Pankaj Rai Gambhir: a librarian with a tough shell
I have always lived in a nuclear family. I grew up not knowing what were family feuds, conniving mother-in-laws and property disputes. While growing up, I heard about such things from my friends. I empathized with them, not really knowing why. I listened to people curse their own family and throw them out of the house. All this at that time seemed so peculiar; how can one do this to their own family?
Maybe because your own blood isn’t thicker than water and family crosses over you more than strangers do. Because blood may make you related, but loyalty makes you family.
So the story begins!
I think about this as I am sitting in a dingy library with Pankaj Rai Gambhir. The place is flooded with books. But not in the way you imagine libraries to be. The place was eerily quiet; typical of a hole for bookworms. Silence is usually attributed to peace. But I was sure that unlike the library, Pankaj’s thoughts were not at peace, not quiet enough. I was glad when the silence was broken by him.
“In my childhood, I was not a good student. I wasn’t into studying and would always be in the last ranks. My father would not ask how did the result go. He would simply ask, ‘Result aa gaya?( Has the result come?)’ and when I nodded he started hitting and screaming at me.”
His father worked in a cinema hall as a ticket seller. Initially, Pankaj described his father as a jolly man with a good sense of humor and bearing a resemblance to Rajesh Khanna. But those words lost all meaning when we went ahead with our conversation.
“I looked at the glass half-full. The day I told my mother I was 43rd in a class of 45 students, I had a smile on my face. My mother was perplexed and asked me what made so happy. I said, ‘But Maa, there are two people behind me’.”
Pankaj adored his mother. She was a ray of hope for him. A helpful and industrious woman, she always lived for others. Having done two MAs in her life, she was still bound in her home as a homemaker due to various social constraints.
“When I was 4, my father decided to start a venture with his best friend and opened a factory business of cardboard boxes. Because both were working and the venture was young, my mother decided to take over the factory- amidst other household chores. It was only 4 years later when the business was flourishing that my father and his friend decided to leave their jobs and pay full attention to the business.”
2 years later, everything changed.
It was warm on Sunday, the 5th of June, 1994. Pankaj’s mother was down with a serious stomach ache. When his father expressed his concerns, she brushed it off saying it was nothing serious. He still clings on to failed hope that someone should have told her it was serious. Someone should have prophesied what was to come in the subsequent days.
The next morning he wakes up to an urgent sound of his home bell. Half awake, he opens the door to see Bobby bhai standing on the door with tears in his eyes. He refused to utter a single word and asked Pankaj and his sister to come with him. Later on, Pankaj is dropped off in front of a hospital, holding his little sister’s hand. He comes to know that his mother complained of body pain the previous night and was rushed to the hospital. She was then admitted in the ICU.
“They say that a mother and child share an invisible bond which is not shared by anyone. How could I have been so peaceful when there was a storm raging inside my mother’s heart?”
5 days later, on the 10th of June, Pankaj loses his mother due to multiple organ failure. She was just 33 years old.
“Within 6 months of my mother’s death, my father married my mother’s cousin, who was 20 years younger than my father. I called her Masi and still do. She was never like a mother for me and never will be.”
After the marriage, torture and humiliation became synonymous in his life. Pankaj was confined within four walls, forbidden to go out and forced to study by his step-mother. Whenever he received a call from his friend, his mother would eavesdrop from the other side. His father cajoled him to become a doctor by saying,”Had a doctor been there for your mother, she would have been here. ” At such a tender age, he was demoralized and emotionally manipulated. Darkness engulfed him.
“My father called Masi (mother’s sister) Mother Teresa, as she had given up her life for us. She was far from that. I loved going out, because who does not want to escape from an abusive home? They purposely wanted me to die inside. And there was no one to help me out. Nani was helpless. My sister was suffering in other ways. There was no way out.”
But staying at home worked for him in one way: his grades improved. By 10th class, he was in the top 10 of his class. And like most Indian paradigms, he had to take up science. Somewhere in the midst, his step-brother was born and that changed his relationship with his father even more.
Life went by slowly, bitterly. After his 12th, he pursued mechanical engineering. He was finally happy, as he was out of the house for almost 11 hours. He loved the freedom. But then, he faced yet another blow.
College life turned out to a little bit hopeful.
“I am a very soft-spoken and emotional guy. So, in my first year, I was ragged by my batch mates, physically and emotionally. Ghar main torture bahar torture, jau to kahan jau?” he says angrily. “I thought there was some defect in me. I was dumb and stupid. It was at this time I started having suicidal thoughts.”
There is a limit to how many winding hills and dangerous curves life offers you. Pankaj has plenty. I had to ask him something.
“Did anything ever good happen to you?”
He laughs. “Yes, I am coming onto that. Have patience.”
He met someone who changed his perspective.
“I commuted daily by bus. One day this girl was sitting next to me and her head fell on my shoulder. When she got up, she gave me a sheepish grin and I smiled back. Somehow we started talking, instantly liked each other and exchanged our email ids. Her name was Nidhi. We later decided to meet up for coffee.”
I have a penchant for love stories, and this one carried an inkling. I sat upright and continued listening intently.
“I was so frustrated that I told her everything about my life. I asked her:
“Am I stupid?” she says no.
“Am I an idiot?” she says no.
“Then why does everyone make fun of me?”
She thinks hard. “See Pankaj, you have something that most people don’t, and that is a pure crystal heart. Your emotions are your strength and your honesty an advantage. You have to show your strength to people and gain confidence. You are not stupid, you are different.”
“Something seriously resonated within me. I felt so relaxed talking to her. Maybe I was not demented. ”
But as they say, the only things constant in life is change. And things changed…pretty soon.
“Some months later I get a mail from her saying that she is getting married and would have to sever her friendship with me.
A good 6 months down the line, I felt like talking to her and thanking her for what she did for me. When I got her house number, the conversation left me in perpetual shock.”
The call was picked up by Nidhi’s Chachi, who informed Pankaj that Nidhi committed suicide merely 15 days back by jumping in front of a train. When he tried to confirm many times, he was finally greeted by a silence, which only death can create and a voice saying, “The number you are calling is busy, please try again later.”
He breaks down, weeping silently.
“How could she be unhappy? She was the one who got me out of the death pit and now she was the one in it.”
Among difficult times, he did not have time to mourn for her death. To gain some perspective, Pankaj also wrote a self-published book named Safar: A collection of Hindi poems. But Hindi gets little attention as it does even now, and a book costing Rs. 25 does not really have any value. He sold it to pehelwaans, to bus drivers, to local shopkeepers. But that venture was a complete fail.
In 2005, he completed his engineering and MBA in 2006.
You forgive people because you still want them in your life.
Flash forward a few years later and that is when another problem hit the family: in 2011 his father was diagnosed with cancer. His brain went for a toss. Despite past events, he handled the family business by putting in his time, left his job, borrowed money and paid for his father’s treatments and came to a stage of almost-bankruptcy. And as luck would have it, his father’s health improved.
A few days later, Pankaj asked his father:
“Papa, aaj main factory dekhne aapke saath chaloonga. (Dad, today I will accompany you to the factory)”
“Tu kon hai aane wala? ( Who are you to come along with me?)” asked my father.
“Papa, isn’t this our factory? I invested 10 freaking lakhs in it.”
And my father, my own blood, blankly refused. And I had yet again, been stumped and betrayed by him. After everything I did for him, everything.”
Light at the end of the tunnel: Tanu
By that time, in 2011, he had started his business venture. In the same process, he finally found something good: he found his future wife: Tanu. He found love and warmth, something he should have been given when he was a mere boy of 10. However, their marriage carried its own baggage.
“I was the sole person who planned my own marriage. From the money to the people to catering to my in-laws, everything. My father refused to pay a single iota for his son’s own marriage. I did not even have marriage cards, a decorated car to take my wife home and on that day I could her gossips coming around from everywhere, mocking at me and my newly wedded wife.”
A time came when his father refused to come to his marriage. He finally reached that saturation point and lost it a day before his marriage.
Pankaj sat in this very same library, bawling his eyes out. He loved his future wife too much to let her go, he wanted to make this marriage work, wanted take the sacred oath of fire, no matter what.
“I definitely had some very good friends, who were determined to help me out. They came to my marriage on request, called other people and danced to glory on the day of my marriage.
And on 28th October, Tanu was mine. She become my life-long support from that day. She stands by me as a pillar of support. I think she is the right Mother Teresa, not that woman.”
Now let me take out the cat out of the hat!
Even I am an emotional person. I try not to cry as I pen this down. But you know the library we are sitting in? The one that is so quiet? This is Pankaj’s library, his brainchild.
Everyone finds solace in books. Pankaj did too. He started this library in North-Ex mall in the heart of Rohini. Reader’s Destination is indeed a bibliophile’s paradise. Containing everything from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Christies, from Archers to the Hunger Games, it has it all. Although the place is not a typical library you see, it is literally overflowing with books.
“In a generation where we have kindles and e-books, along with short attention spans, it is a marvel that my library is still there even after 6 years.”
Pankaj has a collection of so many books that he periodically sells books at kill-away prices, usually half-rate. Truth be told, the library has a membership of 200 people and does not garner much attention.
“I am taking every risk to run this. I am willing to bear this pain. My house is on rent and so is this place. I am on umpteen loans. I think I will only be truly happy when I am free from all my financial liabilities and this crisis.”
Pankaj has not been in contact with his father for 4 years. He still feels that he had always been an integral part of his life. It seems his father does not feel like meeting his son, wife and his 3 year old grandchild Bhavika.
Whenever I used to visit him, Pankaj would give me a smile and helped me browse through the racks so that I could choose books to take away for a weekend read. I wish I knew what was behind that smile. I am glad I do now.
And if there is one lesson I took away from my 2 hour long conversation full of emotions, it is one of perseverance, a lesson which is more preached than practiced.