A character stumbling, upon a library book that changes the course of their life for better or worse.
I love biographies, especially when it is about women. The discovery of this love happened when I was a young teenager.
I was raised in a family of readers and note-takers. My father had many books. Equally, he had many notebooks filled with the notes from the books of poetry and prose that he had read. These notes were precious to him. Indeed he had memorized many of these quotes. He was a good speaker, and often, he would use the poetry and the thoughts of the Greats, which he had memorized.
Also, he was a prolific letter writer. His letters were poetic prose and long, and that was the extent of his writings. But he never considered himself a writer. The power of orating and speech was more important to him than writing.
Thus, I do not remember that we ever had any journal in our home. I was never encouraged to write about our trips or our adventures outside. We had 'notebooks.' We were encouraged to take notes of the books we read.
Then it came to the telephone. This device did not exist at the time of my parents. In my time, most middle-class families had one in their house. I discovered soon that instead of letter writing, I could talk with my friends for hours over the phone. We could talk about everything and nothing. Those long conversations with no apparent benefits had one good thing in the store. And that was satisfaction and instant gratification, which letter writing did not have for young people. And that pretty much wrapped up my literal adventure in writing at junior high. Those are the years which the love of writing in a journal reading literature forms and takes a higher shape. But I was busy chattering over the phone.
One summer night, my family had an invitation to a social gathering. My parents first had to separate me from the phone, which I was glued to, and gently coerced me to go with them. Reluctantly I consented. It was not that I gave up on being antisocial, but the next phone update with my friends about all the girls in our school was in two hours. So it worked for me, and my parents felt triumphant at the same time.
The August breeze had cooled the night. Tall trees, fountains, shrubs, and rows of flowers had made the garden exquisite. Many people were there. Refreshments were on the tables, and servers would pass the trays of sweets. The beautiful house belonged to a philanthropist who had invited people of thought and goodwill. I was too young to understand if it was fundraising or it was an appreciation ceremony. Whatever it was, I felt comfortable and left alone.
People were standing around and talking, and some were sitting and eating. Some were walking around. Nobody bothered me. I told my parents that I like to go for a walk in the garden.
I had promised myself not to have any sweets until the last, and the most stubborn pimple on my forehead goes away. But the pastries were too good to relinquish them. Pimple or not, I had my plate full of goodies and strolled away.
Each side of the garden had different fountains and statues. I loved the marble statues of goddess Aurora in the middle of one of the fountains surrounded by Spanish lavender, marigold, and other wildflowers, which I do not remember now. The water droplets dancing in the air by the gentle wind dampened my skin. At the end of the garden, there was a brick cottage. The lights were one and the door open. A welcoming sign with arcing shape of the plaque with a songbird above it said: ‘Books for the Friends of Writers.’
I entered the one-room library. The walls up to top had shelves and were filled with books. A couple on the other side of the room were reading or browsing the books quietly. Leather chairs, small tables were situated separately and far from each other. I remember paintings and tall vases in that house library. For sure, it was not a public one. I ventured toward the biographies and stories of women. I remember there were books about Helen Keller, Joan of Arc. I had read. It was encouraging. So there are books here that I love, I thought to myself. I put the plate down on one of the tables and browsed more.
Then my eyes fell on a small book which called me to pick it up. It was at the lowest shelf close to the magazines. The title was different. It said 'Tahirih the Pure One.' I had heard my father reciting poetry from Tahirih. But this book was written by an American woman named Martha Root. I did not put down the book. Everything about that small book intrigued me. A woman writer, writing about another woman who is a writer and a poet. I grabbed it. But how could I check it out? The couple on the other side spotted my clueless look and dilemma.‘The host offers the guests to have any book for three months,’ with a cheerful smile, they said.
A thirteen years old girl with a pimple on her face, a book, and a plate of goodies in hand came out of that cottage library that night destined to fall in love with an unknown woman. I returned to my parents, who were still conversing with other guests. Out of excitement, I noticed that I had not touched the pastries on my plate yet. The book even, without reading it, had given me the strength to resist. And I did resist. It was the beginning of tapping on a transcendental power.
I could not wait to get home and read the book. I do not know what came over me on that summer-starry night, but I knew that I wanted to read more. The book evoked a feeling of adventure and search in me. Was I looking for a new vision in life? But how could it be? I had not even started to read the book yet. Oh, but it had that aroma of an untouched and maybe a forgotten book.
Finally, my parents consented to leave the party and my father called a taxi.
There was a phone ring as soon as we reached home. I had forgotten about the phone episode. With the book in my hand, I picked up the phone. The voice on the other side, without verifying who picked it up, as she expected me to be the lord of the phone, started to chatter. My friend was updating me on the last few hours of gossips in our circle. After a while, I hung up the phone. But I noticed the book still pressed to my chest. Giving no thought to that, I went to my room and opened the book.
The first line of the book grabbed me, ‘To understand the story of Tahirih, one should know something of the Iran of her time.’The writer took me to the places step b step where her character lived and eventually was killed. Her writing was refreshing. It was a true story about a forgotten woman. That was the power of the story and the hold of the book on me. The writer had traveled to the country of her heroine. She visited the house Tahirih lived in and her library. I could see those places in my mind vividly. There was a mystery about the life of this woman. There were equally unknown facts that made the story even more intriguing. I fell to sleep with the book that night and the night after.
She was an outspoken woman living in mid-nineteen century Iran. Her vast knowledge of philosophy, literature, and theology was considered the greatest threat to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and politician. She had invaded the world of knowledge and search for truth which was a forbidden sin for a woman. She invited the establishment in religion and politics to open debates which were heresy at her time. She was playing with fire. During her short and difficult life, she remained a writer of prose and poetry of transcendent nature.
Tahirih was from a wealthy and known family. She could have had a comfortable life of an eighteen-century woman. She could have had the approval of her people. With her astonishing beauty and amazing intelligence, she could have had anything she desired. But a high calling took over her life. She gave up the life of the ordinary and gained an unordinary life. And this book was about her new life. A pure and transcendent life which she lived with vigor and love for humanity.
One hundred and twenty years later, I read the fragmented story of her life for the first time in my room.
This was the first book that was written about Tahirih. A personage which her culture had tried so hard to deny even her existence. Now this western writer dared to bring her alive out of the dust of refutation and contradiction. Those few who knew of her had kept the flame of love in their hearts. They would recite her poetry in gatherings.
After reading that book, I wanted to be Tahirih, to be a poet. I wanted to have the power of persuasion and speech like her. And I wanted to die young as a hero like her. None of these happened in my life. But the pimples have disappeared. I still take copious notes from my favorite books. And most importantly, I inherited one virtue from my hero, and that is not to be afraid of being ostracized.