Hind – the magic of this name truly dawned on me in Iran. Only in two other countries have I confronted such deep interest in India: Pakistan and Bangladesh (It has never ceased to surprise me, however, that I haven’t met a single Bangladeshi, ever, who despite sharing my mother tongue, refers to my country as Bharat, which is what we call India in Bangla! I am told even in Bangla language print they use India. It’s also partly true of Pakistanis, though while writing in Urdu they use Hindustan or Hind.) But the average Iranian’s engagement with Hind is more than just curiosity, it’s a sense of brotherly camaraderie, which is heartwarming. And it was a brief moment of such warmth from a kid which surpassed everything during my days in Isfahan.
There is much in that city, known for centuries as Nesf-i-Jahan, the half of the world, which will mesmerize you: its meticulous gardens, its stunning architecture, it’s living paintings and of course its mellifluous culture. Naturally, therefore, as I disembark from the overnight bus from Tehran a little before daybreak, and turn over to the Isfahan page of my itinerary note-book, I find it crammed minute by minute. And that itinerary, I see, begins with a hint of a couplet from Javed Nama, the Persian magnum opus penned by one of the greatest poets in the history of this subcontinent: the eternally-misunderstood and misused Allama Muhammad Iqbal.
I had the great fortune to be partially involved when another great poet of our times, Shankha Ghosh, translated the modern epic poem into Bangla over 28 years. For students of the art of translation, the Bangla version rendered by Ghosh can be a fascinating Vade Mecum. I believe it is one of those rare examples of translation that does beat Rasul Gamzatov’s sharp banter: To read translated poetry is to enjoy an intricate carpet from the backside!
… Azadeh / Tund-sir andar farakha-i-vajud / Man ze goyi ura Zindarud! ‘…Utterly free; swiftly he paces through the expanse of Being — jestingly, I call him Zinda‐Rud.’ Thus goes Rumi’s description of the ‘Living Stream’ in Iqbal’s Javed Nama. I have little doubt that Iqbal’s Zinda-Rud, often read as the representation of the poet himself, is inspired by the stream that flows through Nesf-i-Jahan: Zayande-Rud, the Life-giving River. So, my notebook sends me running to the banks of the poet’s river, immediately after I dump my bags in the hotel. Zayande-Rud, the historic life-giving river, is a little wider than some of the sewerage channels that we have in Kolkata. But then those channels carry dark dirty thick water emanating a mixed smell of shit and vomit, this one is bone dry! Not a drop of water!
That, however, is not my last confrontation with Zayande-Rud!
Next day, as I enter the hotel exhausted, both mentally and physically, having spent hours at the Isfahan Bazaar, which challenges all the human senses with its vivacity, I hear a desperate and excited call from the beautiful receptionist, “Musafir, musafir! There’s water in Zayande-Rud!’’ Indeed? So I take an about turn, catch a taxi and rush to watch the phenomenal spectacle of water flowing in a river!
Sioseh in English means thirty three. And Pol is a bridge. Of the eleven bridges that connect two banks of the Zayande-Rud, Sioseh Pol is particularly famous. This thousand feet wide bridge with thirty three arches is a marvel of masonry, built some four hundred years ago during the reign of the Safavid emperor Shah Abbas I. When I reach the bridge there’s still some light left in the sky and I see dirty-yellowish water quietly flowing down the stream. Quickly the sun recedes into the horizon gradually sucking out the last streak of the reddish glow from the sky.
Now it’s dark. There’s a mild chill in the breeze. The stream reflects the lights of the parks along the banks. The arches of the Sioseh Pol brighten up with glowing neon. In the shades of the park young girls and boys snatch a few moments of each other’s fragrant closeness. Many of them in small groups sit rather precariously dangling their feet from the arches, chatting, taking selfies, enjoying a rare evening: there’s water in the river today!
However, the river was not always like this. When during Shah Abbas’s reign architects and masons constructed these marvelous bridges, Zayande-Rud indeed used to be a major river, nursing the parks of the city and agricultural fields beyond it. It was in 1972 that the huge Chagedan Dam upstream dried up and destroyed the downstream, in yet another example of big dam disasters.
As a river Zayande-Rud is dead: one of the many quarries of the modernist vision of civilization across the globe: a vision that insists on taming everything from beasts to rivers, oceans and even the wind, in a relentless quest for energy. It is difficult not to appreciate why a mind as sharp as that of Jawaharlal Nehru, face to face with a vast nation corroded to the skeleton by perennial hunger, had bowed before the gargantuan Bhakra Nangal Dam recognizing it as one of the ‘temples of modern India’. Such dams, all over the world, seek to turn the power equation between raw nature and the humankind upside down. The choice between devastation and succour can’t be left to the whims of the rivers, but transferred to human hands.
Zayande-Rud, must stand up to its name, and irrigate lands and produce crops and feed hungry bellies. If in the process it means killing rivers and creating and recreating channels instead, then so be it. I do appreciate this vision of civilization, but with a chill deep in my heart. Such audacity!
Very early in my journalistic career I had the opportunity to be given an insider’s tour of the Farrakka Barrage, one of the largest barrages in India, which has tamed the mighty Ganga just as it enters West Bengal, since 1975. Trust me, the experience was heart-stopping. For years after that I had a nightmare of being caught in the roaring violence between wild waters and severe pillars and walls of civilization. The result has been dazzling green all along the vast northern plains of West Bengal, revolutionizing the local human existence. Yet right during the planning of this almighty ‘temple’ in the 1960s, Kapil Bhattacharya, the superintendent engineer with the Irrigation and Waterways Directorate of the West Bengal government, had vehemently opposed the plan. He was vilified at every public forum by the Congress government, at the centre and the state, was finally called a ‘Pakistani spy’ and was forced to resign.
Fifty years down the line, floods upstream has forced the Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, to call for the destruction of the dam, severe siltation downstream has put one of India’s busiest ports, the Kolkata Port, out of business, and ruinous draughts further downstream have compelled the Bangladesh government to lodge a complaint at the UN against India for withholding water.
Not only in India, world opinion has steadily and firmly turned against forcing the Zayande-Ruds, the life giving rivers, to irrigate lands and turn turbines. Did you just hear the ghost of the ‘Pakistani spy’ gently chuckle?