All I Wanted was to Read by Nidadavolu Malathi

 Balaiah brought in the day’s mail, stamped the date on each piece, put them in the tray, and left.

 Kamala, a Telugu lecturer, from a local college, was in the chair, across from me. She came to borrow some books, from our library. I was going through the mail, Balaiah brought in.

“Wherever did you get this fellow,” Kamala said, watching him leave quietly.

“What do you mean?” I said, casually.

Balaiah started here a month ago. I didn’t find anything wrong with him, as far as I could see.

“Is he behaving?” Kamala threw in a second question, adding to the first.

I didn’t care to respond. During the course of my service, the one thing I have learned is – some people are careless at first, and then come around; then, there are others, who would start like fireworks and then dawdle away. Some people would listen to a few; and throw a tantrum in the presence of others.

Kamala continued, “He used to work for us, until he was twelve years old.”

“Then, what happened?” I asked, feeling obliged to say something.

“We threw him out; he was acting like a jerk.”

Kamala appeared to be more interested in belittling Balaiah than in the books she came for. Her rambling didn’t make much sense to me; but I managed to gather, that Balaiah started working for them, at the age of 8. At first, he was all fired up, would jump on it, even before, the line was finished. After a couple of years, however, he started playing hooky; was disappearing for a precious few hours, in the morning, and, again, in the mid-afternoon. He, never, had an explanation, for this fudging; it was as if the word accountability was not in his books. He wouldn’t change his habit, either…

“May be, he was looking for some fun. He was, just, a kid at the age of ten, you know,” I said, looking for an explanation myself.

“The fellow has no sense of responsibility, not interested in hard work; and that’s all there is to it,” Kamala said.

THAT was amusing to me. I couldn’t help, thinking about all the fanfare around her ‘walk to work’. Short of a palanquin, it was a royal parade–her walking to the college, just about two hundred yards– she, carrying a parasol, wearing sunglasses, her face glistening with Ponds cream, her father on her side, and a servant behind her, carrying her books… Whoever could be better qualified if not Kamala to comment on hard work?

“We hired him to help us, and it was more like we were attending on him. So, we let him go,” Kamala said, again.

We went to the stacks, Kamala picked up the books, she needed, and we returned to my office. Balaiah was waiting, with two cups of coffee. I gave him the books, and told him, to have them checked out in my name.

Kamala thanked me for the books and the coffee, and left.

I had better things to do than worry about Balaiah; I didn’t give much thought to Kamala’s comments. In the following few days, however, I couldn’t help myself; I was paying special attention to Balaiah; like, an involuntary reaction. A couple of times I went to his section. I was checking upon him.

One day, I caught him reading a book. “We didn’t hire you, to read books, you know,” I said. There was no need for me to be so harsh.

“Sorry, madam,” Balaiah said, looking down. After that incident, I went to his section several times, but never saw him, with a book, again.

I got busy, with new grants; and, I had no time, to check upon Balaiah; he could be reading, singing, or dancing, for all I knew.

Then, the trouble surfaced again. “Balaiah is not paying attention to work, madam,” his supervisor complained, one day.

“What happened?”

“He was sleeping, in the section, during working hours. I woke him up, and questioned. He says, he went to a late night show, and so, was a kind of dozed off.”

I told him to send Balaiah to me. The supervisor went away, and sent Balaiah to my office.

“Is it true, that you were sleeping in the section,” I asked him, straight.

“Nodded off, just for a second, madam,” he said.

“I am not asking you, whether you nodded, or, slept like a log. I am asking you, what were you doing, during library hours. You can watch all the three shows on the same day, for all I care. But, you must attend to the library work, during library hours,” I said.

“I didn’t go to the movies, madam,” Balaiah said.

I was ruffled. “That is beside the point. If, I hear a complaint, again, I will have to take action. Do you understand? Go back to work.”

Balaiah left, without a word. Something was telling me that I should believe him; what if he were telling the truth?

The supervisor, however, continued to complain. I talked to Balaiah, several times. He never talked back to me. The supervisor says Balaiah was rude to him.

How can I ask Balaiah, “Are you rude to your supervisor?” or,  “What are your reasons, for being rude to your supervisor?”

One day, Balaiah, took a day off, saying, he had a splitting headache. The supervisor said, Balaiah was lying and that, the real reason was, a new movie was released on that day.

“Mr. Rama Rao, remember the Pancatantra story[1]? The ever-suspecting person is never happy,” I mentioned, suggesting he should learn to be open-minded.

“Okay, madam,” he said, and left.

That evening, on my way to shopping, I saw Balaiah at the movie theater, in the line, for one-rupee tickets. Balaiah saw me, and looked away. My trust in Balaiah went down by a shade.

The medical college warden, Dr. Gopal, came to see me. He saw Balaiah, and said, “You’d better be careful, he is light-fingered.”

“Fill me in,” I said.

In my mind, we should not call a needle and a spike, by the same name, although, by nature, the two serve similar purpose.

“You didn’t notice anything missing, around here?”

“Not to my knowledge,” I said.

“How is his work?”

I did not like this line of questioning. To speak the truth, may be, there were some lapses in the smallest of things, but, I never found any grounds for complaint. He never refused any job assigned to him, not even when it wa beyond his call of duty; there were no indications, that he was expecting any cash rewards, either.

“So, how do you know him?” I asked Dr. Gopal.

It seems Balaiah was working in the medical college dorm, before joining our staff. At the dorm, he was hired to help the chef in the kitchen. Within a few days, they found out, that he was stealing rice, and so, fired him. Gopal said, he had seen, with his own eyes, the man, who saw, with his own eyes, Balaiah stealing rice! I couldn’t follow his logic. Gopal, himself, did not catch him in the act; he only saw the man, who claims to have seen…

Why would Balaiah steal rice? Did he steal anything else? Was there any other occasion to confirm such suspicions? No, Gopal didn’t think it was necessary to go into such minutiae…

I, however, wanted to discuss the matter, with the Principal, and ask him to transfer Balaiah to another department, if possible. I went to the Principal.

The Principal did not see it my way. He argued that, if Balaiah wanted to steal books, he could do so, while working in another department, as well; he also lectured to me, on the beauty of handing over, the keys to a thief. I couldn’t convince him of my reasons, and so I left. I never told the supervisor to keep an eye on Balaiah.

A few days later, I reassigned Balaiah, to my office. He was good; actually, was great, in getting a job done. He amazed me with his unusual skills. For example, at one time there was a kerosene shortage in town. Even the people in power, like the senior doctor and the district judge, could not get a liter of kerosene, for all the muscle, they could pull. Balaiah got me a whole tin, in a heartbeat; there was not a thing– sugar, rice, reservations in trains, permits from the city office, not a thing, Balaiah could not conjure up, if asked. At the same time, the things, I heard from the elite of our township, were anything, but pleasant.

“He has no respect for work.”

“He is a crook.”

“He is a loner; eats at a shelter, and sleeps on the sidewalk. Keep an eye on him.”

“I didn’t find anything wrong with him,” I’d try to argue with them, but to no avail. They all reminded me of another Pancatantra story, and said, “You know, the rice grits are not thrown around, without a good reason.”[2]

I was sure of one thing, Balaiah never expected a reward from me, wouldn’t take it, even when I offered it, on my own.

Summer vacation started. All the students went home.

It was two years, since I joined the college. We never conducted stock verification. I issued necessary instructions to the staff, and left for my hometown. I took a leave of absence for two weeks.

I returned after two weeks, and found out, that Balaiah was suspended. I was stunned.

“Why?”

Stock verification was completed; and twenty-five books were found missing. The Principal ordered Balaiah, to stay away from the library, until I returned, and submitted my report.

Balaiah never showed up, not even, after my return. I sent a couple of peons to look for him. They couldn’t find him, anywhere.

I couldn’t believe that Balaiah would steal twenty-five books, but what can I do without him to offer an explanation.

I took the list of missing books, and tried to locate them, one more time. We could find ten books. In addition, eight more books were accounted for. For a number of years, the Principal, the college correspondent, and the committee members, were in the habit of jotting down titles of books on slips of paper, with a request, to send the books to their homes; but they never cared to return them to the library. They could keep the books, for any length of time. Two more weeks passed, by the time, this much was clarified. No sign of Balaiah!

Since it was my duty, I prepared a report, and submitted to the Principal. Seven books were missing. My heart felt a jab, when I heard that the college committee reported it to the police; Balaiah was the prime suspect. There was no mention of the books, borrowed by the committee members. Nobody cared to raise questions, like, when was the last time a stock verification done? Is it possible, that some of the books were lost, long before Balaiah, and I started working, here? What can I say? This kind of reasoning is unhealthy for the likes of me.

The police acted upon the report from the committee members; did their duty, and located the little hut, in which Balaiah was living. It was on the outskirts, six miles away from the town. The police asked us, me and the Principal, to accompany him, to identify our property.

The thatched door fell, at the slightest touch. I looked around. There were very few items, in that little hut. An old lungi[3], a shirt, and a pair of pants, were hanging from a loosely tied rope; a clay pot, an aluminum tumbler, were kept in a corner; and near the door, on one side, there was a kerosene lamp, a few books, a pen.

“Will you, please, check the books, madam,” The Sub Inspector suggested.

I was feeling a bitter taste in my mouth. I sat down to look at the books. The Sub Inspector was explaining to the Principal, that, he had seen, during his service, any number of fellows “doing this kind of business”; he has seen them all, he said.

I was looking at the titles, one by one– “War and Peace”, “Crime and Punishment”, Krishnapaksham[4], Gonaganna Reddy[5], Allo Neredu[6], and Krishnatheeram.[7] For a few moments, I forgot about the question, how Balaiah got these books; I was so pleased with his taste! I was also feeling relieved, that none of the books carried our library stamp. I opened the notebook that was lying next to the books. My heart quivered, as I started reading the quotes, jotted down in the notebook…

aidu rekula deepakalikanu

  aarpa juchedarevvaru

 taarakaa nava taila binduvulaara nicchune brathuku divvenu?

 [Whoever would want to stifle the pentagonal luminary of life?

Would the bursting beams of celestial bodies permit the extinction of life’s glow?]

 vraatha vrasedu hasthammu vraasi

  kadali vraayuchunu povuchunda

 a vraathaloni pankti sagamaina

 mari raddu paracha levu 

 [The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line

Nor all your Tears ash out a Word of it – Rubayait of Omar Khayyam][8]

kanne evato chanipoyi

   mannu kaaga

  poochinadi summu

  aa mallepoovu sogasu

 [A little maid died and turned into dust; thus blossomed the elegance of this jasmine flower]

I could hardly contain my excitement. Is Balaiah a scholar of this caliber? Are these books, really, his?

“Yes, madam?” Sub Inspector, alerted me, about the job on hand.

“Yes,” I said, as I put down the notebook, and picked up the last one, “veyi paDagalu”[9] (Thousand Hooded Cobra). I opened the book. Suddenly, the page looked hazy; it carried our library stamp, and there was no indication that it was checked out. A small piece of paper was in the book, as a bookmark.

“Only, this one book, belongs to our library,” I said, as I got up.

I was hoping and praying that this would not happen, but it did. I was annoyed, God knows, at what. At a distance, somebody was slaughtering a pig, and, her harrowing cries were turning my stomach.

“I can’t take this anymore. Let’s go, please” I begged the Principal.

After returning home, from Balaiah’s hut, I couldn’t focus on anything for a couple of days. I kept thinking, and something else occurred to me. A couple of times, when I was looking for a specific book in the library, the book was not on the shelf, nor checked out; and, after one or two days, the book would, reappear, mysteriously, on the shelf. Nobody could explain such disappearance, and reappearance of books. Now, I found some quotes from those very books. There was one more angle to it; the list of missing books did not contain the title “veyi paDagalu”, we found in Balaiah’s hut. Is it possible, that Balaiah was “borrowing without authorization”, and returning them, after he finished reading? A tall order!

Apart from all this, one important question, the most intriguing part, was Balaiah’s scholarship and sophistication; could Balaiah read books like “veyi paDagalu”? And nobody knew about it?

The police could not find Balaiah. The college committee concluded that Balaiah stole all the twenty-five books; his current month’s paycheck was credited towards the cost of the books; and he was fired from his job.

I couldn’t dismiss my thoughts, that easily, however. I kept thinking about the books in his hut, and the quotes in his notebook, and wondering, what a great scholar he could have become, only if he had the opportunity?

I was convinced, eventually, that I would never see Balaiah, again, not until after three years.

I saw him in Madras, while I was looking for some rare and out-of-print books. In Madras, there is a place called Moore Market, a kind of flea market, where we can find all the things, we can’t find anywhere else.

I was strolling down the street, and saw Balaiah, walking towards me. Actually, he saw me, walked toward me, with a big smile, and said, “namaste,” raising one hand. Lately, it has become common to raise one hand and say, “namaste”, a hybrid variety of Western salutation and Eastern way of folding both hands. That amused me.

Balaiah, lifted one hand, and said, “namaste, madam”. I was thrilled to see him; it was like, finding a long-lost, little brother, after many years. I couldn’t speak for a few seconds.

“How are you?” I asked him, feeling, genuinely, happy.

“I am fine, madam,” he replied politely. Then, he showed me a second-hand bookstore round the corner, and said that he owned it.

Suddenly, I heard a thump in my heart. Almost involuntarily, the Sub Inspector’s words flashed across my mind.

Balaiah didn’t notice my waning enthusiasm.

“Please, come, madam, see my store,” he extended a warm invitation, zealously.

I followed him, making a desperate attempt, at some small talk.

I started browsing his collection. I must give it to him; his collection was impressive. I asked him for the price list.

“Take whatever you want, madam,” he said politely.

I continued to browse, and said, “How do you get all these books,” and then, I bit my tongue. I shouldn’t have said that.

Balaiah laughed. “They are not stolen, madam,” he said. His words lashed out in my face.

“No, Balaiah, I mean…” I fumbled for words.

“I am sorry, madam, I am not blaming you. I heard, what happened at the college after I left. But, I do want to assure you, that, contrary to the belief of you all, I did not steal those books…”

I noticed, for the first time, that, Balaiah was articulate; he was making a conscious effort to speak the language of the polite society.

I was listening.

He continued, “It’s true, I took that book, “veyi paDagalu”, without your permission, like several other books, I admit that; but, I did not steal it. I would have returned it, after I finished reading. To tell you the truth, that was my last resort; I wanted to read, so badly. I would have borrowed, if only, we, Class IV employees[10], also, had the borrowing privileges, like everybody else. I had to find a way; I wanted to read so badly. I was always interested in reading, as long as I could remember. Kamala [11]garu said I was ducking work. That was not true. A new branch library opened in our town, and I used to go to the library to read, during my spare time. I never really ducked work. I was going to the library, only after I finished all my chores; and, that was not good enough for them. At the medical college, I was not fired; I quit. I saw an opportunity in your library, and, I hoped, that a job at the library, would give me an opportunity to read…”

“And, I didn’t make it any easier for you, either,” I said.

Balaiah smiled, embarrassed a little. “No, madam. You were right; Like you said, you did not hire me for my reading pleasure. It was bad enough I could not borrow books because I was a Class IV employee. I tried asking others, to get the books checked out, in their name. Can you imagine what they would say? And, the way in which they say it? They would look at me, those funny looks, you know, and say, “You? Want to read? These books?” So, may be, I was wrong, but, couldn’t help myself. I did not steal any books. I took that one book, “veyi paDagalu”, without your knowledge, but, I did not steal it; I would have returned it, after I finished reading.”

I could feel his consuming desire to read. I could understand his method, his last resort, to satisfy his thirst for books. His plan did not work, not for long. So, he ran away to Madras, started out as an errand boy in a second-hand bookstore, became a partner, and, eventually, opened his own store. What an accomplishment!

“I am so glad for you, Balaiah! I am proud of you. Now, you are not accountable to anybody. You can read all you want,” I said, feeling genuinely, happy for him.

Balaiah laughed. “That is the funny part, madam. Now, the books are only commodity for me. I don’t feel like reading, not any more than a candy man enjoys his candy.”

(End)

(Author’s note:  System is a mark of civilization. We pride ourselves on creating rules, and following the system to the letter, while the very persons, for whose benefit the rules are created, pay the price–all in the name of the same game, called the system.

In 1960, late Abburi Ramakrishna Rao garu, a well-known poet, and ex-librarian, quipped about the literary pursuits of librarians. I owe my last line in the story, –comparing librarians to candy men– to Ramakrishna Rao garu.)

This story, was originally published in Andhra Jyoti Weekly, 10 April 1970, under the title trushna and was awarded a special prize in 1970 Telugu New Year Short Story Competition.

The translation by author has been published on thulika.net, June 2002.)

 

 



[1] Pancatantra is a collection of fables in Sanskrit literature, dating back to 500 A.D.

[2] Pancatantra story. The Telugu line reads: “kaaraNamu leka nookalu callabaDavu kadaa!”

[3] See glossary under dhoti

[4] A popular book of poetry, by a well-known, romantic poet, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry.

[5] A historical fiction, by Adivi Bapiraju (1895-1952)

[6] A novel by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry (1905-1965)

[7] A novel by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry (1905-1965)

[8] Edward Fitzgerald’s translation. English rendering for other quotes mine.

[9] A famous novel, by eminent writer, Viswanatha Satyanarayana (1895-1976)

[10] Unskilled employees like peons and office boys fall under the category Class IV employees. They would not be promoted to higher level, unless they pass high school examination, and obtain the diploma.

[11] See glossary under garu.