Don't touch the books!


As I lifted the brand new  book to my nose to inhale deeply its smell, I heard the shout. “Hey, don’t touch that book. You, Rukmini! Put it down. At once.” It came out in a shrill, grating voice screeching  over my head like bullets.

I spun around. She was a pencil thin lady with egg-shaped spectacles looking every inch a teacher, with a commanding drill sergeant’s voice. Rukmini, thus upbraided put that colourful book down hurriedly and withdrew behind her tall friend. There were about 30 of them — all in pink skirts and half sarees — rumbustious girls from a nearby school on a visit to the book fair.

I was bemused. A teacher admonishing the students for touching the books. Such an injunction would have made sense on Saraswathi Puja day when reading books is taboo. But to insist in a book fair? How one will judge the book? With x-ray eyes? Within minutes all the girls filed past the books in the stall as if on a march-past   through a museum.

Much later I ran into the grumpy teacher under a tree, watching the girls nibbling their snacks. “Sir, you’ve dropped a book,” she pointed out to a volume that had fallen from my bursting plastic bag. I thanked her and ventured to ask. “I heard you ordering the girls not to touch the books. What d’you expect the children to do in a book fair? Admire the wrappers and move on? How will they get used to the feel of a new book, its smell, the visual and mental treat inside.” She stared at me caught unawares by my questions. But I pressed on. “Will any lady walk past a saree display, even if she has no intention of buying? Won’t she open, inspect, hold it away and judge it?”

She glared at me. “It is alright for you to preach Sir. But I am responsible for their actions. Most of them are impish. What if they tear or scribble on  the books? Who will pay for them? Me? No way. I am yet to receive my salary for the past three months. Can you advise our management? I can’t live on air... Hey, Selvi. Look! Your left ear-stud is missing. My God! Your mother is going to skin me alive.”

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