This story is by Neville Bharucha and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Place your right index finger please.”
“Your RIGHT index finger.”
It wasn’t like Priyanka didn’t know the difference between right and left. She had never been in such a building before. She didn’t understand the concept of a Visa or a foreign embassy. According to her, you got on a plane and reached your destination. Even the thought of getting on a plane brought butterflies to her stomach. How did this all happen?
Priyanka had one love. Books. Girls like Priyanka aren’t meant to ‘fall in love’. No, love was something that people wrote about in films and something big companies lured unsuspecting villagers like Priyanka into buying their products. But Priyanka was always the odd one out in the village.
Mattur is a tiny village in Karnataka, India that is still stuck in a century gone by. It’s one of the only places in the world that still communicates in Sanskrit, a language older than Latin but one that is only spoken by .02% of Indians in the country. Mattur stopped evolving decades ago, stuck in a time warp. The people of the village went about everything the same way their ancestors had in the decades gone by.
Priyanka stumbled upon her love in the most accidental way possible. There was a malaria epidemic going around Mattur in the late 90’s so she was given a magazine by an old man in the village square and was instructed to use it to shoo the mosquitoes away. The first night she took it home, she was mesmerized by the cover. It had a yellow border and there was a girl with enchanting eyes. Suddenly, the mosquitoes weren’t bothering her at all. Priyanka was captivated. She wanted to know more so she ran back to the gentleman that gave her the magazine. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help her. He directed her towards the city of Shimogi, four miles away so she went there. By foot.
She reached city and was about to cross a road when a blaring horn made her double back and a man on a small red scooter darted past her screaming something she could not understand. Since she only spoke Sanskrit, and no one in the city of Shimogi did, she found it hard to get help. Slowly she managed to make her way to the Kuvempu University. She wanted to know more about this girl and was looking for anyone who could satisfy her curiousity. Mr. Pathak overheard her and he was stunned. Mr. Pathak was the head of the Linguistics department and he had never heard someone speaking such fluent Sanskrit.
He walked up to her and conversed in Sanskrit and was fascinated by young Priyanka’s desire. At fourteen, most girls start discovering make up, they aspire to become Bollywood starlets, they start growing up. Mr. Pathak wondered why Priyanka was wired differently. He was only too happy to oblige. He patiently sat and translated each and every word to Sanskrit and read the entire article to her. She wanted more. It was getting late, and she had a long walk home so Mr. Pathak promised to read to her the next day if she came at half past four.
They continued this tradition for the entire week till they had read the entire magazine from cover to cover. When it was over, Priyanka asked for more. Mr. Pathak could turn away his very own Oliver Twist; he shared a proverb with her, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” So he taught her. To read. Every day she would walk from the tiny village of Mattur to the city of Shimogi only to learn Hindi and English so she could read.
When Mr. Pathak felt she was ready, he handed Priyanka her first book. In a stroke of divine poetic justice, it turned out to be a Charles Dickens classic, Oliver Twist. Where the protagonist famously asked for more, just like Priyanka did. She finished it, asked for more and got it. Meanwhile, her father was annoyed that she stuck out like a sore thumb from the other girls. Her mother encouraged her to do what no other girl in Mattur had ever done. Follow her passion and dream.
Months and years passed. Priyanka managed to even study a little bit at the University all at Mr. Pathak’s expense, which he was more than happy to cover for someone who found so much joy in education. On her eighteenth birthday, when most children dream of getting behind the wheel of car in India, Priyanka was convinced that she had received the best gift she could ever receive. It was a piece of paper, but the way her eyes lit up when she got it, Mr. Pathak was certain it could light the entire village of Mattur for a week. It was a library card.
Priyanka entered the library starry eyed, fascinated by all the books she could read. She would come everyday, pick a book, go home, read it and then rush back to get another one. This was her daily routine. Priyanka’s story spread like wildfire through Kuvempu University courtesy Mr. Pathak. Everybody chipped in to help her. From giving her a small book bag, to even donating a second-hand cycle so Priyanka’s commute could be eased a little bit. She was not content. Not only did she want to read every book in the library, she wanted to write a book that would one day be in the library.
Priyanka’s story knew no boundaries, it went from Shimogi to Bangalore, from Bangalore to Mumbai, from Mumbai till Dubai till it finally fell upon the ears of the higher ups at the London Metropolitan University. They insisted on having Priyanka study at their University. Mr. Pathak had to convince Priyanka’s parents to send their daughter to the United Kingdom to learn and study English Literature. It wasn’t easy, her father was rather hot-headed and lost his temper quite a few times, but even that could not make Priyanka’s mother stop smiling. She was swelling with pride at what her daughter had already managed to achieve.
So here Priyanka was, getting her biometrics done for her UK Student visa in Bangalore. She had never seen something like this city before, Bangalore is one of India’s biggest metropolitan cities and she could not handle it. She almost got run over again, the same way she almost got run over in Shimogi years ago when she first went there. It seemed so surreal. So many boys from Mattur go abroad, but that was always to do engineering. She was different. She always was.
Was she stupid for dreaming? She could turn back right now and run into her parent’s arms again. Her mother had tears in her eyes but she was smiling from ear to ear. Her father was proud too now, they were waving to Priyanka as she pushed her big red suitcase that Mr. Pathak had given her and gave her passport to an officer at the departure gate of Kempegowda International Airport in Bangalore. He gestured for her to go in. Priyanka took a deep breath, stole one last glance at the proudest parents in the world and she was on her way.
What seemed like a regular August day for everyone on Air India Flight 161 was terrifying for Priyanka. How did this happen? How did Priyanka get a fully paid scholarship to study in the UK and have everything from boarding and lodging to tuition taken care of? There certainly was someone smiling down on her.
She followed Mr. Pathak’s instructions after she landed. Passed through customs, collected her bags and got on the tube on her way to central London. She switched to the Northern line from the Piccadilly Line where she had to and she was managing just fine, except for when she required the help of a gentleman to carry the big suitcase up a few stairs to the platform. She counted the number of stops and arrived at Camden Town station. This was it. A new beginning for Priyanka.
The weather in London is not particularly friendly to people who are not used to it. Especially for Priyanka who had never experienced anything other that a chilly breeze once in a way during the mild winters of South India. Choosing to attend the fall semester didn’t seem so wise at that moment. She stepped out of the station and the cold crept into her clothes. With her teeth chattering she took a look around. She saw some shops, bars and plenty of differently dressed people and then something caught her eye. Tucked away between two bigger shops was a tiny one and the sign above had ‘SECOND HAND BOOKS’ scrawled across it.
That was it. Priyanka was in love.