“The Library of Babel” is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format and character set.
This was the seventh time I had struck out my draft in the last two hours. I slam my laptop shut and put my head down in defeat. My hands were itching, and frustration took over me. I cannot write like this. My mind feels so blank—like nothing ever existed here before. The beginning of the story has always been the toughest part, but now, I cannot find words to express my ubiquitous thoughts. I need some inspiration to channel my emotions.
My mother was a book lover and always told me to read between the lines to find out the true meaning of your existence. I never paid attention to that, but I feel that now I need to dig into a book for some ingenuity. Grabbing my cardigan and keys, I quickly headed out.
I strolled across the wide avenues and looked around the small fancy coffee shops to find something that would fascinate me. I checked out the second-hand bookstores, but even the scent of the yellowed pages couldn’t caution my temper. Nothing really caught my attention until I stumbled across the legendary “Library of Babel.” The talk of the town is that this library is an infinite library, you can find anything and everything here. The hexagonal towers had always beguiled me, they galloped up the clouds. For what it’s worth, I might find a story hidden here, for me.
I pushed open the door and an old man appearing to be in his early sixties greeted me. He had this peculiar look on his face when he saw me and his blood-flecked eyes grew wide.
“You have your mother’s eyes,” he said with a faint smile—the kind of smile that pierces through the depths your soul and makes you feel vulnerable.
I smiled back at him, unsure of how I should reply to that.
He then slowly pointed at a door at the corner of the library with his wrinkled fingers.
“Follow my path young lady, for the answers you seek to lie with me,” he said
There was no reason for me to trust this man that I had just met— yet there was something about his eyes that made me want to follow his word. I went inside the door, ignoring the voice inside my head telling me I was heading towards danger.
A flash of light gushed through my eyes as I pushed the door open. The hexagonal-shaped room had four walls of books. Each wall had five shelves filled with books – thousands and thousands of them. Other than those dusty books, the five shelves and a ladder, there was nothing uncanny in the room.
I walked up to one of the shelves and picked up a book – “JUFHSUVSGRIYR”, the title read. I turned through the pages of the book, hoping that I would find some “answers” – all I found was a random combination of letters strung together to form incoherent sentences.
I went through two shelves with no luck and honestly, the sheer monotony of reading meaningless books was getting to my head.
Mohini, did you really expect that man to help you? He is an old lunatic using your desperation as his source of entertainment.
Leave the library – leave it before you lose your mind going through this endless pile of garbage
But what if some treasure lies underneath all this rubbish?
Just as my mind revolved around these thoughts, a single book lying at the corner of a shelf caught my attention.
A lonely boy among a sea of people. I should talk to him and ask him what his problems are.
I walked towards the shelf and picked the solitary book up.
If this book contains the same gibberish that I read earlier, I am leaving this godforsaken place.
I opened the first page and started reading –
“asffvjfjdnvdiunbidnbnkjxf xvfuhgrvbfdjnf jhvbdvby hcscs”.
Fell for it again didn’t you, you pea-brained woman. What did you think—you’ll find answers to the mysteries of the world here?
I went through the rest of the pages hopelessly. The futile flipping of pages was driving me to craziness, yet I didn’t stop. Just as I had lost all hope of finding anything, I found one page with a string of cogent sentences written in it :
“What are these marks on your hands, darling? Why did you do that to yourself? Have you lost your mind, dumb little girl?” the book said. I dropped the book from my hands and sat down on a corner of the room.
Amma and Appa had just returned home after a long day at work. I could hear them quarreling in their room – I stayed in my room firmly holding my G.I.Joe and listening to their bickering.
“Ashwath, you are looking at all the wrong places. If we don’t listen to the master, he will destroy us—and you know who he will for our sins? – Mohini.”
“THE MASTER? What has the master done to help us? To hell with you and your master. We don’t need him or his help.”
Amma furiously banged the door to the room and walked out, angry that her husband had dared to question the Master’s word.
She took all the clothes out of the cupboard in the living room and dropped them on the floor. She then picked them up, folded them and put them back inside the closet – this was now a daily ritual.
Amma slowly opened the door to my room and saw me sitting in a corner with my toy.
“I am so sorry for all that noise, Mohi. How was your day?”
She moved closer and looked at the marks on my hand – marks that were made by her yesterday night.
“What are these marks on your hands, darling? Why did you do that to yourself? Have you lost your mind, dumb little girl?”
I rushed out of the room numb and speechless. The past that I had been hiding from for so long stood tall, right in front of me. As I walked out of the library, a feeble voice said from behind,
“You might choose to leave right now, but remember that you have seen the Master – and no person who has seen the Master can escape him.”
I ran outside the library without turning back. My mind was racing, and I could not think straight.
How did the book know about my past?
How did the man know my mother?
Why did he act like he had seen me before?
I reached my house and decided to sleep—fall in a deep slumber and forget everything about this day. I have never been to that library, never seen the old man, and never read the book.
One day Appa came back home angrier than ever before. Amma was right next to him, and her eyes were petrified— this was not the man she knew and loved. He furiously removed his belt and unleashed his anger on my bare thighs. I did not cry anymore, I had built up a tolerance to this— I just stayed there numb. Maybe if I had screamed, he would have stopped earlier, but I had no will left in me to protest. He decorated my body with bloody wounds and scars, and then left me on the floor alone.
After they went back to their rooms, I thought of the times when things were better— when Appa would bring a KitKat home every day for his princess, and Amma would sing me to sleep. Until that Master came.
Later that night, Amma came to my room, crying.
“Mohini, we are so sorry.”
“Amma and Appa have to go.”
“Yes, I need you to go to bed right now. It’s very late. Tomorrow when Amma won’t be there, promise you won’t cry.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Amma.”
“Mohi, I love you, my princess.”
“But I couldn’t sleep that night. So, I grabbed my G.I. Joe and walked down the stairs.”
“Ashwath, remember what the master said.”
“To live forever, you must die once.”
“The answer to our question lies beyond our lives.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
I heard a loud noise, followed by a thud. I quickly run to my parents’ room and open the door. And what I saw that night will haunt me forever. Amma and Appa were lying on the floor, lifeless. I tried to wake them up, pulled their hands—but they didn’t respond. But I did not flinch, I did not cry. How could I shed even a single tear, if I had promised Amma not to? I just sat there, numb, wanting the ground to crack open and engulf me.
I woke up drenched in sweat and panting heavily. I dropped down on my knees and cried my heart out. The scars of the past hurt more than ever before.
I needed answers. That book knew my entire life, something which I had never told anyone about. For fifteen years, I have never, never once thought about what Amma and Appa did. I have been running away from reality for a very long time, I can’t run anymore. I need to stop and turn back.
I picked up my jacket, locked my room and headed towards the library. As I walked towards the library, I remembered what my father had said about the place.
” Mohi, that building there is going to change our lives forever. Forever!”
I didn’t think much of it back then. But maybe this place is the reason my life changed. Perhaps it has the answers to my questions – questions that I have been too scared to find answers to. I reached the library entrance and closed my eyes.
Mohini once you cross that gate there’s no turning back.
I pushed the door open and walked towards the librarian’s desk. He was on his chair reading a book. As he heard my footsteps, he closed his book, and the dust engulfed his face. He looked at me with a wide grin. He knew I was going to come back.
“What do you know about my parents? Who is the Master? Tell me – tell me everything.”
“Oh, aren’t you a dear lady! People have spent their lives seeking answers from this Library. And you come here expecting to know everything in a day?
Your parents – they were a great couple Mohini. They came here like most people hoping that all their problems will be solved within these walls. They dreaded what an inevitable consequence of life – Death is. And to escape its clutches, they sought the Library’s refuge.”
I felt like a desperate soul, grasping all the information that this old man spoke out of his mouth.
“If you look in the right places here, you can find anything you want. But god forbid you to go down the wrong path, you are stuck in a maze you can never get out of. And sadly, like thousands of others who come here, your parents too got lost. I have been in this place for half a century, I have only seen very few people go back with what they sought for.”
I stood silent for a minute. I still did not completely understand what happened to my parents – but I knew far more about their past now than I did a few hours ago. My heart felt a lot lighter, and my mind much calmer – I realized that to heal, I needed to confront the ghosts of my past.
“And the Master? Who is he?” I asked as I looked at the Library like a five-year-old staring at the candy store.
“The Master, some people would say is the Universe itself. He controls the library and its people. He directs them towards their destinations and their answers. The Master has answers to all your questions. And he who follows the Master’s words completely can never go wrong. But that’s where the problem lies – you need to listen to everything he says.”
“Where can I find him?” I asked, turning back at the librarian.
The old man was nowhere to be seen, and where he sat before was only an empty chair.
Days progressed to weeks and weeks to months. I had been spending most of my time at the Library now staring at the infinite array of books. I don’t know why the Library suddenly mattered to me so much. Every day I went there, I would convince myself that it was to know about my parents’ past, or to find the plot for my next bestseller.
But deep down I knew that none of that was true. I went there because I was greedy – greedy for the powers that the Library could give me, grasping for eternal life. The person that went there every day wasn’t Mohini – Mohini would watch her own descent to madness every day from the sidelines. It was as if some force in the Library had all my senses in its clutches and was forcing me to go deeper and deeper into an endless spiral. I was in complete control of my body, and yet I was helpless.
“Mohini, stop this. Practically no one has come out of this without hurting themselves. LEAVE. Leave before it’s too late.”, my rational side would say.
” Don’t listen to her, Mohi. Five people have gone back with what they wanted before. And you, my dear, would be the sixth.”, another part of me would say. And much to the dismay of my logical side, it is this part that always won.
I had spent three months searching through the place now and had not found a single sentence of any use.
After yet another unfruitful day, I reached my house and dropped my bag on the living room couch. I headed straight to my room and opened my closet. As frustration took over my mind, I took all the clothes I had and scattered them on the floor, folded them and put them back inside.
It seemed like my only way to remain in control of my existence, and in touch with reality. Because apart from the clothes in my closet and my house, I owned nothing. My very soul seemed to be disconnected from my body.
I slowly walked towards the mirror in front of my bed. I looked at a girl with skin pale as death, and through her thin layer of skin down her midriff, I could see her rib cage. Her eyes were engulfed in darkness and were crying for help.
As I continued staring at the woman in front of me, my heart slowly filled with an intense sense of hatred.
“You – you are responsible for everything wrong with my life. Why did you…..why did you have to go to the Library? Why did you listen to that man? Why…” I yelled.
I closed my eyes and let the tears that I had been holding all this time flow down.
“The answer to our question lies beyond our lives.”, a voice inside me whispered.
Still sobbing uncontrollably, I headed towards my balcony. As I looked down from up there, the image of my parents’ corpses flashed through my mind.
“I had an entire life ahead of me. I could have become a celebrated writer, travelled the world, and maybe even found love. But now – it’s all over. Everything that I have worked for has been reduced to nothing. NOTHING. I can neither stay in the Library and fall even deeper into its trap nor can I go back to my earlier life pretending like none of this happened. Amma, Appa – your princess is coming for you.”
I closed my eyes and jumped from the railings.
They say that a few moments before death beckons, man feels a weird sense of calm. As I fell through the air and the cold breeze of the midnight hit my face, time seemed to slow down, my heart felt at peace, and I forgot all about the misery of the last three months. I was finally free.
As Mohini jumped from her apartment, a dark silhouette watched through the shade of the streetlights. The Master had defeated yet another victim.
—Written by Sudarshan Sivakumar and Aakanksha Mantri for MTTN
—Edited by Alankriti Singh for MTTN
— Featured Image by Chirag Bansal for MTTN