“You make the money, I will make a life” Abdul told me off.
I had got a new job and was moving to Mumbai. I had come to him with the news and a carton of Navy Cut cigarettes that he preferred. He took the cigarettes and didn’t offer the usual stool to sit. Instead of congratulatory words, the unkind words tumbled out. I had half expected his reaction.
Abdul and I chatted about books, boxers, bikes, painters and stories and histories, and why Arundhati Roy would never write a novel again.
“Everyone has only one story to tell. Perhaps, that was hers.”
Abdul was an old painter who sold second hand books at Nehru Place. He was old and frail but still had philosopher’s words. I found him when my love for books was still fresh and someone had guided me to his book stand, which was simply a piece of cemented floor that he occupied. Time was a less exploited resource those days. So while he sketched, sitting on an old stool by the side of the pavement where crows shat on his collection of books, I read for free and listened to his ramblings, some were old and oft repeated, and some were surprises wrapped in most innocent of tones.
Before leaving, I scribbled down my new phone number and made him put it safely in his cashbox. Unsuccessfully, I attempted to extract a promise from him to call me once in a while.
That was four years ago.
Yesterday, I got a call that Abdul had died. He was found lying in a pulseless heap on the top of his books late at night. The cops were informed and they could find only one contact information: my number scribbled on a yellowish paper in the cashbox. They offered two options: either to take the body to crematorium, or if I would like to take custody.
A feeling uncannily similar to the one accompanying unpaid debt overwhelmed me. I had discovered Camus and Rushdie at that roadside pavement; Abdul had goaded me into reading them, and soon after I ashamedly devoured every single book that they had written.
I don’t remember anything else much, except of the matters requiring immediate attention – packing essentials, booking ticket, and making urgent phone calls.
Next afternoon in Delhi, the taxi crawled slowly towards the Sabzi Mandi mortuary. The July heat evidenced itself as anger. Everyone curses in July; cursing someone’s mother becomes the new mother tongue of Delhi. I was angry too; maybe it was a mistake to come all this way to bury someone I hardly knew. As the taxi inched forward, I thought of turning back to the coolness of the airport lounge and wait for the evening flight back home. But I have been too used to my own idea of being a nice guy, of doing the right things, and always lacked a certain boldness required to act indifferently.
I had never been to a mortuary. It was late afternoon by the time I reached the gates of the mortuary. While I looked for constable Malik, the one who had called me, a Delhi police van drove up. It brought a body of an unidentified man. The mortuary staff brought out the body, and placed it on stretchers to wheel it in. For a place of the dead, the mortuary was surprisingly busy. A young boy came in with water and tea to sell. I asked if he knew where to find the constable; he looked around lost. An hour passed by, and just around when I was beginning to worry about the evening flight, constable Malik found me.
“Sir you will have to come inside and take the body yourself”, constable Malik informed me unceremoniously. Noticing my discomfort, he offered “or you can pay one of these boys who can bring out the body after you have identified it. They can also take it to the burial place, all for a fee”.
Brokers in the mortuary, I wondered.
On my tacit approval, constable Malik summoned a young man, dressed in white overalls, with a wave of his hand. A passage of the mortuary, bright with white lights, took us to the cold storage. There was still a chance that I might make it to the flight if I hurried things up. Constable Malik walked ahead lazily. I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven...". One of the cold storages was drawn open. I shut my mouth tightly, holding my breath, and hoping against hope not to let any smell of death enter into me. This was such a wrong decision, I kept repeating to myself, as if a constant reminder will make this wrong right.
Inside the cold storage there were more than 60 bodies, in a place for 30; some were lying on the floor, some on stretchers, a few were of women. I hurried across till I chanced upon the thin, almost shrunken body of Abdul. I indicated to constable Malik, who amidst all this terror on senses was standing calmly behind me.
It was five in the evening by the time the body was brought outside. Examining the body from a distance, constable Malik, wondered, “How do you know this poor beggar, sir? What about his family?”
“I don’t know him well. I just bought books from him”, and no I had never cared to ask Abdul about his family.
Constable Malik looked incredulously at the foolishness of my statement, as if I was joking.
“It’s difficult to explain. Anyhow, can you please help me with the burial? I would really like to catch the flight back tonight”.
“That would be very difficult. We first need documents to be signed and it is not easy to find a burial place nearby. I suggest you take this body to Dakshinpuri burial in Kalkaji”.
By the time I was done with the paperwork, I had given up hope to catch the flight. I was calmer now given that there was no place to rush to. The constable, for a convenient ‘service charge’, had helped arrange an ambulance.
“And one last thing sir” he mentioned just when I sat in the ambulance, “there was not much left at the place where the body was found, some books and this key that we found in the cashbox along with your number”.
I had never seen the key before and slipped it inside the pocket.
Later that evening, once Abdul’s body was buried as his religion determined, though he never cared to believe in one, the familiar feeling of calmness reappeared. I even felt certain guilt for all the transactional posing I had done in the last few hours.
Relieved, I took an auto rickshaw to the same garish bar at Okhla, where Abdul used to gulp cheap whiskey, while I sipped beer.
“Knowledge should be free, you see”, Abdul used to reason why he sold books at twenty rupees each, “I make people read Chekov, Dostoevsky, Kant at a price they can afford”.
“Why even twenty rupees, Abdul and how do you see yourself paying the bills” I would counter the senile talk from the old man.
I felt the cold key in my pocket. It was a single key with a worn out red plastic rim around it. I kept fiddling with it while sipping my drink. I had an idea that Abdul lived in Greater Kailash across Paras Cinema, for I used to drop him there in the evening sometimes. He would get off the bike and walk on the periphery of the district park. The key could be to his shanty.
Somewhat drawn by the desire to roam around Delhi streets late at night and relive the bygone years, and somewhat driven to find out Abdul’s shanty, I took an auto rickshaw to Greater Kailash. The evening retained the warmth from the day but the streets were strangely quiet, as if everyone had run into the fold of their television sets. I walked along the edge of R Block District Park.
A young cycle mechanic was alone at work.
“Listen, do you know Abdul”, I took a shot in the dark, “the old man who had a shop across from here?”
He looked at me questioningly. I excused and moved forward.
“The book seller! Abdul, the book seller?” the mechanic shouted in recognition after me.
The mechanic walked me to the front of the small shack that Abdul had. It was desolate with a lock in front. A lock, to which, I had the key. Maybe it was meant to be left unlocked, I wondered. And then went on to open it.
The metal door cranked open into darkness. I shuffled around looking for the switch. Instead my hand bumped into a stack that fell with a thump. I flicked open a small plastic lever of a switch protruding from the wall, the ones found in very old houses. A dull yellow light settled on the room.
Books, thousands of them, lay in front, stacked on top of one another, all the way to the ceiling, in hardcover, and in paper, well bound and torn, of the authors known and unknown, they all lay there, waiting in anticipation to be picked up, perhaps waiting for too long.
That night, while the darkness reigned outside, Abdul’s legacy, the mildly lit room fended bright. I know what I have to do tomorrow and perhaps in the days to follow. I sat in the centre, pulling books from the stacks, dusting them and packing them in heaps, preparing to pass them onwards, just like Abdul would have liked.