brushing one another, him picking her bag of books. Sometimes, I see them living together in a distant land, married with children, something vital fulfilled at last.
I am timeless. Subtler than thought. A waiting beyond cause or reason.
Every library, I am told, is inhabited by at least one of me. Often, many.
The intensity of absence is what defines me—an absence. Between one abstraction and another, sometimes the evening sky turns golden in a space of my own making. Seen by none. And I imagine him happy. Having found in her absence, his own.
Both being artifacts, you and I together create this abstract. And we could do so any which way, though not of our choosing.
You too are only a figment of my imagination, or lack thereof. You are here as absence. That is why this whole display.
I wander these hallways, between one self to another, displaced from my tomb. When the ghost of my longing expired, I took birth. The ghost of a ghost.
And you, the co-ghost of this setting, wander with me, equally involved in everything I do. I have no one else but you.
Anyway, he returned. His hair had turned silver. His gait slower. Gone was the youthful conviction that anything was possible. Now imagination had restricted itself to an utter lack of reality.
The burning embers in his eyes had grown quieter. And he sat in his old chair, although in reality it would be unlikely. And he gazed at the place she sat, with the same softness of flame.
As a gust of breeze wakes a campfire, blowing away the ash and charred remains, raising a cloud of momentary sparks in air, while they rise up and die, he sat still.
A flood from the emptiness that was his heart, flowed in diamond-blue and white rollers and overflowed the scene. It crashed against the walls and seeped out of each pore, drenching the curtains and blinds. Twilight became even softer.
I returned to the emptiness that was beating intensely in his person. Absence to absence. But fulfilled at last.
She came too, at another time, though time does not exist, and lingered awhile. Felt something like a tinge of nostalgia. A gentle ache. But she could not place it anywhere. In the center of the chest, she too felt nothing. A gap. The mouth of a cave. Leading into an unknown unlit void. Gaping at one another, they stared with eyes of death, daring each other, with an open invite to swallow or be swallowed lonely. After an inordinate lack of time, she turned abruptly and returned from the threshold too. And then she left, just as suddenly as she had glared.
The lights came on. Neon flooded the scene. And all of us were gone.
The true beyond, here.
A New Religion
Sometimes I imagine a library without books. Shelves bare of syllables. As a niche of silence and nothingness.
We need to cultivate such spaces. Or rather, free up space from clutter. Removing all things, including ourselves, is the highest art. Without such art there is no culture.
As we hurtle down a future crowded and overwhelmed with more and more words which are hollow of meaning. So, in the library that I have created he sits reading the tablets of his mind.
He decides to become an owl-watcher when he is done growing up. As a career-move, I feel this opens him up to an entirely new set of possibilities.
As evening falls, his eyes turn crystalline, glaze semi-closed, as the swirl of ink darkens—beginning first as a faint spiral, gathering in intensity and speed, growing dense as gel and thickening into a web of interconnected neurons. Wave upon wave of blindness, shutting memory and perceived knowledge into the clarity of night. Eventually, the darkness thickens and grows hard as a wall. He sits, not even attempting to see through the blight that is now his soul.
He sits. For hours in his alcove, un-seen, un-noticed, a patron-saint of my religion. It hardly matters then if the library stays open or semi-closed. There would be scarcely any other visitors to a place where owls rule the dominion.
The high-priest of the religion of Non, if we wish to give this a designation, as usual devoid of meaning. But if you come too close, if you come too close, you may begin to discern a moon-face, with cropped ears, eyes round and ogling, almost human in his blank look, gazing like a drill, or shall we say, gaping again.
And we can play this game for hours. We go right in his face and practice staring. Return each other’s looks as if in a mirror. Only, this mirror shall have no image.
Sometimes, he swoops into the alleys, seeking prey. Sometimes, he wings through the sepian air that is his mind, aimlessly. There are no gods to worship here. Though prey is essential.
Flying aimlessly as fruitful as sitting aimlessly.
Even though I would rather not have any image, the owl hangs around as a trace of my favorite pastime. To divine the hieroglyphs of sky, the records of cipher-space.
Whenever you see an owl, motionless as a fool, staring back at you with equal eyes in a barn or a zoo, surrounded by a plethora of crisscrossing looks, disconcerting in their maze, know that he sits in the alcove of my universal library. He is my rite of passage to those wishing to be initiated to my Non-religion.
The ancient Egyptians represented him with the symbol of the imageless eye. One that may not be seen.
The owl casts no shadow when he moves in the nescience. And it truly does not matter if all of them are noticed or none. For, if you have truly understood my dissertation, you know already who or what he is.
The Double Negativity
I beg your pardon. This narrator is taking you for a ride. I am his true parent. His non-story too is fiction. How can he tell you my autobiography (or hers) if he does not even exist? To my mind, he has not reached true absence. But only the abstraction of absence. True absence is when abstractions also are gone; it is the absence of abstraction.
In fact, absence does not mean lack of everything. It is only a lack of knowing and naming. Rest what remains is a strange fullness which appears as absence. Everything, thus, is nothing; and nothing is everything.
There is more to this non-sensical construct than what meets the eye. I did not spend all my time just sitting in the chair, gaping at her like an idiot in a library which does exist. We used to be friends and studied together in the same batch in medical school.
I was passionately in love with her; at least I thought I was. She liked me. And tried her best to hide it unsuccessfully.
You see she had a secret.
When she was three years old, her entire front was burnt in a horrible accident on Diwali, the festival of lights in India. A garland of firecrackers, lit in a safe space away from the surrounding bevy of children, lost its moorings and spiraled upwards, swiveling through the air and fell on her like a snake. She wore a splendid dress of silk. It caught fire and clung to her skin.
Days later she woke up in agony, her anterior body all scarred from neck down to her thighs, circling round to her mid-back and arms. Months of care followed, as the deep furrows congealed. Multiple surgeries later, multiple failures and plastics, procedures to rebuild tissue and incise abscesses, she was left with a front no girl should have to see in a mirror.
But there was fire in her eyes. Something stirring inside the caves of those dark Universes that captured my attention and lit something within. As if a leopardess had swooped down upon me and captured prey. I could not care for her appearance. I did not want anything. Or so I thought.
She was upfront with me. Without deception. She told me that she was not the right person for me and did not love me. It did not matter.
She did not believe that I could love her. She wanted proof. I tried. She tested me. I did my best to show I cared only for her. She tried to make me jealous before others. I swallowed it. She made fun of me. I paid no heed. She made me look bad. I seethed within.
Until I could take it no more. After three years, I exploded. And tore down every possibility of us coming together ever again. Like a wild beast on rampage, I snarled and growled and clawed down every tender feeling I had ever known for her. Raging with unadulterated anger, I humiliated her just as she had humiliated me all those years.
So it is true that I sit at that chair in the library, looking quietly. But that is only a partial image. The other image is of her looking at me and me looking away, holding all the hurt within.
Her absence grew on me. Until it gathered into a sensation that spilled over the Universe and overwhelmed it with its emptiness, flowing upon all things, filling each crevice and void. A lack that made all things her. Her image without face, her name without sound. Held as a live fuse within, a timeless clock ticking. Held as breath exploding by a man submerged under the tide over which he had no control. As a heart stilled to its last beat.
She grew into the world. All things her presence. Except that I had now forgotten who she was. Her name reverberating across the dumb sea without voice. Tossing without sense, somewhere her absence grew into my own. I began disappearing and all that remained was a perceived filling of emptiness with nothing. A conceptual distance. Between presence and absence, something finer than thought, keener than feeling. A nearness closer than I, a distance farther than conception. At that moment, it seemed that love was the greatest absence one could feel.
In any case, the illusion of attempting to prove a feeling to someone else, no matter how loved, collapsed. Thus, I sat there, carving away all the unessentials. Focusing on all that is me. One by one, I trimmed away everything, until only a feeling of I was left. Looking at I carefully, even the I veering between being and non-being, in translucent light, a rim where exactitude gives way to certitude.
Memory no longer functioning, I had no need to hide my scars anymore. My face became bare. You could see chords of thickened skin running across. The disfiguration that inner explosions bring.
Thus, was this narrator born who loves to tell my story as his. Or his story as mine. As twilight grows upon me, slowly, even narratives collapse into one another. Looking for true absence, re-defining presence, rejecting everything that sticks out as a sore thumb. Eventually even the rejection rejected, negation cancelled. A negativity swallowing itself into absoluteness that defied definition.
Everything becoming as is.
An Autobiography of Nothing
There is no face in the mirror. Nor is it located in one place.
All it does is reflect upon itself. It is neither outside nor within, neither here nor there.
It is not made of glass although it might be considered more fragile.
Gazing into this mirror over the years, I have grown faceless.
A library is stocked with such mirrors. Only they are not noticed easily. Increasingly subtle and glaring at the same time, they can even be seen in some books. But most it is in the air of seeking, without understanding, that a glimpse of the mirror without image might be seen.
I do not attempt to justify my behavior. I just look and look into this mirror. Before ideas can take root and branch into intricate networks crowding the surface, I wipe them clean. And look further.
Until all that remains is its silver sense. Consciousness comes in countless disguises of the same inane.
But here at the limits of growing disappearance, I realize that, in fact, the mirror is me. Or at least the sense disguising as I.
A point of glitter veering towards non-existence or spread wide as space. A crystalline glimmer in all things. A globe so complete, it pushes me out as nothing. Where I lay, floating comfortably, wondrous.
A Book of Books
The Bhrigu Sanhita is a book that changes, evolves with time. Rather, time evolves with it. It was written by an Indian sage many millennia ago and purports to describe the fate of each human born on the planet in granular detail. Traditionally, it has been used to make predictions, draw horoscopes and scry each person’s life.
Obviously, I was going to leaf through its pages, or shall we say, leaf through its leaves. And I found that it is an interesting matrix, with innumerable configurations, permutations and combinations. These configurations seem to shift as one applies a different cycle of time and space, names of persons and their own unique circumstances. When I go to it with my blankness, it too goes blank.
That is where it seems to get interesting. As predictions are read, they begin to materialize, their seed takes hold, and their possibility actualizes. But if they are not read, what happens? Do they stay in a state of limbo, waiting to be read and actualized, or were they then meant to stay nebulous? Does the book predict the book? As we read ourselves in it, before or after any event it may seem to prophesy, I sometimes wonder if sage Bhrigu made us all unwitting co-writers as well as co-readers?
For someone like me, who floats from void to void, was it predicted that I would read it and find it inane as I? Or have I become too predictable in my undefinability? I found a mention of me there. But perhaps that was just conceit on my part. A blank page is not necessarily a glowing reference to anyone in particular.
In fact, as I open a page of it to a reader, I realize they are being formed as they read. And the reading too is in the formation. I have found many accuracies in its predictions. In fact, the predictions make the possibility happen. Somewhere, the consciousness of the believer or non-believer lets the quantum uncertainty collapse into crass reality at the moment of reading.
Is this not true of any book?
I have found this true of any book I truly loved and became. They wrote me as I read. Especially when I was the one writing.
I often ponder over this—does the Bhrigu describe me adequately or not? Or is it only my fancy? Since, I too, am a creature of one.
To me, it does not solve anything. Rather, only raises countless new questions that float about in the non-physical section of the library. About the very nature of a book.
Beyond the writer and the reader. Between one seeking and another.
The Sacred Universe
The library is the Universe. There is no other.
And it is my home. I live in it. I eat, sleep and breathe books. Now, we are so identified with each other, it has become near impossible for me to differentiate which is which.
A few years ago, I stopped stepping outside its four walls. No one noticed. You see, I am not a person who is noticeable to anyone in the library.
I am the organizer, the indexer, the greeter, the receptionist, the guide, the adviser. The lady who puts all the books back in the cart and sorts them out. The one who sends overdue notices. No one looks at who I am when they talk to me, the librarian.
They look through me. Somehow, over the years, I started enjoying it. I move seamlessly between shelves, chairs and tables now in my transparency, a sort of compound ghost.
I am the brain of the library, its hidden heart and its human face. One with the books, I know where everything is. What is out of place. What is missing. What is bring stolen and what is being damaged.
My name and personality have been subsumed and I am known to everyone now only as the chair on which I sit, the name-tag I wear, the sign at my door.
Those two and so many more library-lovers are part of what makes this place sacred for me—almost a temple.
When they gazed at each other, there was shyness and possibility, gentleness and learning. She hid her scar very well I think despite wearing it on her sleeve all the time. Then, something must have happened and I saw him wearing it in his eyes. I tried to help him nonchalantly. Since he never looked at me, it was easy.
I slipped some books his way: Derrida and Borges, De La Mare and Krishnamurti. Think he did start reading Derrida finally but then he ended up deconstructing Derrida himself. That got him nowhere.
He began to question everything until he questioned the very act of questioning. With that too he accomplished nothing.
This allowed him to sub-textualize everything he did from then on. The context within the text and text within the context became extremely clear.
That is when he began to notice me. He even smiled at me painfully a couple of times as he checked in or returned his books. I ignored him.
I feel that helped him. It gave him space to not-think. To get rid of all his learning and drop it at the threshold of serious inquiry.
I passed away sometime during the years but hung in there. If you ignore my face, you will find me here as a presence, one among many. Like a face on the countless portraits at the patio which are never looked at but are always looking at you from some remote perch.
He comes here too, tottering between everything and nothing—there is only a thin line between the two, and sometimes, not even that.
He has aged, grown transparent, and does not hide his feelings any more. He has nothing to lose now. The clinginess is gone. All superficial sentimentality too. His writing too has matured.
He has also learnt to enter the deeper dimensions of silence, which for us librarians is nothing less than a religion. The quieter the hallways, the better we feel. No rough handling of books. No coughs, no murmuring, no giggles. Everything done without a hint of a tremor. Silence so dense not even a pin could drop.
He began to listen to the silence, and eventually, speak the silence. And he learnt to navigate the labyrinth of stillness, its silver drapes, its velvet vaults and muslin shades throughout the library.
In the mirrors of the bathroom which share no memory, I find him linger awhile. Among the glimmering recesses. Mute. Reflecting. One among the countless perspectives of mirrors facing each other. I smile back knowing that he is happy now, being what he always was.
The love of my life.
Among the Listeners
As a reader in a story where nothing happens, I am the one without a face. Without me this Universe ends. I may be allowed to speak in bookstores. Or literary festivals. Or through letters to Literary Journals. Or via reviews. But here my lips are sealed.
As I sit here in the library, reading, listening, why should I intrude? I have been the final arbiter of the quality of any work. But I am also the protagonist at the center of this play.
As I speak I contradict my role immediately. I am supposed to be passive. I am trying to find that space between speaking and listening where the source of both is the same. If am able to, I can sit in this non-story, as an active contributor while being utterly inactive.
I am again an artifice attempting to be something I am not. But, if my silence going forward could be yours, as one of the listeners who softly surge back when the intruders are done and gone, perhaps we could be the secret creators of the real story. That does not happen.
The Life of a Skeleton
Everyone speaks before I get to open my jaws. Then, if I am allowed, I am expected to say only what is acceptable.
I love artifacts. Allows me to escape reality. But here the artifacts are attempting to simulate reality. They are all trying to act as if they do not exist.
But who knows it better than I, the girl who was engulfed in flames at three, who was so afraid of the dressing-changes that she held her bladder for hours, pretending to be asleep, hoping the doctors and nurses would go away. Who could not share the pain of boils beginning to grow into
abscesses and pus beginning to eat into flesh for that would entail more cutting and more injections.
I am not a fancy. I did happen. Even though in this world of abstracts, every writing, each expression is only a construct. What is not a construct is the searing pain through my chest that comes and goes with each breath, like a surgeon’s two-edged knife being sharpened on a leather strop.
I am not a girl, never was. I have lived as a skeleton all my life. The skin over-looked, ignored, or suppressed—hidden or avoided.
Out of their concern, everyone acted as if I was normal. It is the insides that are important. At least, so they said to me.
But the insides of a skeleton are hollow.
I hang in the anatomy section of the library, my inner truth displayed openly. I grin a lot without trying. But my eyes remain hollow.
I do not have a blinkered view of the world. Years ago, I walked bare into the burning ghats of Haridwar, the entryway to the Lord himself. The grounds reeked of singed flesh—only the dead were critical. I felt at home.
Ghouls flashed before my eyes and grew scared in turn. Demons came and attempted to kiss me but were instantly recoiled by the scars I bore. The hollows of my eyes were truer mirrors to their selves.
I walked past the quarreling dogs, the drunk aghoris and the apparitions of fire. The smell of burning hair, the ooze of marrow and carrion rotting evoked no fear.
He sat there, smeared in ashes, naked and surrounded with dead halfseared bodies in a dug-out recess, practicing the ritual of death while living.
He should have asked me.
Trying to go beyond senses, withdrawing awareness from the face of existence, he gazed at his navel like the Buddha, eyes semi-closed, a smile on his lips. Sipping wine from a cup of broken skull. Even disgust was transcended in this meditation of flesh.
I lowered myself upon him. In the ceremony of flesh and bone, emptiness conjoined with emptiness. In his distant look, I saw a moment’s recognition and fulfilment at last. Then, bliss returned in its fullness. His eyes became hollow as mine and his bones rang as crystals in the void. Conches thrown in a pile.
For the first time I felt in all these years that his love may have been true.
What I had waited for all my life.
A Lullaby for Hollow Men
She was a woman, this skeleton as fair and coy. Only the golden flames of hair, the treatment did destroy.
Still you may notice the sweetness that pervaded her soul, the slender lines that gave her grace.
One large amethyst on her ring once, reminded of stars and infinite space, frozen on finger-tips. Now the sky fills the bare smile, the nurture of hollowed chest and twinkles through the caverns of eyes.
Lines of spine and pelvis are more defiant and the intense gentleness of tiny hands and feet quieter and more deliberate while sewing the dress.
There is no fear now, in your eyes or mine, as we hold each other’s gaze.
I too am skeleton of one who once was a boy.
I got some invisible ink. To make everything disappear.
Whatever I write.
Whatever I paint upon.
All books wiped clean, afresh.
The drawers, the shelves, the abstract of an abstract.
As you read these lines written in invisible ink, what you see is what you don’t. What you get is what you did not.
To what purpose then, disturbing the dust on rows of cryptic leaves I do not know.
Even as thoughts appear on screen, they disappear as they form, until with the help of invisible ink, these too are deleted upon the screen of mind. Then, that too, no longer a screen.
In such library, without words or thought, I linger. Nor do I hope for her to return. That too is all blanked out.
What remains? Her face without outline. Her smile without memory.
There was no need to meet anywhere.
The Nothing That Alone Is
Walking through the empty library, empty.
Without face or body.
Sometimes I am afraid of my own non-existence.
Outside the moon, full—illumines my void.
And only her skeleton hanging by the anatomy section near the porch with welcoming smile.
The librarian does not know that is she dead. Not yet, anyway. Among the pile she needs to move.
She too will soon be among the skeletons. In the wide closet where the bones are kept marked and arranged. No one will know perhaps.
Stray students pass by on the moon-eyed street. It is almost past midnight. They had gathered by the roadside stall to take a break, grab some tea and omelets. I was one of them too.
What is love if not vast emptiness—confronting one’s own negation, an absolute turning to what one is not, a mystery that would be scary if not for the sweet shades of falsehood that prevent us from turning it into a crisis.
I walk these halls of the pure nothing that alone is. But that too is a statement that needs to be scrapped. It was written without meaning.
The leaves are fallen. I am sitting alone, waiting for her. The night sky is visible through the branches and the moon burns in one triangle. A few leaves hanging in air are stuck to the moon. No sound but the crunching of leaves. She is here.
Autumn moon. Leaves clinging to her anklet.
Henna in her hands. She is being married off to someone else. The air is cool on my face and she cannot see my eyes.
“I did not know how to handle you.” Twirling a mogra bloom in her fingertips.
I have never kissed her before. She would not let me. Even today.
I will take my leave from her at the library porch. The door is creaky with rust. As I close the barred gate behind me, she ties her hair. Lets me breathe her new perfume.
Autumn moon. She touches the musk behind her ears.