Unlike the Americas, Christopher Columbus, or his ilk of civilization never arrived at Kandovan. This small village, therefore, is not a carefully preserved relic, unlike the Tyunyi Village, although it’s completely a different matter that a republic without a pub is a relic, and yet Iran does claim to be a republic without a single pub!
In a short while after we start off from Tabriz in a taxi the highway starts climbing. I, Mehdi and Shima are heading towards the Sahand Hills. It’s a volcano, that spewed lava last, about eleven thousand years ago. That lava had flowed down to the banks of the Kandovan stream and frozen into small hillocks. From a distance it looks like a gigantic anthill.
We are heading towards the hillocks. As far as eyes can see, beyond those rocks are completely denuded rolling gray fields. But the hills are now brilliant white. “You are lucky, Nilanjan,” shouts Mehdi, who is seating with Shima in the back seat of the car, while I am on the driver’s right. Clearly the area saw some heavy snow in the morning, but now the sky is golden. As we draw close to the hills, holes of various shapes and sizes appear on the rocks: doors, windows and ventilators. In each large rock is a house, many of them two or three storey. Narrow stairs have been cut out in between the rocks. Now dangerously slippery because of the hard ice. All this is on the left of the highway. On the right is the Kandovan stream.
The moment we get out of the car, we are greeted with enthusiastic ‘Saloms’.
Come, come, come and join us for tea. Three young men are having breakfast sitting on a cot laid out on the pavement in front of a closed shop. We join. “Ah! You are from Hind, then you must join us for breakfast!” Shima had fed us a heavy breakfast before we started for Kandovan, hence I politely refuse.
We move into the village. Unlike the picture-postcard villages that we find everywhere in the hills in India, particularly in the high altitude villages, this one is far more unkempt, if you will. It is said that some 700 years ago a group of Iranians had taken shelter here chased by the Mongols. Over time they chiseled homes into the rocks. Since then the village has never been deserted, and people have lived there for generations. I notice that all the homes have modern civic amenities. On the road are parked pretty modern cars with two-inch thick snow on windshields. And just next to it a mule is being prepared to carry heavy load on its back. We spend some time by the river.
I notice women washing bucket full of clothes sitting on round large rocks along the stream. But I also notice they are wearing long gumboots and gloves. It’s so much an Indian vista, and then it’s not. Residential homes and shops jostle with each other: all kinds of shops: grocers, carpet shops, shops selling trinkets for tourists. Women, men, old people, children, cats. Women are hanging clothes, from large buckets, on clothes-lines, some men drawing water, some are sweeping floors, children are running around and fat cats enjoying the sun coiling-up on benches. The whole village appears to be a beehive of activity. Indeed Kandu in Farsi means beehive, apparently the name Kandovan is derived from that.
It’s such a fulfilling experience that all three of us forget about the time dimension. Finally hunger knocks real hard on the door. It’s late afternoon. There’s a nice cave-hotel-cum-restaurant at Kandovan, but Mehdi is determined to give me a treat of authentic Iranian lunch. Not here, though, but in Tabriz. So I and Shima exchange glances of helplessness and jump into the taxi. About an hour later we enter through the door of a restaurant named Khanah-i-Sabz, Green House. It’s a fairly large place, with both kinds of sitting arrangements, at tables, and on the floor. We occupy a large table. Mehdi assures us that the restaurant is known for its vegetarian dishes and Halim. I feel like crying. Halim in Iran is spelt exactly the same as in the Indian subcontinents, both in Farsi and English. We in this subcontinent must seriously do something about this. Let alone the aromatic Halim of Karachi’s food street, or the one that we eat in Indian Hyderabad, Iranian Halim is not even close to the nothing-to-write-home-about stuff served during Ramzan in most of Kolkata’s major Mughlai joints, including the century old Aminia on Zakaria Street, and the maimed ‘no-beef’ Nizam.
Pardon me if I digress here a little, but among the few things that makes me sentimental is the maiming of that amazing restaurant. I marvel at the thought that I actually survived the shock of that notice, ‘no-beef’, when I first saw it at Nizam’s entrance around early 2006. An American friend was visiting Kolkata. One evening he told me, “Look Nil, we have beef steak, beef stew, beef burger, grilled beef, beef pot-roast all the time, but I’m told this subcontinent has beef dishes which you don’t get anywhere else in the world. Can we try some?” That was enough to fire me up. At one point to time the best Mughlai / North Indian beef dishes used to be served at Nizam, behind the SS Hogg Market. In 2000 because of some horrendous management failure it closed down. I felt sad. Since 1932 it had been a hub of Kolkata’s beef gourmets: Kolata lost another of its heritage institutions. However, in early 2006 I read somewhere that Nizam had reopened. So, on my American friend’s request I had only one destination in mind: Nizam, which is when I received the shock, which I haven’t been able get over even today.
Nizam was one of those few places where I became me shedding my teenager-skin. Mid-1980s. I was then a student of a quite famous Hindu missionary boarding school, Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission, where students were brought up to face life in military discipline. Beating that shackle was therefore the primary goal for many of us. (It is a paradox that many of the teachers and monks of the Ramakrishna order, armed with Vivekananda’s philosophy, had actually sowed in us the intellectual seed of that rebellion! When we brought out the first ever wall-magazine of the philosophy department, it was on Karl Marks, and our vice principal, Swami Suparnanda, aka Satya-da, to our great surprise went gaga about our effort. We were then in class XI.) With such rebellious souls, bunking classes and leaving the high-walled campus through Gate No. 3.5 to watch movies at various theaters had become a major point of proving our mettle to the world. Gate No. 3.5, behind a dense orchard of mango and lychee trees, was a crack between Gate No. 3 and 4, in the otherwise solid rampart! This was necessary because getting out through any of the other gates meant submitting to the door-keeper a gate-pass signed with date and time by the warden monk of the concerned hostel. So the God of rebellion gave us Gate No. 3.5 and the monks an unexplained oblivion about the glaring chink in the armour of discipline. In this rebellion, I had scored a record 28 films in one month.
Actually 26, because two films, Chaplin’s City Lights, and Sergio Leon’s Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I had seen twice on back-to-back shows!
For night-shows in the Esplanade theaters our routine was to visit Nizam immediately before the show, and just as the show broke to run pell-mell for the last bus. At Nizam our menu was almost set: A plate of Khiri Kebab, a plate of beef curry, two crisp Nizami parathe (hand-rolled bread dip-fried in vegetable oil) and a glass of sweet lassi (churned milk with sugar). The bill for the royal dinner would be Rs. 10. After the 15th of the month, each plate of beef curry would be shared by two, and the lassi would be cut out. The bill would quickly come down to Rs. 6 per head.