The word “Shiraz” always conjures up in my mind a nostalgic picture of my college-days. Late-1980s. As a boarder of the historic Hindu Hostel, which within its notorious walls had sheltered among numerous other celebrities, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, my general routine was to swim past the day in deep slumber, wake-up to a grey late-afternoon, enjoy the colourful evening in one of the many cinema houses in the bustling Esplanade district, intensely negotiate into the sharp night over contract bridge, float into the uncertain midnight with cheap Rum before finally fading out into daybreak with cannabis. This mellifluous routine would also include, once in a blue moon, with some windfall money, an aromatic visit to a no-beef Mughlai joint named Shiraz in the evenings.
In the late 1980s Shiraz stood exactly opposite to where it stands now, bang on the Mallik Bazaar crossroads. Unlike the Shiraz of today, it was not caged within an air-conditioned odourless cold space, which could belong to any restaurant. In the late 1980s, Shiraz, and not only Shiraz but most of the Mughlai joints in Kolkata, used to be elementarily different. That Shiraz did have an air-conditioned coop upstairs. It served mainly as a token reminder to the restaurant’s claim to be an AC facility. The real eatery was a huge ground floor hall. It had the hubbub of a bazaar, central to Islamic culture, open to all. People drenched in sweat would often walk in, pick-up one of the water filled tall heavy glasses, of which the waiters unfailingly kept a constant supply on each table, drink it in one long draw and walk out. The emptied glass would promptly be replaced by one of the waiters.
Groups of Pathans, who by profession were illegal money-lenders in their flowing dark grey robes, would spend hours letting out bellows of laughter sipping over-sweetened milk-tea pouring it in saucers rather than straight from the cup. The hall would be filled to the brim with a thick buzz of the loud garrulity of the customers with adrenalin-rush spurred by the all-engulfing aroma floating out of the kitchen, and the sound of several rows of ever-rotating four-blade fans. The unstitched buzz would be perforated with howls from waiters, in spotless white uniforms, passing on the customers’ orders to the kitchen staff, and the kitchen staff howling back, asking the waiters to collect the food placed on the wide counter-shelf. At rare fleeting moments, by a strange coincidence of no one uttering a word, this din would suddenly drop into total silence, only to be turned up again by deafening rings from a monstrous bell kept at the reception-cum-cash-counter, opposite to the kitchen.
The jabbing sound was meant to call the attention of the ever-busy waiters, each in charge of several tables, to produce from their magical memories which customer had consumed which food in what quantities, so that the bill could be calculated and the money collected from the customer. On the wall behind this small counter used to hang a photograph, taken in the evening, of a tomb illuminated with a soft yellow light. Its essence was diametrically opposite to that of the restaurant. It oozed a sense of quiet peace. On the framed photograph written in white letters was one word: Shiraz.
The photograph used to mesmerize me. Each time I visited the restaurant, I stood looking at it for a few moments even after paying my bill.
My mind is transported to those intoxicated days, the moment Somayeh and I arrive in front of the same tomb on a dazzling November morning. Hafezieh. It’s in the middle of a large garden, now bustling with people of all ages: men, women and children. And within it is lying Shamsuddin Hafez Shirazi, in whom Rabindranath had found ‘a friend of the same tavern’. Hafez lived between 1325 and 1390 CE. I feel deeply sad. I am reminded of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. I am again transported back to my country.
This time to a district in old Delhi, named Nizamuddin. It’s famous across India, because therein are located two tombs: one of the great Sufi saints Nizamuddin Auliya, and by his side that of his closest disciple, the legendary versatile genius Amir Khusrau. Millions of people, irrespective of religion, throng to this holy darga, to offer prayers, round the year. Not one of them cares to turn left just before approaching the darga, and visit a host of other tombs, which lie locked behind tall fences. There’s a gatekeeper, who might oblige you if you badger him enough, as I deed. Inside the fenced area are graves of some relatives of the last great and much maligned Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. And in one corner lies in oblivion Mirza Ghalib, one of the finest poets in the history of Indian literature. Why was this pilgrimage locked, I had asked the gate keeper. His reply was succinct, because no one ever visited the place, except a bunch of local hoodlums, who had turned it into a den for taking drugs.
Somayeh informs me every single day round the year the Mosul Garden and Hafezieh remains as crowded as it is today. Many poets have come and gone in the long history of Persian literature, she tells me, but Hafez lives in the hearts and minds of the Iranian people. I can see that as I stand in front of the gate of the garden. I notice, several men are loitering around, each with a small colourful budgerigar parakeet in one hand, and in another a pack of cards, not playing cards, but large square white cards, with something written on them. There’s a small crowd around each of them. What’s happening? People are testing their fates. The idea is that you should think of an unfulfilled wish that you hold close to your heart and keep it to yourself. Next you pay the man with the bird and the cards. On each card is written a couplet of Hafez. On being paid the man will urge the bird to pick out a card at random from the bunch. You will now reveal your wish. The poem on the card will be interpreted by the man to indicate if your wish will come true or not.
Eighty five years ago Rabindranath, sitting at the tomb of Hafez, had taken the same test. The procedure was a shade different. Rabindranath was asked to make a wish. He made one: “May India be liberated from the killing noose of blindness known as religion” The poet was then asked to close his eyes and open a page from a volume of collected poems of Hafez. The page that our poet opened had a poem, which indicated that his heartfelt wish would come true. Eight and a half decades later, arriving in an Iran, ruled by strict Islamic laws, from an India, which is fast shedding the last vestiges of democracy, under the cunning scheme of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, I find it difficult to put my trust in the exchanges between two friends in a tavern. I tell Somayeh I have no intention to test my fate.
We leave Hafezieh with a sense of deep happiness. Next stop: the tomb of another great poet S’adi (1210 – 1291), who composed such epics as the Gulistan and the Bostan. Suddenly Somayeh, walking a little ahead of me, steps aside with a short jump. I see her looking intently at the pavement. As I go near, it becomes clear: on the pavement are drawn the national flags of the US and Israel. Somayeh’s jump was to avoid stepping on it. Those who had drawn them on the footpath clearly had exactly the opposite intention. I sense their palpable presence, surprisingly though, in the whole trip I never met any one of them.
In the evening Somayeh takes me to the home of one of her family friends, Mr. Andaleeb. The gentleman, in his mid-60s, with a large paunch and a loud staccato laughter, speaks to me in chaste Hindi, which he picked up during the many years he spent in India. He introduces me to his Iranian wife, and daughter, informs me of his other Russian wife, who stays in Moscow, who also has a daughter by him, forces me to eat bowls full of walnuts, cheese, oranges, watermelons, pomegranates and drink endless cups of tea, as he narrates his life-story and geo-political opinions. In the end, leaning forward, he slaps his thigh and, causing my heart to tremble, declares at the top of his voice, “Can you imagine a bunch of Muslim clerics are destroying this whole nation?”
A few days later I hear almost the same words from a journalist, as we sit and smoke strong Iranian cigarettes, in a hotel lobby in the holy city of Mashhad, in eastern Iran.
- Translated from Parasye: Rabindranath Tagore. Visva-Bharati. (Tagore’s Iran Travel Diary. In Persia: Rabindranath Tagore. Visva-Bharati.