The shop was in decrepit. Part of a residential complex. Ground floor, facing a one way street. A book shop.
“We sell, buy and lend books” a small type written A4 sheet taped on the door.
The latest Harry Porter book was being sold for half the price. Used books. There was a hanging sign which showed the shop was closed. I am a patient one. I walked to the small grocery next door. The malayali shop keeper saw me walk in and saw a fellow expatriate.
“Oru laban up vennum” I asked.
How I love the things you make. The shopkeeper, whose name I knew but never uttered, whose life I knew, the worries that he carried on his shoulders …all I knew.
I served myself. Paid him. Took the small blue tetra pack of salted buttermilk and went outside.
The desert sun burned brightly. I took my stand in the parking lot, leaned against the hood of the parked car and drank my Laban up. Then I waited.
She came in a rush. Like always. Time is not the same for you and me. With making breakfast just right for her husband, who demands his dosa to be freshly made so that it is crisp when he eats it and a child to be sent to school; freshly fed, bathed and clothed; time for her is never enough.
How I knew her.
Timing is everything in my role.
When I walked in she had already completed the daily routine that she always did every morning for the last 3 years. She had switched on the lights, switched on the computer, arranged the stray books on the counter which the customers had debated to lend or buy and have changed their mind, then she called up her husband to let him know that she’s in the shop and asked him to specifically comment on the lunch she had packed for him after he eats it. All in that order and all everyday.
Sometime my being fills with such immense love for you and your routines.
I waited for the next door grocery to deliver her morning bottle of water. I waited and watched the woman on the same block, enter, return her book and rent another self help book and leave.
I crushed my tetra pack, threw it on the ground, already knowing its destiny, (scrutinized by a cat, kicked by a kid under the car, swept into the bin by night and then dumped in the municipal garbage heap, serving as a home to a family of cockroach, and then being sorted and taken by a recycle plant to be turned again into something else – see the pattern?) ; and I entered the shop.
Of course, she saw me as one of her regulars. She greeted me with genuine happiness. I was old, a fellow man, someone who spends the little time I spend there , while I select my read, conversing with her. Nothing personal, always discussion, opinions, debates. She believes that she knows me. I am sure she does in her own ways. I am not a threat, dangerous or rude. I am kind to her opinions .I am waiting for her to talk about her faith. Christianity. Today I will put her to her test.
As usual I walked towards the fiction. As usual she had a book which she felt I would be interested in. Today it was ‘Possession’. In her experience with me previously, I have shown a penchant towards books that have won some awards. It’s always heartening to realize that you have been thought of.
‘Lovely book, but I am afraid I have already read it’
It gave me pleasure to see the slight disappointment that flitted across her face.
‘Iam so sorry..hope you didn’t go through too much trouble. That’s a nice necklace. Gift? ' I asked.
‘You like it?’ her hand holding the pendent. The book forgotten.
‘Yes, it’s interesting. Where did you get it from?’ I was already heading towards the shelf next to her reception counter.
‘It’s a gift. My husband gave it to me. No occasion; just out of the blue.’ Her fingers were stroking the pendent as she spoke; an American diamond clasped on a simple gold frame. It was simple yet beautiful. The gift, a symbol of guilty repentance for that one time her husband gave in to a temptation of the flesh.
‘It’s lovely. I wish you knew where he got it from, my wife would have loved it’, I reached for the stray books that were not put back into order. I have always liked to find that book which is found as if by some divine design.
‘She lives here with you?’
‘Hmmm, this one looks interesting. Yes, she does.’ I placed the book on the counter. ‘The blood and the shroud’. A study on the authenticity of the Turin shroud and other Christian relics.
‘You like this one? Maybe you would like to read another book, which is also along the same line’
I already knew the title she was thinking about. She placed the paper back version of ‘Da Vinci code’ on the counter.
‘I have read this. Lovely concept, don’t you think?’
‘Actually I don’t think so. He has sowed discord among our faith with this book.’
‘Your faith? How so?’ I am afraid I was smiling at her indulgently when I asked her that. She saw that as a challenge to establish her statement and she sat a little more erect, faced me square and said:
‘What’s your faith?
‘I am of no faith. I believe in an existence, that’s supreme. It’s logical for me to accept the fact of a creator. As of attributing it qualities, I don’t think it’s rational to believe that with a human beings limited attributes, we can ever truly understand it; we will only have theories but never a fact. Therefore to have a faith in something that I have never experienced with my senses will always remain a belief and I am too old to have faith, which to me means total realization and therefore is unquestionable. So, to emphasize what I asked you; how can anything shake your faith?’
She looked at me…no, she stared at me. I knew she would. I returned that stare, waiting for her response.
‘I am a Christian, I believe in the holy immaculate conception of Jesus, I believe in the trinity of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. It’s what I believe in; it’s what I have been brought up to believe in. Faith does not mean what you say it means. Real faith means that I believe without having to experience.”
‘What will you base it upon? ‘
‘What?’ she seemed confused but I knew that she understood but was bidding for time to frame her answers.
‘In order to believe in anything, you have to have a foundation. How can you believe in something that has no foundation?’
I knew her answer before she even spoke it.
‘There is foundation in believing in god. The very creation around you is the proof of his existence.’
‘I wasn’t asking you about your belief in god. I already told you that I too believe in a supreme existence that has created all that we see around us. I am questioning your wisdom in believing the rest of the baloney surrounding him- like the holy conception and the so called miracles and the special people of god. I mean, if you truly believe in your bible, then obviously you must believe that the Jews are his special people and you may have become a Christian but you certainly are not a Jew.’
I could see her twisting the handkerchief that she held in her hand but I wasn’t about to stop.
‘My worry is that we call him the father, but has he acted like your father? If the whole of human kind were his children would a father have chosen children? If he does then doesn’t it make him a not so ideal father? Why would a father have to send down another son, but this one, apparently more in connection with him, to make the rest of his children see his way? He is god; he can make you see if he wants to without resorting to any of this. You are after all his creation and why should he resort to such drama for the sake of removing the ‘sins of the world’ by having his divine son dying on the cross? If you were his children, why aren’t all of you Jesus?’
‘Jesus is the son of god!’ she screamed. She quickly checked herself. ‘I am sorry. It’s just that, I can’t argue with you. You are obviously older and better read than me but all I know is my faith. It makes me happy. It gives me comfort and most of the time it offers me hopes. But when you talk like this, it makes me insecure. Why can’t you just leave it alone? Let’s not talk of this anymore. Let’s just talk like a librarian and a book buyer. I am scared by what you say.’ She was on the verge of tears.
I lack compassion. I know what the term implies and since I know what it means, I don’t feel it. I see you for what you really are. Mere shells that identifies your self as shells, mere mortal thoughts that you call your mind which lives and dies with your shell. You have a concept of the soul but no understanding of it. You yearn for immortality which you already have. You have the knowledge right in front of you but you never see it. So, and for millions of other reason, it’s difficult for me to be compassionate to you.
I smiled. Knowing perfectly well that it will ignite her emotion. I was right.
‘You think its funny isn’t it? Questioning someone’s faith, shaking their beliefs? I wish you would go now. I know that I seem to be rude and it’s not intended towards you wholly. I am at a stage in my life where I cannot afford to give up or even question my foundations. Try and understand. Please buy what books you want and go. Let’s end our conversations here.’
I stood for sometime in silence. I wished her to assimilate all what she has spoken and therefore to bring out the guilt that normally always surfaces.
I picked up the book she had suggested. ‘I will buy this’
She rang up the till and I paid.
‘I am truly sorry’ I said, ‘I had no intention to hurt you or even to question your faith. I am old and I guess when engaged in an interesting conversation, I tend to show off my knowledge on the subject. I want you to know that I truly love all what your religion stands for but I will always have my apprehensions and questions about how the truth is handled and interpreted by you’
I stood by the door, my hand on the knob, ‘there are things we both can learn from each other. My intentions were only that. I am sorry.’
I stepped out and walked out into the burning afternoon sun.
She called out for me standing near the opened door when I was ten steps away. She had an apologetic smile on her face. I stood where I stopped. She came towards me touched my sleeves. ‘Do come again. Perhaps we can talk more on this subject when aim in a better mood.’
I smiled, ‘I intend to. I know a good soul when I see when.’ I placed my hands on hers and patted it.
I walked away. I knew she was smiling when she went back to her job.