I did see many things in Iran that appeared huge in my Bankura-borne small-town gaze.
The Persian cat for example. Cats that I saw at Tehran’s parks, or the one that Mehdi, my friend from Tabriz, picked up from the road to cuddle in Kandovan, a strange village, about an hour’s drive from Tabriz, would surely be a good one-and-a-half times larger than the one we have at our home. Once again I was reminded of Vienna. The squirrels that I and my Turkmen ex-colleague, Maya, had seen, walking up to the dazzling Gloriette across the vast and meticulous gardens of the Schonbrunn Palace, would have called for special celebrations in the Santhal villages of my poor district.
It was so distant from my Bankura days that I felt like a person who remembered his previous life. Ramdeo and Netai were tired. They had been plying their rickshaws for the past one hour, across floral designs of light and shade that danced on the deep-red laterite floor of the forest. The Hajra family was on its routine return to Bishnupur on summer vacation from Panchmura, the tiny village that has given the government of India its handicrafts logo: the terracotta Bankura Horse, a singularly ugly animal, with a straight upright long neck, churned up by local potters in their wheels since the beginning of memory. Nowhere have I seen such celebration of a horse figure that so strikingly lacks the first quality, which denotes a horse: virility!
Our home was some distance away even from this village. Surrounded by dense antediluvian jungles it was right at the centre of vast dead fields, where human beings confronted nothingness in their endeavour to advance civilization! My parents were teachers in Panchmura College, an unmistakably out of place insignia of that confrontation. They had been provided with a large room euphemistically entered in the three-classroom college’s property inventory as a “teacher’s quarter”!
Vacations always tore us — my mum, dad and me — away from Panchmura to Bishnupur, a quaint town, in the early 1970s, which historians have dated back to a thousand years. The 12 Km pathway mostly meandered through forest tunnels formed by branches hovering in from both sides of the foot-beaten tracks forming a green canopy overhead, the shades and deep wild odours of which changed with the change of season.
Of course there was a bus route too. But by bus the distance would be just the double. Since there were no rickshaws in Panchmura in those days, it would mean a walk of some 3Km at 6 in the morning, with all the paraphernalia that travelled to and fro with us at the beginning and end of every vacation. That’s when the only one bus to Bishnupur left. It would entail travelling in the company of very agile goats that constantly shitted pitch-black polished round stuff with a nauseating smell, and rebel poultry that would make desperate futile attempts to fly into freedom out of the huge round net-baskets from time to time covering other passengers with fine feather dust. And if it were to be winter, chances of being partially soaked in aromatic fresh brewed date-palm molasses, natun gur, being carried in large earthen handis on the roof of the bus would be very high, because a few of them would invariably break into pieces as the bus, for the next one hour, would bump from one pothole to another, and the fluid inside would rain through the myriad cracks in the roof.
My parents being far less adventurous found it more prudent to summon Netai and Ramdeo with their rickshaws from Bishnupur bus station, sending them a message through the driver or the conductor of the bus. I would travel in one of the rickshaws with other household belongings, while they would occupy the other. Tired Ramdeo and Netai meant an opportunity for my insatiable curiosity having to gorge on the realities of the forest that were very different from the realities that I would otherwise confront in my home, school, playground or wherever!
There I would never find, for example, a guy with a mahogany skin, in a spotless loincloth, suddenly freeze on the forest path, take out an arrow from the bamboo quiver slung across his bare back, gripping the bow in his rock-steady hand stretched out front of his nose, draw the string well past his chin with his right hand – all in a fleeting moment like a silent shadow – and pang, release the arrow. I would run with him to watch the result: letting out a razor-sharp screech of death, the squirrel would still quiver stuck to the trunk, as blood trickled down the shining ivory of the Eucalyptus trunk. On my thumb and index finger it would feel thick and sticky. It would be a very special kind of an arrow, a long nail thrust into the arm of the arrow with the sharp pointed side projecting out. The game would be literally nailed! But then all this is a whole different yarn, those Bankura days, to be spun at some other time.
In Schonnbrunn, as Maya tossed a coin in the little pool at the feet of the arrogant Neptune fountain, I wondered would such an arrow be able to nail a squirrel that just ran past us into the pine forest! It was so huge. As were the cats I saw in Iran. As are the bazaars of Iran. Nowhere have I seen such bazaars. Of the few bazaars that I have had the opportunity to soak into my system with my eyes, nostrils and ears, such as the Chandni Chowk of Delhi’s Shahjahnabad, Hyderabad’s Churi Bazaar, Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar, Athens’ Monastiraki market, Venice’s Mercato di Rialto, our own Kokata’s S S Hogg Market, Nagyvasarcsarnok in Buda of Budapest, none compares to the bazaars of Teharn, Tabriz or Isfahan except perhaps the Kapali Carsi Grand Bazaar in Istanbul!
The wall clock in Tahmineh and Syad’s drawing room strikes nine. I can see the golden sun outside. Tahmineh notices that I am itching to get out on the street. We have already had some four rounds of tea. She quickly gets up, brings a marker pen from another room and starts making a list of the must-visit sights of Tehran on her dressing table mirror! Right at the top she writes: Bazar-i-Bozorg, the Grand Bazaar.
Bazaar is a pure Farsi word which Oxford lexicographers have appropriated as a synonym for market. But the Iranian Bazaar is elementarily different from the western market. So different that I am often tempted to say bazaar’s Iran rather than Iran’s bazaars!
In Iran a bazaar is a huge and complex arrangement of life that dates back to thousands of years. 2700 BCE. The world was quite different. Mohenjo Daro, the sprawling city-civilization was already in the imagination of the bearded guy in the north-western Indian subcontinent. Faraos were already planning stunning pyramids in Egypt. Jemdet Nasr civilization had already run its course in what is today Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. In the West, few woolly mammoths were still roaming the Wrangel Island, a little north of where today Russia meets the US. In such a world the secretive Chinese spun a fascinating yarn out of the saliva of some ugly worms. Silk. For the next 2500 years the Chinese emperors made sure that the secret was not divulged. Their policy was simple and effective. Anyone suspected of passing on the formula would be killed.
By 200 BCE silk became the single most exported item of the Han Empire. And within the next one hundred years it would be a shame for a Roman millionaire if he couldn’t flaunt enough silk at every place that had to do with him or his family. And that silk was carried through Iran. Thus over the next 1500 years, the earth was criss-crossed with tracks, which forever changed the essence of human civilization. These were known as Silk Routes. Of course through Silk Routes were exchanged many commodities other than silk, indeed they became vehicles of exchanges that went far beyond mere commodities: through Silk Routes were exchanged languages, knowledge, music, customs, indeed whole cultures. Globalization was at its exhilarating height. No culture remained ‘pure’ any longer. The Mother Pure, whom fundamentalists of all hues cling to within their heads, like the Hitchcockian psycho, died a good many hundreds of years ago as the Silk Routes spread across maps. It was a globalization during which civilizations had exchanged with each other the best of their discoveries and realizations; the joy of their art and literature, the benefits of their sciences. The nameless poets of the Mahabharata, Homer, Kalidasa, Aryabhatta, Su Song, Umar Khayyam, Ibn Sina, Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus, Aeschylus and the towering geniuses of their ilk, wherever they were born, didn’t care to enslave their oeuvre to cunning copyright laws to squeeze profits out of them. That globalization was not a by-product of European colonialism, which is hell bent on clear felling all cultural diversities replacing them with an Anglo-Saxon monoculture, marketed as ‘global culture’! Such was the role of silk routes, and other trade routes, such as the spice routes, in making us what we are today! Out of such routs also grew Iran’s Bazars.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra