On the Road between Iran and Us
As we embarked on a 10 day road trip across the north-west of Iran, the travel plan that never was, had somehow fallen in place
“Indian people are very emotional, no?” The young Iranian man sitting next to me, quizzed. I looked at him bemused, not quite sure what he meant. Discovering two girls from India occupying the seats next to his, on the flight to Tehran, he was full of questions and well-meaning advice. “You are coming to Isfahan? It’s very beautiful,” he sighed. “Tehran not good. Very dirty. Very polluted!”
My friend started feigning inordinate interest in the flight’s Dutyfree magazine. I smiled politely, trying my best to match his good-natured curiosity. “Why do you think Indians are emotional?” I asked him, not wanting to commit to any idiosyncrasies of the lot back home, especially to an absolute stranger from another country. “Well… Iranian women, they always cry when they watch Indian movies… Bollywood… you know … Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi…” he trailed off. Whatever it is that I was expecting, it wasn’t discovering Bollywood in Tehran. Or in Tabriz.
Flashback! Bombay – Two months earlier. I had just informed a few friends of my plan to travel to Iran. “Wow! That sounds crazy. Are you sure it’s safe?” a concerned friend quipped. Another friend was more vociferous about his unease, “I don’t think it’s a good idea at all! You will be banned from entering the US forever! What do you even know about the place?” To tell the truth, I knew very little of Iran when I decided to set off on an all-of-two-girls holiday. I knew it was embroiled in a ‘war’ of politics, over nuclear power, with the US and its cronies. I had recently heard of India distancing itself from the country, this, despite sharing cordial trade ties for many years. I remember reading somewhere; almost 20% of our crude imports come from Iran.
I knew my Parsi friend could trace her ancestors back to Iran. I knew my partner- in- travel had fashionable Iranian friends whom she adored. And, I had seen the country come to life, sketched out in shades of black and white, in the works of Marjane Satrapi. And they never once hinted of a place that could be potentially dangerous for travellers. Conservative? Perhaps. But dangerous? I wasn’t sure. All I remember is feeling vaguely curious about a people caught between tradition and modernity, religion and progress, reading Lolita and quoting Hafez.
After a few unsuccessful attempts at trying to guess the tune, the Iranian, in frustration thrust the phone closer and said, “Lata Mangeshkar...!” Of course, we recognised the tune! Encouraged, he went on, “Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle…” Then pointing at himself, he said, Bombay… Bollywood!”
We hadn’t really planned our trip to Iran – no itinerary, no hotel bookings, no visa applied-for in advance –basically, no clue of what to do after we landed at the Tehran airport. Heads covered, we watched and waited as a noisy bunch of exchange students stood in line at the Visa On Arrival (VOA) counter. Indians are one amongst the 60 odd nationalities who are given a two week VOA. But you still need a local sponsor to get past. We thankfully did have one.