I was looking at some books on the rack at my favourite bookstore.
The man next to me on my left spoke in a low whisper.
“We’ve been watching you for a long time now.”
I turned, puzzled.
“What?” I said.
He looked to his left and walked away.
Thinking I had misheard, I continued browsing, a bit disturbed.
From behind me, a woman spoke in a soft hiss.
“Yes, we are watching you. We have been watching you since you were a child.”
I whirled around. She had already turned away and moved out. All I could see was a slim woman with greying hair in a brown dress. Then she was gone.
I chose a book and went to pay for it.
As I walked towards the cash counter, those at the counter fell silent. First they looked at me and then at each other. Those in front melted away to give me room.
Everyone looked at me intensely. I thought there was a hint of menace in all those eyes.
I placed the book on the counter without a word and took out my wallet to pay.
The cashier shook his head.
“No”, he said.
“No?” I asked.
“No. You can’t buy this book.”
“What? Why not?”
“That’s what we’ve been told.”
“Who are they??”
“You don’t need to know.”
“That’s nonsense. This is just a Cookery book! How can you refuse to sell to me?”
“Oh no! I’m not refusing to sell to you. In fact, I am supposed to sell you this”. He bent below the counter and brought out another book.
“That’s exactly the same book that I have here!”
“Maybe. But you can have only this copy and not that one.”
“What nonsense!” I sputtered
“Sorry. We do as we are told.”
“Yes” said someone behind me. “Buy the book”
“Buy the book” said yet somebody else.
“You must buy the book!” said someone else, a little angrily, a little restless.
“How much?” I asked, wishing to get out of the place.
The salesman pulled out a huge calculator and spent several minutes furiously adding and subtracting numbers.
I was about to ask him to look at the price on the book, but I held my tongue.
“Its Fifty Rupees” said the salesman.
“But this copy says it’s forty!” I exclaimed.
“You are not supposed to buy that copy!” screamed someone from the back.
I opened my wallet to pay.
The salesman shook his head.
“You can buy the book but you can’t pay for it.”
My head spun. I said nothing.
“Start the collection,” said the salesman, shouting at someone behind me.
Someone started walking around asking for money.
“One rupee each please. The time has come.”
Without any questions, everyone reached for their money and took out a rupee each.
“Thirty Nine, Forty, Forty One…”
“Here you are” he said to the salesman and handed over fifty rupees.
“Here you are” said the salesman, handing the book over to me.
“Here you are,” I said testily, proffering the money to the man who had collected it.
A woman screamed and fainted. No one paid any attention to her.
“It’s your book. I am not allowed to take it or read it. Only you can.” He said, looking deep into my eyes.
“He needs watching” said someone from the far corner.
“Who is watching me and why?” I screamed.
“He doesn’t know,” said someone.
“He doesn’t know,” said another, somehow dejected.
“He doesn’t know!” gasped one more.
“He doesn’t know?? That’s impossible!!” screamed yet another appalled by this realization.
“Take your book please” said the salesman firmly, and hustled me outside. “They don’t like scenes.”
“The persons watching you.”
“Who are they?”
He looked at me pityingly.
“Read the book” he said and shut the door.
Inside, all was now quiet and people were busy looking at the books on the shelves.
I opened the book.
All the pages were blank. Except one.
“Look behind you” it said, in big print.
I looked behind. There was no one.
I looked back at the book. The print had changed.
“Sorry. I meant to your left.”
A young boy, not more than ten years old, was watching me intently.
“You’re being watched,” he said.
“By whom?” I asked.
“Oh, by several people” he said, vaguely.
“I’ve been watching you since I was three” he said, looking important.
“In fact”, he said, “Many people have been watching you for many years. Probably since you were eight.”
“But why??” I asked, horrified.
“You are the reason for their existence. They were born to watch you.”
“What nonsense!” I said, scornfully.
“He’s right,” said a muffled chorus behind me.
I turned around. Everyone in the bookstore had his or her face pressed to the windowpane. They had been watching and listening. They had their noses pressed against the glass.
I ran! In my haste and alarm, I dropped the book.
Screams followed me.
“The book! The book!”
“He’s left the book behind!”
“Give it back to him! Hurry!”
Everyone streamed out of the store! Many were weeping! The boy grabbed the book and ran after me, with everyone else in hot pursuit.
I rushed past the other stores in the market! I turned a corner and rushed into a restaurant and into its kitchen at the back. The cook was busy cutting vegetables with great care. He didn’t even turn.
“I guess they found you,” he said quietly, with a sigh.
“Have you been watching me too?” I asked.
“I was. But others wanted to watch you too and I had to give in. Now I’m watching someone else.”
“But why??” I asked
“We have to bid to be given permission to watch someone. Others had higher bids and so they bought me out.”
“Like an auction?”
“Like an auction.”
“But why would anyone want to watch me?”
“There are reasons.”
“Tell me!” I begged.
By then the crowd had guessed where I was and I could hear the boy shouting.
“He’s in the kitchen! He’s in the kitchen!”
I rushed out of the back door.
I ran down the road with the mob in hot pursuit. I turned into a Police Station.
“Help me!” I said to the constable outside, gasping and heaving.
“It’s him!” shouted the constable to someone inside.
“Him? It’s really him? I must see him!” came many shouts from within.
“What’s going on?” I asked, frightened.
“Have you read the book yet?” asked the constable.
“But its blank!”
“It was. Look inside now!”
The boy had caught up with me and handed over the book. I looked.
I opened a page. Flames shot up. I shut it hastily. I opened another. A great cool breeze wafted up. I opened a third. The smell of mint chutney overwhelmed my senses.
I sat down on a bench. The crowd milled around me.
“Let me look!” shouted one
“It’s my turn now!” shouted another.