By A.V. Reddy Sastry.
I spend my time mostly in the library. There is no special reason for this. There is no special reason for this. As I have no place of my own to go, I find the library a very congenial place to spend time gainfully. After the library closed I would loiter here and there. Or I go to the rooms of my acquaintances. They like me because I am quiet. Why are you silent, They would ask but I have no answer for it. I keep asking the question myself, is there anything rally worth talking about in this world? Nobody ever told anything interesting so far. My acquaintances never heard me commenting on anybody or anything. Sensing this, my indifference to the affairs of this world, they allow me to stay in their rooms. To them, I am perhaps like a piece of furniture, never talking, never intruding.
But I am not so absolutely silent as my acquaintances take me to be. I sometimes talk just a few words to Rajani, the woman I met in the library. That’s all. But she keeps talking continuously and pleasantly like the racing waters of a mountain stream. “You know what a crawling thing this time is. I try to quicken its pace with my nonstop talk,” she says by way of justifying her chattiness. I smile and keep quiet.
“By the way,” Rajani said one day, “Do you know they nicknamed you ‘silent stream of contemplation?” “Did they?” I said casually, not showing any interest in the information.
How shall I introduce Rajani? As my friend? No. I can’t call her a friend. Then who is she? That also I can’t answer. You see Rajani is perhaps there in the world for the same reason that I find myself in the world. She happens to entertain the very same whimsical ideas, which I happened to entertain about this world. That is perhaps the reason why I consider Rajani as somewhat special among my acquaintances. That’s also why I talk only with her.
“I have to talk to you today on a very important matter. Wait for me in the library.” I found on my table in the library this brief message one day. Who could have written in such an intimate tone for me? It must be Rajani? However, I am not sure of that, for, in all these years of our friendship, I had never seen her handwriting. But, assuming that the note was from Rajani, I decided to wait in the library.
Our library is a very big one but very old. “If you read the entire holdings of this library, it means you have understood the world completely.” These were the words spoken by our learned Professor Dustcoat. He used to teach us American poetry. I still remember very vividly the day when he was trying to explain John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Piazza Piece’ to our class. He read the opening line of the poem ‘I am a gentleman in a dustcoat’ with a great deal of emotion, modulation and gusto. Perhaps he wanted to inspire the class with his fine rendition of the poem. Unfortunately his endeavors fell flat on our deaf ears. But a totally unexpected thing ensued following his reading. From that day onwards the nickname Professor Dustcoat was pinned on him. In Ransom’s poem a delicate and beautiful girl was seen waiting for her lover. But she was quite unaware of the fact that death has been lurking behind flowers and creepers to pounce on her. Death was described in the poem as the ‘gentleman in a dustcoat.’
There is a striking similarity between our Professor and the death image. However great a student’s performance is in the examination, the professor invariably called it ‘trash.’ His eternal dissatisfaction with our performance in the exams spelt doom to the careers of many a student. But just like death, he also remained cool and indifferent to the feelings and sufferings of his victims, us. Hence we found the nickname, which is synonymous with death and very apt in his case.
The same professor commented on our library as the biggest and the most obsolete one in the country. He added that a total grasp of it would amount to understanding the world in its totality. However, we did not so far come across anyone who had completely read the library’s holdings. Why others? Let’s take our professor Dustcoat himself for instance. He has been trying to read all the books in the library for the last fifty years or more. But could he succeed in his efforts? No. He confessed his failure himself. Let alone all the books in the library, he couldn’t finish even the English Literature section. “Not yet,” he said. He said ‘yet’ because professor Dustcoat continues to sit in the library and read most diligently every day rain or shine. He enters the library the moment its doors re opened and buries himself in the books until the library is closed at night. He appears as if he were five hundred years old. He is bent with age but his spirit of pursuit of knowledge is not. It remained firm and unyielding. Hs vision has become dim with age and endless reading. The coat, which he continues to wear for years, looks badly soiled and threadbare. But he is absolutely unmindful of these physical manifestations of decay or his age. He says he has been reading for the last fifty years to arrive at a conclusion on a very ‘vexing question’ concerning our existence. But he says he is not able to write even the introduction so far.
Since I too spend almost all my time in the library, we two run into each other frequently. The professor-student relationship has ceased to exist between us long time ago. A new relationship has come up in its place.
We are now two scholars in relentless pursuit of ‘something’ about which we do not even have the faintest idea. If at all we know anything concrete about our subjects, it is only our failure to comprehend even the basics of our subjects. We have now grown sportive enough to poke fun at our failures. We are a couple of scholars perpetually pursuing some unknown subject – known to the world and unknown to ourselves.
I was waiting for Rajani in the library. My desk is located in a somewhat dark corner. The light bulb was burnt out sometime back. I mentioned it to the library staff. They didn’t seem to be keen taking care of such matters even after repeated requests. Then I decided to stop worrying about the light. Perhaps the library staff wanted to drive me out of the library by hook or crook. They might even be harboring a wish that I would walk out finding it difficult to read or write without light.
I can understand their position also. For how long could they allow people like me to haunt the corridors of the library? But if they thought I’d leave the library so easily, they’re mistaken for sure. I am never going to leave the place without catching hold of that ‘something’ for which I’ve been groping for the past so many years. No, that will never happen.
“Please give it in writing, the exact topic of your research.”
I received that memorandum from the library authorities a few days ago. I promptly sent my reply, “That is what I am also seriously trying to find out.”
When a person like Professor Dustcoat himself couldn’t understand what he was really working on even after fifty years of hard work, how could they expect a young man like me to say exactly the theme on which I’ve been working? How can we, people of the world, be sure what we are working for and what we are likely to achieve?
Professor Dustcoat’s work-table is located in an isolated corner of the library where also darkness reigns perpetually. It appears certain that the library personnel have plans to drive away professor Dustcoat also from there. As a first step in that direction, they removed the light bulb near his table quite unceremoniously. The professor’s reaction to this outrageous action was exceptionally cool. He remained calm and unprovoked. It seems he has concluded that his research is beyond the scope of light and darkness.
Thus we, the professor and I, became a couple of researchers on darkness in darkness.
Rajani has not come. I was waiting, the sun was going down and darkness spreading all around. How long can I sit here waiting among these musty smelling books? How long can I brood over the ‘nothingness’ of this ‘nothingness’? I must go out for a while and smoke a cigarette. So I started walking towards the lawns outside. I ran into the Professor Dustcoat wearily climbing the steps as I turned round the corner on the staircase. Of late, we stopped talking to each other. We considered all talk as a meaningless exercise. But today something prompted me to greet him. He said, “Where are you from, my boy?” as a way of returning my greeting.
“Doesn’t the old Jackal know where I am coming from?” some inexplicable bad temper suddenly provoked me to reply him rather petulantly and I said, “From darkness, sir.” Then I decided to provoke him with a mischievous question. “Where are you heading sir?”
Pat came the reply, “Into darkness, my boy.” As he was never saucy in the replies, his repartee was like a bolt from the blue. I was mad with rage at his sardonic wit. But I cooled down almost immediately. Somewhere from the recesses of my heart came amid chiding ‘so you are still capable of getting angry in spite of your total detachment.’
I felt ashamed. After all, what is wrong with what he said? All anger left me and I smiled at myself for getting angry for such a trifling reason. So—this world is still capable of making me fly into a rage. Anyway it would not be proper standing here on the stairs and indulge in a soliloquy.
A sudden zeal for play possessed me. Since Rajani ha not come yet, why should not I continue my funny conversation with the professor and spend time a bit happily? As things stand life seems so bereft of all joy. Why should not I try to kill this boredom by playing with the old fool? I shall put him to some trouble. I make him angry and thus derive fun just for a change.
I walked straight to the dark and forgotten cavern of the library where the old professor generally loiters among unwanted and unread books. I found him there standing in front of bookracks feverishly searching for some book. Of late he started muttering his thoughts rather loudly. Seems he is unmindful of what others would think when they hear to his loud thinking. When I entered, I found him muttering that somebody must be wantonly hiding his books somewhere so that he would never complete his project.
I approached silently and addressed him a low tone: “Sir, I discuss a moral dilemma with you?”
He cast a contemplative look, studied my face for a while and then replied, “Well, let us discuss. You know discussion is the only solace we are left with now. Do discuss—but do not expect conclusions. I have come to the conclusion that we can no longer come to any conclusion on anything.”
We moved to a nearby table and sat there in comfortable chairs. I remained silent for a while. This is a calculated move to provoke curiosity in the professor. My move proved to be correct. He was not able to put up with my silence. So he impatiently demanded, “Come on, out with your moral dilemma, my boy.”
I began seriously, “Sir, today I was reading Kafka’s The Trail. His interpretation of man as a trapped creature in this prison of a world is really amazing and fascinating. While I was seriously trying to comprehend the intricacies of this profound interpretation, there emerged from under the pages a white ant. It started sauntering along the very lines of the page on which I was trying to concentrate my thought. Its zigzag movement greatly annoyed me because it was interfering with my comprehension of the lines. I felt upset and angry by the nuisance caused by this flimsy creature. I decided to teach it a lesson. So I closed the book with a thump. The poor white ant was killed instantly.”
I stopped my narration and was silent for a few seconds. The professor wa on tenterhooks of suspense. He was almost sitting on the edge of his chair to hear what I would say next but I continued my silence. He could put up with my silence anymore and blurted out, “So, what is your moral dilemma?”
“I am coming to that, sir,” I said trying to sound quite innocent and serious, “But you must first of all promise me that you would not laugh after listening to what I’m going to say.”
“Well, go ahead. You have my word. I take your account quite seriously.”
“Thank you, sir. Your word lightens my burden. As I told you, I closed the book and the ant got killed. After a while I opened to see the dead insect more closely. I found it a youngling. You might call it a child still at its mother’s breast, if ants have breasts. Perhaps it has just learnt the art of walking out of its hole. Perhaps it just wanted to have a peep at his world. An eventful career might be awaiting the insect. Growing gradually into a mighty ant, it might have had the ability to devour this entire library slowly and steadily –the same library which we were not able to chew of digest in spite of our limitless hours of labour to devour it.
“But this ant, alas, even before its hour of active life actually began, its life came to an abrupt close. It fell a victim to the book which might have been its prey in due course. Now I come to the real problem, sir, which philosophical premise will be able to explain this uncertainty of life, this stalking of death behind all life forces—this is the problem or dilemma on which I need your guidance.”
I don’t know why but I began feeling uneasy. The flimsiness of the story and its intent started making me sick. I was expecting the professor to flare up in while anger at my attempt to be funny with him. But, imagine my surprise when he got immersed in deep thoughts after listening to my stupid story. Instead of flaring up, he turned moodily towards me and said, “Yes, my boy, what you propose to dilate on is supremely relevant to the human situation. The problem is sure to give a new twist to my own research. Let me think over for a while on the various possibilities of interpretation to this really complex dilemma.”
So saying he withdrew into his dark den. I felt like tearing my hair. I braced myself up to receive a thorough dressing down for trying to fool him with my cock and bull stories. Instead the professor said he found a new possible twist to his own research. My scheme simply boomeranged. I found it impossible to sit there any longer and so I walked out.
No trace of Rajani so far. I lit a cigarette. Thoughts—hollow thoughts—clamour round the mind like mosquitoes. Was the message actually written by Rajani? Believing that it was, I kept myself waiting for her all these hours. Anyway I do not have anything more important to do than this waiting. Just like that Scholar Gipsy of Matthew Arnold, I also kept waiting. Again like the Gipsy Scholar I am also not sure what I am waiting for. As such waiting for Rajani is not a difficult job. It is part of my waiting for the unknown.
Darkness deepened further. Lights were turned on in all the buildings around. The library personnel virtually pushed professor Dustcoat out, and closed the doors of the library for the night. I was all alone in the darkness. I relaxed on the half-broken cement bench in the rose garden surrounding the library.
Where could Rajani be? Surely she might have been delayed at some cinema theater. Rajani frequently goes to the movies. I asked her once, why do you see the movies so frequently? She shot a question by way of reply, how do you want me to cope up with this boredom of life?
So, if she has not turned up so far it means only one thing—she is delayed at some theater. If she says she will come, she will certainly come. That is the nature of Rajani.
I am hungry. What shall I do? Shall I go somewhere and eat? But if Rajani comes while I was away? She may think that I took her message lightly. So, I would rather bear this hunger just for one night. Life’s clock won’t stop if I starved once in a while. The word clock makes me think of the clock tower and its tirelessly moving hands. Don’t they ever get tired, those hands? Going round and round and round all the time—how tiresome and boring!
But is there any difference between this life of ours and the movement of the hands of the clock? The clock stands glued to the tower. But its hands move. What is it they achieve through this nonstop gyration? Man also moves constantly. But does he move one inch away from his established notions of tradition and conservatism?
I am beginning to feel sleepy. I faintly remembered hearing the clock strike twelve as if from far away. I moved restlessly on the half-broken bench. I kept thinking of Rajani even in the midst of my disturbed sleep. But gradually I sank into deep slumber.
I had a nice dream. I never had such a delightful dream all my life. Confusions caused by thought, cruelties of truth, pain of decision-making —all these painful tasks were totally absent. That is why the dream was so delicious.
The dream continued for a long time. By the time I opened my eye, the rays of the sun were there straight on my face. I got up and slowly walked towards the hostels. This bloody body, which is sure to collapse someday, needs daily cleaning. That is another boredom. Animals have no such worry. How lucky they are, they have no thoughts to understand the thoughtless scheme of this world. The sweet dream was till haunting,. Abruptly I stopped and started thinking. How stupid we are all! Knowing fully well that the dreams ae but dreams, we continue to feel ecstatic or miserable ruminating over the dreams we get.
I finished shaving and bath in a leisurely way. Then I went to the canteen and had breakfast and tea enjoying their taste and aroma. When it was time til returned to my hunting in the library. It was half past ten. I was feeling restless. I sank into my chair, stretched my legs and closed my eyes. I could not steady my thoughts; they were frisking and skipping like moneys on treetops. After some time, I felt uneasy sitting in that posture. So I opened my eyes, straightened myself and glanced at the heap of books lying on the table. Suddenly my eyes detected a letter placed under the novel, The Trial.
I took it into my hands. I didn’t know why but my hands began to shake. What does that mean, this letter? It means that Rajani had been here in the library while I was taking my bath or sipping my tea in a leisurely fashion. So, she came and also left—that is evident from this letter.
What an absurd situation it all seemed to be! I have been waiting for her these twenty-four or more hours, but when she was actually there, I was busy elsewhere sipping tea or taking bath! She might have concluded that I did not take her message seriously. Now it is too late to do anything to rectify the damage done. I do not know where Rajani lives. Hence there is no question of finding her and explaining things. Once again it is proved that the hopes, which we try to realize, are but mirages that we chase. A sense of despair, loneliness and helplessness suddenly overpowered me. All my composure seemed a mere pretension as I found myself on the verge of weeping. I had great difficulty controlling myself. I had no courage even to look into the contents of the letter. So I sat still for a long time. I was not aware of the passage of time. I don’t know for how long I sat like that, but when somebody greeted me with a ‘hi’, I came into the world once gain and realized that evening was at hand. I opened the letter and started reading it.
“I said I would come yesterday. You might have waited for me. All these days we lived with the thought that our lives are quite meaningless. We believed our lives would end up sometime, somewhere, somehow without our knowledge.
“But I was told that my views needed a revision. I was invited to meet a person yesterday. The invitation promised to dispel my wrong notions on our existence on this planet. I was simply overwhelmed when somebody is ready to pull me out of the despair that surrounds us. I was simply crazy to run to you and break this good news. I was so eager to see a smile breaking on your face for once, a smile that would speak volumes about how misguided we are about the true nature of the world.
“I rushed to the airport to meet the great person who promised me deliverance from my absurd thoughts, boredom and despair and hold out a new hope. I involuntarily walked towards the glass partition to watch the great man alighting the plane and walking to the airport building to meet me.
“The plane was touching the ground. But suddenly there were flames all around the plane. It went into a thousand pieces with a deafening explosion. Broken pieces of glass, charred bodies of the passengers, their luggage—all got strewn like balls of fire in all directions. The gentleman who was coming exclusively to enlighten me should also have been consumed by the flames or thrown out in some direction. Standing there in front of that glass partition I watched this dance of death and destruction in detail. I stood there for a long time like one absolutely paralyzed.
“I went there with a mountain of hope. How earnestly and passionately did I desire to find some hope, which might have bailed us out of this monotony, boredom and despair! For all my yearning that was what I got.
“Were we not in agreement with Camus when he said that the Absurd was waiting to pounce on us at every street corner? Knowing this all along, why did I go there at all? Why did I foolishly dream of getting a meaning to the meaningless world? I really feel ashamed because I had given a chance to the absurd to play with me and establish its invincibility. As Beckett said nothing happens here and nobody comes to rescue us. I had enough meaningless waiting in this world. I cannot continue this any longer. Going.”
So … so … Rajani was gone! All these days I had at least one consolation—that Rajani was there to share with me this burden of loneliness and the monotony of the routine. But now? I have to bear it all alone. This feeling of absolute loneliness seemed beyond all my thoughts of endurance. What shall I do? What shall I do to escape this misery?
I have before me two options. Going the way Rajani has gone or wait patiently with the hope that something will happen at some future time, knowing full well that nothing will happen no matter how long we wait.
My deliberations on the two options continued for long time, but I remained undecided. I decided that it would be better if I sought the advice of Professor Dustcoat on the matter.
I found his seat vacant. I searched all the dark recesses of the library for him bu the was not to be seen anywhere. Surely he must be there in the library at this hour, feverishly scribbling his ideas on the eternal mystery of this world on the pages of his bulky notebook.
I went to the reference section where he frequently spends his time. I asked the boy at the counter whether the professor was there. He looked at me with sad eyes and said, “Don’t you know, sir?”
“Professor sir is no more. He died of cardiac arrest this afternoon. The death was so sudden. We had no time even to send for a doctor.”
“What?” I almost shrieked and sank in a chair. I fainted. The boy sprinkled some water on my face and brought me back into this world. I sat staring with vacant eyes. The library staff looked really worried at my condition because they know my deep attachment to the Professor.
I got up and slowly walked back to my own dark corner. A sudden impulse made me walk to the table of the Professor. His writing pad was lying on the floor near the chair. So he must have collapsed here in this very chair a few hours ago. I picked up his writing pad and casually glanced at the page on which he scribbled something for the last time.
“I think I am arriving at a solution at last after all these years of endless toil and waiting …”
(The Telugu original, “Librarilo” was published and included in the anthology, asangatha sangataalu [the Absurd Stories] by the author.
Translated into English by the author and originally published on thulika.net, September 2003.)