In Iran Episode 1

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

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Musafir az Hind amad-ast. Ma beh zoodi beh khaneh khwahim raseed.” Even my tattered Farsi lets me understand that Sayad is telling his wife on cell phone that I have arrived at the Tehran airport and will be home soon. And my heart freezes. Musafir? Me a Musafir? A few lines flash in my mind:

Mire dil, mire musāfir
huā phir se hukm sādir
ki watan-badar hoñ ham tum
deñ galī galī sadā.eñ
kareñ ruḳh nagar nagar kā
surāġh koī paa.eñ
kisī yār-e-nāma-bar kā

Faiz. First few lines of an Urdu poem, which he chose to title in Farsi: Dil-e-man musafir-e-man. But not only Faiz, Rabindranath too. Among the large gamut of travel diaries and travelogues that our poet philosopher had penned over the years, it flashes in my mind, it would be only in his final travel-piece, Parasya-Yatri, (A traveller in Persia) that Rabindranath would call himself a Musafir(1).

How does one translate the word into English? Traveller? Tourist? Not even close. Wanderer? A shade nearer perhaps, but much more. Besides the act of being constantly on the move, physically, an insatiable mental quest for the Unknown is an essential grain of the true Musafir. Add to that a heart with a hint, just a hint, of nostalgic pain, that’s never bitter. How does one roll all this into one English word? Better not. Let the Musafir be:

My heart, my Musafir
Out again is the decree
Our land we must leave, you and me
Keep calling in every alley
Keep looking city by city
Perhaps some signs we may see
Of where the beloved might be…

Who on Earth knew that Iran, at last, would make a Musafir out of me?

Who can tell when might the decree to leave home be out for whom? The one that made a Musafir out of me in Iran was out 15 years ago. Washington D.C. Georgetown. The western sky over the Potomac was on fire after a sudden late-afternoon shower heralded the evening. Head and tail lights of speeding cars reflected on the wet asphalt made a fluid canvas out of the road. A nippy wind blew from the river. The earth emitted an odour that has such a beautiful English name: petrichor. A book shop, selling old books, was offering huge discounts. Dollars were of course in short supply, but I just couldn’t resist myself. As I browsed and calculated, calculated and browsed, a jacketless dark brown slim hard-bound book caught my eyes: Bride of Acacias: Selected Poems of Forough Farrokzad.

It was a voice. A beckoning of a kind that happens once in a whole life time:

Man az nahayat-e-shab harf mi-zanam
Man az nahayat-e-tariki
Wa az nahayat-e-shab harf mi-zanam

Agar beh khaneh-i-man amadi
Bara-i-man ayi meherban cheragh biyar
Wa ek daricheh keh az aan
Beh ezdeham kucheh khushbakht benigaram

From the deep of the night I speak
From the deep of the darkness
And from the deep of the night I speak

Should you come to my home
Bring me, O kind friend, a lamp
And a window too, so that through it
The bustle of the happy street I can see. (2)

It was that journey I embarked upon in November, 2015. A journey that could not happen for so many reasons for 15 years. It was just a coincidence that the journey did finally happen when Iran was being unshackled, with its head held high, by the West after 36 years of ruthless embargo. Pundits marked it to be an important crossroads in the history of West Asia.

For me, however, another crossroads, not figurative but real, was far more important. A desperate spin of the steering could not avoid the rushing school-bus as the jeep made a sharp turn. It swung off the road and collided with the wall with a deafening bang. The driver was flung out of her sit. Her head hit the edge of the pavement. Blood trickled down her dense dark hair on which fell lightly flakes of snow. Monday, February 13, 1967.


Forough Farrokhzad was 32. She could not see published the final collection of her poems, Iman biyavarim beh aghaz-i-fasl-i-sard, “Let us believe in the beginning of winter”. Five of them in all. About 150 poems. Forough had turned a page in the chapter of Farsi poetry. Those familiar with Farsi literature would know that was no less than a revolution.  Farsi poetry would never be the same after Forough. And a young researcher of Iranian films told me, much of the neo-Iranian film has flowed out of her poetry. The 22-minutes-long non-fiction film she made in 1963, “My house is black”, on a leper colony in Tabriz, was the harbinger of the Iranian New Wave. The narration of the film, in Forough’s own voice, is pure poetry.

Yet the civil society of her times spat on her with all the incivility it could marshal. Even today, I am told, the collections of Forough that are available in Iran are suitably edited.

Sholeh Wolpe, an Iranian poet settled in the US and a translator of Forough, told me over e-mail only the other day that the present Iranian government believed her to be “a corrupt woman”.

Since that evening at Georgetown, over the next several years as I travelled through Forough’s poetry, a decree was out deep within my heart that I visit Forough Farrokhzad’s grave, place a bunch of white roses on her tombstone, and confess that even though I came as a friend I had neither the window nor the lamp her heart longed for:

My windows I’ve slaughtered
all of them
The flame of my heart
I’ve cut out long
with the dagger that I stole
to dig a dungeon
deep enough to house all my sighs

O kind friend
take instead my wings
and with your crimson kisses
turn true all my flights
that could not be.

This, my heart is content, I did. And in doing so I also witnessed how the leaves of grass of Forough’s poetry was reclaiming young hearts right in the middle of bustling polluted Tehran, an incredible experience, after narrating which, in this account of my journey to Iran, I shall have nothing more to say.

The Darus district in plush north Tehran is still there. So is the Marbdasht Street. But I couldn’t locate its intersection with Lokmanuddolleh Street, where the accident took place. That’s only natural though. A cityscape can indeed change beyond recognition in 48 years. In Tehran, however, was not only the cityscape that had changed, much of human behaviour and habits seem to have changed too. I got the first sense of that change at the glittering lobby beside gate No. 14 in Terminal-3 of Delhi airport, waiting for Mahan Airline’s Delhi-Tehran flight, around midnight. Of course it raised many questions in mind, without providing any answers.

Boarding a flight, especially an international flight, these days is a major challenge to prove that one is not a terrorist. An extreme test of the human ability to carry one’s sense of dignity, unbruised, past the labyrinth of all kinds of detectors, geared to catch the bad guy. At every step I feel the hollow in my gut. Perhaps at any moment I will be caught.  Hence, even though the flight’s departure is at 2:45 Hrs., I rush to the airport well before midnight,  prove myself totally innocent, and resign on one of the chairs beside my scheduled gate for boarding. The whole area looks completely deserted.

Co-passengers start arriving well after an hour. What a dazzle! Iranians. Perhaps 95 percent of them are women, or it may very well be that my eyeballs are not conveying to my brain any male image. The more beautiful they are, the more they babble non-stop. Almost all of them sport “western dress”. Jeans, shirts, jackets. Sharp noses. Bright eyes. Long, black or dark brown hairs, unbraided. And that catches my attention.

In the long list of rules mentioned in the Iranian visa application form, one particular regulation had stuck in my memory, something that I haven’t seen in the visa form of any other country I have visited. Not even in those of Turkey or Pakistan. Iranian visa regulation mandates that if the applicant is a woman, she must attach a photograph with her head covered, with what is known in Farsi as rusari, or a kind of a stole, irrespective of her citizenship. Keeping women’s head uncovered is a punishable offence in Iran.

But it was not like this always. Not even when Forough was changing forever Farsi poetry, when the Iranian civil society was not being able to handle this woman, who was nonchalantly in love with a married man, who was a chain smoker, and who could shock their sublime poetic taste, honed through generations by Attar and Rumi and Hafez, uttering, in one of her finest poems (3), ‘’Life is perhaps lighting up a cigarette in the narcotic repose between two love-makings…”  Inquilab-i-Islami had not yet established Iran’s first ever republic, putting an end to kingship. Within five years of Forough’s death, the Islamic Revolution unceremoniously shoved the corrupt-to-the-bone Shah, along with all his paraphernalia, out of the country, and enacted a whole set of new laws, one of which created a new branch of police: the moral police, whose one major duty was to keep a sharp watch on whether women in Iran were following the proper Islamic dress code.  That was 1979. That law is still in force.

Yet here I am at the Delhi airport lobby, surrounded by Iranian women, none of whom has covered her head! My old fear of committing some terrible mistake in the convoluted process of catching an international flight suddenly returns and I feel a chill in my heart. Am I waiting beside the right gate? I recheck my boarding pass. Yes, I am. Are these co-passengers really Iranian? I strain my ears. The language is unmistakable. Only at the back of the lobby I notice three Indian families, with five women, totally lost inside flowing black Hijab and Burqa.

Image 2

Ground crew announce boarding. I become busy with myself. Window-side. That’s good. It takes a while to settle down. Finally, reclining my seat, I look around. But where have all the beautiful hairs gone? Every woman sits with her head covered. The difference between Indian territory and an Iranian aircraft is not lost on me.

Our flight takes off. Off to Iran. I grapple with that reality more in my heart than in my head. “Something stirred in my soul, fever or forgotten wings…”(4) I retreat into familiar territory. Poetry.  The huge net of the city-lights fades out fast. Now there’s nothing to see. A vast, all-engulfing darkness. Inside, couched in the monotonous metallic drone and drab yellow light, all the passengers sit looking ahead into nothing with blank eyes. For the next four hours we will remain like this, huddled together, yet “light-years for any mutual help or comfort.”(5) At such occasions, I have always noticed, the insurmountable distance between two hearts, two minds, two people, bugs me the most. How lonely we are at the end of the day!

I turn my mind away from such depressing thoughts. Diagonally across is sitting one of the Indian families, with two women draped in complete Hijab and Burqa. I reflect. No law in India forces them to be in such dress. Perhaps their immediate society does. Perhaps no one does. Perhaps they just like it that way, these two women. Perhaps they have seen their mother, grandmother, elder sister, aunt do the same since they were born. Perhaps they haven’t even thought of any alternative dress code. Can’t the right to wear Hijab and Burqa be as much part of a woman’s right to personal freedom as is not to wear them? Who knows? Life has not given me any opportunity to believe in any radical theory regarding this. The more I travelled across Iran, over the next several days, I realized that in Iran it’s just the opposite. The Islamic regime there has forcefully covered women’s heads of course, but it has also opened such doors before the same women that we in India can’t still imagine.  I doze off.


Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra


  1. This is Tagore’s notes on his travel to Iran in 1932. After this he travelled to only one country, Sri Lanka, which didn’t yield any full fledged book. The travel notes of Iran were originally published in Bangla with the title Parasya-Yatri, and later included in his collected works (Rabindra Rachanabali) as Parasye. It was translated very badly into English as In Persia, which is no longer available.
  2. The name of the poem is Hadiyeh. The Gift. My translation.
  3. Tavalodi Digar. Another Birth.
  4. Quote from: Poetry. Pablo Neruda
  5. Fingers in the Door: David Holbrook.


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1 Response Comment

  • Doug Kelly08/02/2017 at 1:53 AM

    Thanks Nilanjan – I enjoyed reading Episode One and look forward to Part 2. Very effective use of poetry to set the mood, which is one of strained anticipation. Glad to hear you are, in addition to being a poet and traveler, a gourmet too!
    I’m looking forward to hearing your comments on Iranian food.

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