He ambled towards the British Library as if it was the café next door. He had an agenda in mind. That he had to complete in less than a twenty-four hour duration. Everyone knew Krittibas as the research scholar from India, who arrived here in London, en route to Edinburgh in Scotland. His Air India flight arrived at Heathrow airport, two hours behind scheduled time.
Having a quick breakfast, comprising of a ham sandwich and a cup of extra strong steaming hot coffee, Krittibas looked at his watch. He left his luggage at the locker storage area at the airport. His connecting flight to Edinburgh leaves at a quarter to six. So he had almost the entire day in hand. He took the Underground Tube services to alight at King’s Cross station. London is a traveler’s paradise. The British Library, he knew, is located on Euston Road. Jostling with the pedestrians – busy to go to their places of work – and the teeming traffic – buses and cars that plied to and fro like honeybees – Krittibas knew he had not a minute to lose. He noticed that the large edifice Shaw Theatre, quite adjacent to the British Library on Euston Road too, was decorated. Perhaps they had a performance there, last night! Krittibas’ eyes shone with excitement.
Way back home, in the city of Calcutta, the National Library on Belvedere Road used to be his usual haunt on lazy summer afternoons. Now, as he approached the British Library with trepidation in his heart and a hectic activity in his mind, Krittibas realized, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was home-sick. The impending task brought excitement which made his eyes water.
Slowly – very slowly – he ascended the stairs at the Library. Before entering, he touched the outer walls of this edifice and repository, of as much history as memory. This is an odd habit of his. Whatever moved his senses towards an exhilaration, he always gauged it by the sense of touch, firstly. This peculiar habit did not spare his girlfriend, Krishna, either. At their second date, he had tried to run his hand over the smooth cheeks of Krishna, who in turn, had stalled him with a nudge. These appear to be parts of a dream sequence today, standing in the ramparts of the British Library. Krittibas sighed.
“Can I help you , Sir?”
A petite, extra lissome young girl addressed an extraordinarily wonder struck Krittibas.
“I am looking for a café corner. Will you guide me to one?”
He replied and wished that the girl should not see through his white lie.
“If you turn right from here, you will come to a place where visitors can refresh themselves with a cuppa.”
Krittibas happily noticed that the girl had a dimpled cheek. Just like his mother back home. His mother. Krittibas still remembered the days when he listened, with rapture in his eyes and music in his ears, the tales of glory that his mother read out for him. Tales of warrior kings, of pirates, who plundered through lands and whose vessels reigned over the tidal waters of the seas.
“If you ever go to England to study, it will be something which you will cherish forever. Even though the British looted and spread havoc in our own land, they also had borne the brunt at one time.”
His mother was married when she was still studying. Hence she wanted her only son to fulfil her own unfulfilled dreams. As night time stories, she often recounted tales of Old English valor and vigor. Having studied English Language and Literature herself, Krittibas’ mother knew these tales like the back of her hand.
“You think that history of England began with Shakespeare? No. Nothing can be farther away from the truth.”
Laying his head over his mother’s lap and playing with the loose strands of her long, dark hair, Krittibas listened and memorized these stories in his heart.
“They were the mighty and fearsome Vikings who raided the coasts and inland waters of England. They were the Danes and a pagan army who came to England to plunder and settle themselves, across the land which attracted them.”
“But Ma, the British ruled over us for years and years. Who can be mightier than them as to rule over their own land?”
Krittibas’ naïve remark, and inquisitive mind, made his mother smile.
“The Vikings came from Scandinavia, the land which formed the present day countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They were seafarers – ruling over the seas – spoke Old Norse and made inscriptions in runes. They wore horned helmets, something which Wagner used as his costumes in his operas.”
“Do you mean the Wagner who is the father of modern classical music?’
Krittibas loved these sessions with his mother. He considered that his mother taught him best. She taught him lessons better than his teachers at school.
“Yes….the same Wagner. He also delved into Old Norse mythology. Incidentally, Old Norse had dipthong phonemes. The Norse word for ‘land’ is “landa” and for ‘song’ it is “sangwaz”. Sweden has the Rok runestone which is the longest surviving source of early Old East Norse. The stone is inscribed on both sides."
Krittibas still remembered those lazy noon sessions. After coming back from school – he was studying in the Upper Grades then – the hour between having a bath and sitting down for lunch, was allotted for these lovely sessions. His mother combed his still wet hair – a practice both of them enjoyed - while recounting tales that made her son idolize her.
“The spirits of the victor and the vanquished run in an equal measure in the bloodstreams of both. No one knew that the rulers of our native land, would lose out one day to the lure offered by the British colonialists. One also never knew the hidden spirit of our nationalists who would fight back and help regain the independence … It was way back in 866, that the Vikings had conquered the two English Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and Mercia. They spread mass destruction all around … They plundered monasteries, which were centers of education and learning … But it was King Alfred, known in Old English history as Alfred the Great, who at the age of twenty one, vanquished the pagan army of the Vikings.”
“Yes… In our History class, we read a lot about King Alfred the Great. We also read about King Aethelred. Were they related to each other?”
“King Aethelred was the elder brother of King Alfred. In 871, Alfred routed out the Viking army in the battle of Ashdown. Both the armies fought ferociously. The Vikings were pirates and plunderers. They were followers of their own faith, the Old Norse religion. But many of them later converted themselves to Christianity.”
Here Krittibas looked at his mother in amazement and wonder. Her sang froid expression always baffled him.
“Ma, does that mean the British have a past of battles being fought for supremacy and armies fighting against each other, just like ours? I always thought that the history of Britain and the British Isles began with the British themselves…”
“You are still in school and you have a lot more to learn in life. Flanders, which is now Belgium, was a strong naval power at the time of the Vikings’ settlement in England…”
“Do you mean that Daniel Defoe wrote his novel, Moll Flanders, using the same etymology?”
“Maybe… maybe not… The British are as proud of their history as we ourselves are. They have preserved each and every chapter of their past in various corners across their land. The Vikings had come in ships and long boats. I have heard they have preserved replicas of these to remind tourists that the beauty and architectural grace of their land, had come at a price – that of the loss of lives in battles fought over for centuries.”
Now, as he stood before the British Library, Krittibas realized that he has indeed left his home and his childhood way, way behind him. But these noon sessions with his mother were still glowing in his memory like the smoldering flames of a fire. But here, the fire raged in his mind. His mother shed a tear when she came to see off Krittibas at the Calcutta International Airport. She desperately tried to hide her emotions. But her son perceived them however she tried. Lastly, she held her hand over Krittibas’ head and, after blessing him, turned away to depart – and did not look back. He knew that his mother is a very strong and determined woman. Perhaps, as strong as King Alfred maybe, who had defeated the Danes …?
He arrived here because he wanted to read and read the original text of an epic heroic poem. Krittibas chalked out an Excel sheet in his mind’s platform whereby he prepared the introductory paper to be presented at the Edinburgh University. Beowulf, the oldest and probably the longest heroic poem, written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English survives as a single copy in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. At the National Library in Calcutta, Krittibas chanced upon the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s translation of this poem. He spent the entire day at the Library, reading it. He was so deeply moved by the Poet Laureate’s dedication and painstaking efforts behind the translation that then and there, he decided : If I ever go to London, I will visit the British Library, to see the original manuscript of Beowulf, preserved there!!
He knew that the single surviving copy of the manuscript survived a massive outbreak of fire in 1731, that swept through Ashburnham House that had Sir Robert Cotton’s collection of medieval manuscripts. The margins were charred and some of the readings were lost. The British Library kept the preserved copy in Cotton Vitellius A. Krittibas requests admittance to the sacred room. But just as he is about to put his right foot forward, he perceives a searing pain in his chest. Within moments, he falters and drops to the ground. People from all sides rush towards this youth, who seem to have fainted suddenly. Someone puts his right palm just below Krittibas’ nasal passage.
“Sorry! Poor Boy!!”
Having said this, he shakes his head and calls for the security personnel to carry the inert body outside in a stretcher. Krittibas was dead. Modern day Beowulf, falls victim to the arrows of cardiovascular shaped Grendel.