The old and immense library is dark and under-ventilated. The long ray of sunlight that a tall window throws into the enormous room lights up the only sign of life in that vastness- Maria. Maria finishes putting a massive brass padlock to the entry door of the library and turns around. The delicate gold and pearl necklace she wears gleams and creates a halo around her face.
In her 40s and dressed elegantly in a silk saree, with a white lily in her hair and the beautiful necklace, Maria now ambles along an aisle picking out books from the dusty shelves, wiping them tenderly and stacking them back one by one.
“Come here, my dear. I think you are now ready for my favorite aisle…” She says loudly, as if speaking to someone in another corner of the library.
“Wuthering Heights, Ivanhoe, and here’s also Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Oh I must teach you to read French…” She turns around and notices for the first time that she has lost her listener.
“Baby?” She looks through the gaps in the books. The long aisles look empty. She puts the book back and starts through the endless aisles. She suddenly gets a sense this has happened before. A deja vu.
A demurely beautiful girl rushes through the library’s labyrinthine passages, looking over her shoulders. She is hiding a book in her dress.
The girl reaches the end of a corridor and presses with both hands into the wall. Suddenly the wall twists revealing a secret passage. She shuts the wall back and rushes through the narrow passage until she reaches a ladder and starts up.
Maria walks hastily toward the secret door and trips over some books that have fallen off the shelf. Even amid her anxious chase, she habitually stacks them back neatly with unbelievable swiftness before continuing on her way shouting, “Where are you my child?”
The girl steps off the ladder into a sunny room. She rushes to the window and throws the shutters open. A strong and audacious 17-year-old boy climbs onto the window sill. They kiss.
He removes a WUTHERING HEIGHTS from under his shirt and hands it to her. “Here’s your book back.”
She pulls out the IVANHOE she’s hiding in her dress.
“Hurry. My mother must be here…” He pushes the book away. She looks at him puzzled.
“How long are we going to keep doing this?”
“What do you mean? I have more books than you could possibly read in your lifetime.”
“This, us! Do we always have to meet secretly like this?”
“If I tell my mother, she will never let me see you again. She doesn’t trust anyone in your world. You know that.”
“Then come away with me.” She stares at him for a long moment. Then…
“I can’t do that.”
Maria pushes the wall in the corridor with both hands and the wall turns.
The boy grabs the girl by her elbow.
“You aren’t a child anymore. You don’t have to do as your mother says. She didn’t let you go to school, she didn’t let you make friends or travel. But enough now. Don’t you want to be out in the world and live life?”
“I AM living life. I experience more life inside this library than you do outside. I have travelled the world, made strange friends, met all kinds of people, learnt several languages and trained myself in trades you don’t even know of. And all of this thanks only to these books…”
“And falling in love? Could your books give you that?”
He looks into her eyes. Her heart is melting…
Maria reaches the ladder.
The boy holds the girl’s face in his hands. “Step out and start your journey for real. I promise it will be amazing.”
“My mother says your world is already worse than Orwell’s 1984!”
“Maybe it is. But our world also has people wiser than the elephants and kinder than the Little Women. We have sights of such natural beauty, I assure you, no words in your books could do them justice. There is entertainment and drama and risk and adventure- you, of all the people, need to come out and LIVE!”
“I could never do it to my mother. I promised her I’ll never ever EVER leave her. Ever!”
There is a knock on the door. She looks at the door she has bolted from inside… She begins to panic and shut the window.
“She is here. You need to go now.” But he desperately pushes the window open.
“No! If I go from here today without you, this will be the last of me you ever see.”
“Please… I can’t make this choice-“
He opens his fist to reveal a gold and pearl necklace. “Let’s start our life together, for real?”
The girl looks at him with tears in her eyes and says finally…
She holds his hand and a wild ecstatic smile comes over her face…
Maria looks at the door in front of her. It is slightly ajar. She goes in…
There is no one at the window. In a corner of the room, she spots the person she has been looking for.
“Ria? I’ve been looking for you.”
A radiant teenager looks up from the Little Women she has been reading. Her cheeks are drenched.
“Jo doesn’t want to marry Laurie…. I really like him.”
Maria takes the book from her hands and keeps it aside.”My little girl is growing up and falling in love already…”
“Does real heartbreak hurt so bad Ma?”
Maria abstractedly touches the gold and pearl necklace in her neck…
“It’s much worse. Books never break your heart. But outside, the world corrupts even the purest relationships.”
“Is that why you came back Ma?”
“Yes… It doesn’t get any better than living here. Understand, my love?”
The mother and daughter hold each other close.
“I promise I will never ever EVER leave you. Ever!”
The words bring back the now excruciating memory. She smiles sadly and looks at the window, knowing the temptation of that window far too well. Who knows, it might one day overcome this promise too, just like it had done her’s.
With all her heart, she holds on to Ria.
“Just don’t grow up too fast okay.”