By: Debraj Bhattacharya
At the National Library there are usually three types of readers. The students from the University campus as well as from other parts of the city and the research scholars coming from different parts of the world form the first two types. The third type consists of readers who are neither scholar nor student but need to spend their time in a dignified manner, so that they do not feel that they are a burden on the family and rest of the society. Frederick De Souza was one of them.
De Souza was seventy three but reasonably fit and could travel around in public buses on his own. His eyes now needed the help of glasses to read but otherwise he was still very much a man with a vibrant brain. His large, curious eyes and thick, curly white hair in fact gave him a somewhat striking appearance.
Every morning De Souza left home at about 10 a.m. and reached the Library by eleven. He read till 2 p.m. and then took lunch, puffed a cigarette and went back to his reading desk. He read till four thirty and left. Before the evening traffic got too congested, he took his bus and reached home near Sealdah station. Then in the evening he read the news paper and poured himself a couple of pegs of Old Monk rum and ate the dinner after the cook had come and finished her cooking. Then at night he sat down in front of the computer and talked to his son and his family who were in Sydney. By eleven o’ clock he went to sleep. An unremarkable and disciplined life. Going to the library was the anchor of his life. His grandchildren, who are used to new technology like e-books and reading devices found it strange that their grandfather actually went to a library to read books. They could understand that grandfather reading a story book at home but not quite the fact the he traveled from home to the library every day, even during the hot summer days and the wet monsoon days. They could understand somebody going to a university and studying at the library in order to get a degree, but somebody going taking all the trouble to go to a Library just for the sake of reading story books? No, they couldn’t. Just as his son could not understand what was it about Kolkata that his father so liked. He had offered him a hundred times to come over to Sydney and stay with him. But De Souza could not think of leaving his home. Even though almost every day he kept complaining about this city – it is no more what it used to be. The old grandeur is gone, crooks have become rulers, young generation has no love for the city, so on and so forth.
But all his anger and frustration faded away when he entered through the majestic gates of the National Library. The lush green trees and the beautiful lawn seemed to transport him to a serene state of mind. Even though the new building of the library did not have the old world charm of the old building, it certainly is more comfortable especially during the summer months. He has heard a lot about very efficient libraries of different parts of the world; especially the British Library but he liked this not so efficient, but strangely intimate place. Somehow extreme efficiency for De Souza was a little boring. It bred arrogance and made the society less human, less humble he felt.
One winter afternoon, as he was having his post-lunch cigarette a young lady approached him. She said hi to him and somewhat gingerly he reciprocated, “hullo”. De Souza generally disliked the young scholarly types, who were a little too purposeful and ambitious for his liking. He didn’t like the fact that they did not love the books for the sake of reading them but were interested only in extracting something out of them in order to do well in life. She explained that she was doing a PhD on something like cities and minorities and she has noticed that he was an Anglo-Indian and so she was wondering if she could talk to him.
De Souza took a good look at the girl. She was about five feet and half, somewhat thin with curly brown hair, blue eyes and a thin pair of lips. Suddenly De Souza felt something he didn’t feel for a long time; he felt that she is rather attractive to look at. He could feel his male hormones slightly fluttered by the presence of the female homo-sapien. “Sure, why not. Do you want to talk here or elsewhere?” he asked maintaining his elderly composure. “Great. Anywhere you would like me to go. By the way I am Olivia.” The rather attractive lady told De Souza.
After four, De Souza and Olivia left for Park Street, where De Souza took her to Flury’s and they started chatting. She was interested in his life history. He was thinking about how attractive she must actually be underneath her clothes. De Souza realized that the interview needed to go on for some time and not just finish at one go. So after about forty minutes he said that he has some other work to do and therefore may be they could meet again. “Sure, that would be lovely” said Olivia, words that sounded like a Mozart symphony to De Souza.
That evening De Souza looked at himself in the mirror after his customary couple of pegs. “You are in love old man.” Someone told him from inside. De Souza looked at himself – ok, old but still fairly healthy and looking wise with the curly white hair. And now that he has reached the fag end of his life, the last stretch so to speak, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have one last go? Whatever happens? Yes, why not? The voice inside told him somewhat mischievously.
As they became more familiar their conversations began to move beyond the limits of the strictly academic. Olivia began to open up more to him about problems of living alone in a new city where she could be easily identified for the colour of her skin, how frequently she was ogled at even if she was wearing Indian clothes, but also how she really enjoyed the “continental food” of Kolkata’s restaurants – Chicken a la Kiev was the most exotic of them she thought. Indeed there was a strange role reversal as the conversations developed and Olivia started to talk more and more and De Souza became the patient listener. Sometimes he would gently push her to talk about something where she perhaps lost the thread. Olivia’s parents were separated, she has had a string of broken relationships and had no idea what to do with her love life; she didn’t know what to do with her career either except that she needed to find the money to keep her research going.
While being a patient listener, De Souza was also searching for a way to seduce her but was not quite sure whether she was feeling attracted towards him or whether she was simply thinking of her as someone who is good to talk to. Sometimes he fantasized that in another era, another place they were Romeo and Juliet. He wondered what it would be like to tell her that he was in love with her. Should he buy him a rose? Or is that too old fashioned? De Souza could not make up his mind as to whether he should invite her to his place or not.
Then one day, Olivia told De Souza that she was about to leave and she would like to take him out for dinner. Olivia’s funding was coming to an end and it was time to apply for new funding, go through the process of trying to convince idiots in charge of deciding on funding, so on and so forth. DeSouza hated himself for not being able to tell her in six months that he was in love with her and wanted to take her to bed and care for her for the rest of his life.
While having dinner at Mocambo De Souza told him, “You know, I wish I had met you when I was young. Who knows we might have made excellent lovers.” She smiled and said, “You know, lovers are no more that important. Boys with their silly hormones. They come and go. But you are precious to me.” De Souza was somewhat startled by the statement. He said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You are a genius at listening. That makes you so precious that I cannot lose you. You are comfortable on Skype, no?” De Souza kept quiet for a moment and thought about his hormones. Then he said, “Yes, my son is in Sydney and I talk with my grandchildren every day.” “Perfect.” She said while having her Chicken a la Kiev.
And so De Souza’s life took a strange but pleasant turn. Every now and then Olivia called her to talk on Skype. Then a friend of hers requested him to give her some time. She was also quite attractive. Then a couple of weeks later there was someone else. And then someone else. Soon it was like wild fire. Women from around the world waiting to talk to De Souza. They said that shrinks are like leeches but talking to De Souza changed their lives. De Souza never tried to pose as a Guru or as a learned psychoanalyst. He just showed genuine curiosity about the lives of these women. That bowled them over and they were so happy that they were willing to send him all kinds of presents. One of them even promised him a trip to the Spanish countryside.
After finishing his customary two pegs of Old Monk one day De Souza looked at himself in the mirror and thought, “that’s not too bad, is it?”
Next morning when he was leaving for the National Library he could feel a new spring in his step. Suddenly the air seemed less polluted and the trees looked so much greener. At seventy four he finally discovered what he was truly good at.