Thursday, March 01, 2007

Scorpio's Jewels (Part One)

I was told this story in a house that my Mother had lived in as a child, in a room that her Father had studied in, and on a bed that his Father had slept in, countless years ago. At the beginning of this story, the edges of the sky outside were beginning to flare with the red of sunset, and by its end the stars had come out, twinkling above the flickering lights of the city below. A story like this could only have been told in that one place. Imagine yourself there, if you can.

* * *

There once lived a man who ran a ramshackle old bookshop, situated in the middle of one of the many dusty, narrow streets that snaked through the less affluent part of the city. Despite its dilapidated appearance, or perhaps because of it, the shop exuded an old-fashioned charm that many of its newer competitors lacked. But business was not good, and the lightness of the shopkeeper's pockets weighed heavy on his mind.

He was still quite a young man this shopkeeper, maybe half a decade out of university, where he had filled his head with noble ideals and ageless philosophies, which, despite their undoubted worth, had left him not penning a masterpiece of his own, but instead selling those of others. Yet his youthful enthusiasm had stayed with him - he made sure never to throw an irritated glance at any of the men and women who would stray by chance into his shop, spend an age flipping through the pages of a crumpled paperback, but then eventually walk out again, their rupees jangling unspent in their pockets.

Why this happened, in the end, came down to a matter of principle. For reasons unknown, the shop had always dealt only in books of fiction; in flights of fancy and feats of the imagination - that was part of its charm, and it was a tradition the shopkeeper was loath to break. In most places, this would have been admirable, but in that part of the city it was inappropriate. Such a shop could have blended in perfectly in the alleyways of Paris, but in a part of Kolkata where the customers were as poor as the shopkeeper, works of the imagination were luxuries that few could afford.

So people treated the shop like a library - a place to waste their time but not their money, and all the while the shopkeeper looked on, and every passing month saw his stomach grow tighter and his clothes grow more threadbare. Sometimes he cursed the fact that he could only charge for the pages he sold, and not the dreams they evoked.

But in spite of his troubles, the grateful smiles that he received never failed to touch him, especially when they came from children that had just spent the last half an hour entranced by the many picture-books and fairytales that filled the lower shelves of the shop. On the good days, when the sun shone through the smog, they almost made it all worthwhile.

As time passed, the happiness of the children led to the friendship of their parents, and before long the man found that the loneliness of the counter had been replaced by the effusive companionship of a sari-clad mother or a genial father. One woman in particular caught the shopkeeper's eye. In fact, she caught the rest of him too, though he did his best to hide it.

It was on a perfect autumn day that she had walked in, with tiredness radiating from her slight frame, but curiosity burning in her brilliant eyes. She had seemed younger than he was; her long dark hair had shone brighter than the dazzling saris that she wore. Her skin had the colour of chocolate; her voice had its texture, and the time they spent together had its taste.

He fell for her that day, although he only realised it afterwards. But when he felt so empty on the days that she didn't come to his shop, yet so very alive on the days that she did, he knew. When just her push on his door set the butterflies in his stomach a-flutter, he knew. And when he ached just to talk to her, about Gods and politics, about his life and hers; about everything and nothing, they both knew.

But she never did a thing about it. She never seemed to acknowledge the effect she must have known she was having on him. She just smiled instead, and every time, it melted his heart and crushed his resolve. Eventually, her visits didn’t serve to take his mind off things; instead they became the very things from which he could not take his mind off. She turned from a distraction into an obsession, and in the end, he fell for her so hard that he forgot all his problems. He forgot to worry about where his next rupee would come from; eventually he stopped worrying about the source of his next meal.

Still, she made him happy, even as she consumed him. He was like a ship tossed on the sea of her will - on the good days he would scale the crests; on the bad he would plumb the depths. Her presence lifted his spirits and her absence tore apart his heart. In short, Love caught him in its vice-like grip, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The decline in the shopkeeper’s appearance and bearing soon became plain to see, but perversely, it affected least the person to whom it should have mattered the most. There was never a trace of pity in the woman’s voice when she leant over the counter to talk to him. She kept looking into his brown eyes, but she never saw the changes in his face. Maybe that was what he loved about her, but it was that same thing that was killing him. The fact that she didn’t notice his condition kept him from doing anything about it. After all, he thought, if he tried anything different; if he tried to change the course of his life, wouldn’t he just be risking the only thing that kept him coming to work in the mornings? When she was the only ray of light in his life, he wasn’t exactly eager to alter his position. In his fragile state of mind, such a risk wasn’t even worth considering.

Weeks passed, and slowly but surely the shopkeeper began to fade. And as he grew frailer, his shop grew colder, and the promise of his shelves was replaced by the sad reality of decay. His visitors (one could not call them customers) became fewer and fewer, disappointed as they were when they saw that the dreams they had come for had all melted away. Soon the woman was the only one left. But of course, you could say she came for something else.

Something had to give. Things simply could not have gone on the way they were. But a few nights later, something changed.

To be continued..


David said...

Impressive Chaff, keep up the good work!

Victoria said...

Why thank you, mine's a bit more blonde than yours though... and hell yeah us KG ppl have to take over blogspot now, we already have facebook... so moving on ey ;)

btw victoria is just me middle name, leaving it up to you to figure out who i am...

Victoria said...

hehe thanks, I say let's take over blogspot now that we have facebook, KG is the new soviet...

Btw Victoria is just my middle name, but conscidering you beeing you, you probably figured out who i am ;)

GaBBY said...

Très Très bien mon ami! I liked it a lot....and I'm looking forward to part 2!