Tuesday 1 September 2015

ShortStory2015, Longlist Prachi Percy Sharma

The Bookish Witness

Humans hardly expect a book to be a witness to a crime.
Actually, humans hardly expect a book to be a more than just a…book. Our kind is supposed to stay hidden behind a shroud of silence forever. A sheaf of papyrus bound together, encased in hardcover. Glaring title on the front cover, forming a prelude to the ocean of words flowing in between the pages inside.

Millions of my brothers being produced by the printing press every day, every year.
Authors produce us, thinking that the words we keep within us will form a window, a window through which the world will get a glimpse into their psyche, understand their thoughts.
Ironical, then, that we carry an ocean of words within us and still remain silent.
I realize I’ve been waxing too eloquent about my problems. Ever since Gutenberg invented the press we’ve been relegated to the ‘forever silent’ category.

When I was created by my author, I hardly expected to become a witness to a crime. Which is fortuitous, because my creator is a crime novelist. Detectives, murder weapons, gory crimes and intrigue reside in the story that has been written on my pages. But there is a world of difference between a crime on paper and a crime in real life.

The story of my association with my owner starts on the day, in the year 2015 when my owner brought me from the Brent and Sons bookstore in London. She liked me the moment she laid eyes on me. I was touted as one of the creations by my creator, snugly residing in a glass case in a corner of the store smelling of mold and old parchment. She liked the quality of my pages, the binding, the way my hardbound cover was illustrated.

I was the first edition of A Game of Daggers, by highly acclaimed crime author Jean Johansson, published by Harper Collins UK. My owner, an Indian-American lady called Ash, fawned over me as she shuffled through the pages, inhaling the scent of my fresh-from-the-press pages, telling the shop owner, Mr. Wilson, that she was fortunate to have come to the UK on the very day of my release, being a huge fan of Jean.

Ash would have hardly expected her ‘most favorite baby’ as she named me, to be found splattered in blood one day.
Ash showed me off to her friends like I was the world’s best trophy.
She wrote her name, Ashwini Sharma, on the first page, with a vintage fountain pen.
I still remember the relish with which she opened me, in an Irish café, getting lost in my pages as she sipped on her coffee and munched on burgers.
A few days later, I was flown to my home, New York City.

Ash gave me place of pride in the polished teak bookshelf in her library, along with other of my brethren- creations of Jean’s other creations. I was borrowed by many of Ash’s friends. Men, women and children, all of them proclaiming to be bookworms. I never understood why voracious readers are called ‘bookworms’. I mean they do lose themselves in books but never turn into worms and slink in between our pages.

One of the most important things you notice as a book is the care with which people handle you. The way they keep their hands clean when they touch you, the way they keep you out of harm’s way- from coffee stains, food, water and other such pollutants than stain our pages. The way they don’t dog ear the pages, don’t leave books open on the table, keep us in proper bookshelves.
I have passed through the hands all kinds of people-oily, messy, clean, dirty, careless and so on.

Everytime, I longed to go back to the warmth and comfort of the bookshelf in Ash’s home- my only home- among the company of my brothers and sisters in the study.
Ash used to dust and clean the library once every week so her books don’t become dusty and dirty. She handled us as carefully as a miser handles his money. And when her boyfriend Rafael, an avid booklover himself, moved in, he shared the cleaning and dusting duties with Ash on a regular basis.
Under the tutelage of two loving owners, I was very happy and satisfied. I mutely witnessed countless evening when they both spent talking, drinking coffee and reading in the study, learning how they found each other through their mutual love of books and literature. Witnessed the beauty of real human relations when they passionately made love, absorbing every emotion and every declaration of love.
Until that fateful morning.
Rafael was not at home, and Ash was seated in the study when the doorbell rang.
She came running back to the study, screaming and shouting for help, and behind her came another person, dressed in a ski-mask and dark body-suit.
Ash and the other person fought for a long, long time, struggling, trying to subdue each other, trying to gain the upper hand.
Until the other person grabbed her by the hair, dragged her backwards and rammed her head against the glass bookshelf. The exact part of the shelf where I was kept.
The assailant kept banging Ash’s had against the wall till the back of her skull burst open like a watermelon and started to bleed, and a jet spray of her warm blood splattered right on me, along with a shower of shards of glass. Reddening my beautifully illustrated cover, covering the title embossed in plated gold.
And I could do nothing but sit there and watch, along with my family, as Ash slowly lost consciousness as the life-force bled out of her shattered skull and covered the beautiful Persian carpet on the floor.

Unable to shout for help or come to her aid, we watched as she lay on the floor, spread-eagled, unable to speak or move, blinking her eyes rapidly as she tried to fight against death.
Her assailant standing over her, watching her die.
I still remember their last words.
‘Serves you right, bitch. Die and go to hell.’
It sounded like a woman’s voice- harsh and high-pitched as compared to Ash’s soft and throaty.
We watched in silence as Ash closed her eyes and breathed her last, her head lolling to one side. A treasure-trove of words within us but no mouth to speak, to shout for help, to have the power to rush to our owner’s aid and save her life.

The assailant quickly walked out of the room and never came back.
Ash lay dead on the floor, her petite frame highlighted by the sunlight streaming in from the large window on one side of the study. Her head and shoulders covered in a halo of her own blood.
The police came and took Ash’s body away. They took pictures of the study, and wondered who could have killed her.

I wished I could tell them about the assailant in the ski-mask and body-suit.
For a few days, the study was absolutely empty, yellow crime scene tape stuck on the door and nobody being allowed to come inside.
It felt empty and hollow without Ash. The study had lost its most beloved occupant. I had lost my owner, my lover. I longed for Ash’s caring touch, for her adoration and adulation, like a mother did to her child.

Like Ash always said, “My books are not my property. They are my friends and even my children.”
It is said that when a person uses an object, any object, for a long time, a part of their soul, their persona, transfers into that object, and lives on there forever, even after that person is physically dead.
Like a house which has lost its owner, or a pen, or even a dress, a favorite coffee mug- or even books.
The study still has a part of Ash living on inside it. We books still have a part of Ash living inside of us- her spirit, her devotion, her care.

We will never get to see Ash, or experience her caring touch again. But she lives on, through us, silently speaking the language of literature, of words, of what she loved and cherished most in life, and of what came to define her as a person.

The crime scene tapes have been taken down. Rafael has come to live in the apartment. He spends most of his time in the study, reading us, fingering us, trying to keep Ash’s memories alive through us. He hasn’t wiped her blood off my cover yet. And I am the only book which he takes out from the shelf, holds close, caresses and sometimes, sleeps with on the couch in the study.
He even cries a lot of the time, intoning Ash’s name, holding her books close as if holding her close.
I wish I could cry with him, mourn with him and console him.
Remind him that Ash is dead only in body- her spirit resides within us and will always be with Rafael, watching over him, protecting him, keeping him safe.

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