Someday I must traverse a desert. My first engagement with such a vast expanse of lifelessness left me unsettled. Flying from Chicago to San Diego I had seen from above the vast Death Valley. And the dark crumpled Badlands. It’s frightening. I was to see the same heart chilling face of Nature flying from eastern Iran’s Mashhad to Tehran. But even the Death Valley bursts into a celebration of life in the spring. What I saw driving into the rather small Varzaneh desert, which eventually merges with the vast Dasht-i-Kavir in the north-east and the Dasht-i-Loot in the south-east, was a glimpse of that nature for which life has no use at all. None. Except perhaps the cruel species named Homo Sapiens using it for experimenting with various means of mass murder. I can’t but marvel at the extremity of our heartless cruelty of not only exploding the nuclear bomb near the Thar Desert, but celebrate it with a code name: The Smiling Buddha. Can anything be more luridly obscene than this? Of course there can be. When only the other day the US dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan, it was referred to in the media across the world as the ‘Mother of all Bombs’. Pope Francis was aghast. “I was ashamed when I heard the name,” the pontiff told an audience of students at the Vatican. “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?” he asked.
Why ask Father? Who’s listening?
Yet Nature does manifest itself in such faces, in immense stretches, all over the world. Like the Pope’s question mark, perhaps Nature too has a deep purpose in hanging such reminders, all across the globe, before our infant spicy. Indeed, come to think of it, She created the reminders much much before she created this curious species.
The desert, however, is not Nature’s only face of Nothingness that I confront in Varzaneh.
The taxi honks exactly at five in the morning. We head for yet another vast stretch of lifelessness, which again we have in India, but I have never had the occasion to visit: a salt lake. We keep driving, I guess for about an hour. The tilled land gives way to a dirty-sulfur-coloured soil for miles and finally we are stopped at a check-post. Only government vehicles are allowed farther. I get out of the car. I hadn’t noticed when the soil had turned muddy, with deep tyre-marks of big trucks. There’s nothing around anywhere in the whole circular horizon marked by outlines of rugged hills. It’s early in the morning, barely six. Mornings all over the world belong to noisy birds. Not here.
The huge upturned bowl of the azure sky. The immense circle of dirty muddy soil. A white sedan, blocked by a pulley operated bar. A tiny room. I, my driver and the check-post guard. Negotiations begin. Nope, you can’t go in. Come on, this Aga is a tourist from Hind. Nope. Come on, we will just go in and come back. Nope, I’ll lose my job if I’m caught. Come on, how much?
In two minutes the muddy soil turns into a mix of yellow and sparkling white with a bluish glow. Salt. All around. As far as you can see. Pure, simple salt. And not a speck of life: no birds, no trees, no grass. Only deep tyre-marks. Salt: can we imagine life without it? Trucks come in hundreds every day and leave, filled with the essential taste of living! I stand there speechless. But my driver itches to move ahead. He doesn’t speak a word of English. Climbing across the language-wall with my shaky ladder of Farsi, I realize he wants to take to a ‘salt-river’ deep inside.
We keep driving again. And finally there it is: a thin blue streak of water. We get out. A sharp completely odorless wind sends a mild shiver through my body. It’s a strange feeling of loneliness. Then I realize: it’s the silence. As my driver turns the car-engine off, gets out and closes his door, the common thud almost explodes in my ears, and I sink into a bottomless silence. Is this how it feels to be completely deaf? I immediately call out for my driver: I want to leave. But he is a little busy: feeling a large bag scooping out soil with both hands. That gives me time to regain my self, and when he is done, I want to spend some time more, just walking around. For a change, it feels good to be alone. Totally alone.