There are two bookshops in Shillong that I love to visit: Sujit’s National Book Agency and Bahrit Majaw’s Ri Khasi Book Agency. Both the owners are close friends of mine.
Sujit’s medium-sized shop is in the heart of Khyndai Lad or Police Bazaar, the commercial hub of Shillong. It is divided into two sections: one faces the main street and stocks textbooks and stationery; the other faces a passage inside the busy commercial complex where the shop is located and is stocked with the most eclectic collection of books I have seen in Shillong.
The weightiest tomes in world literature – Don Quixote, And Quiet Flows the Don, Middlemarch and A Suitable Boy, for example – jostle for space with bestsellers and local publications. My own books, poetry and prose, are conspicuously displayed. Sujit never fails to pick up Around the Hearth and exclaim, “This is one of my bestsellers, Bah Ap. I have sold so many copies!” He makes me feel like a celebrity, and his words of praise always warm my heart.
Bahrit’s Ri Khasi is a different world altogether. It occupies the entire basement of a large building near Mot Phran, another of Shillong’s busy commercial centres. Chaos greets me whenever I enter the shop. The bookstore stocks all the textbooks anyone around here might require, from nursery school to university, along with everything else that can conceivably be considered essential to the business of education. It’s like a warehouse where books are stored before being despatched to different bookshops around the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills. Bahrit often says proudly, “All the booksellers in the rural areas get their books here, babu.”
Bahrit is not boasting. His bookshop is one of the busiest in Shillong. Scores of customers come and go at all times of the day, asking for all sorts of titles, English and Khasi, and for everything else from printing paper to pencils and erasers. The greatest thing about the shop is that it has copies of all the Khasi books ever published, except for those out of print. People in need of rare Khasi titles throng to Ri Khasi, knowing they will not leave empty-handed.
But one must be patient while browsing: the books are kept in such a disorganised manner that it always takes a long time for the assistants to find a particular title. For this reason I love browsing around whenever I visit the shop. As I glance through the Khasi titles, for instance, I’m often surprised by classics like Madame Bovary, The Origin of Species, Thus Spake Zarathustra, War and Peace, The Republic, The Iliad and The Odyssey popping up suddenly.
The sight of all these books always reminds me of Pablo Neruda: “Books, books, how many books…How many little books…Who can read them all…? If they were food…If, during a wave of great hunger, we tossed a salad, cut them up, poured some dressing on them…We’ve had it...We’re fed up...The world is drowning in a flood tide of books...”
When I first read his Memoirs as a young man, I deeply resented this statement. After winning so much fame and glory for his writings, it seemed ungrateful of him to speak this way about books.
I have spent some of my best times in these shops: in Sujit’s, whenever I go to Khyndai Lad, and in Bahrit’s, whenever I pass by it on my way home from the university. I visit the latter more often because it is the sole distributor of all my Khasi books. However, it disheartens me when I hear the oft-repeated complaint that people here do not read books unless forced to do so in schools and colleges. This is also why Sujit has to double up as textbook supplier.
When the first lockdown was enforced, I spoke to them both and sensed the despondency in their voices, a feeling with which I was only too familiar. I had nothing much to do because online classes had not yet been arranged in the university where I teach; moreover, the publisher of my new novel had not sent me the edits to work on.
In this state of gloomy foreboding, I shunned TV and its dismal picture of the world. But I also realised that reading alone was not enough to comfort me. So, I turned to poetry and Nameri. (If you ask me who Nameri is, I will only tell you this: She is both real and unreal. Even Nameri has asked me, “Who is Nameri?”)
But “turned” is perhaps the wrong word. The world was mad with fear. Possessed by the dread of the coronavirus, the fear of dying, it ceased to live altogether. But I was mad with love:
Possessed by you,
my only fear is losing you,
my only pain is missing you.
Nameri had infected me with a strange disease. I learnt about it just before the lockdown, just before she left for home:
Deep inside a pine forest,
we sought the mountain.
Between Sohpet Bneng, our holy mountain,
the afternoon rays filtering through the trees,
and the rufescent pine floor,
we had our temple.
I worshipped you again and again.
I humbled myself before you again and again.
I surprised you again and again.
My love for her, in turn, took me by surprise. I discovered strange things about myself:
You inspired me into a range of emotions.
When I bowed down before you – veneration.
When I cleaned your feet – fulfilment.
When I held you in my arms – enchantment.
When our bodies touched,
I expected the tremors of flesh.
How would I know you would fill me with stillness?
Happiness stunned me.
I felt drugged and drowsy.
I closed my eyes, and I saw
all were dreams; all were visions.
Not once did I tremble with desire.
I had never come across anyone like her. Alone in a forest, all we wanted to do was to whisper to each other:
We spoke of the dangers facing us,
our bleak and hopeless world.
I thought of Trump and Bolsonaro
and all the enemies of the earth.
We spoke of Corona and your leaving.
And you wondered why I bent my head
and would not show you my eyes.
All through the evening,
only the noodles you cooked for me;
only the hand that reached for mine;
only the fear you were losing
and the love igniting in your eyes;
bolstered my confidence,
as I faced the world,
Anguished by her departure, I created, ceaselessly I created, with words, with images that never stopped flowing, so the catharsis of poetry would ease my longing:
The hour of departure is at hand.
May the road take you straight to your dwelling,
but may your thoughts
bring you straight back to me
may your heart see the error of its ways.
The hills are healthier than the plains,
may you pine for them so often
that your home may seem dreary and joyless.
May you be unhappy with anyone else but me...
“Smile,” she said.
Can I put a smile on a face with an aching heart?
Should I look at you with deceitful eyes?
I would rather show you the wet greyness
if to show you sunshine is to be dishonest.
“The sky too cannot smile today,” she said.
Bleak heart; bleak sky.
What else is animated?
Birds are raucous with living.
They cannot draw me out.
My heart is silent.
The rain has started falling...
Darkness is descending.
It is not merciful.
Dark thoughts thrive in dark nights.
Sleep is far away,
and nor will it respond even if I call.
My longing was the restless wind raging from my heart, madly, aimlessly, here, there, everywhere, up and down, high and low, howling, wailing, moaning. Tired of its mad rush, it fell back into my heart, lying still as if dead:
Oh, my beloved, what shall I do?
What if Corona comes to you?
In your absence, I wilt.
In your absence, all the agonies of the earth,
its darkest deeds, are my own.
Who will stroke my head
and exorcise my existential angst?
In your absence, I wither.
My longing was an obsession. I did not expect days and nights to merge that way into one desire and one dream. I could not eat in peace; I could not work in peace; I could not sleep in peace. This mad longing turned into a baby crying for its mother all the time. And yet, what else could I have done?
In these alarming times,
when the world shrinks into a cocoon
of fear and hatred, and we know not
the beast that will emerge,
what else can I do, but love you?
I cannot help loving you anymore.
Nevertheless, I was not pining for the flesh. Ultimately, I was not:
I do not expect you to bequeath
your body to me
if that is what you fear.
Let the night flower bloom
without my withering touch.
Meanwhile, my poetry boiled and bubbled all the time:
Loving you, my world is red.
My eyes are red with all the tears and texting.
My phone is red with all the heart-eyes flaming.
My heart is red with all the joy and pain bleeding.
Corona has turned our life
into dystopian fiction.
Modi is locking down the nation.
He is doing us a favour.
With nothing to do,
We paint the sky red with passion:
dawns and dusks are a celebration.
Nameri and I talked all the time. The music of love, its silence like the opening of petals, the sighing of pine trees, the susurration of the breeze, the pattering of the rain, the mumbling of the brooks, the festive songs of the morning birds, the forlorn calls of the night birds, the wailing of the wind – all these, the sweet nothings, occupied our attention. But often, too, the pandemic came between us, and my mood became dark:
I missed you today!
My forlorn thoughts hammered my head;
my forlorn yearning throttled my throat;
I whistled like a pressure cooker.
I went into the streets,
emptied and cleansed by Corona.
I walked up and down,
mumbling to myself like a lunatic,
but no one called me a fool.
The village was a prison,
each house a prison cell.
Fear was everything:
the invisible prison walls,
the invisible prison guards.
Corona had left the world to me,
a desolate, godforsaken world,
a world without you.
And everyone was filled with dread. It was only natural that our thoughts reeked with the stench of death. We groaned under the weight of the pandemic, the disruptions it brought, the fear it instilled in every heart, the cruelties surging from that fear:
villages driving people coming home
into the jungles
cities forbidding people to leave
people with no place to stay
with no money and no food
people walking for hundreds of desperate miles
people driven to suicide.
And selfishness and greed lurked in every shop, in every street. The lockdown was a cure worse than the sickness. The fear was worse than the plague:
We may all be free from Corona’s fatal touch
for 21 days
but how will those without the means
be free from hunger, disease, starvation
for 21 days?
The fear of getting sick is making people die.
Oh, I hated it, that was true, and the worst thing it had done to me was to take Nameri away from me. And I didn’t know when she would return.
The nights are pitiless
they stare at me
I stare at them
and neither of us will ever know relief
until you set us free again.
When I thought of those without work or money, and wondered what fate held in store for them, I felt not fear, but the red haze of anger. Like many others, I also worried that thieves and murderers would stalk the nights. Sometimes I consoled myself with these thoughts:
The silence it has unleashed
into the streets
the silence it has shrouded
over the cogs of commerce:
I love the clear skies I can now see
even in the dirtiest of cities.
Change is possible
we may yet save the earth
Corona has shown us that.
And it’s not even as monstrous
as some things I have known.
If you are a poet in love with easeful death
you too will embrace it if it comes.
But when I thought of Nameri, I was often stalked by ruminations of death:
I ask, will you come to my funeral?
You ask, will you come if I die?
I will come before you die.
As your masked relations mill about
like carrion birds,
ready to take you away,
I will take you in a warm embrace,
and you will give me the kiss of death,
which is the kiss of life.
As they watch in shock and awe,
together, you and I,
we shall love and we shall die,
then we shall live.
As we leave for Somewhereland,
Here too, our story will be known.
Nameri is a strange woman who can talk to roosting doves, foraging monkeys and little green flies. The sweet companionship of nature is all she needs to make her happy. Her obsession with sunsets reminds me of the Prince in The Little Prince.
I love the purity of her soul; I love the way she does not flirt; she makes me feel so safe. At times, she was afraid of even loving me because she was afraid of losing herself completely. For that reason, I once asked,
What if I were the rain
that drenches you
with the great love I feel for you?
What if I were the sun
that gives you bright,
sunny days forever?
What if I were a tree
that gives you all you need?
What if I were a brook
where you can slake your thirst
and cleanse your soul?
What if I were a sweet, gentle breeze
that kisses you endlessly?
Transformed into the summer grass,
would you lie with me then?
That is how I love Nameri – not like a man loves a woman. One day I said to her, “My love shall be pure as the mountain streams of Sohra, it shall be fragrant as the air in our sacred woods, it shall be musical as the birds in our great forests...Let it be full of blessings like the cloud-tending, rain-bearing wind, and though I am born of Ïaïong, the black month of thunderstorms, with many black moods of my own, let me change myself over and over again, for your sake, let me make myself deserving over and over again.” God knows I am a deeply flawed human being, and my love too is clearly imperfect:
This is how I love
having my dahi, Nameri:
a little sweet, a little sour.
For that reason, you are so flawless.
Our love is
a little sweet, a little sour.
But I am convinced about the genuineness of my promise to Nameri because I am convinced about the spirituality of my love:
Think of me as a disembodied soul,
for only as such may I ever deserve
to say I love you, Nameri.
For me, Nameri is the perfect antidote:
In a world torn by conflicts
my heart is a toxic landfill.
There is too much hatred,
too much anger
in my heart.
No one is safe from such emotions.
That is why, Nameri,
you are so cherished.
Since you came to lodge in it,
I have known nothing else but love.
You are the perfect antidote.
She is so inspiring that my Nameri has now grown into a collection of 200 poems written in a span of five months. Despite Neruda’s complaint, I will add this too to the “flood tide of books”:
I will take my amorphous words of clay,
I will model them into a sculpture of you,
but one such that even you
will catch your breath to see.
And perhaps someday, somewhere, someone will spot the book and buy a copy. Who knows, one day Sujit might even say, “This is one of my bestsellers, Bah Ap. I have sold so many copies of it!” And then Nameri and I will be immortalised.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.