I spent May stretching my story-telling muscles with the MayShortReads. In the later months, I looked back at the stories and found a pattern of the heavy & dark. Murder, self-harm, sexual abuse, cheating, voyeurism and masochism all showed up. Even when there was humour, it was either irony or borderline dark. So in the Sept Shorts exercise, I impose another condition on myself. I intend to keep this a month of fun reads – humour, the more easygoing kind, romance, the sweeter sort and horror, the good ol’ chills & spills variety.
As it turned out, this imposition weighs heavily on me. I struggled for a week and as a result I’m 7 stories behind already. But I finally wrote a light romance! It’s longer than my usual but I hope that makes it better, not worse. Read on!
The high-pitched notes of Jingle Bells on muzak were ringing in the air. Priyanka could hear it even as she stepped into the building lobby. She ran across the floor, slipping slightly on the mudtracks left by footwear that had been trampling through the monsoon. The lift was still there as she turned the corner but an assortment of cartons stood between her and the grills. The lift grills were pushed open with a carton that was lying right on the grill track. Priyanka frowned, mentally cursing the ineptitude and thoughtlessness of the owner of those cartons. She didn’t want to have to climb up ten stories.
There was a sound of something being dragged across the lobby floor and she turned. A man was hefting what looked like his entire wardrobe behind him. As he neared the lift landing, she saw he was clutching the handle of a strolley in each hand, a soft leather bag balanced precariously over one of them and a backpack over his shoulder. He looked up apologetically as a drop of rainwater ran down the side of his face, from his hairline.
“Sorry, sorry. I thought I’d get everything in, in one go. And there was no one else around, you know…”
Priyanka pursed her lips and gave a tight little nod. There were so many boxes on the landing that there was no room for him to enter it, along with the suitcases. Clearly, it was a bad idea. She looked around the landing and counted seven cardboard cartons.
“You’re moving in?”
“Uh, yes. Tenth floor, I moved into 1005.”
He replied over his shoulder. He was kneeling on the floor now, fiddling with the strap of one of the suitcases. Priyanka wondered what was in each carton; none of them had labels on them the way she would have put, were she shifting. She looked down at the one nearest to her feet. The flaps were straining and she could make out glossy paper inside. Books, ah.
The man stood up, stacked the suitcases on top of each other and laid the leather bag, then the backpack down on them.
“Heh, bad idea, I see. Gimme a minute. I’ll get the carton out of your way and you can take the lift up.”
He hopped over the randomly strewn cardboard boxes and bent down to pick up the one in the grill track. As he stepped back, the grill slammed shut and the lift whisked upwards immediately. He turned around, shamefaced.
Priyanka smiled. She supposed she could afford to wait another couple of minutes. Besides, she was curious about how many of the cartons held books.
“How about we move the remaining cartons out of the way so people can get out of the lift?”
And without waiting for an answer, she bent and pushed the carton (the one with books) into the corner. He followed her lead and brought over his carton to set it down over the one she had just pushed. The others would have to be lifted, she saw. But she couldn’t budge the first one an inch. He came up from the other side and lifted it up easily and together they carried it over to the carton stack.
“These movers aren’t used to clients who read a lot.”
Another book carton, Priyanka noted and smiled. As a booklover, she could well empathise.
“I would have taken the cartons of books out first too.”
she said, hoping she was right.
“A fellow book-lover, then? No wonder you didn’t hate me for holding up the lift”
His laughing eyes met hers over the top of another carton. Priyanka could feel pages rustling on her fingers as she clutched the bottom of the carton.
“What’s this got? All magazines? They feel loose at the bottom, unlike the other two.”
“What book-loving guy would be caught dead without those?”
“Such a boy thing.”
Priyanka scoffed, before she caught herself. Flirting with the new guy in the building? What was she thinking? But he did have a nice smile. Nice eyes. And other things, she thought, the sight of him bending over to pick up the first carton, flashing through her head. Then there were all those books.
He didn’t seem to have noticed though, as he picked up the last carton all by himself. It was a smaller one and he didn’t bother setting it atop the others.
“This one’s the most important.”
he mused, almost to himself.
They stood side by side waiting for the lift to return, for awhile before he thought to introduce himself.
“Oh, I’m Miheer.”
He said, pulling his right hand out from under the carton he was carrying. But before she could shake it, the carton slipped and he clumsily caught it from falling. Priyanka laughed.
“You’d better hold on to that one if it has your favorite books. I’m Priyanka.”
The lift arrived and an irritable Mrs.Rajendra waddled out. She came out with her eyes narrowed, ready to decimate whoever had held up the lift for that long but when she saw Miheer, a big plastic smile pasted itself across her heavily lipsticked lips. Miheer’s charm wasn’t confined to young women only, Priyanka noted, cattily.
The lift zoomed back up the second Mrs.Rajendra let go of the grills. Priyanka didn’t mind though. She wondered which books Miheer had put in his ‘favorite’ carton. Mrs.Rajendra was acquainting herself with the new, goodlooking neighbor. Priyanka wondered whether she was going to stand there all day, inviting him over to tea but eventually she said goodbye and left.
“Looks like heavy traffic in the lift today!”
Miheer exclaimed, turning to her.
Priyanka suppressed a giggle. Surely he couldn’t have been referring to Mrs.Rajendra? No, it must be the lift going up and down before they could catch it.
“So which are your favorites?”
“Lots of them. Wilbur Smith, some Terry Pratchett, an occasional Dickens…”
Priyanka nodded, approving. She wasn’t big on Wilbur Smith but a Pratchett fan she could warm up to.
He paused, looking at her suddenly. Then he looked down at the carton he was holding again.
“But you know, those aren’t the only ones in here. In fact, I doubt there’s a single Wilbur Smith in this box. Lots of books I’d never heard of before I saw them.”
“Oh? Lucky finds are always wonderful. And books that are gifts.”
“These are more like the first. Very lucky finds. I found every one of these books in a raddiwala’s shop.”
Oh, raddiwalas! Priyanka felt her heart glow. All the happy discoveries she had made at roadside second-hand book shops! He seemed to be watching her for a reaction. Suddenly, he set the carton down on the floor.
“Can I tell you a little secret? All the books in this carton came from the same person.”
“Someone gave you an entire carton of books? You’re very lucky! I wish I had such friends!”
“No, not exactly.”
He said as the lift clanged to a stop in front of them.
Mr.Parekh, the building secretary got out. Priyanka caught the grill door and held it open, looking over her shoulder. But Miheer was engrossed in a conversation with Mr.Parekh about paperwork. Ruefully, she said bye but neither of them appeared to hear it. So she let the lift doors shut and pressed 9 on the lift panel.
It was a whole week before she saw him again. It was a Sunday morning and she was only going to buy a lightbulb so she didn’t bother dressing up much. There he was, looking at the building noticeboard in the lobby landing, looking even better than the last time she had seen him. He was dressed in a white tee-shirt and jeans this time with running shoes. He turned and greeted her as she approached.
“Settling in okay?”
“Absolutely. I know this area well.”
“Oh I see. You’ve lived around here before?”
“Some friends have, across the road. I’ve only been in Mumbai about 5 years now. But I liked this area. This seemed like a nice colony too.”
“It is, I think. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid.”
“You don’t live here?”
“No, my aunt does. I come by every few days to meet her.”
Priyanka wondered if he had noticed that they’d begun walking towards the gate. He seemed to be accompanying her. At the gate, though, she stopped.
“I guess this is bye for now?”
“I thought I’d walk you to wherever you’re going. Umm, you don’t look like you’re going anywhere far away.”
Priyanka frowned. Did she look quite as disheveled as that? He was ever so slightly tactless. But she nodded anyway and said,
“The shops at the end of the road.”
They chatted as they walked. Miheer pointed to the raddiwala as they passed it, with its piles of newspaper and magazines hanging from a single corner, along a clothesline.
“This guy probably gets 80% of his business from me!”
“Really? I haven’t come here in ages! Since Amazon and Flipkart came up, I haven’t actually set foot in any book shop. I don’t even remember the last time I bought a secondhand book!”
“Online shopping is great, of course, but there’s something extra special about secondhand books.”
“Well, I like the smell of a new book, with its fresh pages.”
“Who doesn’t? But you know, raddiwalas sometimes have books that you don’t find in bookshops anymore. Even the online ones.”
“That’s true. Only, there are so many books vying for attention, that I don’t really mind if I don’t find the one I’m looking for. There’s always ten others I can read instead!”
They stopped at the crossing and waited for the signal to turn red. Priyanka took out the little notepad she always carried and jotted something in it, as they waited.
“You write down your shopping lists?”
He seemed amused.
“Doesn’t Miss I-only-shop-online prefer her mobile phone to a humble old notebook?”
Priyanka didn’t reply. The light had changed and they were crossing now. Imagine him noticing a small thing like that! She didn’t generally show her little notepad to anyone else. Everyone was so gung-ho about their smart devices, these days.
The hardware shop was just across the road and they stepped right in. Priyanka opened her notepad on the counter to check the rest of the list, while the salesman went to test the bulb. As she was paying, Miheer returned from his perusal of the wiring and peered into the notepad. Priyanka saw him and wondered whether he’d want to continue accompanying her on her shopping soujourn. But he was very quiet as she paid and they left the shop.
It wasn’t till they finished the entire list and were walking back that he finally spoke.
“Would you like to come check out my book collection later this afternoon? I’ve been unpacking them and I’ll be putting away the last ones today.”
Priyanka stiffened. Their pseudo-date had been going very well until now and it had been easy to forget that Miheer was a near-stranger. So, despite the temptation to say yes, she said she was leaving before lunch. He shrugged, nonchalantly and she felt deflated that it mattered so little to him. When she got back, she showered and left immediately, fearing that Miheer would see her around later. She didn’t want him to think that she had lied to avoid going to his place.
Priyanka half hoped he would ask for her phone number. But he didn’t even send her a Facebook friend request, like the guys in her social circuit would have. Perhaps he wasn’t online a lot. She didn’t even know what he did for a living. The internet remedied that for her, however. On her next visit, she discreetly checked his last name. It was literally jumping off the dusty resident list in the lobby, since it was the newest addition. A little snooping online told her that he worked for a multinational bank. She was only surprised that he had the taste that he did. All the banking types she had known so far, liked to spend their money on flashy, lavish gadgets that showed off how much money they made. A second-hand bookstore seemed the least likely haunt for someone like him.
On an impulse, she picked up a Terry Pratchett from her collection and walked down to his floor. This was two weeks later and she hadn’t seen or heard from him. Ordinarily she would have forgotten about a guy who didn’t seem to show any interest. But passing his flat every couple of days for a fortnight had worn her inhibitions thin and temptation won out. She felt a little more confident, after all the information she had gathered about him. And just to be certain, she also told her aunt she was going to speak to her downstairs neighbor, before she left.
She rang the doorbell, clutching the Pratchett for luck. She had thought to bring along ‘Good Omens’ and she hoped it would hold true. When there was no answer, she rang again and then immediately thought better of it. She was coming off really desperate! Should she make a run for it? Just as she turned away, the door was flung open. Miheer stood there, a grey teeshirt sticking to his body. He was wearing black trackpants and his hair was dripping wet.
“I do believe I’ve caught you at a bad time.”
Priyanka said, grinning.
He looked abashed but he stood aside and invited her in.
“I’ve…uh yes…give me a minute, can you? Sit down, make yourself at home.”
he said, gesturing vaguely, before disappearing down the corridor.
Priyanka stepped in and looked around the room. It mirrored her aunt’s flat in design, except it looked out over the back of the colony instead of the garden. There was a beanbag next to the French windows but she didn’t sit down. Her attention was drawn naturally to the rows and rows of books lining an entire wall behind. As she reached out to touch them, she realized they were stacked on a sliding shelf. Two more sliding shelves revealed themselves behind this one.
“I thought you’d like that.”
He said softly. She jumped. She hadn’t heard him come back into the room. He was dressed in a pair of jeans now and a fresh red tee-shirt. How did the man clean up so good, in a couple of minutes? It wasn’t fair. Priyanka needed at least half an hour to look that fine, after a shower.
“How about something to drink?”
he said, moving to the kitchen. Priyanka hadn’t even looked in that direction of the room. Unlike her aunt’s house, this one had a little kitchenette to one side, separated from the hall only by a counter. A bachelor probably didn’t need a big kitchen, thought Priyanka, smiling at the notion. Her online research hadn’t turned up his marital status.
He held up a jar of tea leaves. She was surprised. Most people served coffee. She didn’t know anybody else in her generation who drank tea.
“I just finished this one. Have you read it?”
She asked, holding up ‘Good Omens’. Miheer brought over two steaming mugs of tea and set them down. As she sipped, he picked up the book and turned the cover. Priyanka watched him smile.
“Pratchett is great, isn’t he? Wodehouse is the only other one that can make me smile at the first page itself.”
“You like Wodehouse more than you do Pratchett.”
It sounded more like a statement than a question. Priyanka wondered at that but she replied.
“You can’t really compare the two, can you? I mean, they’re both humorous but Wodehouse is much more classic. In his period and his style.”
He chose a few books from the first sliding shelf and brought them over to her. When Priyanka looked at her watch later, she was surprised to see it was nearly evening. She was nestled comfortably in the beanbag and looking over her shoulder at the bookshelf, when he stood up. He walked over and slid the hindmost shelf back. Then he turned and beckoned her over. She stood up, wondering.
“Remember that carton I was carrying, the day I moved in?”
“Your favorite books, right?”
He grinned, seemingly unsure. Then he sobered and gestured to the bottom two rows.
“You know what’s even better than a good first page? An good inscription.”
He said, holding up ‘Good Omens’. She watched as he opened the book. On the first page, right under the title, she had written,
‘A few solitary bars on the piano, a brand new bookstore and tea, with old faces on new people.’
Below that was the name of the bookstore and the date she had bought it – three years ago. Priyanka didn’t know anybody ever read those inscriptions. She liked writing a little note to herself with the date and the place she’d bought the book, before she began reading.
“Did you re-read the book? You bought it years ago.”
“No, I inscribe books when I buy them. But sometimes I end up reading them only later. When you mentioned Pratchett at our first meeting, it made me think of this one so I started it.”
said Priyanka, blushing for no reason she could imagine.
“I thought so.”
he said and pointed to the shelf again. She followed his gesture and knelt to scrutinize the books that were almost hidden away at the bottom. She recognized one, two….wait a minute, every one of the books in those two rows.
“Go ahead. Take one out.”
She chose Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, knowing but not quite believing what she’d find there. And there, just as she had thought, were her own words scrawled across the title page in the inscription that read,
‘A new book is like a conversation with a new person…an investment – one that could turn into the reward of a lifetime relationship or the memory of an unpleasant experience or even sink into the abyss of forgotteness.’
“That one was nice, obviously. But it didn’t say anything about you. Others did. One of your Harry Potter books just says ‘Quarter-Life better damn count for something!’”
He bent and pulled out another book. It was Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. She remembered it well, from that time in her twenties when professional confusion and personal mayhem prevailed.
“This one had notes on all the pages, in addition to the inscription.”
He had opened it to a page that she had scrawled in pencil,
‘If love be murder,
I’d be dead in your arms tonight.
I am, wiped of the burden of being me.
I’m flying, flying,
soaring through skies
on wings dripping away my old self
as they melt in the warmth of you.’
Priyanka stared at him. It was bizarre, almost spooky, seeing her old books but also hearing her own words repeated back to her.
“I found one of your books at the raddiwala on my first visit here. Then I found a couple of other books also with your inscriptions. After that, I’ve picked up at least one of your books on every visit to the raddiwala.”
“You make it sound as if I wrote all those books.”
“You wrote those inscriptions. I was amazed at how often a book that I picked up, interested, would have an inscription by you in it. At first it was just nice knowing someone else shared the same taste that I did. Then it became like an ongoing story. The dates, the bookshops, the little things you chose to write in those inscriptions.”
“I….I never thought anybody else would read them. And I gave away all these books when online books came into being. It was easier to store them. You know how it is in Bombay flats.”
“Yes, I do. I still like the feel of a real book though. And one with a special inscription is…well, special.”
Priyanka smiled, turning away. He couldn’t possibly mean that. Could he?
“I mean…I know you didn’t write them specially for me…or umm, anyone. But it was like peering over someone’s shoulder, someone who had so much in common with me. I liked thinking that I was a part of your life, even if we didn’t know each other.”
“So how did you…?”
“That day, when you took out your notebook at the electrician’s shop? I recognized your handwriting right away. I’ve read your inscriptions so many times, I’d know it anywhere! That is to say….umm, well, I hoped I would meet you some day.”
Priyanka turned to face Miheer.
“Perhaps I secretly wished someone would read them, when I wrote those inscriptions.”
The next week, Miheer had a new sliding shelf fitted in. He’d need one for all the inscribed books that would be joining the others. Priyanka helped him stack the shelves. It was time for tea.