The continuous ring of the telephone carrying in the distant, low voice of the young man unmistakably hinted a bad news and was already known to Amitava, even moments before it was offloaded.
Nishikanta Das was dead.
The instant reaction which gripped his mind was how the Atbati Nabarun Sangha Public Library, an absolutely one man institution would keep running now and what would happen to the hard-earned elaborate stock of rare books solely collected at the initiative of Nishikantababu, sometimes by purchase at throw away prices from the book bazaar of the annual book fair, from the discarded stock of eminent libraries in Kolkata and other cities, sometimes sent by overseas dealers, publishers, stockists written to by him with recommendations from the consulate officials and sometimes simply by begging from individuals to whom he had access directly or through contacts. Nishikantababu was himself the chief librarian, the assistant librarian, the assistant to the assistant librarian, the office boy, the night guard cum durwan and above all the delivery man who would reach books gratis to his readers, living within a radius of 200 to even 300 km, personally at regular intervals, carrying all available titles falling in the zone of their choice. At every point of time not less than 200 to 250 books of his library would remain distributed with several readers whom he knew either directly or with whom he had established contact through others on the sole inspiration of broadening his readers' circle and absolutely without any other remunerative consideration of any description. Amitava knew not of a single instance when Nishikantababu had asked any of his readers for any kind of donation for his library. He was surely keen for a letter of appreciation or a letter of recommendation to the potential organisations or the Government who might sanction a book grant of any size or might donate books from their sparable or written off stock. Nishikantababu and his library was fit contestant for a mention in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Record.
Was not he, Amitava wondered, a fit contestant either for a position at the feet of goddess Saraswati beside the eternal Swan whose contribution to the domain of learning was hardly known!
Amitava strolled back in his memory to the first occasion of his chance meeting with Nishikantababu.
It was already late afternoon and the there were barely a couple of hours for the office to close. Things were getting relaxed for the day. The visitors were long gone. All important files had been disposed and the few leftovers were not as important as to call for immediate attention. Meetings, scheduled and unscheduled both with the bosses and even probable intercom calls from them seeking attention to 'priority issues' (mostly useless, having only the pretence of a priority) were now expectedly over. Amitava stepped into the chamber of Prabir.
Prabir, his immediate colleague and belonging to the same batch of his cadre service, was a person whom Amitava admired and held in high esteem for the enviable standard of his maturity, calm and mental poise in dealings with all alike, - his friends, his colleagues and even his top bosses and last but not the least, his brisk remarks reflecting his rare kind of sense of humor, during long leisurely chats when he would remain mostly silent but which would lose substantial attraction if Prabir was not present.
A man tall and slender in dhoti and kurta and decidedly on the wrong side of his sixties was sitting erect in front of Prabir. He looked like a football player now in his long-bygone days. The absence of the pretentious sophistications of urban living and the grace and un-assumed nobility of a village background were unmistakably visible on his face and his entire person. He was not dark in complexion and the one time glow and fairness of his skin could be seen still behind his deeply sun burnt exterior. He was not attractive in the traditional sense but had sure hint of a kind of aristocracy in his appearance. He was not handsome by the urban standard but had the beauty and grace of a flower blooming on the wayside unknown flower plant of a village road. Prabir was looking through some heavy volume books on his table and was occasionally talking to the visitor.
Prabir introduced the man to Amitava as Nishikanta Das, resident of a remote village in Midnapore district and a retired primary school teacher. Prabir introduced Amitava as a book lover (which was true) and a voracious reader and a knowledge-bank (which was hardly true). Now the face of the stranger unusually brightened up and in a kind of child like inquisitive gesture he questioned, ' Sir, what kind of books you are interested in?'. Amitava was slightly off his guard, to be faced with the unexpected question and before he answered, Prabir told him that Nishikantababu had founded a library at a portion of his village-house at his own initiative which had now a stock of not less than 3000 books. It was turn for Amitava to be astonished and really curious. He was further astounded to learn that the stock of the books Nishikantababu had built up was not of some easy reading, cheap and popular books but he had a large collection of books, not easily available, on Economics, History, Sociology, Geography, Archaeology, Science and even western philosophy and cinema, besides fictions, stories etc. by eminent writers. The last push of the surprise was yet to come. Amitava's eyes started rolling in almost utter disbelief when Prabir divulged that Nishikantababu, there hardly being any reader in and around his village, personally reached books to his willing (also unwilling but pretending readers, as Amitava learnt later) readers at whatever place he might live in, - at distances of mostly 200 km from his village library, with the sole mission and zeal to promote readership and make use of his hard earned stock. Amitava now discovered two unusually large sized bags on the floor beside the man, probably the largest size available in the market and worth containing 40 slim and 20 large sized books each. The two bags, Amitava found, were filled to capacity.
Nishikanta Babu had expired the previous night in his village home after acute sufferings. His son, who was just back from the cremation ground had called up a number of times earlier in close succession, the last one being three days back. In his instant last call he had informed that the old man was in coma and the doctors had relinquished all hopes for his survival. It was not unexpected and had nothing unusual about it for most others. But for Amitava it sent a quick shock wave down his spine and he sat still and silent in his office chair for quite some time, losing all impetus to act or think. He felt that a strong feeling of void was covering him up like a spider's net with a gripping sense of loss. It was alien, decidedly alien to him, - the grief, the bereavement, the aching heart for an old man of seventy or even older whom he had seen and talked to on not more than altogether five or six occasions during the last three years.
The retired primary school teacher had developed renal complications. It was a very late revelation as his son intimated and was in its terminal stage. They could not do much towards his treatment for mainly the time constraint and his old age. They got him admitted in a city hospital where the doctors could only diagnose the acute damage already done to both of his kidneys and advised his son and the relatives to take him back to his home to await his last moment. The son, still pinning hope against hope, took him to another city hospital in the adjacent State where the relatives of Nishikantababu were initially assured of some chances of recovery for the old man which did not take long to be washed up altogether. Nishibabu was taken back to his ancestral home to last for only seven days more in acute pain but, may be, to die in peace and consolation of having breathed his last under the same roof which had witnessed the last moments of his ancestors down many decades, perhaps even centuries.
A typically stoical feeling was taking control of Amitava's vital consciousness. He was keen to know what the end showed like for Nishikantababu. Clinically and technically speaking, he was already beyond sensing anything. For the last few days he was in deep coma and was just awaiting his brain death. Did the angels come down to welcome the perfect definition of a good man to the golden gates of the heaven when he set for his final journey? Did his loving forefathers had assembled during his last mortal moments to shower their love and affections on him and to lead him to the blessedness of his eternal home which was his righteous due by all considerations?
Nishikantababu was a perfect man in all senses, his purity of thought, his habits of daily living, his values, his principles, his self-less devotion and attitudes to all he would come across as a social being and over and above the respect he commanded from the small world he lived in, by maintaining a standard of dignity for self and his family, despite his meager income from a few decimals of land and his poor monthly pension as a retired primary teacher. Amitava could always feel that Nishikantababu was very anxious about the employment of his only son who was yet to get a job even at 33. But he never pleaded with Amitava to try to activate matters at the influential lobby of his contacts as a special favor for his son. No, not because he knew rightly that Amitava was just a small tool among many of his likes, hardly having any or more exactly no power at all towards securing a job, that too, a Government job, for his son. Conversely, he adjudged Amitava as being one who belonged to the top or near the top level of the administrative echelon. But he would no ask for the favor because it was his self-dignity and taste that would prevent him to stoop to this average conduct. Surely, his son had requested several times over long distance phone, seemingly at the instance of his mother and not definitely under the approval of his upright father. Unmistakably, the blessedness of an assured heaven was his due if there was a heaven after death.
Of late, these questions were gaining importance for Amitava. He had not many miles either to run for his finishing mark. Quite often now he saw in his fancy a quiet sunset over a solitary river bank, a small boat gently swaying on the rippling tides and patiently waiting to be loosened and set on the waves from the anchor of a lonely tree with its elongated shadow stretching up to the riverside opposite, against the setting sun. He was visited now by frequent thoughts of time running out. Acquiring any new item of his personal choice would stand him now before the embarrassing question of how many years might be left for him to enjoy his new collection. He felt a keen interest to know whether Nishikantababu was also roused to these thoughts in his closing days and whether the eternal queries of all mortals about good and evil, the laws of divine dispensation, had now been answered for him.
Amitava tried to recollect the topics of their incomplete discussions during Nishikantababu's visits at long but sure intervals, sometimes on fast decaying social and personal values without, however, having any hint of cynicism on the old man's part, sometimes on God and religion but mostly on books and the ordeals he had to go through in the course of his journey towards bringing in his library to the present shape. Quite remarkably, his descriptions would be absolutely bereft of any bragging for the exemplary success he had truly achieved and for which could have been awarded a national or even international award for his spectacular achievement and his contribution to the cause of public service and mass awareness. Though he had built up the library at his hundred percent personal initiatives at a portion of his own residential house (he could not find an alternate venue), it was highly appreciable and a noble gesture from his end that he named his library as a 'public library'.
Almost day after day Amitava's interest and admiration for the man were getting enhanced. Amitava had requested Nishikantababu to come over someday to his residence and spend a night with his family. He particularly wanted his son, in his late teens, to see and know a really interesting and noble man. On getting the invitation Nishikantababu was simply overjoyed and at the time of his visit on the last occasion he brought some conch-cells and similar dried up remains of other small sea creatures, as a token of advance gifts to 'Khoka' (means a baby boy in Bengali) which he stated as having been collected personally from the seashore near (not exactly near, Amitava knew) his village home. He promised to bring along many more at the time of his immediate next visit to Amitava's place for 'Khoka'. Amitava, though assured Nishikantababu that his son would immensely love the gifts which he really did, tried to correct him that his son, now approaching eighteen, could not be reckoned any more as a 'Khoka'. Nishikantababu shook off the mention as utterly immaterial and meaningless.
The promised visit of Nishikantababu now could never be materialized. A strong wave of grief and gripping pain seemed to be surging through Amitava's heart like a sudden flash of lightning.
Amitava was not sure whether he was in sleep and was dreaming. But he could be faintly conscious about being now in an unfamiliar presence. There was smell of antiseptic in the air, rustle of white aprons and exchange of subdued voices. He could feel the trauma of pricking needles through his veins and in the midst of a kind of awareness of drowning in deeper darkness he could sense the frequent bouts of pain shivering through his whole body, bending it almost into double. Somebody was thrusting something heavy repeatedly on his left chest in hysterical haste.
Suddenly the gathering darkness around Amitava started melting into a never seen before tenderness of an emerging luminosity. All was perfectly quiet and serene. He was now past all his previous pains, the voices so long surrounding him having dipped into complete silence. Amitava felt like awakening into a newer consciousness ushered by continuous waves of an unethereal light sweeping him past like the fleets of home bound birds at dusk against a setting sun. A sublime musical chord, distinct but soft and suave like Mozart's 40th symphony in G minor or the aalap on the mandolin of U. Srinivas in Raga Sindhu Bhairavi was rising as if from an unknown rose garden. He woke up now, clear and certain, from his slumber and saw the solitary riverbank he used to see often in the quietude of the hours at the end of his busy days, with the elongated shadow of the lonely tree having stretched up to the other bank of the river. He looked in haste to find out the boat that would remain anchored against the tree. The boat was not there. Amitava felt like missing something he would love to see there as earlier. He further looked beyond expecting the boat to have strayed up to the opposite bank of the river. He was not disappointed this time.
The boat was slowly but steadily approaching towards him on the gentle waves of the river from the other bank. He saw Nishikantababu standing erect on the platform with his hands outstretching in a welcome gesture. The assuring smile on his face appeared to be the sweetest ever to Amitava. Two carry bags, as largest ever as seen by Amitava previously, packed to their capacity, were patiently waiting on the floor beside his feet.
Amitava knew what they were filled with.