Fiction: The Bookstore

Swati Moheet Agrawal
- Swati Moheet Agrawal

Mrs. Bakshi found herself that little corner and settled down to read. The joy of sinking into a book, even for a little while, was all the therapy she needed.

Long hair rolled into a lopsided bun, spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose, Mrs. Bakshi plopped into her favourite butterfly chair with a cup of cappuccino sitting next to her. She invariably chose that butterfly-upholstered accent chair because it gave her wings, wings to fly to places unknown and known, feel feelings unfamiliar and familiar and savour experiences pleasurable and painful.

Reading was her one consolation – she lost herself in books, she found herself there, too. She found comfort in knowing there were ordinary people who led ordinary lives like her own, and there were extraordinary people who led extraordinary lives, too.

The bookstore offered respite from monotony and drudgery, burden and responsibility - no daughter or husband to tend to, no laundry or dirty dishes staring her in the face. Those two hours of mental stimulation were enough to recharge her batteries. The trip to the bookstore was an opportunity to escape her mundane existence and live a little!

“Welcome Mrs. Bakshi. Hope you find something exciting to read today,” Mr. Nath greeted Mrs. Bakshi rather affably.

 “Mr. Nath, there is a book for every mood – if you are seeking inspiration, look up Kalam’s biography, if you are in a mood for quiet companionship, Rumi’s poetry fits the bill, if you are seeking spiritual guidance, there is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, for humour, turn to Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat,” she replied rather enthusiastically.

“Great. Looking forward to your upcoming story,” Mr. Nath trailed off.

Mrs. Bakshi visited the bookstore thrice a week, from 11 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. after dropping her daughter off to ballet. Mr. Bakshi thought it would be a great recreational activity to keep Sia busy through summer vacation. Moreover, Sia was nimble and graceful and loved dancing. The idea of twirling in ballerina outfits and glittery shoes excited little Sia no end.


                                                                *

Mr. Nath observed Mrs. Bakshi rather keenly – she read as if she had been transported to another world; she read the way someone would swim to save their life.

“Reading gives me a chance to experience emotions absent from the reality of my ordinary world. I read to connect with new people, I read to reconnect with myself. I read to explore new worlds, I read to revisit familiar terrains. I like to immerse myself in other people’s lives – I laugh with them, I cry with them, moreover, escaping into someone else’s horror while leaving my own behind is calming,” she waxed eloquent adding, “you know Mr. Nath, my English teacher often reiterated that only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers, however, I never considered writing professionally, I should have given it a shot.”

“Well, I’ll make you a deal then – thrice a week you get to read books for free, and, in return, you share your observations, perspectives and recommendations on my website,” Mr. Nath pitched in.

“Sounds like an adventure to me,” she grabbed the opportunity. That’s how, little by little, Mrs. Bakshi’s life began to change for the better. There was something to look forward to, something that gave meaning to her existence, something that made her leap out of bed every morning.

                                                     *

Mr. Bakshi was of the opinion that a woman’s priority should be home and family unless she ‘needs’ to work, never mind her qualifications, skills or ambitions. He had categorically said, “sacrifice and forbearance are prerequisite skills in a good wife and good mother’s CV.”

He liked to call the shots, he loved to be at the helm of all affairs, after all, he was the man of the house. While he wasn’t the spouse Mrs. Bakshi had hoped for, he was most definitely a doting father – he indulged Sia all the time. He never opposed to anything Sia set her heart on. Sia’s wish was his command, literally.

Mrs. Bakshi ached for freedom, she longed for expression, so when she got those two hours to herself, since traveling back and forth from ballet class to home was not feasible, she took the plunge. Mr. Bakshi knew his wife spent those two hours reading at the bookstore but he didn’t know about her writing endeavours. The butterfly chair doubled up as her writing chair, too.

Mr. Bakshi even dictated his wife’s sartorial choices. Lately, he protested against her makeup as well - he vehemently expressed his aversion to dark lip colours. He was easily repelled by heavy garish makeup.

A bold red lipstick aroused suspicion in his mind. “Why are you painting your lips red? What’s the matter?” he snapped at Mrs. Bakshi.

 “I just feel like it. It makes me confident,” Mrs. Bakshi replied rather nonchalantly.

“It makes you look vulnerable, like you are available. It invites unwarranted attention. Only those kind of women wear red lipstick. Don’t you know?” Mr. Bakshi almost launched into a tirade against his wife.

“Are you slut-shaming me?”

Thud!

It hurt bad. It stung. ‘Slut’ was a taboo word in the Bakshi household – how dare she utter that word, only those kind of women blurt out those kind of words! She tossed and turned all night, she barely slept a wink that night. Like most women who remain shackled in unhappy marriages, usually for their children’s sake, Mrs. Bakshi, too, put up with her abusive husband. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile temperament and his narrow-mindedness.

A woman can endure so much more when she is afraid, when she feels powerless.
                               
*

What Would I Wish for on My 20th Birthday?
By Mrs. Bookshi       

Move over the aroma of freshly baked cookies or freshly laundered clothes – have you ever sniffed the pages of a freshly printed book?

The scent of fresh ink on paper and even aging paper is intoxicating. It smells way better than the scent of mud after it rains.

How I loved sniffing the pages of “Birthday Girl” by Haruki Murakami.

I am an ardent Murakami fan, devouring one book after the other. This tiny booklet is yet another masterpiece by a master storyteller whose tales captivate, whose words linger!

A seemingly mundane story with a mysterious undertone, ‘Birthday girl’, too, ends on a note of ambiguity. The story is about a woman turning twenty and her chance encounter with the reclusive owner of the restaurant. The woman in question is a part time waitress at an Italian restaurant in downtown Tokyo. Since her co-waitress calls in sick at the last minute, and the manager, too, is rushed off to a hospital, she ends up spending her birthday at work, and is entrusted with the responsibility of delivering dinner to the restaurant owner’s room that night. He learns it’s her birthday and grants her a wish; however, once she has made the wish she is not allowed to change her mind.

The woman, the protagonist of the story, tells the narrator of the story that her wish has been granted so far, but she’s yet to see how things work out until the end. “It was a wish that takes time to come true”, she tells the narrator in the present day scenario.

Murakami, expectedly, does not reveal her wish to readers. I think his genius lies in his ability to keep us guessing and craving for more. If you are seeking clarity and closure, Haruki Murakami is not for you.

So what did the waitress wish for? Many minds, many interpretations! Some believe she tricked her mind into believing her twentieth birthday wasn’t totally uneventful, hence, she conjured up the whole wish-fulfillment thing in her head. The wish was merely a figment of her imagination.

My interpretation is, she didn’t wish at all, which is precisely why the restaurant owner was surprised and shocked. She seems to be wise beyond her years unlike most adolescents on the cusp of adulthood.

I highly recommend this story because it has all of Murakami’s signature elements, it is surreal, gripping, moreover, it is a quick read.

However, the story got me thinking, it triggered a whirlpool of thoughts in my mind. Birthday or no birthday, we are all waiting for something extraordinary to happen to us, as if it would turn our lives around. As a matter of fact, for the most part, nothing exciting happens. If you don’t take joy in the simple pleasures of life like reading a book on a rainy afternoon, dropping your son off to football or savouring a steaming cup of chai latte, chances are, you are going to be unhappy and disillusioned for the rest of your life. If your happiness is contingent upon external factors like a trip to Paris or even perfect relationships, chances are, you are never going to be happy. There are two ways of looking at life – accept your situation or let go of it – being on tenterhooks is more exhausting than anything else. If you have the power to change anything that threatens your happiness or peace, change it all you can, if you are unable to change a situation that makes you unhappy or edgy, change your perception about it, make peace with it, breathe some life into it, easier said than done but that’s the way the cookie crumbles!

What would I wish for if I were in the Birthday Girl’s place? Well, I am going to turn forty tommorrow, so, on my 40th milestone, I wish I could wear red lipstick and live a little!

Mrs. Bakshi’s eyes teared over. Long bouts of weeping followed surrender.
***

Swati Moheet Agrawal is a freelance writer based in Mumbai, India. Her works have appeared in the Times of IndiaCafé DissensusTwist & Twain magazine, Storizen, Indian Economy & Market Magazine and India’s premier mind-body-soul magazine, Life Positive. When she's not reading or writing, she likes to engage in creative pursuits like decoupage artwork. She also has a penchant for long walks and starry skies. She can be contacted at swatiwhowrites@gmail.com.


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