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Identification Parade


A group of sailors – talented mavericks – set out to sea on a warship. Americans, World War I if my memory serves me right. They get near the Bermuda triangle and mysterious things start to happen. An eerie light comes out of nowhere – and the ship sinks. One cannot be too sure though – the captain's log for the day is cryptic. But wait; there was a survivor, a young man who can shed little light on what really happened. Several years (forty? fifty?) later, the ship unsinks all by itself. A passing vessel notices the battered old ship on the surface of the ocean, and lets the Navy know. The Navy tows the ship back, and it sits idly in a shipyard – until someone has a bright idea. He wants to find out what happened to the ship, and what better way than to recreate the voyage.

The Navy is convinced to give up the ship, and a crew is recruited. And surprise! The crew includes the sole survivor. The ship gets a make over, and they set sail on the same route. Near Bermuda, same thing happens – an eerie light, some weird noise, a long drawn out climax at the end of which the ship sinks. Again. But this crew was smarter – they had a lifeboat, and all of them survive. Except one, that is. The sole survivor of the first shipwreck dies. The moral being, the ship unsunk itself to get the guy that managed to elude it the first time around.

A creepy tale that scared a young me. An uneasy, pervasive fear for a few weeks after. Close windows at night, sleep next to daddy. An anonymous tale I want to read now and prove that old fears have been conquered.

Suresh Anna was Lakshmi teacher's son. She worked in the same school as my mom, and like my mom, got the suffix “teacher” appended to her name whenever someone wanted to refer to her. Our families knew each other quite well. Suresh Anna had a “business mind” (my mom claimed in private that his marks were not so good) and so after finishing school, he did a quick course that taught him clinical laboratory technology, and set up a lab in our neighborhood. His dad was friends with the local doctor, and once in a while the good doctor would direct some blood and urine the lab's way and everyone was happy. Except Suresh Anna's business mind, that is.

Not content with a clinical lab, he wanted to expand. And given the extra room he had in front of the rented house that was his lab, he decided a lending library would be a perfect fit. Not an extra room per se, the patients waited there to have their blood drawn, but what sick fool would mind a few healthy people browsing a few shelves with a few books? Plus, it was really none of their business.

Blood together with Blood Line, seminal works interspersed with semen samples. Yeah. Penguin Flyer's was born thus – apostrophe and all, and “Blood, Urine, Sputum tested here” gave way to “Penguin Flyer's Lending Library – Tamil, English and Magazines.” The business mind did not care that technically speaking, Magazines was not a language.

Used books were bought, mom's old books – home bound versions of serialized Tamil works – were brought, magazines were subscribed to, and the Penguin was flying. Flying, but not very high. Cheap books were needed. Business mind started thinking hard, and it came up with an answer that had been right in front of its nose all along. Ask mom to ask teacher friends for books. Forget cheap books, these were free books. So my teacher mom got asked, and the question bounced off her and landed on me, with a recommendation attached – “Paavam, he is trying to make a living, why don't you give him some of your brother's books, they are sitting on the attic gathering dust.” My response about dust being a superior alternative to germs was ignored, and several conversations were held out (but not too far out) of earshot about someone climbing the attic the following weekend and bringing down the books.

Come Sunday, Suresh came by the house, and I learnt that I was the designated climber. I got on the attic using a makeshift ladder constructed from two stacked dining chairs held in place by my dad and started gathering the books from boxes, and throwing them down (“gently, gently”) one by one. Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn, The Guns of Navarone, The Day of the Jackal, The Bourne Identity, Second Lady, Pirates, piranhas – maybe about fifty books in all, doubling Penguin Flyer's stocks in under 30 minutes. Collected book by book by my brother, now slogging away at a bank in Ooty.

One more box left – with all of three books. In tatters, missing front covers, starting with a fervent plea about not buying books without front covers and depriving authors of their rightful dues. I climb down just in time to hear Suresh telling my mom that he didn't want the three books in tatters. Gift horses, mouths – ring a bell? Turning towards me, sensing hostility, he generously offers free book rentals if I were to go to his place. Yeah, and rent my own books back right? I try to hint to him that he was being loaned the books. But he didn't get it. Or didn't want to. So he left, carting away my books, leaving the tattered three behind.

Three torn, termite eaten books – naked, vulnerable and anonymous. I read a few pages from the first one, and immediately recognize it – Tightrope men, Desmond Bagley's taut thriller, now a little thinner, and not very anonymous. The other two remained nameless though – no vain author's name on top of every page to rescue them from obscurity.

One bored day sometime in the future, I started reading one of them. Thick, small print, long hours. About Los Angeles – the growth of the city traced through a two families that settle there. A feud between two brothers, a tender, delicate young girl called Amelia, and the home they stayed in, Paloverde. Lots of romance, adultery, some sex, a nascent Los Angeles serving as a historical backdrop, daughters falling in love with sons of enemies, bitter-sweet ending, a potboiler. Fun. Curiosity piqued, who wrote it. Finally unpiqued by Amazon – Jacqueline Briskin, and the book was Paloverde (duh!).

The third book remains anonymous. No names in memory, no keywords to jog Google. So I blog the plot. And cross my fingers.