‘I’m sorry, Nilanjan. You can’t go in!’ I can see Tahmineh struggling to get these words out of her chest. I can see her face turn pink, her large eyes floating in deep disappointment. What?
Someone puts out the bright November sky. We are standing outside the tight-shut gate of the Zahir-od-Dowleh cemetery. I look helplessly at the unscalable solid walls on both sides of the gate. I can’t believe that I could have really done this mistake. ‘I am sorry. We just didn’t know this. Neither I nor Sayad.’ Tahmineh knows what this means to me. Tuesday, November 17, afternoon. My flight departs Tehran in about four hours.
Forty eight years ago, on February 13, 1967, as the winter snow thickened in an overcast afternoon, Forough Farrokhzad was laid to her eternal rest somewhere inside these unscalable walls. And fifteen years ago in a wet afternoon in Georgetown, Washington D.C., I had begun my journey into her valley by sheer chance, from a small shop selling secondhand books. I had walked to this cemetery, step by step, over the next 15 years, with a bunch of white roses, which I am now holding tight with both of my hands. I had enough opportunity to do what I came to do in Iran: visit Forough’s grave and place on it my love. But it must have been some inherent stupid melodrama within me, which had induced me to put off that moment till the last day of my journey. That should be my last act of consequence before I left Iran, I had planned, surely for which there can be no other reason but to make it more dramatic to myself.
So, here I stand.
Tahmineh has returned from the gate with the news that the cemetery is now open only for women. Men will be allowed from 5:00 p.m. onwards, which is impossible for me because by that time I shall have to complete my security check at the Imam Khomeini International Airport.
She knows how devastated I would feel, if that happens. ‘Let me try again,’ she says.
‘Listen, take this. Place it on her grave on my behalf,’ I give her the rose-bunch.
She walks through the glass slit on the iron-grill gate. I can see from outside, on the left is the small cubicle-office of the caretaker. Out comes a plump big woman, in a light chocolate colour undersized skirt, in her sixties maybe. And there’s a man too, sheepishly peeping from behind. Who’s the boss, is unmistakable.
‘Khanum, isn’t there any way you can let in a man now? I beg of you.’
‘Nah. How can I? You know how strict these rules are.’
‘But this Aqa has come from far away Hind. He is leaving this evening. Just for a little while, I promise.’
I draw myself closer to the scene of the act. Bereted breath. She turns and looks at me. She’s inspecting me. The dilemma has begun. I can see its chemistry muddling her head and heart. I can see her problem too: she has a witness. There’s the danger. From within her large heavy breasts emanates a long sigh, as she nods her head in resignation.
‘Whose tomb do you want to go to?’ Her tone lights up the golden November sky again.
‘Go straight and turn left as the path turns, it will be on your right.’
It’s an old cemetery. Signs of its age are apparent in the neglect of its upkeep. Unkempt undergrowth beneath huge trees has covered the broken pathway. We make our way through the bushes and tombstones. Soon I hear a faint female voice. Someone’s reciting a poem. The voice becomes clearer. She’s reading in Farsi. I can’t understand much of it, but I know the pace, the rhythm of the meter. Forough. We increase our pace. There it is.
In the middle of uncared trees and long unruly bushes is a small marble stone with Forough’s name engraved on it in large dark letters. Encircling it are a few young women, in their mid-twenties at the most. All of them are sitting on the ground. Six, I count. In one corner of the grave-stone a few candles are flickering. One of them, at the head of the stone, is reading out from a collection of Forough. Without a word, Tahmineh passes on the bunch of roses to me. There’s no other human-generated sound in the vast cemetery. Just the young trembling voice, the wind and the rustle of falling leaves.
I feel that time has passed
I feel that moment is my share of history’s pages
I feel that desk is a feigned distance
between my tresses
and the hands of this sad stranger.
Talk to me
What else would the one offering the kindness of a live flesh want from
but for the understanding of the sensation of existence?
Talk to me
I am in the window’s refuge
I have a relationship with the Sun. (1)
The young lady pauses for a moment: to catch her breath, to turn a page, to light the candles blown out by the wind. The rest are listening in deep thick silence. One of them shifts a little to make place for me. That’s all. Poetry resumes. I place the roses on the tomb-stone. I think. And I think hard: Is it a special day for some reason? None that I can think of. Is it Forough’s birthday? No. She didn’t die on this day. A line from a blind African American’s song shoots through my mind: ‘Here’s just another ordinary day.’
Here’s the grave of a poet, who is no less ostracized in the corridors of power today than she was in her lifetime, in a dilapidated graveyard. She never received any worthwhile award. She had died some five decades ago, leaving a collection of only five slim volumes. And here they are: six young hearts, in a modern busy city, gathered around her grave, with a collection of her poems, with candles and without any excuse. Defeating thousands of years of the strangle hold of male chauvinism, of religion, of the omnipotent state, of unabashed capitalist consumerism on the world, defeating the tyranny that proclaims material profit as the only reason to be, the leaves of grass of pure poetry is reclaiming its rightful place. My Musafir heart is witness to that moment of the victory of civilization, live and raw. In Iran.
She reads on. Mesmerized, I listen. After a long time I feel a hand on my back. Tahmineh.
Now, I must leave.
- Window: Forough Farrokhzad. Translated by Leila Farjami. http://www.forughfarrokhzad.org/selectedworks/selectedworks8.php