Shankaran was cleaning his room. Suddenly he stumbled upon a book. He took it in hand and kept it aside. He said aloud. “Oh God! I totally forgot about this.” He called out his brother Lakshmanan and asked him to return the book to the local library. He told him. “See this is urgent. It is already overdue. I was busy with Appa’s medical treatment and in my frequent rounds around hospital and medical shop, I totally forgot about this book. Though I started it, I did not complete it. Doesn’t matter. Please return this immediately. If they insist on penalty, don’t argue. Just pay that. Return the book and ensure the librarian marks it off from the register. Go my dear. Go. Right now, I am busy. Otherwise, I would have gone myself.”
Lakshmanan took the book and left. Library was just two roads away. Shankaran was a vivid reader and regularly visited the library. Lakshmanan just opened the book to know the due date for returning the book. Just then a paper kept folded inside the book slipped and fell through his hands. Surely, it was not a book-mark. He lifted the paper and found it to be a letter. With a few words. No salutations, no fancy words, no signature. Just a plain simple one, but in a neat and clean handwriting. “In deep distress now. Rescue me at the earliest.” May be a girl had written it. But when … why ….to whom …. from where …. from or to address … Nothing available and nothing could be made out. He folded the letter and put it in his pocket. His brother … was he aware of this letter? Very much doubtful.
After returning the book, he decided to find out from Shankaran about the distress call and the rescue operation. Straight he went to Shankaran and flashed the letter and demanded,
“What is this?” Puzzled by his sudden action, Shankaran too quizzed. “What is this?” Then he took the letter and ran a cursory glance. He continued with his bewildered look. “From where you got it? Who wrote this to whom? And why do you ask me about it?”
Lakshmanan felt relieved. So, his brother did not ditch any girl. Neither there was any love affair involving him. But why then a letter surfaced from the book he was having? Shankaran had no answer and neither any clue. He said probably any of his predecessor to that particular library book would have got it and did not notice it. Shankaran also suggested that it was wrong to presume that the letter had something to do with someone’s love affair. It could be a financial distress. It could be matter of threat. It could be about an impending danger. He continued. “Whatever be the case, we are not sure the person is saved or still in trouble. Though there is a cry for help, we simply do not know why and what sort of help is needed. How can we shoot an arrow on an unseen and unknown enemy? I feel it is better for us to ignore the letter and keep moving.” Lakshmanan too felt that it was wise to drop the interesting and equally intriguing issue just abruptly.
But that handwriting was quite attractive and those words kept haunting him. With the passing of time, slowly both faded into oblivion. Both the brothers did not talk about the letter or its contents.
A few months later …. Lakshmanan came to kitchen to have a glass of water and he saw his mother was talking to Champa who was their neighbour’s daughter. Lakshmanan always made fun of her and at every opportunity, he chided her. “Hey Champa, this is kitchen room and how is it that you are here? It never agrees with you to be in the kitchen except for gulping something or munching. The hall and TV room are just on the right side. Why you got bored with your cinema gossip shows or what?”
His mother asked him to stop teasing her. She said that Champa wanted to take part in a kitchen show and for that she wanted to attempt a novel recipe. “Go and get her a pen. She wants to write down.”
“Amma. Stop it. Both Hell and Heaven will break lose on us. If Champa is going to try a novel item, even the TV anchor will run away. Have you ever seen her doing something good?” He turned to Champa and said, “Have mercy on us. Spare us all.”
Amma not bothering about his utterance asked him to get a pen. Again, Lakshmanan picked up an argument. “In these modern days who bothers to write? You have the phone. Just send audio clipping. Voice message. That’s all. Why keep writing now? You know this girl. She can’t write one sentence correctly. With so many spelling mistakes, I am sure she is going to mess it up. First of all, ask her if she can distinguish between sugar and salt? Moreover, even routine items if she is attempting it will automatically become a novel one. You ask her to make Uppuma. It will be something between gruel and porridge. Now think of her trying out novel experiments! It is going to be a deadly experience. God save us.”
Champa initially ignored his blabbering. But when he was bent upon irritating her, she too wanted to give it back. But that would kill the very enthusiasm in her, to try out a new dish. After all, Lakshmanan’s funny goofs were nothing new to her. She tried to be as tolerant as possible. Amma came to her rescue. “See her father is seriously looking for a suitable alliance. If God-willing, she would be married soon and will go away to her new abode. She is here for few months only. So why do you provoke her? Be a good friend and a well-wisher. All she wanted was a pen, to write down a few tips. This you could not provide instead you are talking too much of cacophony.”
Shankaran too, on his part joined the lively chat going in the kitchen. He while coming down, came with a pen and a paper too. On the backside of the paper, he had already drawn a cartoon caricature, which he did not reveal. Champa hurriedly took the paper and pen and took Amma with her toa side to jot down details of the new recipe. Shankaran was very curious to know whether she saw the cartoon character and wanted to see her reaction. So, he peeped into the paper she was writing. There was a big shock and he was least prepared for it.
He almost screamed. “Hey you Lakshman, see this!”
Because of sudden outburst, the paper slipped from Champa’s hands and Lakshmanan picked it. While picking up, the cartoon side of the paper was towards him and he laughed aloud. “Very good drawing of this photogenic girl. Simply natural.” He showed it to Amma. She too was amused. She was happy about the jovial relations they maintained. But immediately she controlled herself and advised the boys not to be overdoing in teasing her. Champa unaware of the joke, got angry and whisked away. She neither saw the cartoon nor she knew they were laughing at it only. She mistook that the were cutting jokes on her cooking skills.
Shankaran asked Lakshmanan to first see what she wrote and then go and get her back. When Lakshmanan saw her writings, he too was thoroughly bowled. That beautiful writing … The same writing which they saw a in the letter kept inside the library book. It brought back the old memories which kept them in high suspense. “In deep distress now. Rescue me at the earliest.”
Both Shankaran and Lakshmanan could not believe this silly girl would have written this. Even now the suspense was not cleared. Why she wrote, what was the reason for her distress, whether it got solved, … everything a mystery. Lakshmanan leapt ahead and caught hold of her and almost dragged and brought her home. She was about to burst into tears. Both Shankaran and Lakshmanan consoled her and took her upstairs and showed her the letter and wanted explanation for those scribblings. They were quite upset why she wrote and more than anything else, why she hid it inside the Library book. Luckily Lakshmanan noticed it before returning the book. Or else it would have gone beyond their reach. ‘Who knows where it would end up?’
Champa by now gathered herself. ThanK God! Their teasing was not on her cooking skills. This was something different. Lakshmanan asked in plain terms. “What is this distress call and what is this rescue operation? Why you chose him for helping you? Be frank. You do not know how much we got disturbed by this letter. We never knew you were the one to have written this. We never had any occasion to see your handwriting before. Forget all that now. What is your problem? How do you think he can help you?”
Champa remained silent for a while. Then she spoke. When she completed her graduation, she was looking for suitable jobs. But her father simply refused. He did not want her to be a working woman. He was adamant that she be at home and get honed with domestic skills. From then on, he kept looking for suitable guys. She as a fresh graduate was not at all interested in plunging into a marriage and confined to be a docile housewife. That too with unknown guys from unknown families and coming from unknown circumstances. “I was not mentally prepared. I was a bit scared. I strongly believed that my daddy was sure to bring a groom very soon. And I will have to leave these familiar surroundings and set out on an unknown journey. The feeling of going away ‘From a secured living here to an unknown unsecured dwelling place elsewhere’ was haunting me. With such a shaky temperament, I developed stress fear and nervousness and wanted to escape that mental agony. I had known you guys from my childhood and was very comfortable in sharing my feelings with you people. So, I was depending on you as a friend philosopher and guide. I was nursing a hope. With a flush of such feelings and in a spate of sheer security, I wrote it. But I did not have the courage to talk it openly. Neither I thought of consequences … if at all this letter leaked … and my parents came to know of it …. what will happen later….”
She paused. She wanted to say something more. Before then, Lakshmanan spurted. “What about now? Has the situation changed? Are you ready to go behind your father’s find? That’s why the kitchen recipes? From my mother too? First of all, tell me one thing. Why did you insert the letter inside the library book?”
Champa hesitated. But if she missed this chance, she would not get another occasion to speak about herself. “Yes. In an impulse I wrote it put it inside the book. Because I knew that Shankaran was a vivid reader and will not miss my letter. If I had kept it elsewhere, it may not catch his attention. So, I chose the book. Immediately after keeping the letter inside the book, I waited with great eagerness for quick response. Not getting a reply made me sad. Very soon I learnt that it was my stupidness to expect positive results. As time passed, I reconciled. Majority of we ladies follow our traditions. Like my mother, your mother and majority of Indian women, most women in general accept parental choices and lead a happy and peaceful life.”
Shankaran said, “Okay. We are al relieved now. The suspense is over. That letter did disturb us for few days. We had some sympathy for that unknown victim. Luckily no distress now. Hence no rescue operation. Okay.”
In an instant reaction and in an immediate impulse of the moment, Lakshmanan, retorted. “See Champa. You were waiting for a quick response to your letter. You had not written your name in it. But you know our Shankar. If you had given it in his hands, he would have surely responded then and there. He does not fail to respond. He had given a letter to you. That also right in your hands. You did not notice. Is it your turn now to delay your response? Tit for Tat?”
Champa did not understand his utterings nor caught the hint. Lakshmanan showed her that page of the paper in which she had written down the recipe. Then also she did not catch the point. Then Lakshmanan had to break the secret. “See Champa, he wanted your frank opinion about the girl he had chosen for himself. You thought he brought pen and paper for you. But he actually wanted your nod for the photo of his girl. He is asking your opinion because you are his best friend. How about your response and approval of his choice?”
Though it took time for her to get the hint, she knew well that he only brought the pen and paper. Only thing that she did not know then was it carried a photo on the reverse. But she noticed that both Lakshmanan and his mother had also a glimpse of it and were delighted upon it. She immediately turned the page.
Awesome! A cartoon caricature of a chimpanzee with a name under it … in bold letters CHAMPA.
First, she blushed and immediately replied. “Yes. Yes. Very true. That’s what you deserve.”
She told in her mind-voice, “Crooked and cunning! But strangely it is not hurting me. This letter is truly intended for me and I welcome it.”
Lakshmanan still wanting to know the result in clear terms, insisted upon her to come out openly. His mother was wondering what was going on upstairs. She joined them. She wanted to know “What result? What’s it all about?” Champa replied without hesitation,
“A letter in reply to my letter but with a happy ending.”
Amma did not understand head or tail of letter nor its reply. But she could guess it all. The air was filled with happiness with every ‘letter’ of it.