Sahitya came out of school. She looked to her left, then to her right, and saw that the sun had just disappeared behind the big oak tree. Her eyes went wide at first, then her lips spread in a smile. The white lights at the book house would be on now, she thought, and skipped on to the main gate, slipping her thumbs under the shoulder straps of her school-bag. At the gate she looked for her dad, like she did on all days, and like on all days, he was not there. Some of the other kids in her class waved to her from bicycles. Their dads smiled at her. But she did not see anywhere the green ribbon that she had tied to her dad’s bicycle. Maybe he had to go to work. He sometimes did.
She came onto the road. Behind her Satyam anna lifted the sticks and drilled them into their holes. First the top hole, then the middle, then the bottom. The gate was closed. She looked back. The school compound was empty.
‘Goodbye, Satyam anna,’ she said.
‘Goodbye, Sahitya. Coming tomorrow, are you not?’
Nodding, she hopped away along the path to where Mahender mama’s shop used to be. She used to buy poppins at Mahender mama’s shop. A ten paise coin used to give her twelve poppins – all of different colours. Mahender mama would ask her to name all the colours. If she got them all right, number thirteen was free.
But the shop was not there any more. Mahender mama was not there any more. Her mother told her that it was because Chotu had gone missing. She had asked her what that meant; her mother had told her that it meant he had gone somewhere, but no one knew where.
‘You should never go wandering around the village on your own, Sahitya,’ her mother had said. ‘If you finish school and if dad is not around to pick you up, go to the library. I have asked Javed bhai to look after you.’
She followed the bend in the path, and as was her habit, she looked over her shoulder to see if anyone was there. It was a game she and Javed bhai played. He told her that every time she came to the book house, she should look around herself at the bend in the path. There were people under the big neem tree every day, but today it was empty. Not even Subbai was there with his bajjis.
She walked on the thin brown line of raised mud that snaked away towards the bushes. She could only fit one of her feet on it at a time. She imagined it was a rope, and that people were all around her, under her, calling out her name and laughing and jumping. She threw her arms out and stared at her black school shoe, and the buckle that wrapped around her ankle. One step at a time, she told herself. This was a game Javed bhai taught her too. She had never made it to the other side without tripping at least once.
When she reached the end of the line she turned back and studied the way she had come. Once again there was no one. But under the rope she had just walked on, she still saw the waving hands, the shrill voices, her name being called out, once, twice, a hundred times…She walked backwards for a few steps, taking in the applause, bowing a little. This was what Javed bhai did after he walked over the path, and of course he never tripped. She had asked him what he was doing, and he had solemnly told her that one must always acknowledge the applause of one’s fans.
She turned around and broke into a sprint inward between the thicket of wild bushes, dodging the thorns and the freshly-dropped cow dung with practiced ease. It always seemed to Sahitya whenever she made this trip to the book house that she was going into a forest, on a hunt. She had asked Javed bhai why it was that the book house was so far away from everything else in the village, and he had just smiled and said, ‘Just to make it a little hard to get to, my dear.’
Javed bhai always spoke like that. He never answered her questions, not even when she asked him again and again what he meant. But she liked Javed bhai. He said she could come to the book house any time. You can come here any time, Sahitya, he had said, and he had held up the book that she liked so much – the one with the fox and the crow, and fox looks up at the crow, and the crow has in her beak a piece of yellow meat…
She looked up and saw the stairs of the book place. She ran up to the door and beat on the rotting wooden surface with her fist. ‘Javed bhai? O Javed bhai!‘ she said.
The latch came undone, and the door opened just a little. Javed bhai’s face came out, looked at her, and smiled. Javed bhai’s smile was so nice. He had big teeth. His two front teeth came out when he smiled. But it still looked nice. ‘Guess what?’ she cried.
He opened the door and let her in. ‘How many times did you fall?’
‘None!’ she said. ‘None, Javed bhai, none!’
‘Oh, I am so proud of you, Sahitya,’ he said, and lifted her up his arms to seat her on the table. Then he fixed her with a serious look. ‘Did you bow to the crowd at the end?’
She covered her mouth with both her hands and giggled.
‘Good girl! Poppin?’
She nodded back at him.
‘I have two. Red and yellow.’
‘Ooh, I want the yellow one first.’
He said, ‘Did you look behind your shoulder at the bend in the path?’
‘And how many people did you see?’
Javed bhai asked her this question every time she came there. It was a game they played. If one person saw her, she would get an extra poppin. If two people saw her, she would get two, and if five people saw her, well, she had never seen five people under the neem tree…
‘None,’ she said.
He widened his eyes at her. ‘Wow, Sahitya, you are a big girl now. Coming here all by yourself.’
‘Well,’ Sahitya said, studying the poppin closely, ‘I am nearly ten.’
‘Of course, and that makes you almost a lady. Here’s your yellow one.’
She scooped it off his palm and popped it into her mouth. Then she smiled at him.
‘What would you like to read today? Jack and the Beanstalk?’
She made a face and shook her head.
‘The Swan Queen?’
Again a shake of the head, this time with a small smile.
Javed bhai looked at her suspiciously. ‘Little Red Riding Hood, then!’
She again shook her head, and then coyly pointed to the locked room behind Javed bhai. This was the room where she was never allowed. Javed bhai always told her that the room was for big people. He said when she grew up to be as big as him, she and him could go in together and see what books they had there. But today he seemed to be a good mood. He might just say yes.
‘Ah, the big people’s room?’ he asked, and his voice made her shrink back. He thought for a while and said, ‘Hmm, since you are nearly ten, and since you walked on the tightrope without falling even once…’
‘Oh, thank you, Javed bhai. Thank you thank you thank you.’
* * *
There were more books in this room than in the other one. The light was also better. There were two racks standing side by side; one of them had big, fat books, and the other had small, thin ones. Sahitya made her way between the two, and with each step forward she paused, looked to her left, then to her right. ‘I have never read these books, Javed bhai.’
Javed bhai did not say anything, but she could hear him behind her. Even if he was not there, she would not be scared at this place, she thought. There was so much light. The other room was full of shadows. When she was there she always felt like holding Javed bhai’s hand; yes, even when she was reading a book. But here she felt safe.
She stopped mid-step. On her right, in the first rack, she saw a name she recognized. ‘Chotu’s book,’ she whispered.
‘Yes, my dear,’ said Javed bhai from behind her. She felt as if the words blew down her back.
‘I – mother told me he disappeared.’
‘That was a good four months ago, Sahitya,’ said Javed bhai. ‘A book has been written about him now.’
‘Oh, how great it must be to be in a book,’ she said, opening the pages and reading out names of places and people in the village. ‘Look, Javed bhai, whoever wrote this knew all of us! Yes, even you!’
‘Of course, my dear.’
‘Wow. How lucky.’
She felt Javed bhai’s hand across her back. ‘Chotu has not disappeared, my girl,’ he said. ‘He is right here, in this book.’
‘Yes, that is true. I will tell my mother that. I will.’
‘Chotu’s book will be read by people who do not know Chotu. All of them will know of this village and this library and your school – and you. Do you not think that is a great thing?’
‘Oh, yes, I do! He is so lucky!’
She turned the pages, reading out each word. It read like Chotu’s diary, only written by someone else. ‘How does this man know so much of Chotu, Javed bhai?’
The answer did not come. Javed bhai only said, ‘Would you like to be in a book, Sahitya?’
Sahitya said, ‘Oh, would I!’
‘Come with me.’
He snatched Chotu’s book from her hands, replaced it, and pushed her along the aisle. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘At the end of the rack there is a book you need to read.’ When they came to the end, where the light was at its brightest, he reached out and pulled out a big, fat, red book.
She made a face. ‘Such a big book.’
He smiled at her. ‘You do not have to read the whole thing, my dear. You only need to read the first few words; after that, it will take you in.’
‘Really? Will they write a book about me, then?’
‘Oh, yes, my girl.’ He patted her on the cheek. ‘Oh, yes.’
Sahitya took the book from Javed bhai’s hands and buckled to the floor under its weight. With a groan she lifted the front flap and let it fall on the other side. Then she started reading, out loud, one word at a time.
‘Once upon a time, in a village called Rudrakshapalem in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, there was a girl called Sahitya. She was nearly ten years old when she disappeared one gloomy summer evening after school. The last person to have seen her alive was Satyam, the school peon…’
She did not notice that the steps behind her had retreated, and she did not hear the soft click of the door closing.
* * *
Children were the easiest.
Javed sniffed at the air and shut his eyes. There was rain coming. He lumbered across to his phonograph table and pulled out the drawer. Out of the four discs laid on top of one another, he picked one, dusted it, and blew on it. Then he set it into its slot and arranged the pin just over the surface. When he saw the first drops fall, he set the record into motion.
Rimjhim gire saawan…
He whistled along with the tune and bobbed his head this way and that. In the far corner of the room, buried under a bunch of notebooks, he found the crowbar. He got on his knees with a groan and pulled it out. Then, using it as support, he got to his feet and stretched his back. Step followed heavy step again, and in the opposite corner he found a spade.
Children were the easiest because they wandered around without telling people where they were going. And old people too, whom no one cared about; those came next. Javed really liked those because they made such huge books, and those books did smell good, oh yes. Young, single people were also manageable; in one of his previous villages Javed had on a good day taken two young girls at a time. The most important thing was to make sure that no one saw them on their way in. With kids, some game or the other could be invented, and they were easy to bribe.
He felt his nostrils itch, and something flow down them. He rubbed his nose against his upper arm and examined his shirt. It showed a blotch of red. Things inside must have been wrapping up, then.
He pushed open the door and dragged himself in where the girl was lying on her side, her face hidden by her loosened hair, her limbs limp on the concrete. Beside her was a yellow book opened to the last page, and just as he took a step closer the back cover rose and closed around it. Another book had been written; another addition to his collection. Not a very big one because she was just a child, but big for her age, he thought, twisting his head around to look at the thickness of the book.
He kicked her in the ribs, just to make sure. Not a squeak came. Continuing to bob his head to the tune, he knelt down and took the corpse onto his shoulder. Yes, my dear, he thought, if you want to be in a book, if you want to live forever, it will ask you for your soul. Did I not mention that?
He giggled, then burst into laughter. He did not know how long he laughed for, but by the time he was finished the phonograph was quiet. All he heard now was the sound of rain. And the sound of his nose-blood gushing out every time he snorted. He cleaned his greasy hands with her skirt.
At the door he stopped. He turned with a grunt, balancing himself with the crowbar in one hand, and looked at the book – new, shiny, inviting. Oh, for anything to just sit down and read that book right now. To hell with this girl. He almost threw her off his back, but just then his eyes flickered. Tonight her mother would come asking for her. He would have to have his story ready. Yes, the book would be there. The corpse had to be taken care of. For a minute he silently cursed the book for taking just souls and leaving the bodies behind. Such inconvenient, meddlesome things, bodies. Then his eyes went to the new book and he softened. A warm glow washed over him, and he smiled.
‘I will come back for you, baby,’ he said.
* * *
The next morning at 6:30 A.M., Lachi the washerwoman, while untying her bundle of clothes by her stone on the bank of the Godavari, saw the swaying body of a ten-year-old girl a few feet upstream. She was dressed in her soaked school uniform, her face was hidden under water, and her hair spread out like tentacles, dancing. Her left arm seemed to be buried inside the soil, which kept her anchored against the current. Lachi pulled her sari up to her knees and waded into the water, and upon turning her over, she recognized who it was.
Her friends said they saw her at the school gate. Her father said he could not pick her up because he had to stay back in the field. Satyam said he saw her go in the direction of the big neem tree. Subbai said he was not at the neem tree that evening because none of the card-players were in the village. Javed Bhai said he had come out of the library once to see her skip along past the neem tree in the direction of the river. He said he had beckoned to her to come in but she had waved to him and run along.
No one else had seen her. But that was enough to guess what had happened. Sahitya had gone to the river in the evening. It had rained. And the riverbank was slippery on such nights, and the current was strong – sometimes too strong even for trained swimmers, let alone a ten-year-old girl.
The Godavari had claimed her. That was the only possible explanation.