It was a stupid decision, they said. You are wasting your grades; you could easily get a better internship! But they did not understand. They did not know the absolute need, the compulsion to be there, among all those long, towering shelves of books. It was there, amidst the musty smell of books, that he could breathe.
He had his table by the classics section. It was the best table; he could see the black penguin covers, even if he was not allowed to pick any and read it during the day time. Their being there in front of him, just existing, was such a comfort. He helped people find the books; rarely did he use his computer to locate any book; he remembered where each of them was. Tolstoy’s War and Peace next to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment… Bronte’s Jane Eyre besides the row of Jane Austen books. His hands lingered on the books; the touch was both familiar and exhilarating.
She had not been to the bookstore for four months now; an eternity. The work at the make-up aisle was mind-numbing, and hardly paid for the bills. There was no extra money for books, no extra time for perusing the different sections of the bookstore.
But she was here finally; a Tuesday when the mall was unexpectedly closed for maintenance. She felt herself in familiar territory; there was an ease in her walking now. She had a fixed routine. First, she went to the New Arrivals, reading the back covers of expensive hardbacks that she could never afford. She kept in mind the titles of the books she liked, making a mental note to buy them once they were old enough to be paperbacks or second-hands. Next, she browsed the Fiction section. Here, she opened the latest John Grisham, and read about 50 pages, standing. She would continue it from there the next time she was here. Crime and Mysteries came next, after which she walked straight past the Romance section to the one she loved best; the Classics section. Here, she walked up and down the line of shelves, reading the titles and mentally ticking off the ones she had already read. In this section, she could transport herself back to older times, tragedies of the war and the pain of betrayal. Here, she could rejoice in the “happily ever after” of Pride and Prejudice and cry at the unresolved ending of Gone with the Wind.
He saw her take a book in her hand and put it in a different shelf below. He stood up to prevent her from messing the shelves, but stopped. The book was A Picture of Dorian Gray, and it did belong to the lower shelf; someone must have picked it and then put it back in the most convenient spot on the higher shelf. He was surprised; she was a customer, why should it matter to her?
He slid back in his chair and watched closely. He saw her picking up book after book, reading the back covers, reading the first few pages, smiling and nodding at times. Always, she put the book back in its right place. As she browsed, she straightened the books that were not in line. It was almost an unconscious action; she displayed no exasperation on her face.
He saw her picking up yet another book now. After deliberating for a moment, she put it back. Then she picked it up again. He strained to see what book it was; Wuthering Heights.
She opened her purse. There were only Rs. 170 in it. The cost of the book was Rs. 160. That would leave her with just enough money to buy a bus ticket to home. There were still four days before the month end. There were still groceries to buy and bills to pay. Reluctantly, she put the book back on the shelf. She would buy it the next time. Slowly, she walked out of the bookstore.
He saw her returning ten minutes later. She walked with purpose now. Hurriedly, she went back to the Classics section, picked up Wuthering Heights, walked to the counter and bought it. He saw her smile once she held the book in her hands, now her own. The tension in her eyes eased gradually. With lighter steps, she walked out of the bookstore again.
He had never seen her in the bookstore before. He did not know who she was. But sitting here on his hard chair, among piles of books, he knew he had found the girl he would love.