My uncle was unlike any man I had ever met. Sometimes I even wondered whether he was adopted, because there’s no way that he shared the same blood as the rest of my family. For starters he didn’t go to college like the rest of them. Let’s just say the gap year he took after completing high school still hasn’t ended. At 18, along with two friends, he went backpacking across the country. For 3 months, no one had the slightest idea where he was or how he was doing. He turned up at the front door after a few months with his hair bunched up into a man bun, sporting a rugged thick beard and no footwear. My grandmother, who would be considered archaic even in the 1800’s, nearly had a heart attack seeing him this way. To date, she still holds him responsible for her heart condition. Unconcerned, he borrowed some money from my granddad and disappeared again for a few weeks. The next they heard of him, he had set up a bookstore somewhere in Delhi. Naturally, he was my favorite.
Kabir (he insisted I call him by name) was perhaps the only one in my family who treated me like an adult. Nothing was ever off the table when I was with him, so you can imagine the number of times my young teenage mind nagged him with questions. Kabir always had a story to share, either from his school days, his trips, hikes or even just some of his past experiences. Like when he bunked a week of school just to watch the India-Australia test match or when he smoked weed with a group of monks he met on his hike in Manali. I saw him as the epitome of ‘cool’, my mother saw him as a bad influence. I think both these points of view are pretty self-explanatory. The words ‘gap year’ were taboo in my house because of Kabir.
Kabir would spend half his time hunched over a book, and the other half bent over his type-writer. Yes, he was one of those people who still owned a type-writer. Not because he didn’t believe in technology or anything, just because he felt a type-writer brought a certain aesthetic and made him seem smarter than he actually is. I remember one day, back when I was in the 10th grade, Kabir pulled me aside and thrust a book between my hands, saying “This is my copy of the book. Remember this as the day your life changed forever”. This was the first reason I loved him; he made me read The Kite Runner. And he was right, it did change my life, because that was the book that made me want to be a writer.
His words were all that he had, there was no place this man could have worked than at a bookstore.
Between The Lines was a bookstore which was as quirky as its owner. It didn’t only serve as a bookstore, but also as a library of sorts. You could borrow books from Between the Lines and keep it for however long you took to finish it. But, there was a catch. It was a system that was similar to a game I had played back in 5th grade. One student would go to the front of the class and start telling a story, then they’d be stopped midway and the next student had to takeover from them and continue the story. Kabir’s system was very similar. Each time a person borrowed a book, they’d have to tell a story, not in front of everyone, but write a page out on the laptop by the store exit. The next person who borrowed a book would have to continue it from where it was left off on the laptop. It was simple, yet ingenious. You were made to work for your book. At the end of each month, Kabir would compile it all and get it printed. This cycle repeated itself every month. I’d always lurk around the laptop and the minute a person finished writing I would go read it. Some of the stuff on that laptop was mind boggling. The people I’d least expected to have any sort of writing prowess would write stories that would blow my mind. “Everyone who’s had a childhood has a story to share” Kabir always said.
The books at BTL weren’t arranged according to genres or sections. In fact, they were all randomly distributed. You could find Kane and Abel seated comfortably next to a Steve Jobs autobiography, or a Dan Brown thriller right by a Mills and Boons. When I brought this up with Kabir, he had a one line reply for me, “Every story in the world is a love story, so I don’t see a point in sorting the books out in any type of order”.
Yup, that was the sort of man he was.
Another thing about Between The Lines was that no song that was played in the store could ever be repeated. Now, this was both a blessing and a boon for me. If I liked a song, I had to find its name immediately otherwise my chances of hearing it again would be next to none. But, a boon as well because through this I got to listen to a wide variety of songs. And that’s the second reason I loved my Uncle. Through him, I discovered the Beatles.
The bookstore was my safe place, my comfort zone. We used to go to Delhi only in the summers, so I’d spend a large part of my vacation reading in Between the Lines. Pun wholly and completely intended. I used to spend long hours curled up in a corner, hunched over some book. The bookstore also held some special memories of mine, including my first kiss. I knew every nook and cranny of the place, and knew where exactly each book was. I guess this was why Kabir would have me work at the store from time to time.
My job was easy. I’d work the cashier desk and help customers locate books. BTL didn’t have a large customer base, so I got a lot of time to just sit and write. Trust me, there are few experiences as liberating as writing in a bookstore. Inspiration, is quite literally all around you. It’s quite ineffable to describe the feeling, but it used to make me feel oddly superior. This was of course, before Palakh burst my bubble.
Palakh walked into my life in the same way she walked into the store; with poise, grace and purpose. She popped by the counter and asked, “Hey, do you have Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo by any chance?”. Being the charming, suave man I am, I replied quite eloquently, “Uhhh..umm yeah yeahh second floor, first shelf on the left”. That was the first time a girl had left me tongue tied.
She took Morpurgo on the first day, Archer on the second and my heart on the third. Aside from her name, there wasn’t much I really knew about her. She was a closed book. Maybe it was the mystery that drew me towards her, maybe it was her glasses. I’m not quite sure what drew me to her.
She was a regular at BTL, and we had struck up a friendship of sorts. Our conversations were mainly restricted to books and authors, and aside from the fact that she despised Harry Potter she was nearly perfect.
“What do you keep writing on your laptop all day? How can you be so engrossed in a screen when you’re in a bookstore like this?” she asked me one day.
“Oh, I’m actually working on a story, and I enjoy writing here, it gives me a kind of peace.”. By now, a certain coherence had entered by speech when I talked to her.
“A kind of peace? Oh, so you’re one of those hippy writer types? That’s interesting.” she replied with a smirk running across her face.
Was she mocking me?
“Anyway”, she continued, “I want to listen to your story.”. Just as I started to lift my laptop to hand to her, she stopped me, “Nuh uh, I want you to read it out to me. I want to hear it in your voice.”.
Well, her wish was my command, so I lifted my laptop and started reading it aloud. It was a simple story I’d written, about how a seasoned footballer goes to visit the stadium the night before his last game ever to relive his memories and take it all in one last time.
It was quite an emotional piece and I was completely engrossed in the narration. I would have forgotten that she was standing in front of me, had it not been for her eyes. She didn’t take her gaze off me for even a minute, and let it linger there for a few seconds after I had finished.
“ So, what do you think?” I asked her in anticipation.
She was silent for a moment, and then she said in a soft but clear voice “It was passionate.”. Before, I could even process her critique, she had collected her books and left.
I stayed up the whole night thinking about what she had said. Did she like the story? Did she just like the way I narrated it? Passion is a funny word to use to describe a story. Was it so bad that passionate was all she could say about it? How had she said so much by saying so little? This girl was truly mystifying. I loved it.
She didn’t come by for a week after that, and I grew more and more anxious. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and became more and more sure of my feelings. I decided that the next time I see her, I was going to make my move. What was it that Kabir used to say? Five minutes of confidence can change your life.
So, when she did finally turn up, I called out to her before she made her way into the store. I leaned across the counter, as if it were that of a bar, looked into her eyes, just as I’d seen in countless movies and said, “Can I buy you a book?”. She covered her surprise with that familiar smirk and nodded. As we walked towards the back of the store, I saw that she was positively smiling now.
Somewhere between Tagore and Segal, our lips met. It was one minute of pure bliss and my mind and heart were both racing rapidly. I pulled away, looked down at her and asked, “So, how was it?”
“It was passionate.”