Maya’s life turned topsy-turvy on the hottest day of the hottest April in 29 years. This was the fact that rose to the surface even years later, whenever she thought about how it began – amidst the angry glare and suffocating stillness of Mumbai in early summer.
Up in the library of St Paul’s College, sunlight filtered through tall, stained-glass windows. Fans groaned, barely tickling the heavy air. Books with maroon and avocado spines slumbered in the sticky silence.
An assistant librarian drowsed behind the tall, carved counter. But otherwise, Maya was alone in the enormous room – a solitary figure in too-blue jeans, a too-tight ponytail and a stiff T-shirt adorned with an unsuccessful pink bow.
Maya didn’t mind.
Much better to sit quietly with books in the library, than with the chattering hordes in the college canteen. Or so she told herself.
In the canteen she would have to scramble for conversation and smile till her jaws ached. It was easier to be alone with words and portraits of priests than to be alone in a crowd. Or so, once again, she told herself.
Maya made her way to a long teakwood table, as close to a grumbling fan and as far from the headachy sunlight as possible. She rummaged in her bag for a ballpoint pen and crisp, yellow pad and plonked both down with irritable energy. The pen ricocheted off the wooden table, tumbled onto the floor and bounced into a cobwebby corner – dragging Maya’s mood along with it.
“Oh great,” Maya frowned.
Kneeling down, she lunged for the pen, knocked her elbow against a chair and stifled a rude word. “Again,” she thought, scowling at the yellow and black floor of the library. “Once again Super Achiever Maya sits around libraries and crawls under tables. While the rest of the world watches movies, eats pizzas and has mani-pedis. It’s just not bloody fair.”
The yellow and black tiles, arranged in a complex pattern of interlocking stars, offered little by way of sympathy or advice. So Maya finally stood up, dusted her jeans and looked around the library.
Glum though she was, Maya had to admit that this was one of the most uplifting rooms she had ever seen. The rows of teakwood tables, the portraits, the ornate plasterwork and the glowing, mullioned windows seemed a world away from the rest of practical, boxy Bombay.
An old-fashioned clock hung above the library entrance – its motionless pendulum enhanced the time-stands-still atmosphere. Clearly, the blue plastic clock ticking away on the opposite wall was a brash imposter.
Maya walked to the cupboard labelled “Summer School”. She opened the glass doors and the scent of wisdom drifted out, musty but comforting.
After running her finger along the rows of books, she tugged out a dull red tome that appeared a teeny bit slimmer and newer than the others. “Ooh, lovely. Only 80 years old,” she thought, succumbing to a fresh bout of sorry-for-herselfness. “Almost contemporary.”
Maya lugged the book to the table and turned to Chapter One.
A Brief History of Bombay by DW Allen was worthy, but eye-wateringly dull. Maya read the first page and made a few dutiful notes on her yellow pad. Then she turned to the second page and her pen slowed down. Irreverent thoughts invaded her head – most directed against the loquacious Mr Allen and his misleading use of the word “brief”.
By the third page, Maya’s eyes had started to glaze. By the fifth page, she had given up on Allen, and was yawning and looking around the handsome library. Which was when she felt the first twinge of unease.
The teeniest prick of fear.
Unlike the rest of the radiant room, the deep end of the library was an untidy clutter of shelves, cupboards and dim recesses. A dumping ground for ancient encyclopedias, old magazines, college newsletters and cartons of long-donated books.
It was in that dusty greyness that something shifted. Startled, Maya stared into the murk. She’d thought she was alone. But deep in the twilit corner was a crouching figure.
Maya stumbled to her feet when – to her absolute relief and mortification – she saw that the figure was just a girl hunched over a bookshelf. An ordinary girl hunting for an ordinary book.
Maya flushed. How shameful if she had hurtled out of the library, babbling about wild beasts. How totally uncool.
Firmly, she turned back to her red book, yellow pad and blue ballpoint pen and willed her heart to behave itself. But it refused to obey. Instead, some instinct made her glance again at the silhouette.
That’s when she saw them.
For an uncomprehending moment, Maya just sat, horror jolting through her like an electric shock. “Not real,” Maya gibbered to herself. “Imagining...a trick of light.”
In that confused moment, the girl stood up and stepped into the light – and Maya gagged. The girl had horns on her head.
Twisted, grey things that thrust out of purplish bumps on her forehead. Bony, hideous and real.
Maya’s stomach lurched. She wanted to run, but was incapable of movement. She wanted to scream, but could barely whimper. So she remained marooned in the middle of that large room, pen poised over pad and heart banging furiously.
The creature with the horns strode through the library. She didn’t pay Maya any attention. But as she hurried past with long, graceful steps, Maya’s pen slipped from numb fingers and clattered onto the floor. The girl glanced over her shoulder. For an endless moment, she stared at Maya with cold, empty eyes.
Maya flinched. Then the girl raised her hand and rubbed her forehead. Slowly, very slowly, the horns blurred at the edges and melted into nothingness. The grotesque creature vanished – and in her place was a college student with glossy black curls and the slim body of a dancer. Somewhere in her terrified brain, Maya noticed that the girl was extraordinarily beautiful.
The girl observed Maya as if she were examining a specimen under a microscope. Then, flashing a mocking smile, she loped out of the library.
The temperature hovered around 41 degrees Celsius. But Maya felt chilled to the bone. “What am I doing here?” she whimpered as she shoved pads and pens into her bag with shaking hands. “I want to go home. Please, please, please. What am I doing here?”
Excerpted with permission from What Maya Saw, Shabnam Minwalla, Harper Collins Children’s Books.