She wanted to conquer the world and she had decided to do it one book at a time. At the defiant age of twelve, she knew that her only hope of understanding the world she lived in was joining hands with all her conspirators who had lived before her. All of those intrepid men and women who had attempted to do what she wanted and left behind their arsenal of thoughts, words and dreams that she could arm herself with. All of these, she kept in tightly bound pages in an ever-growing bookshelf in her room.
Twelve years ago, a set of proud parents had decided to name the pretty, pink infant in their arms Priya; while she determinedly protested this decision through incoherent sobs and bawls. Ten years into her life, she had announced that she had renounced her name because she didn’t think it was quite right for her and she would try on a new name every week until she found one that fit her. That week, she was Alice.
Alice would disappear for hours, sometimes even days, when she found a world she liked. She would follow rabbits down holes, fight witches
alongside lions, and walk down yellow brick roads that led to trolls in girls’ lavatories who showed her the way to a land where nobody grew up. She would take trains to foreign lands, summon demons who transformed into princes whom she followed until she decided she was better off alone. Her chemist parents always had trouble keeping up with her. She never fit in their straight albeit complicated maze of frames but managed to either leap out or stomp on their logical connections until they broke. They never minded, though. She made everything just a little more beautiful. They smiled at the determination in her brown eyes, they were taken by the smile that lit up her entire being and they coveted the little curls that ruffled beneath the little hat she refused to take off.
School was easy for Wendy (time flies faster than a jet plane when you’re reading a story, doesn’t it? She loved that about them.) but not for her teachers. She refused to acknowledge their questions if they forgot to address her by her name of the week. She would never miss a day of school but she would never listen to them. Or so they thought. When they asked her a question, she would always manage to rattle off the answer like she was waiting for it, leaving them tongue-tied. No teacher likes to be tongue-tied, do they? Still, she was their favourite. There was nobody in the class who could write like she did, speak like she did and know like she did. They all liked her for different reasons but one thing they all agreed on: She was too young to have flaws.
Wendy never liked being picked up from school and refused to take the school bus back home. It was a twenty-one minute walk home from school and she’d never once made it on a pair of wheels since she was old enough to remember the way. She never made it in twenty-one minutes either. Wendy liked to explore and that is why she liked to walk.
It was a sunny August evening and she was walking home when she decided to take a left turn she had never taken before. Wendy didn’t particularly care for lefts– they weren’t quite right. But today was different and she had no idea why and obviously, she had to find out. She took the left and continued walking. It wasn’t the hop, skip or prance of a twelve-year-old, but the determined walk of someone who wanted to understand the world. She had walked ten steps in the perfectly ordinary lane when she stopped in her tracks, uttered a yelp of joy and ran towards the reason for her excitement. It was a tall, ancient wooden shelf on the side-walk, packed from side to side with books and it looked like the entire world would come crashing down if you pulled the wrong book out.
She wasn’t scared though, she was excited beyond words. The reason for this was a crude cardboard sign hanging from a roughly hammered-in nail on the side of the bookshelf that said, “Take one. Keep one.” She ran her fingers along the spines of yellowed tomes and shining booklets. She crouched and tipped her head so her curls all fell to one side and tried to make out the words on the spines. She stood on the tips of her toes and strained her eyes to read the titles that were beyond her reach. She then flopped down on the floor and decided that the row at eye level was the best. She took out one book after another and flipped through words she knew and sentences she didn’t. She had never read any of these before and she loved it. She spent time with each book, reading on until she decided whether or not she wanted it. She had two books in her bag then and so she could take two from here. But nothing had caught her fancy yet.
She was about to get up and leave when she saw a meek little book poking out from the lowermost shelf, wedged in between two giants. She carefully eased it out. It was the prettiest little book she’d ever seen, longer and narrower than others. It was covered in a beautiful shade of red, with little golden flecks that had no symmetry and no reason to be there at all. It had nothing on the cover on either side and nothing on the spine. She was intrigued. With enormous anticipation, she opened it, only to find absolutely nothing. It was all blank. She frowned.
“Who are you?” she asked the odd rectangle in her hands.
She decided to examine it more carefully and opened the first page. Maybe it carried a name.
She found words. She found words that turned her frown into a glint in her eyes, a wicked smile on her lips and a silent tremble in her fingertips. She quickly removed a book from her bag and kept it in place of that one. She kept the Little Red Book in her bag gingerly, as one might a tiny, fragile kitten. Then she got up hurriedly and traced her steps back out of the lane and ran back home.
When her mother opened the door, she ran past her, into her room and closed the door behind her. Breathlessly, she took her new acquisition in her hands and opened it to those words again and smiled. She had decided to listen to the Little Red Book when it told her:
“Tell me your story.”
by Sani Dhakephalkar
Illustrations – Debangshu