Here is to you, Charlie!
Who brought books to you? Or, rather, who brought you to books?
Mine was Befirdu, a younger colleague of my father’s from whence they were both teachers in Hossana. Who became a good friend of the family, even making it to the status of “god-father” to my younger brother Tagel. He was a handsome man, in that ‘yeteQola bunna’-wezam way Southern-Ethiopian men have, all white teeth and no facial hair. He was funny, and flirtious and the ladies loved him. Which made him the light of our gloomy little house, and somebody whose next visit is to be looked forward to, every time he paid us a visit.
As was the custom in those days, and perhaps because I was the only single gal in the house; aged 8 and younger, he used to call me “Miste”. So, naturally, I run into the kitchen [with its gaping hole, that kids and dogs could make their way through and into the “dinnich wot” -filled pot] when I see him coming. I shrugged my shoulder in refusal when summoned to the living room, with it’s “wenfit” roof and “boi” in the middle to let drainage run. But I wasn’t willing to put up with his neglect.
When he seems to have forgotten all about me, and the little “understanding” between us, I skulked out of the kitchen, with my back against the wall, and edged to where he’s sitting. He’d casually pick me up, between answering one of the many questions from the older couple trying to be transported into the perpetual sunshine that is his life. He’d sit me on his knee, rocking me as if I was a child, while relating stories that has usually to do with the women in his life and his younger quarrelsome brothers [among whom he died, few years later, after contracting “Aba Senga” from a chaat he chewed while on winter vacation]. I would try listening. I would quickly get bored. And then reach up and grab the one book we had in the house that my father borrowed from the school library and forgot to return.
This was a collection of illustrated versions of Charles Dickens’ novels. There were selected episodes from the great books. After the selected stories, or character study paragraphs, came short questions with blanks to fill between them. It was black and white, very dull looking. But the pictures in it were far from dull. There was one that caught my attention and arrested it. “Miss Havisham”, Befirdu would say when I ask him again and again what the lady’s name was. He’d then remember he’s read it for me hundredth of times before. “Let’s read another one”, he’d suggest, and I would refuse. So he’d re-read it again, the story of bride whom rejection made crazy.
It’s been said by many, that Dickens’ books are full of caricatures. Caricatures, according to wikipedia, are portraits that exaggerates or distorts the essence of a person, animal or object to create an easily identifiable visual likeness. In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.” And so, like all cartoons and comical figures, they appeal to the child and the feather-brained more than the discerning reader.
Miss Havisham was one of those over the top characters. [Only to be out-caricatured, perhaps, by The Tale of Two Cities’ Mr. Jarvis Lorry or the maid who threw him out of pretty little Miss Manet’s room after his first visit.] I didn’t know the whole story until later, ofcourse, but her drawing in the book excited my imagination in a way the grown up version would fail to do so. There she sits, skeletal, in a wedding dress; sited infront of an oval mirror, resting her chin on her left hand while the right is still holding a shoe she never got to put on. There is the wedding cake, with it’s little figurines on top, cracking and uncut. And, we are told, she’s never moved to neither let the sun light in nor remove dust particles off her tiara, for more than two decades.
[That is for you, Befirdu].
Then came “Black Jesus”. Here is how I wrote Black Jesus’ entry into my life, and the impression he left therein, from the point of view of a male character I was working on before coming to America. [Forgive the bad English, grammatical errors and general lack of editing. It wasn’t meant for public eye :-)]:
So Josh loves books. He’s loved them ever since he was grade 7 and read the word “brother” as “brazer”, and had “sight love” with this girl MariamSina. She was the new “thing” for their school. Transferred from a missionary school due to a divorce between her parents, she was everything they were not. Light-skinned, well-dressed [with an actual school bag] and smart. She smelled good, which means she didn’t smell of either a feet or an “ekek” medicine, or abesh and telba. And had a heart-case which made her look sensitive and about to faint. This being a generation of kids who didn’t get shot at for reading a piece of paper he/she found on the ground, a generation that “showed off” a little peel on their feet by going all the way to the knee to wrap, this look was something to strive for. So everybody was fascinated by her. They wanted her friendship. They danced in attendance of her. They fought for her attention. They also wanted to touch her and ask her why her hair shined so. Who were her parents and why they were getting a divorce. What exactly was her malady. All poverty-stricken people crap.
Josh was no different. He wanted to win her attention, touch her hair and ask why it shined but he wanted to go to it through a different path: he wanted to win her heart by being an intellectual. He did that because his “brazer” used to own books. Those books were packed in a box and left to rot in the communal toilet, being half eaten by rats and accumulating moth and smell [after his brother died – through a shot on the head for participating in a riot he had no business being a part of.] Josh has tried to read these books, these legacies. He had found them, and the ugly bald men on their hard cover, extremely boring. But he has come to respect them. They were his brother’s. He was the only man of the house now. So.. he has asked MariamSina if he could “look at” the book she was holding. Which, he learned later, was from the British Council. Which was in Piassa, a place which was too far for Josh to walk to. And which was a place where only rich people and foreigners can get access to. And she gave it to him. She’d looked a little tired, perhaps even bored, by all the noise around her that was tugging at her ear, heart and hair. But she didn’t say no.
So he held on to it, leafing through it’s colorful leaves with silly little pictures in it. Leafed through it feeling her eyes on him, which actually weren’t on him. Leafed through it as if he understood every word in there. Like he’d read her mind through the pages. Still leafing through he was when “Black Jesus”, this teacher with a beard so smooth you can see the darkness bouncing off it, looked in on the rioting class which considered it it’s obligation to make as much noise as it can [by drumming tables, using the teacher’s chalk to write none sense on the black board and calling it names] since the teacher who was supposed to do all these things has gone missing, for a day. Someone is bound to spy the spying Black Jesus by the door soon enough. And someone did indeed. Words of mouth made the whole class run to it’s chair and sit on it. These were the days in which teachers were respected. Students got up when one comes through the door. Sang “good morning teacher”, and sat after “good morning, students. Please be sited”. They loved their teacher, however abusive they may have been, which they usually were. And the belief that you’d prove yourself lucky if you could marry a teacher or a soldier, were still lingering in the society. “The father of knowledge” had even had a song made after him:
a home maker
he, a teacher,
[It’s way cooler in Amharic]
Anyway… Josh was still holding MariamSina’s book when everybody else was making a noise. He was, even better, leafing through the book “intelligent” like. And so when “Black Jesus” told students of 7B their doom, how he doesn’t believe any of them would be of any use, get anywhere, amount to anything, judging by the way they were behaving except for “that kid over there”; he had the decency to point at our Josh. And so Josh has caught this firebrand when it brushed by him, and held onto it for the rest of his life. He’s believed, firmly believed, that there was no future for him without books. And he’s spent his spare time reading. He read at home, he read outside the house [underneath the street light with it’s fire flies dancing around it to keep warm], he even read at the library while members of his “special group” of “smart” kids [called ‘brainy’ back then; for their anti-social tendencies, fallcon-like tracking abilities for test sheets before the year is half way through and be loved by the teachers so much they were sent on errands while class was still going on] worked on their “periodical tables” and prepared questions to ask one another on their “break” time.
Josh loved books. But there wasn’t enough of them in the house, or out of it. Once he got done reading his brother’s books, and found himself versed on the right of “the proletariat”, he’s gone to the newspapers coverings on the wall. Then to newspapers rented on the street per 50 cents an hour. When he finally finished high-school and went to college, he’s joined the British Council, read and studied, “Mother Goose poems” word for word. By then, ofcourse, he has restricted his reading to English books. There weren’t many Amharic books he hasn’t read, and the new ones that came to the market were all translations. Bad translation works he fold a few pages into and vowed never to unfold until he’s found the originals. Also, he has realized he had no future in Ethiopia without good English. Lack of good English was the very reason that made him fail E.S.L.C.E exam and go to the Junior College of Commerce instead of the Addis Ababa university where he could have studied literature and become the man of his dreams.
Charles John Huffam Dickens wrote 17 novels, 22 anthologies, and 6 short stories. He is considered “the greatest English novelist of the Victorian period”. Yesterday would have been his 200th birthday.