A MATTER OF TIME (a short story)
My eyes watered as the dust stung them even as I tried to shield
myself from the storm that was building up. I entered the old library on Arya
Samaj Road in Karol Bagh. The Ghalib Library was now a ramshackle, decrepit
building that had a drab yellow look speckled with the black of fungi and
disuse; much like the mottled, unkempt look of a street dog trying to survive in
a world that cared little for the old and destitute.
I covered my face with a shawl and made my way into the big hall which housed
the books. It was lit with a few bulbs which hung naked from the ceiling on
long, black wires and cast a shadowy illumination. The place was dusty and the
musty smell of old books made breathing difficult. Smoked light filtered in from
huge windows which had not been opened for long, and now could not be opened due
to rust and age. The light was hazy since a fine film of soot covered each
window. Shadows leapt from corners, and the place needed getting used to. There
were huge tables of old teak wood, once beautiful and polished, now scratched
and unkempt. Whoever wished to sit there had to do his/her own cleaning of the
space required, or let it be as it were.
There was an old librarian who with his long red beard and wrinkled face, his
black “salwar-kameez” stiff with the dirt of days gone by looked as dated as the
books there. He was thin and bespectacled, and peered over his glasses with
rheumy eyes when addressed by the stray student who came to the library. He
spent most of his time dozing with his feet up on a wobbly chair which would
have broken by now under a weight greater than his.
I made it past him with ease, and my eyes adjusted to the dark. Shelves upon
shelves of dusty books greeted me. It was not that I was a stranger here, I came
here often to do research for my paper on Urdu poets and poetry and their
relevance to modern times. I was well versed in Urdu, a language which was fast
dying in a country which laid much stress on the English tongue. In fact, I was
fluent in all three languages commonly spoken here- English, Hindi, and Urdu. My
love for language was born in the days when I sat on my Grandfather’s knee and
he read out from the newspapers to me. Much of my earlier education could be
attributed to him. Then my own lust for the written word took over, and I
studied privately, and sat for the examinations privately as well. I could not
afford schooling of any kind, and whatever I learnt was self-taught. The Ghalib
Library did not charge any fees for its use, and I could borrow books without
any problem. In any case, there were few takers of these tomes which dealt with
art, philosophy, history and literature. Such subjects were shunned by my
contemporaries who pursued economics and computer science with zeal.
The wind whooshed outside. I walked up to one of the shelves and dislodged a
book for reference. I coughed as the dust entered my mouth. Quietly I went and
sat on one of the tables. The light bulb above swung wildly in the wind which
sneaked in from the slits and cracks of the building. I opened the reference
book and stared at the pages, my eyes suddenly watering. I had been feeling a
sense of helplessness ever since my grandfather had passed away a few days back
in the town of Aligarh. I had been unable to say goodbye to him, since I did not
have enough funds to pay for the bus travel there. Moreover, my thesis
submission was just round the corner. I knew that he would not have wanted me to
come to his side at the expense of the degree that I strove for. Suddenly
overcome with grief, I closed my eyes and the tears traced a weird pattern on
the pages I had opened.
I opened my eyes and looked down. I tried to wipe the pages, but they blurred in
front of me. A gust of wind rose and a stray leaf from a book flew on to the
desk. It was weathered and torn, yellowed and frayed with age. An Urdu couplet
in bold calligraphy sprung in front of my eyes. I could not but read it. It
said, ‘Make yourself reach for the skies so high that before writing your Fate,
even God asks you, “Tell me what it is that you wish.”’ It was a famous quote by
the Urdu poet Iqbal, and one much loved by my Grandfather. A vision of him
appeared before my eyes as he would rock me to sleep and sing these verses into
I wiped my tears and got to work. This is what my Grandfather was telling me to
do, to get on with my life and achieve my goals. So immersed was I in my work
that I did not realize that it was time for the library to close. I felt a hand
on my shoulder and looked up, startled.
“Beti,* you must go now. Take the book with you if you wish. Be sure to return
it within the week.” The old librarian was standing behind me. I looked up
“Forgive me; I did not keep track of the time.”
“This happens,” he said, nodding sagely. “I am happy to see that someone is
studying these old books. See how they lie, neglected and abandoned.” He gave a
I looked at the books. They had sent me a message. They were still connecting
with those who were willing to read their thoughts.
I walked up to them and put my cheek against them. I would come here whenever I
felt lost or lonely. I knew my grandfather would speak to me through them.
I had cheeks streaked with dust and grime, but my heart felt light and bright.
The dust storm was over, rain had fallen, and the setting sun threw red-gold
rays through the grey sky. I smiled and began running to catch the last bus
home. I knew I would make it in time.
The paper with the Urdu couplet? The wind had snatched it away from me, a leaf
in the air amongst others.