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.
At the Passport Control, the officer suspiciously looked at the little black book of my wanderings. He took in the dal-stained leaves, the colourful mosaic of stamps from countries far and wide and then at an old picture of mine with short hair. I don’t think the locals could comprehend why two Indian girls had come to Iran on their own. The officer looked up at me, “You look white in the photo, but you are black! How?” I should have felt indignation. I should have taken offense. Truth is, all I felt was relief. Before I could stop myself, laughter bubbled out. More so, when I realised he was expecting a serious answer. “Photoshop? “ I gurgled. That was the moment I knew, I’d love Iran.
Iran turned out to be an adventure. Not one out of a Paul Greengrass or Tony Scott movie. There were no bombs flying or military junta marching along the streets. In Tehran, the only head-rush we got was in a cab-ride across the city. Taxi drivers wheeling their Peugeots and Citreons – cars that remind you of the Premier Padminis that once plied Indian roads – can put a seasoned race-car driver to test.
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. During our journey across the Alborz mountains, the air-conditioned bus pulled over at what looked like an Iranian version of the Indian road-side dhaba. An Iranian woman who was having breakfast with her family, wanted to know where we were headed. Ramsar, the quaint little village by the Caspian Sea, was our destination. Next thing we knew, she was offering to put us up at her place. Talk about generosity!
It happened again. At Ramsar, as we lugged our shopping for the day, our tired feet screamed for a taxi-ride to take the pressure off. When we finally got into one, the driver, Roshan, a strapping fifty year old Iranian seemed almost overjoyed to discover Indian clients. As he rattled off in Farsi on what seemed like a matter of some importance, we dug deep into our minds to process words that seemed familiar- raah(path) , darya(ocean), manzil(destination), chauraha(crossroad), savari(ride), azaad(free). As we got ready to pay Roshan for the cab-ride, he smiled and declined “No… no. It’s okay.” His khanum, he told us, had studied in India (in Pune) to be a doctor. Now I know that Pune has over 8000 Iranians studying at its various colleges. For Roshan, it was a simple deal. He was happy to meet people from India, a country that was good to his family.
Taxi drivers wheeling their Peugeots and Citreons – cars that remind you of the Premier Padminis that once plied Indian roads – can put a seasoned race-car driver to test
As we travelled along the Caspian coast, we came across many such people who were kind to us. Iranians genuinely seemed to have a soft spot for Indians. In many cases, as soon as they realised we were from Hindh,prices were slashed, gifts were doled out, and concessions were made. In a small restaurant in Meshkin Shahr, a pretty little town close to the Azerbaijan border, we had just polished off our plate of Kebabs. Farzad, the owner came up to us as we were leaving and handed us a huge melon – a gift for the Indians – brought from the holy city of Mashshad.
I started to think how we share a lot of our quirks with Iranians. They love their families. They are curious, inquisitive, and sometimes downright meddlesome. They love to feed everyone and feed till people say, "No more please." They want to know if you are married, why aren’t you married at 30 and then they want to help finding you a ‘good Iranian boy’. Iranian parents expect their kids to study engineering or medicine. The young dream of escaping to Europe or the US. We even discovered recipes that we have in common – almost. A modified version of Baigan Bharta (made out of roasted aubergines) can be found on the Iranian menu as Mirza Ghassemi.
Most importantly, they also share our excessive love for Bollywood movies. By now, we had realised that Iranians love Amitabh Bachchan. At the busy town of Rasht, close to the Caspian Coast, we also discovered Iranians’ love for Hindi music. “I really very much love Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja Aaja…” gushed a young Iranian woman with dyed blonde hair, wearing a hijab. So, what if, young people have to abide by strict rules of public conduct – no exposing, no partying, no dancing, and no holding hands. That does not stop them from grooving to Bappida's tunes and Mithunda' moves from Disco Dancer, perhaps in the privacy of their homes or minds.
The older generation, we discovered, wasn’t far behind. We were strolling along the paved streets of the Kandovan, a remote tourist village, tucked away in the north western corner of Iran, when we were accosted by a bearded man in his 40’s. He thrust his mobile phone at us and started rambling away, pointing at it. There was a faint tune playing – a familiar one. 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!” While Iranians love Hindi movies, they seem to be stuck in a time warp. Blissfully unaware of the newer lot, the latest blockbusters, they are happy living in times of the angry young man. At Tabriz, the fifth largest city in Iran and one of the country’s historic centres, we discovered that Bollywood is big business. At the Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we came across many shops peddling the famous Iranian rugs. In many such hole-in-the-wall outfits, we noticed our Hindi movie actors – Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Divya Bharti - immortalized on two by two feet rugs.
Two young women from Hindh sounded like perfect customers and warranted an impassioned sales pitch, “India nice country… You take this (rug) home? Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai… Sridevi… I give you good price.” We took pictures but declined politely. We hopped different shops but the pitch remained the same. However, something didn’t stick. They all referred to Divya Bharti, an actress long dead and gone, as Sridevi. Sure, she was known as Sridevi’s look-alike in the early 90’s. But she also made headlines for her mysterious death at a very young age.
At one shop, I couldn’t help myself. When the young man warmed up, “Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai.. Sridevi...” I stopped him and pointed out, “That’s not Sridevi. That’s Divya Bharti.” His smile didn’t slip but confusion clouded his eyes. “No Sridevi… very famous actress.” I wasn’t backing down, “No. This is not Sridevi. It’s Divya Bharti. She is dead, no more.” Bewildered, he looked around for help but didn’t back down. “Sridevi.” He insisted. “Divya Bharti,” I shook my head. Crestfallen, he finally gave in and asked, “This is not Sridevi?”
First published in Kindle magazine, Kolkata, November 2012