If you know where to look, there is a steel trap door on one of the city streets that opens with double panels, such as those leading to the basements of many shops. There is no secret code, but if you know where to look and you find the trapdoor, all you need to do is knock and Maalik, a scrawny man with an ascetic aspect and dressed in robes of light shades, will open and let you in. Past a shelf of cabbages, onions and tomatoes, he will lead you into an opening that has a few armchairs, a couch, a gas burner sporting a brass pot brewing sweet coffee, and a sparse assortment of books and magazines. You might see a few people standing around or browsing the books or sipping coffee.
Furthest away from the entrance, the basement gives way to rock and the walls curve in a dome down to the floor. At that end is a low doorway carved from the rock. If you more or less know what you are looking for, Maalik will lead you through this door, stooping ahead of you through a low passage of twenty metres.
On the other side of this passage you will be astounded to find another, bigger cavern, with a few benches and a few newspapers of the day. But, more astoundingly, you will see a canal with a small boat floating on the water and tethered to an iron post. The canal runs through an archway and disappears into darkness. Next to the post is an old switchboard. Maalik will plug and unplug a few wires, throw one or two switches and Jibreel, a tall, muscular woman with dreadlocks down to her waist and dressed in fatigues, will appear through a door situated just left of the low passage way. Wordlessly, she will gesture towards the boat.
It will become clear that through the switchboard, Maalik has communicated your request to Jibreel. Through the archway then, Jibreel will steer the boat for about 200 speedy metres as the canal drops fast. Then, when the boat slows, you will find yourself in an enormous cavern with several hundred archways leading off it.
As you float into this vast cavern underneath Cape Town, you might hear faint chanting. For a moment you might even see numerous boats bobbing on the far side of the cavern, the boatmen aft standing upright and sometimes looking like the heavy downstroke of the Alif. But they will soon disappear down one of the tunnels. If she deigns to answer your queries, Jibreel will mumble that the boatmen are souls of dead slaves. “Because they died as slaves, they are considered murdered. And so their souls will not find rest, like mine,” she will add.
Above each tunnel leading off this cavern is a signboard. You might see “The Seven Fears” or “The Histories”. Another reads “The Alphabets”. Jibreel will steer your boat in the required direction and next to “The numbers of the many downfalls”, you will enter the tunnel named “The Mirrors”.
This tunnel too falls at a speedy descent and, after about 200 metres, the water turns placid and laps at the bank of an area similar to where your journey initially will have started: two benches, a post to tether the boat, a switchboard, and a door, only this time made of heavy steel.
Jibreel will fasten the boat, stride to the switchboard and throw a few switches. Some hydraulic mechanism will hiss and the door open inward. She will wave you through but remain on the other side, disappearing with a whisper into the air.
Now you will be in a large, well-lit room filled with shelves and shelves of books. Following the call number, it should not be difficult to find The Book of Tongues.
When you open the book, its pink pages will immediately start shimmering and, if you look closely, you will notice that the shimmering is an effect of thousands of miniscule tongues squirming and starting to extend themselves. If you hold the book at the right distance from your face and eyes, it is not something to be afraid of. The miniature tongues will grow to envelope your head, covering all of it and your face, and bringing to your skin, your head and your mind ecstasies that you have never experienced. If you should hold it too close, faint feelings of anguish will start to stir in your thoughts. In such a way, it is easy to know that the reader needs to correct the distance between eyes and book.
But Maalik will have warned you not to look at the bookís pages while holding it upside down, nor even to page through the book from back to front. If the tongues should grow onto you from this approach, you will experience an ecstasy so intense that you will be unable to distinguish the burning sensations maddening your brain, as if a million miniature machetes were slicing and chopping through your thoughts. This book you hold in your hands, The Book of Tongues.