The book lover's reward
(A feeble translation of a story by noted Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi)
"Story books and story books. We never see a text-book in her hands. No, this girl's future is absolutely bleak."
Everyone in the house declares this, having lost hopes about Mintu's future. They express surprise at how she manages to get hold of the story books - she is not given money to purchase them, yet she has a book in her hands throughout the day. "From where does she get these books?" they ask.
It is truly surprising. Where does she find the books!
From where do people, who are addicted to story books and who cannot bear a single moment without a book, get them? What is that source which perpetually satiates their addiction?
In Mintu's house, not a single rupee is wasted in buying story books. Even people who do buy story books know that their hunger can never be satisfied on purchased books alone - they seek out libraries; the libraries also cannot sustain their needs for long. What do the book lovers do then? They try to get books from friends, relatives, neighbours, colleagues - the bibliophile has to gather nourishment from all sources in turns. Everyone knows that if they refuse to lend books to a book-loving relative, that relative will never speak with them again in this life. They have to lend not just their own books but even those books which they have borrowed from others and libraries, and also the books which the newly-wed bride has received as gifts.
Mintu was also getting the books in this same manner.
The neighbours are aware of Mintu's addiction. Even as a tiny toddler, carried by her mother in her arms on social visits to the neighbours, Mintu had pounced on their books.
But there has been a slump in Mintu's "market" since the last few days - She has had to borrow the same book thrice and re-read it thirteen times. I have heard that hungry people unable to feed on rice, do not hesitate from chewing at leaves of trees. When you observe Mintu, you discover that there is sufficient truth in that statement. It is the summer vacation and Mintu has no story books to read. She has, therefore, read the telephone directory, the railway timetable, and the almanac.
That, of course, did not bring any relief.
Feeling like a fish out of water, Mintu was spending the afternoon traipsing all over her house. She looked out of the window and came to an abrupt halt. The sight which presented to her was the most astonishing one! She had never seen such a sight ever before. The yellow coloured house on the other side of the road had been empty, but there was much activity today indicating that someone was coming over to occupy it. God knows whether that someone had purchased the house, or had taken it on rent. But there was a whole lot of furniture that had been unloaded and waiting to be carried indoors - there were chairs, tables and cupboards. But one thing caught Mintu's attention and she could not take her eyes off it. That "thing" was nothing else but a lorry-load of books!
Mintu wanted to immediately squeeze out of the window and leap upon the books. Oh, if only she knew how to make herself invisible!
Mintu stood by the window till the time the books were taken indoors. When the last of the books was carried inside she sat down and began to think how she could read those books. She had to strike up a friendship with someone from that house.
While she was streaking down the stairs, mother caught sight of a corner of her frock and the ribbon on her hair. "Where are you going without taking your meals?" mother called out.
"I will be back in a short while," Mintu replied and shot out before mother could say anything else. While looking out of the window, Mintu had seen a girl of her own age emerging from the yellow house with a domestic as an escort. Surely the girl was going to the park. All that Mintu now had to do was to meet that girl and win her over as a friend.
The girl was rotund and had a puffed face; she was walking quite slowly. Mintu caught up with her very easily.
"Hey, there. It is you who have moved to the yellow house, isn't it?" she asked excitedly.
The girl was taken by surprise at this sudden intrusion. "What an impolite girl! Is that the way to come upon people so suddenly and scare them?" she asked, her puffed face puffing up all the more.
These were not words which appeared promising towards establishing a lasting friendship. Mintu's spirits were dampened. "I only wanted to be friends," Mintu said.
"No, I don't want to be your friend," the girl said scornfully. "We have decided not to become friendly with anyone in this neighbourhood," she explained.
Mintu was surprised. "Why?" she asked.
"It is uncle's order. When people become friends, they ask for books. Uncle has a precious collection of books. People take away the books, tear them, soil them and even lose them. It is for this reason that we left our old residence and moved to a new place so far away."