Just a slight drizzle outside. Unseasonal. But then nothing was part of the season anymore. I peered inside the darkened windows of the bookshop. My own reflection peered back at me. From the outside, Patel’s Books, seemed almost like the relic of a pub. It stood well back from the street, almost as if it was shying away from the traffic, from the incessant footsteps that crowded the sidewalk. The board stood askew, carelessly propped on the awning. It looked like it needed a coat of paint. Several coats of paint, rather. The blue and white lettering a faded reminder of what must have been its brightest past. I hadn’t heard of this bookshop. I hadn’t seen it even, though I must have passed by this way so many times. Head down. Feet a fast shuffle. That’s how I walked. I wouldn’t have noticed it even if ‘Patel’s Books’ screamed a glorious red.
But now, here I was. I steadied myself, brushed invisible lint off my coat, when the door swung open. In front of me, holding the door open with a cat in one arm was the most incongruously dressed woman I had ever seen. Green pajamas? With a red flowing shirt and heavy bracelets that studded a heavily tattooed arm. An African shawl, multi-colored rainbow patches quilted and tasseled. “Hey, come on in!” gestured the cat. Or rather, the arm with the cat. I hugged my coat tighter to myself, and looked up at the face hidden behind all the colors. Strands of gray peered from a beret. Green eyes. And from my place, a very old face. I smiled tentatively and unsure of how to say no, I stepped inside. For a bookshop, I thought the place was dimly lit. My feet sank into the carpeted floor. “Remove your shoes, please. We respect our books, don’t we?” smiled the face. She must be Patel, I thought. Mrs. Patel. One feet against another, I slid out of my Converse shoes easily. The cat jumped down, suddenly, startling me. But it wasn’t interested in me. It was the shoes. “Ah, don’t worry! Dickens loves shoes! He thinks they bring with them the glorious smells of all travel,” Mrs. Patel said with a grin. I smiled back, unsure how to act in this bizarre situation. Nothing in school had ever taught me how to deal with being abducted inside a bookshop with a cat named Dickens. She rubbed her hands together, tattoos stretching against wrinkled skin in strange shapes. Anticipation. “So, what can I get you to read, young man?” she asks. I look at the shelves inside. Nothing is labeled. No section for fiction. No section for non-fiction. Nothing on travel. Nothing on poems. Classics. There were just books. Shelves lined with books. Sofas piled with books. One or two people piled on the sofas with books. Toward the end, I saw someone propped up on the floor with a pillow, reading. I was lost. Hopelessly lost.
“Erm, I just need a book as a gift.”
“To gift someone for Christmas,” I added, not sure if that helped.
“Indeed! That’s a great gift,” said Mrs. Patel. “Who is it for?” she asked, bending down to push Dickens away from her feet.
“I am Padma,” she added, still bending down, grappling with Dickens. I nodded. That is the point at which you introduce yourself as well. But she looked up, all hair askance now from the beret. Her eyes smiled. “Tell me about the person you need to gift the book for,” she said.
“I don’t know the person,” I said, feeling rather hopeless. “It’s for someone in office.”
“You don’t know the person?” she asked.
“No. I mean yes. I know the person. I know the name. But I don’t know the person. I just sort of see her having coffee at work.”
I feel compelled to explain more. I did not want to appear a fool in front of this woman, even if I was one. “It’s a game. We just are supposed to gift each other. Kind of randomly. It’s kind of like a lottery. You could pick strangers or friends.”
Padma moves further inside, pajamas swishing as I talk. “A gift for someone you don’t know?”
She turns suddenly and I almost bump into her. “There is no such thing as strangers, you know, right? Just friends never met. Or enemies never fought,” she laughs. “So, why do you think your mystery person likes books?”
“I don’t. I just think everyone will like books?” I answer, walking past a shelf that seemed to be lined only with hardbacks.
“Yes, you are right. Everyone will like books. If they don’t, you make them anyway,” she chuckles. Dickens swirls past me. “Do you read?” she asks.
I tell her the truth. I have never read anything more than my textbooks at school.
“Describe her to me,” Padma asks, her hands moving rapidly over the spine of one book to another.
“Umm, she wears red quite often. Long hair.” And I struggle. I hadn’t noticed much of her. She was just the person who sits at the corner, near the printer. How would she be described?
Padma stops. Turns around.
“You haven’t seen,” she says softly.
I nod, embarrassed.
“You don’t need a book. You need paper. And a pen. Also, a pencil. And some colors while we are at,” Padma says, moving quickly through desks I didn’t think could be opened. Parchment paper, pens, pencils, and drawing pencils fill up the table in front of me. I glance at these, surprised. Padma doesn’t seem to stand still. Or be still. Now, she stands in front of me, looking at the assortment of stationery in front of me. “Take these,” she says. It’s a gesture. A command.
Her hands move over the parchment paper, a sheaf of those, tied with a ribbon. “Take these and know.”
I look at her, wondering if this is why I don’t read books. To escape this touch of madness. “Know what?” I ask, almost afraid to ask.
“Know her. This mystery person who works with you. See her. Know her. Write all you see. Sketch your thoughts. Pen your words. Show her that you see. That is more than a book. That is the book.”
“Write about her?” I ask, incredulous.
“No. You write her. And when you fill this book with her, then you come down here and buy a book for her. Because that’s when you would know her.”
I turn the pencils over in my hands. “Sketch her. Remember the eyes. The face. The colors. Remember the gestures. Draw those. Write the words.” She turns away. “Because you see, books tell us how to read, but only you can see.”
And I did.
Random acts of kindness and thoughtfulness are rare. I was happy to be the recipient of those last week. This little story is dedicated to the Santa of thoughtfulness.