A Man in the Form of a Signature on the First Page of the Book by Geet Chaturvedi [tr. by Anita Gopalan]

A Man in the Form of a Signature on the First Page of the Book

Who was Sridhar Vakode? I do not know. But I’ve been reading his name for years. Many of my books bear his signature in Marathi, and I’ve become so used to seeing his name that occasionally I want to sign in his same style.

Arihanta had told me that he was Chikni’s pappa. Who was Chikni? Talking to him, I found out that she lived in one of the nearby buildings and came here to catch the bus. ‘And the boys lose no opportunity to stare at her,’ he added pettily. Who was Arihanta? I only know that he had a scrap and waste paper shop near Mulund check post where one could also find comics, magazines and old books. I don’t even know his real name. His shop was called Arihanta Paper Mart, and so, in my memory, that stayed as his name.

I had once asked him to take me to her house. He thought I was also in her long line of admirers. ‘No,’ I clarified, ‘it’s to see her father.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘all after the girl and you after the father. Perfect, bawa!’ and grinned in his petty way. But he never took me to her house. And I never asked him again. Sridhar Vakode kept selling his books to Arihanta, and I kept buying them. This went on for twelve to thirteen years.

The first book I acquired with Sridhar Vakode’s signature on it was No One Writes to the Colonel. This way, I got introduced to Marquez. I had, at the time, loved Tuesday Siesta from that collection, I still love it, and as I read more of his works, I came to know it was one of Marquez’s favorites as well. My subsequent acquisitions were Bunuel’s My Last Sigh, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Lantern. Also, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable biographies. And Allan Sealy’s splendid The Everest Hotel.

In all these books, Sridhar Vakode was present, sometimes hesitant, sometimes loud and clear, with his scrawny signature and pencil markings. Like some faded dust-colored tailed star, his pencil would have passed by the saddest lines, perhaps underlining their sorrow and pain. The pages that made the eyes cry, their corners would be dog-eared — they had probably been read and re-read several times. There would be scrawled notes, forgotten and silent, pressed between pages.

I failed to fathom the strange relationship of my own mind to the books, the bond these books made between me and him.

But what was he? An artist, a struggling film actor or a dramatist, a writer, poet or an ordinary reader? An ordinary reader wouldn’t have such books. But I doubt he was a big gun for he was just Chikni’s pappa for the scrap shop fellow. Then what was he? Arihanta’s paper mart was demolished in road widening and I moved out of Mumbai several years ago. Now we don’t find scrap and waste paper shops in the city. The few shops that still remain have just the newspapers, or magazines like Cosmopolitan, or an old issue of Debonair or Playboy tucked in somewhere.

The books that a booklover would otherwise proudly display on his bookshelf, why did he sell them one day, after reading them and probably keeping them carefully for years? I spoke to a friend about it, and my friend reeled off a discourse on dualism of life and death: that every book has to one day go to the scrap shop.

It often seems to me as if he’s some character that has emerged from the words, who by raising himself on tiptoe is marking his presence on the first pages of the book.

As if he’s the unseen hand that pulls the curtain open before the drama.

Or a rich expansive landscape that escaped the eye of the camera. Or a scene edited out.

Or he could have been a book itself, that left the almirah to come on to the footpath. Amidst my books he seems like a helpless farmer, looking at me, it’s as though he had to sell his land, piece by piece, in desperate despair.

Like King Kharavela, who supposedly ruled Kalinga after emperor Ashoka, but whose life finds no other mention in history except a name inscribed on the walls of the Elephant cave, I often wonder, was also Sridhar Vakode a life that lived, or only a name written on the books?

Whenever I go to my book corner, I think about Sridhar Vakode earnestly, forever. Who majestically comes to me unrolling from his signature. With whom, over the years, I have become intimate.

Does a Sridhar Vakode stay in your books, too?

Geet Chaturvedi is a Hindi poet, novelist and essayist. He has authored two collections of novellas, three poetry collections, and two books of nonfiction. His works have been translated into twenty-two languages. 

His twitter handle is @GeetChaturvedi and Instagram handle is @geetchaturvedi

Anita Gopalan is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and a fellowship in English Literature from the Indian Ministry of Culture. Her work has appeared in AGNI, PEN America, Poetry International, Asymptote, and elsewhere.

Her twitter handle is @anitagopalan

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Art (modified): Jorge Royan Creative Commons 3.0 ALT A paper seller in his shop, repeated ad infinitum

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