I’m a book addict, reading anyway and everywhere because books save me. Books have saved me. Again and again. And I know I will go the afternoon I don’t pick up a book. Because this has happened before. Books pulling me back. Always books. Books. Even as truant junior Casanovas going out to practice in skills that took us far, in odysseys that ended after ten minutes, docked, panting on mats on muddy floors in incomplete bungalows next to hostels with weeping, sighing ‘virgins’ that became only another form of a drug to be more feverishly sought. Heart snatchers, boasting, fatally, of being angel faced heart killers. Of the four, two dead, one dying and I still here to tell their story, saved on an afternoon by a book. This is our story, a part of it anyway. Beginning in the Aga Khan High School library, there for Nina, the librarian’s student assistant, unbeknownst to me then that afternoon, evening and night, after pizzas beers chips and chicken, singing with raised legs another man’s name in a room in Hotel Equatorial. Discovering...
The book: Reader’s Digest Family Treasure of Great Painters and Great Paintings, instead of Nina, getting more cynical about women, a long time before I could bring my heart to any, years, timidly before I could finally even bring it to one only. Witness how it went down for this child. Former poet at 15, a year sworn off rhymes, the writing finger twitches refusing to cease, Prefect, after the changes, where I hardly ever ventured, for Nina going back and never finding her. Never to. On that unmarked shelf standing before a revelation.
Often unsure about what I wanted in this life but definite in the silent afternoon rooms of my mind about what I did not want, I remember poring page over page, absorbed in awe in the intricacies of Vermeer’s craftsmanship, Caravaggio’s wild lusts connecting, empathizing with Cezanne’s wordless fury, frightened by glimpsed vistas of me in van Gogh’s trials, knowing for the first time I was in the presence of something close to what on 26-4-’80, 12:30am, I had, mewling, been pushed into this world for. Remembering the reasons why.
My hands shaking, like how Catherine Blake shook seeing William for the first time, in the furthest end of that library, the roar of the rain outside unable to dull the dawning realization of the terrible path I was setting my sandaless feet on, already cracked and bleeding from futile rebellion races. Set apart without my consent. The lives of Gauguin, Degas, Monet, Rembrandt offering not consolation but confirmation of the pain and living purgatory ahead every single breathing moment from now on that would not end until I was laid in my cheap wood coffin with a frowning caretaker counting the coins in the bereaved basket.
The heart weeps, I know, because mine did with joy as flicking breathlessly through the whole book disbelievingly. I remember reading, warm and fuzzy all inside me and outside me the way only wine in Sheraton Hotel on an Africa Big Brother launch night when I did not have taxi fare and I was going to walk all the way home after my work assignment and kwete in Kisenyi drinking with the owner has made me feel. I remember reading and getting lost in that book, forgetting myself as only one other book has made me feel. I remember hearing rain, rushing pouring windy rain I could not see because the library had no windows but rain only I could hear. I remember chuckling happily that my friends truancy was ruined, pleased with my wisdom, not a bit regretful at all. I remember the rain making me feel that everything else was closed off to me was pushing me towards this book and I remember being so happy about that.
My faith faltered by knocks that seemed like Everests’ before, I remember sitting on the edge of that chair knowing that no matter what, no matter how many sellouts I met and knew, I would be the one to hold out, refusing to barter this thing inside me for any price in the world, holding on as I was holding onto that book because my life depended on it. Finding my faith again Friday, 28 February 2000, six years away from hearing 2Pac sing my life, "I was born not to make it but I did, the tribulations of a ghetto kid. Still I rise." Alone but not frightened anymore.
For years till that afternoon, since I was a 13 year old Buganda Road Primary School kid filling two 48-paged Visa exercise books with scribblings in between bottle top football games and Scooby Doo cartoons on UTV that made my favourite English teacher take off his spects and look at me in wonder; I had been impersonating courage, a mirage in my own life. That afternoon after, like a long trekking 17th century Timbuktu pilgrim back from Mecca, becoming myself again.
Unafraid to hug Martin, the librarian and only man who for a few fleeting hours in pure mad joy I ever felt physically comfortable with, when in exuberance at my inchoate ravings and near tears, declared I could take the book and keep it forever because only someone who wanted that book as much as I desired it deserved to own it. He could get another to replace it.
I remember sleeping in my bed with this book for a week nearly, incredulous, unable to believe it was mine forever. A kid who had lost more than any kid that age should lose and battling unnamable demons, waking many times many nights my sweaty palm gripping tightly to reassure myself this book was not another dream from which in the cold air morning I would awake empty handed.
The first thing in years, I did not want to throw away. All these years later still owning that book which never leaves the table on which sits Betsey. Next to Betsey (hard earned baby), my most prized possession. Strange, after all these years, still unable to let it go.
All Night On: It Ain't Easy by 2Pac