SHORT FICTION

Zooming in on modest dreams

You don't judge a book by its cover, but do you judge a person by their bookshelf? Disconcerted by his inability to arrive at an immediate answer, Ojas kept brooding over this question throughout the Status Update Meeting. Two months into the Covid-19 lockdown, he was already a seasoned Zoom user, and his distractions remained unnoticed even as he enlarged five of the twelve video thumbnails to probe the pixelated bookcases in their backgrounds. He belonged to the majority who had chosen not to sit in front of their books while working from home. But then, for him, it was not really a matter of choice. He didn’t have a bookshelf; more accurately, he didn’t have any print books.

He was a bona fide bibliophile who had got segregated from his paperbacks and hardcovers when he shifted to the UK from India for a new job six years ago. Not many thirty-five-year-olds could boast of such a rich collection at that time. The separation had been painful. Using the anodyne of technology, he slowly rebuilt a large chunk by downloading e-books. He still missed the fragrance of the fiction he had once inhabited vicariously, and there was no way to sniff out his favourite glimpses of history by merely opening the right pages, no dried florets that could serve as portals to take him down bittersweet memory lanes. However, this transition to digital books had not been as intolerable as he had initially imagined. And the acutely sophisticated notion of environmental responsibility he had developed lately catalysed the conversion of this compromise into a commitment. He bought only e-books now. It was much easier to read several of them simultaneously. Moreover, he no longer required the right ambience to make connections between them. They were considerably cheaper, and he didn’t have to think about space constraints whenever he made an addition to his library. He didn’t need a bookshelf. Hence, he didn’t have one. And that had become a serious problem now.

Ojas couldn’t care less about bookshelves and Zoom backgrounds until yesterday, but a call from his hometown in India changed that. More than a decade had passed since the last time he had spoken to Kaka Dadu, his grandfather’s best friend who also used to be his favourite elderly person when he was a little kid. It was Kaka Dadu who had instilled the love of books in him and made him the youngest member of the local library. As far as he could remember, that is where he got his first-ever identity card, complete with a smiling black-and-white picture. And when the spectre of engineering college entrance exams tried smothering his perspectives, their endless conversations about books had come to his rescue. Unsurprisingly, he took no time to recognize the nonagenarian’s wavery voice over the phone.

Thanks to his impeccable dietary discipline and a daily yoga regime he had followed diligently until the age of eighty-nine, Kaka Dadu’s body had aged well. Nevertheless, the lockdown had managed to germinate those seeds of uncertainty and disquiet he had been successfully keeping dormant for more than three decades of his life as a senior citizen. “A clock starts ticking when a person turns eighty,” Kaka Dadu had said during their last conversation. Ojas was still in India at that time. “Every passing day reminds you that the end is nigh. Whenever someone refers to your son as an old man, you start reflecting on your own age. You want to cling on to everything that is dear to you, but you know you can’t. You need to learn how to let go.”

As the lockdown kept extending, the ever-growing incertitude about its duration fuelled Kaka Dadu’s restlessness. One day, he prepared a list of loved ones stuck elsewhere amid the pandemic and asked his son to make WhatsApp video calls so that he could at least see them virtually, for there may not be another chance to meet them for real anymore. Ojas must have been the youngest person on the list. Unfortunately, he was not on WhatsApp; Kaka Dadu could only give him an ordinary phone call.

The old man had always had a contagious rigour in everything that he did. He asked his son to adjust for time zone differences to match Ojas’s lunch break as he made the call. But it was not merely a matter of a few hours; the gap was multigenerational. Ojas didn't have a precise lunchtime anymore—he was working from home.

Although it was an unrecognized number, the extension was Indian, and hence, unignorable. He removed his wired earphones—his idea of keeping himself tethered to his office while working from the drawing-room sofa—and took the call.

It was an unbearably poignant moment. Notwithstanding the fact that they had not talked in ages, he had always had immense love and respect for Kaka Dadu. And when the old man began the conversation with the conventional questions of how he was and how he had been, Ojas became too distracted by remorse to respond coherently. The remorse of failing to call the old man despite having countless opportunities to do so yanked his attention away from the ongoing moment in a recursive loop of regret. Sensing a vacillation in his tone, Kaka Dadu asked him if he was preoccupied with daftar (office). “Ah, no, not at all. This is my lunchtime. And… I am… done eating. I can talk. I want to talk. It has been such a long time. I should have called you.”

Anticipating the looming shame in Ojas’s voice, the old man changed the subject right away: “You used to love talking to me about books. Do you still get some time to indulge in reading amid your busy schedule?” “Oh yes,” Ojas replied. The mere utterance of the word ‘books’ brought instant comfort to him. His tone became steadier. “I have more than a thousand books now.” Of course, most of them were digital, but the old man did not know that. “I remember that it was your dream to own huge bookshelves,” he said. “I’m very happy for you, son.” Left ablush, Ojas didn't know what to say, and could only manage a Thank you. “I tried to give you a video call; I wanted to see your face. But my son says you are not on WhatsApp. Why not?” In fact, Ojas was on WhatsApp, just not on this number that he had shared with most of his Indian contacts. He thought of giving this explanation, but his remorse had not vanished completely, and he wasn't sure he could show his face to the old man at the moment. His reluctance, that master inventor of excuses, also reminded him about his daftar at home: this was not the best time for a personal video call. “I am sorry, but people tend to forward all sorts of crazy messages on WhatsApp. So, I try to stay away. Anyway, we don’t need WhatsApp for a video call. We could do that over Zoom.” Kaka Dadu chuckled, “I don’t know much about these video calls. I am passing the phone to my son. You tell him how we can get video on this call without WhatsApp. I can’t wait to see your face, son. And your huge bookcases.”

There. That’s where the trouble started. Ojas didn't want to disappoint the old man and dash his hopes with the anticlimax of his coverless digital books. But it was difficult to see how he could avoid doing exactly that. Just as it was about to disappear, sadness made a spectacular comeback on his face. The walls of his drawing-room came closing in on him; he wished he had bookshelves lining them that could provide some protection. There were none. 

To his relief, Kaka Dadu’s son suggested Saturday afternoon for their Zoom meeting. “The weekend would suit everyone,” he said. He was right: unlike lunchtimes, weekends were still a thing. That gave Ojas two days to build the bookshelves that used to be the stuff of his dreams until a decade ago. In his early twenties, his girlfriend used to tease him by calling it a painfully modest dream. She was his wife now, the go-to person in the face of such predicaments. And the dream had evolved; it wasn’t even modestly spectacular now. They had two days to dress it up into something not-so-disappointing. As usual, she came up with a solution.

He could show a huge bookcase in his virtual Zoom background. They didn’t have a proper green screen, but she had a cotton saree that could moonlight as one. It had looked good on a mannequin at Drab India, but now she found it too plain for her taste. Harnessing its featurelessness, they could embed the saree with all sorts of colourful books. It was a decent plan, but it wasn’t risk-free. What if the old man asked him to take one of the books out. “Why on Earth would he do that? That’s too much!” she argued. But it wasn’t difficult to imagine Kaka Dadu asking Ojas to show him the book he was currently reading. The old man had done so on several occasions in the past. But she didn’t think it was a big hurdle: “Well, you don’t keep the book that you are currently reading in a bookcase, do you? I don’t think so. I think you keep it next to your bed. So, if he asks you to show him what you’re currently reading, you just go out of the frame to pick up a book with real pages and show it to him. Anyway, I can’t really imagine he would ask for something like that.”

The more they thought about it, the clearer it became that they didn’t have a better alternative. But Ojas could see that something was amiss. It didn’t feel right. “Perhaps I should make it more believable by adding my own books to the virtual background”, he said. “Don’t worry so much—he doesn’t know what books you have”, she said. “But he may remember some of the books I had in the past, perhaps the ones we used to talk about. I’m sure I would feel better if I displayed some of them.”

On the surface, displaying his favourite books on a virtual bookshelf seemed like a simple exercise. But not unlike book covers, the surfaces of thoughts can be quite deceptive. Googling the image of a book cover is child’s play, but fishing for the image of a book spine is a different ball game altogether. It took him no time to figure out that the official websites of publishers weren’t useful at all. He was more likely to find the spines of his favourite books in images of book stacks uploaded by people on their blogs or personal websites. Unfortunately, most of these were low-quality images. But when he looked for a stack with Life is Elsewhere, a high-quality image made him stumble upon the phenomenon that is popularly known as Bookstagram. And from that moment on, he was spoilt for choice! He had actively stayed away from social media platforms up to this point; unsurprisingly, he was shocked to find that Instagram had come to his rescue. He was no stranger to the pull of books, but the love showered upon good writing on Bookstagram introduced him to a completely new dimension of this attraction. The diversity of people and places these books had reached was overwhelming. Sure, there was a tinge of pretentiousness here and there, but there was so much else, and it looked quite convincing. Now that he was here, it wouldn’t have taken him more than three hours to finish the whole bookshelf. But he spent more than five and got introduced to a dozen new books. He was ready.

On the big day, Ojas sat in front of a huge wooden shelf with roughly two hundred books, aligned with just the right amount of disorder to mimic reality. They talked for more than an hour, and Kaka Dadu appeared to be looking at the bookshelf now and then. But he never mentioned it. Not once. He was just happy to see Ojas and his wife, content to see them living a good life.

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