As a single woman, thirty-five-odd-years of age, the only things I’ve ever given my whole heart to are books. I have never understood people who sell books. Why would one ever, ever part with a piece of someone’s heart? A book can be a gift, a memory, a lesson, a token — basically anything you can think of— and yet it lands up in thrift stores!
Fortunately, financially unstable folks like me exist and save these little treasures that also often save us.
After Maa passed away from sudden heart failure six months ago, I found respite in the only place that has comforted me since childhood. I spent days and nights weeping and hugging every book she left me. I went over every single page of every single hand-me-down and wet them with my heartbroken tears.
Many sleepless nights and restless days later, I finally decide to visit the used-book stall in my friendly Calcutta neighbourhood. I finished my breakfast a bit hastily, for the ominous skies foretold the advent of a sudden monsoon this year.
Although I love getting drenched, I have serious doubts about paperbacks and hardcovers enjoying the rain as much. And so, the sooner I finish running my wordy errand, the better.
Ashim dada runs an heirloom store in the narrow bylanes of College Street, the legendary Boi Para of Calcutta. His shop — an obscure, dim, and dingy cubicle bordering the pavement — houses a plethora of used and abused prints. Some rare, some annotated, some ripped, some scribbled, but all equally fascinating and beautiful.
Speaking of fascinating, there can be nothing better than Edgar Allan Poe and his gothic and grimly fantastic pictures painted in letters. I have been eyeing his compilation, full of all the gory stories to satisfy my hunger for the darkness.
Today is clearly a day of dreams, since The Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque is waiting for me right in front of the ledge of Ashim dada’s shop.
As soon as I grab the hardcover, the pot-bellied shopkeeper says, “Limited edition. 500, but only for you. This piece is in such untouched condition — it’s almost impossible to get your hands on!”
I look at him with a slightly raised left eyebrow. “I myself was shocked. MRP 2000. See for yourself?” He turns the book over and points at the price printed on the bottom left corner.
“Hmm…” I pretend to contemplate, even though I know for sure that I absolutely need this on my bookshelf. “Pack it for me, please. I’ll buy it.” I finally let go of my frown.
I begin walking towards home in a light drizzle, with a giant cumulonimbus blocking the bright side of the otherwise hot, tropical afternoon and the wind strong enough to almost blow my umbrella inside out.
I see a blinding streak of lightning as I close my door, followed immediately by a deafening clap of thunder. The power goes off, no different than every other storm in a metropolitan suburb, and eventual transformer short circuits. I yawn at the predictable monotony. Isn’t there anything thrilling in my life, other than page after page of Poe?
I open my newly bought parcel and stare at the book. It looks soft and matte and does not feel like anything else I’ve ever touched in my life. I love it! It belongs on my antique bookshelf inherited from my grandmother, not in some lackadaisical, ignorant household that chooses to sell this precious thing off. I love it to bits!
Lost in thought about my newly acquired treasure, I open it to the first story, “Morella.” I begin reading, engrossed in the captivating penmanship of the author, when I’m startled by my name being called from upstairs. I brush it off as a mere hallucination and continue the story.
Not long after, I hear a rattling at my window. This weather is now getting on my nerves. Can’t I be left to read in peace? What is this weird climatic behaviour, a bolt out of the blue, in the literal sense?
The beckoning, meanwhile, has intensified.
Irritated and indignant, I decide to stomp upstairs and stash my book in the ornate shelf. Stationing the hardcover in its new home, I turn around to leave the library, but freeze on my own tracks. Blood splatters on books and bloody scratches all over the walls make me shudder and let out a shriek.
Unfortunately, no one can listen regardless of how loud I shout. My books are falling off the shelves and windows are breaking open from the ruthless winds. Combined, the wind forces each book open and the pages’ sweet ruffles now sound a crass cacophony.
I shut my ears with the palms of my hands. The sensory overload is too much for my autistic brain. Books hit me all over my body. I cry in pain, but the pain echoes right back to me.
The Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque hits me on the back of my head. I fall out of the third floor window, finally to be reunited with Maa.
The only suspicious object recovered from the scene of my death is an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, bound in human skin leather. Police investigation reveals almost nothing and I am declared dead by suicide.
The unique book was auctioned and successfully sold.
Alas, I still do not understand people who sell books.
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Growing up in the world of Rabindranath Tagore is blessing not many have. An Indian by birth, she has been in love with words ever since she can remember, although she always felt that the magic of the classics is impossible to recreate. Stepping into her early twenties, she strongly held onto her roots of a simple Bengali. Her words spill like a butterfly's wings on paper, and she absolutely adores the freedom of expression that it allows. Writing is her peace.