An incident that occurred during my boyhood was the opening of the local library, that too just for me. The village library was just a room, attached to the Panchayat office, as it was owned by them. The library stopped functioning when I was in high school as the Panchayat was unable to get a librarian. The road I took to school and back ran along the Panchayat grounds and the locked library.

My English teacher, Agnes, would introduce one new writer to us every day, encouraging us to read their books. I would jot down the names she mentioned on the back pages of my notebook. In those days I could remember even the most fragmented detail of things seen and said. I still remember the day she told us the story about Alexander Pushkin – she was wearing a yellow sari that day, embroidered with white flowers. She had the habit of tugging the border of her sari when she became engrossed in what she was saying. She would touch her cheek fleetingly, the action followed by an infinitesimal pause. I never forgot what she said that day.

Pushkin was killed in a duel, the culmination of an argument in a bar, about a woman. He was the one who issued the challenge. Since the Czar had banned duelling, the assignation was kept a secret. It ended badly. Although the customary distance for duels was 25 to 30 feet, Pushkin was shot from ten feet away and eventually died in a hospital from his wound. Agnes described it all so vividly, it was like seeing it all happen. She spoke about other writers as well.

Thakazhi, Uroob, and Basheer were some of the Malayalam writers who entered her narrations. I watched every gesture, listened to every word, curious, entranced. Occasionally she brought books to the classroom. If the cover carried a picture of the author, she would mention it. “Look at the eyes, large, aren’t they?” I remember seeing a picture of Basheer, standing on the footpath, holding an umbrella. Some of us would go up to her table to touch and feel the books, and turn the pages. Some of them had pictures.

“They smell so nice,” my friend Hamsa said one day. Nice smell? Until then I had never thought of the scent of books. The ones issued by the school library had a horrid, dusty smell that made one nauseous. But the teacher’s books were brand new, straight from the bookstall. Did she buy all of them? The books remained in our memories. They spread the fragrance of optimism, anticipation and expectation. Perhaps it was my interaction with the teacher that brought home the realisation much later that a book acquires the scent of the person who handles it repeatedly.

During those days it was a habit with me to pause and stare at the locked library, on the way to school and back. One day, as I was returning from school, I thought I saw a light inside the library. From the road one could see only the window at the back of the library. That was where I saw the light. Was there someone inside? I stood undecided. Varkey chettan had given me his word that he would let me borrow books the day the library reopened. He had said that, without a librarian, the Panchayat could not open the library. Had the Panchayat finally got hold of a librarian? I clambered over the raised mud bank and entered the grounds. Dry leaves lay scattered all around. Hardly anyone came this way. The huge trees in the yard made the place damp and dark. I walked quietly towards the window where I thought I saw the light. I couldn’t hear anything. There was no one there. Perhaps I had imagined it. I stood beneath the glass paned window for a while, wondering, hesitant. . .

If I pressed my face against the glass, I might be able to see the books, perhaps even read the titles of the ones stacked on the rack near the window. The urge was irresistible. I cautiously climbed on to the wall and peered inside. It was exactly as I had visualised it. I saw a rack with two rows of books, neatly bound and numbered. Most of them seemed to be in English. All at once I felt a fire ignite in my underbelly and spread to my chest. I felt dizzy. I climbed down carefully, grabbed my bag from the ground and began to walk. If I walked across the plot next to the Panchayat grounds, I would reach the main road. I had reached the right side of the building when I heard murmuring.

Two people were talking. I looked towards the adjoining land. There was no one there. The voices were indeed coming from the library. I hurried to the window on the extreme right. How could I not take a peek? That was when I saw Varkey chettan and Gracy chechi locked in an embrace, kissing passionately. The next moment I was fleeing through the adjoining land, not daring to look back. That evening Varkey chettan came to our house, chatted for a while with Umma and Vapa, then came into my room. I looked up. He looked hassled, anxious.

“Why did you come there?” he asked in a low voice, his eyes searching.

“I saw the light in the library, so I came to check,” I said, feeling guilty. “I thought I could borrow a book if it had reopened.”

“Which book do you want?” he asked placing a hand on my shoulder. In spite of the sinewy strength of his arms, his touch was gentle. I recalled that chettan had discontinued his college education to assist his father in managing the land and shop.

“I’ll have to see the books there,” I replied.

“All right. Next Sunday on my way from church I will open the library. Come and get the book you want,” Varkey chettan said, knotting up his mundu. And that was how the library was opened exclusively for me the following Sunday. I stared overwhelmed at the rows of abandoned books, not knowing which one to choose.

“Ali, make it quick,” Varkey chettan urged. I grabbed the first book that caught my eye. Kottayam Pushpanath’s The Valley of Fear. His other books stood neatly stacked next to it, but I had decided on The Valley of Fear. The moment I reached home I climbed into bed, pulled the bed sheet over my head and began to read. Ever since that day, I went to that village library every week to read all the detective novels that were available there. It was exhilarating to have a whole library to oneself. When I told him that I read all those books, cocooned from head to foot in my bed sheet, Abhi burst out laughing. As he was smoking, the lingering smoke in his windpipe caused a paroxysm of coughing. He looked at me with red watery eyes gripped my shoulder with his right hand and said, “Continue, tell me the rest.”

There was nothing more to tell.

“The village library never opened again,” I said stretching my hand for a cigarette. “It became a place to distribute coconut and rubber saplings.”

Excerpted with permission from Susanna’s Granthapura, Ajai P Mangattu, translated from the Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma, Penguin India.