Sunday late evening, December 1989.
Rajendra Nagar, Delhi.
“Not now, buddy. It’s almost nine. It is super cold. Let’s go home” Prateek told his roommate standing in front of Winston Bookstore.
“You go ahead. I’m going to take a look once. The chap had told me that they are getting a new stock soon” Ayush said with his eyes fixed on one of the oldest bookstores in the Capital city.
Prateek exhaled out fog once and nodded his head with an expression on his face that says ‘this has happened before and there’s no way he can change the outcome’.
Ayush, on the other hand, rolled up the sleeves of his Navy Blue sweatshirt and swung open the door of his favourite hangout place.
The old man behind the counter was playing with the knob of his newly bought Crown television set.
“We are about to close down for the day, son. The keys are up…”
“I won’t take that long” spoke Ayush and marched towards the section marked FICTION in bold Gothic letters.
Winston bookstore was quite old. More than 100 years as per the old man. Ayush did not care much about the intricate details of its history. But he liked it for a couple of reasons.
First, it was the musty, dusty smell of that place. He would say that it transports him to another world.
Second, a tiny room behind the Comics section which only he knew about. On a busy day, when the bookstore would be filled with people more than Ayush, he would take a refuge in that room he called ‘A little Winston’. The old man did not mind as well, as Ayush had already bought more books in a year than anybody he had known for a lifetime.
For the first time, Ayush was not able to find anything interesting in the Fiction rack.
‘Non-Fiction’ – No.
‘Autobiography’ – No.
‘Education’ – No.
So he moved towards the last section of the Winston.
The shelf’s top half was filled with Archie. ‘Archie and Veronica’, ‘Archie and Betty’, Jughead’…’ Ayush browsed through the stacked books. The bottom half of the section was a mixture of Marvel and DC comics. ‘Star Wars’, ‘House of Secrets’, ‘Conan’ and much more.
He pursed his lips and raised eyebrows in admiration of the effort of the owner to have gathered as much variety in the book shop.
“Let’s pick up ‘Archie’ tonight” he murmured and as he said that, Winston blinked its eyes twice.
Lights went off and came back on. And went off again. And…off. Still off.
Ayush hoped in his head that he would not need to curse the state government again for the power shortage. To his displeasure, the power did not come back.
“Damn!” He suddenly realised how scary the bookstore looked in darkness.
Struggling to find his way out and dropping a few books off the shelves, Ayush somehow managed to find his way to the front side of Winston. Near the billing counter.
The area near the counter was partially illuminated by light blue moonlight crawling through the crevices of the thick glass door. It was without the old man. The television set was already turned off. And the door. It was locked with ‘WE ARE OPEN’ sign facing inwards.
“Oh no! Do not do this. Let me out. C’mon.”
“The keys are up…”
He remembered owner’s words.
He glanced around. The entire bookstore was draped in darkness. How the hell was he going to find the keys?
Ayush thoughtfully scratched his forehead.
“Yes. He normally keeps his torch over there” Ayush thanked his memory and decided to go check in the tiny favourite room of his.
“Don’t think much. There are no ghosts. The bookstore is never haunted. 100 years old place. Oh, stop it. No, don’t think of Evil Dead. Think of good stuff. Think of… Don’t think at all, damn it.”
Ayush brushed towards the end of Winston and was suddenly greeted with a cold breeze coming from Little Winston with its door pushed open.
“Holy shit! Who’s there?”
“Who the hell are you and who turned the lights off? It’s only nine” said the girl coming out of Winston. She balanced a pair of books on her one hand and moved streaks of hair off her eyes with another.
“I am…Well, first thing, I did not turn the lights off. And second, it’s not nine. It is ten thirty” Ayush said while trying to make out how she looked.
“Oh! Okay, I’m sorry. I guess…I guess I was a little rude. And is it ten thirty? I mean it was just Eight O’ clock when I went inside the Pumpkin room.”
“Inside what? It is called ‘Little Winston’ and not some ‘Pumpkin room’”.
“Says a guy who reads Archie?” She smirked. He was sure she had a smirk on her face as she said that. Not sarcasm. A light smirk.
“Hahaha funny! Anyway, here is the situation. Do not panic. But the store is locked. I mean it is shut. We are locked inside.”
“Yes, I figured that out.”
“What do we do now?” Ayush was rather perplexed by her lack of worry.
“We wait for it to become morning. What else can we do?”
“We can find the keys. I’m sure he keeps an extra set somewhere” Ayush was consoling himself rather than her.
“Stop panicking. It is all right” she said and flipped on the torch.
“Let’s go find the keys,” said Ayush, and she followed him.
Ayush focused the torch light onto the desks, on the top of books shelves. He tried to see her face as the light ricocheted off the window bars onto her.
She had dark brown eyes. Eyes that came at you like an arrow destined to hit the target. There was a confidence in them that said she knew people. What they could do and could not. She wore a pale blue shirt with sleeves rolled up just before elbows and a black skirt reaching mid-calf. Elegant as writers would call it or classy as magazines would like to publicise.
“My name is Nadia. You are?”
“Ayush. I’m Ayush”
“Ayush, hmm. What do you do Ayush?”
“Well, I am a writer and a photographer. I am here for a project.”
“Interesting” Nadia said before continuing, “Do you have those big-sized cameras that you mount on a stand. What you call it, umm?”
“A tripod. Yes”. Her interest made him smile.
“And what camera do you use? Tell me about it” she kept him busy as they searched for keys in all the possible corners of Winston. Upon the shelves, over the desk, under the desk, behind the counter and other places. Ultimately, they gave up and rested themselves on the leather couch kept for visitors.
“Yes, so you were telling me about your project” Nadia was not the one to let go of her curiosity.
“Yeah. I use Kodak Kodamtic 980. It lets me make pictures the way I see them. I think that’s the beauty of photography. Capturing something you have seen with your eyes and carrying that image gingerly in your pocket and presenting it to the world in the form as similar to the original as possible. I feel that’s the very essence of photography. Reaching places not everyone does. Seeing things differently and help other see it with your eyes. But sadly the definition of good photography is changing slowly to enhancing the quality alone. I keep arguing with the editors of magazines over the same, and they keep saying that the readers only want to see beautiful things irrespective of originality. But I do what I do. And so far it has worked well for me. Besides I feel that photography is incomplete without a story. So yes, writing keeps me busy too. In a pleasant way. I think life is too short to click as many places I want to and as many people I would like to write about.”
Nadia kept reading his eyes as he went on speaking. There was a certain spark about him. A spirited one. She watched the muscles of his forearm flex as he lifted a pile of books and wondered how strong his arms would be. He wasn’t particularly well built, but muscular where he needed to be. He moved fast. Like the wind. Yes, that was it. He was like the wind. Maybe he came with it. From somewhere, searching for her to spend time with, that night.
“What’s your favourite book?” He asked her and pulled one out of the rack.
“This is mine. The bridges of Madison County. Maybe because I can relate to it a lot. See here; these are my favourite lines” Ayush’s forefinger pointed to a paragraph on the yellowish page.
“I look down the barrel of a lens, and you’re at the end of it. I begin work on an article and am writing about you. I’m not even sure how I got back. Somehow the old truck got me home. Yet I barely remember the miles going by…”
“It is one of my favourites too,” she said without taking her eyes off his.
“You know which are my favourite lines from it?” without taking the book from his hand, she leant close and flipped the pages until she landed on the right one.
“I am the highway and the peregrine and all the sails that went to the sea”. He says it to her remember?” Nadia looked up to see him looking at her already.
“You love people, don’t you Ayush? Maybe because you never stay with them forever. Like Oscar Wilde said, ‘people ruin romance by trying to make it last forever’. You, you know when to move to the next place. Shifting gears from one utopia to the next, before the reality jumps in.”
“And what about you? What is it that you keep seeking inside the pumpkin room? What is your kind of utopia?” he asked.
“I am a teacher. I teach the language. I teach because I like the sound of it. The sound of everyday routine. Simplicity keeps me happy. I like giving myself to it, as much as I can. Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Charles Dickens, Faulkner, Sylvia Plath. They all keep me occupied. But I see a different world coming up, Ayush. The world which is far less interested in spending time on one thing you love. Such as books. I don’t see many people who can spend hours in a library. Like I do. Like you do. The world where people keep running, chasing things. The technology that is coming up is kind of scary. I don’t see much point in staying glued to these television sets all the time to watch the world someone else is living. You think I’m making sense?”
“Of course you are, Nadia. I feel the saddest thing is everything is getting too systematised. They are setting rules and orders for you to live in. Right from what should be your education. How much time you are going to spend on it. What shall you become? They are making youngsters chase things they might not be supposed to. I mean who cares if you graduate a little late. Don’t become an engineer or marry by the age of 25-27 and don’t have kids in another couple of years?”
“I understand. And I think there are very few like you who still exist.”
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“I mean you are doing your own thing. I think that’s the most attractive thing about you. You know what you are born for. And you are doing exactly that. You are clicking.”
“And we are clicking” Ayush so badly wanted to say that, but just smiled instead. He thought she heard it anyway.
“You know Nadia, this Little Winston or Pumpkin room as you call it is actually a time machine. It lets you be in a time where you like to be. You want to live in the 70s, and it gives you just that. The golden period as they call it. And me, I’m running ahead of time or maybe far behind. I do not know where I belong. I feel I belong nowhere.”
“You belong here. In this conversation. Right in this moment. You belong now. You were not made to chase tomorrow or to stay back with yesterday” she said, and Ayush felt the sudden urge of telling her how much he liked her already. Is this real? Could this feeling be a little more tangible? He could hardly see her face in that dim light, and yet he found her so beautiful. He loved her already. What was love anyway? A mother of all feelings. An intense belonging to someone.
It must have been past 4 am.
Nadia titled her head to look outside the glass window. An azure sky was filled with December fog. Just the thought of how cold it must have been outside made her shiver. She wrapped her hands around herself and shivered sitting on a leather couch next to him. Her shoulder brushed against his, and he subtly put his left hand on the couch hoping she would rest on it. It took her twenty another minutes and several more conversations to do that.
He looked at her face and tried to read it from whatever he knew about her in the past four-five hours. There was a blend of emotions on her face – of contentment and weariness. Of being happy where she was and at the same time wishing she was somewhere else. He thought of kissing her closed eyelids and then laughed at his thought.
It was good. It was beyond rationality. It was not to be pondered upon, as to how close they got to each other in a matter of few hours. They did not want to think about it. They simply chose to sink in the feeling. Float along the surface of right and wrong.
The hour hand took another walk around the circular path. Nadia woke up, and he pulled back his arm, now aching because of having worked as a pillow.
“Here,” she said and pulled out a set of keys from her bag.
“You had them all this while?” his answer was met with a twinkle in her eyes.
“There’s something I want to give you,” Nadia said while stuffing her right hand inside her handbag. Chewing on her lower lip gently, a search was done for something she considered as the perfect souvenir.
“A mixed tape that I made for myself last year”, she pulled out an HMV cassette and put it in his palm.
Judging him looking at how old it was, she said “Don’t worry. It does get stuck in the recorder at times. But a turn or two of the wheels by a pencil shall do it. And once it plays, the effort is worth it. It has all of my favourite songs.”
She smiled the smile of a ten-year-old girl giving away her favourite toy just to make her younger sibling happy.
“I can’t wait to play it,” Ayush said and pushed it gently down the pocket of his denim.
“I have nothing to give you,” he thought out loud.
“Because I am hoping this is not the last time we meet”.
Nadia said nothing. Just dropped her eyes, and smiled a little.
“I think it is time for me to leave”.
She spoke and set her brown eyes on Ayush’s in the way she hadn’t in past six hours. As if she could read his thoughts.
While Ayush kept wondering if he should shake hands and or hug her goodbye, she leant forward and kissed his cheeks. He opened his eyes slowly and watched the best six hours of his life walk away in the purple mist of December 1989.
Leaning against the counter, he flipped open the note behind the cassette.
“See me outside Royal Cafe tomorrow by 7. Don’t forget to bring your Kodak along. I have heard that photos survive time.”