17-year Cicada is an episodic account of a young woman trapped in a vast library. She goes through the stages of denial, anger, and acceptance. Surrendering to her fate she roams around the desolate reading rooms, she walks between the shelves, takes selfies, and eats from the well-stocked refrigerator. Sometimes she has imaginary conversations. The place feels like the furthest outpost of the Gobi desert.
But is she really alone?
10th century Baghdad wasn’t such a bad place for scholars. They were given a free hand, lived a life of relative comfort and were allowed to pursue knowledge single-mindedly. At the end of the 9th Century, with the decline of the Umayyad Caliphate and the rise of Abbasids, books were gradually transferred from Damascus to Baghdad, paving the way to the rise of the great Baghdad libraries. The most famous of them came to be known as The House of Wisdom.
One scholar who enjoyed the fruits of this era was the noted Arab philosopher Al Kindi, who laid the foundation of philosophy in the Arab world as well as translating Aristotle, contributing to saving him from being permanently lost to time.
A few centuries back, Emperor Justinian had annulled the Athenian school and most of the Hellenic knowledge was smuggled to Baghdad via Umayyad Syria. Much was lost and what survived was later translated, reworked and recirculated into the world.
Abbasid Baghdad was famous for hosting Al Hajjaj, the translator of Euclid, and Al Khwarizmi, the inventor of Algebra. Also known as Algorithmi, Al Khwarizmi, adapted the Hindu numbering system and invented the Arabic numerals we use today.
Then there were the Banu Musa, the three brothers who were arguably the most important members of The House of Wisdom. They were the sons of the bandit Musa ibn Shakir.
Ibn Shakir was rehabilitated by the Abbasid Caliphate and given a respectable position in the administration. When Al Ma’mum seized the Caliphate in 813 C, he adopted Ibn Shakir’s sons. They were given the best education possible and excelled in astronomy and mathematics. They were exposed to the best of the Athenian school and extended the methods of Archimedes and Eudoxus. They were the first to think of surfaces and spaces in numerical terms, measured the solar year with accuracy, designed irrigational canals, and made many astronomical findings using their housetop observatory.
Together they authored Kitab Marifat Masahat Al Ashkal (The Book of the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures), one of the foundational texts of Arab mathematics.
The Banu Musa brothers survived four Caliphs and rose to great power.
Although Abbasid Baghdad provided a great atmosphere for scholars, there were great rivalries. The most significant of them was between the Banu Musa brothers and the great philosopher Al Kindi.
The fourth Caliph Al Mutawakkil favoured the brothers and confiscated Al Kindi’s Library. Luckily, the night before, Al Kindi managed to smuggle out a few books. Noted among them was the complete works of Aristotle.
In some time, Al Kindi got his library back and continued his intellectual journey as he did before. Peace was restored.
All this went on for another 500 years or so until the arrival of the Mongols.
Every now and then, Nihal steals time from her doctoral research to read a page or two of fiction. Nothing extraordinary about that and nothing extraordinary was about to happen that day. Except it did.
As she lay reading The Invention of Morel in a forgotten part of the library, her eyelids became heavy with sleep. True this is an exceptionally silent enclave and a great place to nap, but there could also be another contributing factor. Ever since she started writing her thesis, Nihal’s reading has gone down the drain. Barely two pages into a book and she is fast asleep.
When she woke up, the place was dark.
Only the security lights were on.
Is the library closed? But this library never really shuts; it merely fades out for a few small hours and fades right back in. Like summer nights in the Northern Hemisphere.
She hurried across a couple of corridors, went down a flight of stairs, made her way through a copse of shelves and tables, crossed the foyer.
How long was I sleeping? The place is completely deserted.
She double-checked the exit.
Yes. Firmly shut.
Normally there should be security staff on duty. She waited long, nose pressed against the glass, making patterns with her breath.
Should she call someone? She looked for an emergency number but couldn’t find any. The obvious thing to do now is to call her ex, but the thought made her cringe. This would give him the opportunity for grandstanding and give him yet another excuse to re enter her life and start another cycle of manipulation, sea-lioning, and gas-lighting.
Well, I guess it is better to spend the night here; tomorrow when the library opens I will slip out unnoticed, she thought. A fastidious modern woman, she even carries a toothbrush in her bag. But Toothpaste?
“If the books agree with the book of God, then we don’t need them,”
“and if they disagree with the book of God, they must be destroyed.”
“To be on the safe-side, burn them all.”
This form of drastic editorialisation has existed since time immemorial. Countless emperors and men in power have destroyed libraries as part of their legacy.
“Old history must go to make way for the new.”
They did it ceaselessly, sometimes for their beliefs or sometimes because they were assailed by great civilisational thoughts.
The great Han dynasty historian Sima Qian even said that old books need to burn to make way for new ones.
Theodosius 1, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and was responsible for the Massacre of Thessalonica, had a great appetite for burning libraries. He had even appointed a special officer for the task.
Renatin Rectus (Renatin The Virtuous or Newborn Rectus), chief burner of books.
“You have to first rip open the cover, tear out the pages and then put them in the fire. A full book thrown into a bonfire will become a charred slab. A book needs to breathe for it to burn well."
Book-burning isn’t easy, as German book lovers escaping Nazi persecution found out when they secretly set fire to their precious collections.
July 12, 1562, in the Yutacan village of Mani, a Franciscan friar named Diego de Landa carried out an inquisition. This time it wasn’t humans he was burning but rather books.
The Mayans had recently converted to Christianity. It was brought to de Landa’s notice that quite a few of them have strayed from the lord’s path and were clandestinely practising their former religion. In order to put a permanent end to this, de Landa organised a great fire in which he destroyed all the codices that he could find.
Beautifully illustrated, they were made of either bark paper or deer hide and contained historical accounts, astronomical observations and sacred instructions for the Mayan priests. Diego de Landa himself could not read the books, but he knew that they had to be destroyed along with the physical remnants of the old Mayan religion for the Mayans to wholeheartedly accept Christianity. These codices contained the collective spirit of centuries of Mayan learning. Who knows what knowledge the world lost on that warm night of July 1562.
Another such night was May 19, 1933. In the middle of Opernplatz in the centre of Berlin, a great fire was burning. A great many people had gathered there. They were chanting Nazi oaths and watching Goebbels and his Brownshirts burn 25,000 “unGerman” books collected from various private libraries.
Among the burning pile was a book by Heinrich Heine who, a century earlier, had written a play in which he had written these lines:
“The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. From this wreckage, the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.”
But as we know, banning books might have an opposite effect, as history would tell repeatedly. A banned book would catch more eyeballs than an unbanned one. Might even save it from oblivion. In the same ways as a #trigger warning at the beginning of a relatively bland Facebook message might add that bit of extra conflict and make it somehow worthier.
During the first two years of her PhD, Nihal did so much research that now, when it was finally time for her to write her thesis, she had to Marie Kondo her way through all the excess material.
The stress had given her insomnia. It had also made her fall asleep at odd hours.
Nihal met Mansoor at a badminton meet up. He said that his speciality was to put anxious PhD students at ease by reading to them at night. “Over the phone, before safely tucking them into bed,” he said.
It didn’t take long for him to cross the telephonic threshold. Soon Nihal was going to bed with both Mansoor and Kondo. And both had had a devastating effect on her life.
It had been Nihal’s absolute fantasy to spend a night alone in a library. Who knows what kind of thoughts would enter her mind? What characters would visit her dreams?
In any case, it’s only a matter of one night. She liked this Robinson Crusoe feeling, the situation made more dramatic by the book she was reading before she fell into a deep sleep.
In the book, a man took a boat to a contagion-filled, deserted island to escape the authorities who have a death sentence on him and slowly found out that the so-called abandoned island was not entirely unpeopled. But are these people real?
A silly thought came to her mind. Many years back, she came across the work of a Japanese photographer who exclusively took pictures of models staged as murdered victims, set in romantic surroundings. Using the self-timer of her phone, she took a picture of herself: “PhD student breaks her neck after taking a fall from a library ladder searching for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Roman Empire.”
She took another. Lying dead on her desk, face down over an open copy of Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, and another, crushed by a shelfful of books (which will take a while to arrange back, no worries, she has the whole night), an electrical accident while putting her laptop to charge.
This could be a great way to advertise books.
She checked for the CCTV cameras. Luckily the juiciest parts of the library were not under surveillance.
Suddenly, she remembered why she was in the library. It wasn’t just to reissue a book: she wanted to borrow some essential books that she would need during the lockdown. Lockdown.
She felt a sudden hollow sensation run down her chest, like swallowing cold water after strong peppermint. THE LIBRARY WILL BE CLOSED TOMORROW, and no doubt the next day too, for an uncertain period.
Her battery is almost dead.
“In the past the empire was fragmented and in confusion. No one was able to unite it. The feudal rulers rose up and used antiquity to disparage the present. They paraded empty words in order to confuse the facts.
“Men prided themselves in private theories and criticised the measures adopted by the rulers.”
“I, therefore, order that all records of historians other than those of the state of Qin be burned.”
The Qin emperor Shi Huangdi, (the same guy who made 6000 terracotta soldiers to take to his grave), wanted to wipe out not only the books, but also the scholars who read them.
He put forth the dreaded decree of Fengshuo Kengru.
Fengshuo Kengru is an imperial dictum where you confiscate books from private libraries, burn them, and bury their owners alive. According to Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian, 460 scholars were buried alive.
Sima Qian also said that “without the story of burnt books many more books might never have been written.”
In some sense burning a library is like the destruction of the collective achievement of a civilisation. However, the biggest risk to books is not from the zealous destroyers of libraries or barbarians who make shoes out of book covers.
Burning is not the biggest threat to books. The biggest enemy of books is neglect and obscurity. Books were once burnt because they had power, now they seems to have lost it. Burning at-least acknowledged the fact that books were important enough to kill or get killed.
And sometimes a library is the best place to hide a book.
Nihal's last conversation was with an Uber driver who drove her to the library. He hailed from the same city as her.
He refused to take money for the ride.
Turns out that Nihal wasn’t the only Phd student that Mansoor was tucking into bed. He was on a mission to de-stress many other distressed PhD and non PhD students.
Nihal managed to send him a text message just before her battery died. She didn't know anyone else in this city.
Yes, there are a few tinderados here and there, but none of them is of the type that would come in the middle of a curfewed night to rescue a damsel in distress.
Nihal arrived at the city three years back on a crisp winter afternoon. The taxi driver was Baloch, the receptionist at the hotel was Egyptian, the concierge was from Ivory Coast.
It was a magic mix of people.
Sandwiched between ultra-modern infrastructure were glittering street markets. The melancholic sky was underlined by the horizontal line of a sleek overhead metro. On her way back to the hotel, she saw Hazara men sitting on the grass playing cards, children running around. There was a gentle vibe in the air. She felt a great desire to sing.
It hasn’t been easy for her to meet people in this city. Plus she is not a natural-born tinderella. Romance isn’t a unidirectional quest. She thought she needed to find a way to expand her social circle. Therefore she signed up for a badminton meet-up.
And therefore Mansoor.
Being trapped in a library wasn’t just Nihal’s dream,
it was Richard Wright’s too.
Although history is filled with instances of oppressed libraries, sometimes libraries were themselves agents of oppression.
Such has been the experience of Richard Wright, one of America's greatest writers.
A grandchild of freed slaves, Richard Wright has influenced generations of African American writers including Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. His books have been canonised.
In the 1920s, however, he worked as a factory worker in Memphis Tennessee. It wasn’t legal that time for Black folks to borrow books from libraries. They were only allowed to enter a library to return or pick up books on behalf of their white masters.
Wright made up his mind to appeal to the Christian charity of one such man in the hope that he could use the person’s card and say that he is borrowing the book for his master and not himself.
But where would he find such a guy? It was tricky, the wrong man could amount to violence. He finally found one Mr Falk, a Catholic trader who himself had some beef with the stifling white Protestant-ate of Memphis. But it wasn’t unconditional.
This goes to say that in that era authority was vested in every white person, and something as harmless as going to a library amounted to a criminal act.
Every time Wright went to get the books, his palms would break out into a cold sweat. He tried to look as illiterate as possible. Waiting patiently until the librarian was done serving all the white men, he would proceed gingerly.
His forged library card became his visa into a world of books; he was amazed at how some people could express their views so freely, with such fearlessness and self-confidence. If Wright had any views, he had learnt to keep it to himself. He read as discreetly as he could, and yet he still couldn’t avoid certain encounters.
Since the time Nihal realised that the library wasn’t going to open anytime soon, her initial thrill had gone. It became increasingly oppressive — plus she was hungry. What is she going to do about food? With a nervous heart, Nihal went down to check the library canteen. She let out a cry of joy when she found that the fridge in the pantry was stacked with food. In a rush, someone must have forgotten to clear it.
One of the night time stories that Mansour told Nehal was that of a mysterious ascetic from Sindh, who was known to be the patron saint of sailors. As famous as a messenger pir, his job was to make sure that people got safe passage.
It is said that this figure always wore green,
and appears near bodies of water.
According to legend, the great poet Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh with his blessings. The mystic is said to have guided him through the entire period of writing the book.
Nizami, the second most important Persian poet of the time thought it was unfair that Ferdowsi got all the help. So he went looking for this shadowy entity to demand fair treatment. But one cannot seek him, he simply appears. For 17 years Nizami walked up and down the banks of the Euphrates but the mystic never appeared.
Then one misty evening, without warning, he saw a figure sitting amidst the reeds in the fading light. The person wore a green cloak. Nizami approached him with reverence and asked if he was indeed the great oracle.
Visibly annoyed, he confirmed that he was, and asked why Nizami had been pestering him for such a long time.
Hearing this, Nizami’s flood gates opened. From his mouth came out a torrent of pitiful complaints about the injustice meted out to him. Why why why is Ferdowsi the sole benefactor of mystic's grace?
Unable to bear Nizami’s litany any more,
the spectral man kissed him.
When he was done, Nizami was jelly.
The mystic looked into his eyes and said,
“Ferdowsi wrote, but you, young man, will speak.”
And that’s how Nizami became the most important colloquial poet of the Persian empire. The man credited to have transformed a small Arab tale into the epic love story Leyla Majnun.
Nehal knew that Mansour’s stories were never restricted by facts. Nevertheless, they were good.
The library felt like a deserted island. She wandered aimlessly from corridor to corridor, shelf to shelf - picking books at random, sifting through them listlessly and moving to the next. She also went from desk to desk looking at what others have been reading.
Some left their books open,
as if they fled the building because of an earthquake.
She came across the Lost and Found department and found a toothpaste in someone’s bag. The Lost and Found department proved to be a lifeline for the future.
For some time, Nihal had this growing sense that she is somehow not alone in the library. Once or twice she felt a fleeting image of someone quickly passing by. Soft footsteps. Strange odours. A rustle here a thump there. A few times she even heard muffled voices. Are there similarly stranded people in the building?
On her fourth day,
she saw something that made her seriously scared.
One day, during her daily wanderings through the library, an open book in the reference section caught Nehal’s attention.
It looked like an entomology textbook.
The open page intrigued her.
She found that the Magicicada cassinii were fascinating creatures. They are about an inch long and during their nymph stage, they live underground and only come out every 17 years. Once out they survive only for a few weeks. During that time they provide a grand feast for the animals. Everybody from foxes and turtles to birds and moles snack on them.
They cause very little harm to mature plants, almost none to animals and have no defence mechanism except for their sheer populousness. After a few days, the animals of the forest are satiated and some of the cicadas survive. The surviving cicadas mate and lay eggs on branches. Eventually the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall on the ground, burrow deeper into the earth and begin a new 17-year cycle.
Suddenly Nehal smelled humidity. She felt as if she was near a waterbody. A light, moist breeze blew through the library.
Had someone opened a window?
They are usually sealed off. If there is an open window Nehal can escape through it. But it seemed the whole space was adrift with the humid breeze. There wasn’t any single source. And then it stopped as abruptly as it began. The place returned to its controlled, cool air.
Mind playing tricks thought Nehal.
Then a Thud.
There were sounds coming from the Lost and Found Department. Although terrified, curiosity got the better of Nehal.
As she went down the steps she could smell wet earth and the muted sound of someone digging.
And there, at the entrance of the Lost and Found office…
Men were conducting a Fengshuo kengru ritual under the cruel watch of a man in a silken robe. And Nehal knew immediately that he was none other than Li Si, the chancellor of Emperor Shi Huangdi.
Is she slowly losing her mind?
Chapter 1: The Abbasid Astro Brothers
Chapter 2: Mongols are Coming
Chapter 3: History’s Own Marie Kondos
Chapter 4: Island of Hallucinations
Chapter 5: The Ultimate Fengshui
Chapter 6: Tinderados Don’t Save Tinderellas
Chapter 7: Richard Wright
Chapter 8: The One Who Travels on Fish
Chapter 9: Magicicada cassinii
Chapter 10: Coming Soon