Ma's Iran memoirs '77-79... Settling down at Rasht. Getting to know its people & its food. Chapter 2

I was overwhelmed by your responses to Ma's first post on Iran. Poli, Farriemist, Harman, Somoo, Sharmila...I shared your feedback with Ma and it made her very happy. I thought of putting the rest of the parts that I had proofed. Stories of Ramsar, our escape from Iran and Ma's reconnecting with Iran through her Parsi daughter in law yet to come once I finish editing them. Any copy errors here are a result of my editing. The words are hers. Now Ma's writing her stories from England in the mid 7os. And I have the privilege of sharing this with you

 "Disclaimer: In this post I have tried to narrate the experiences that I had during the most transitional period in Iran. These views are purely mine. I was a young Indian housewife at that time. I might have misinterpreted a few of the political implications and some of the facts might have been blurred due to distance in time.  I sincerely apologize if I have hurt the feelings of anyone. " RK.

"Settling down by the Caspian Sea: Rasht

Our next phase in Iran was at Rasht

After a few months at Tehran my husband was posted to a hospital in Rasht, in the south of Iran. This time we were given a proper bungalow. People were quite good and gentle

Rasht is a city which is situated near the Caspian Sea. In school, we had read about it. Though the name suggests it to be a sea, in reality it is not a sea but only a lake.  I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would one day stand on the shore of the Caspian Sea. It was a beautiful feeling. It, however, did not seem any different from the sea that I had seen in the U.K. I could hear the ripples of the blue waves that ran towards the blue azure sky to be one with it. I was spell bound.

I was pained to see that a large part of the beach was privatized. The newly rich Iranians bought the beaches and built luxurious sea resorts where they spent their holidays with friends & relatives. We too were invited later to some of these villas. Very few parts of the beach was left for the masses. It was a great shock after coming from U.K.where most of the beaches are open to all

Ma with Haji Aga

The people of Rasht liked us and welcomed us in their fraternity. We made many friends. Best amongst them was Haji Aga. .'Aga’ in Farsi means ‘Mr’.He was called a Haji because his mother had gone on ‘Haj’ (holy pilgrimage) when she was expecting him. ‘Haji’ was a very respectable title. Haji Aga himself wanted to go on ‘Haj’ but he had not been able to do so till then.

Haji Aga owned a very big fish shop in the market where he sold both fresh and dried fish. I don’t remember how  we 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        became friends. May be a Bengali’s affinity towards fish drew us towards the fish seller.

We were often invited to the house of our Iranian friends. A doctor was respected like God here. They were ever so grateful to the ‘Aga doktor’ (Mr. Doctor) for curing them. I was called ‘Khanume doctor’ which meant ‘wife of a doctor’. But a lady doctor was called ‘Khanum doktor’. Farsi has similarity with Sanskrit, the mother of all languages.

Breaking bread with the kind folks at Rasht ...pulao & takit, chelo kebabs, black teas in samovars, feasts, fish

Now about food. ‘Polo/pulao was the most important item in any feast. There were different types of ‘polo’. Sag-polo (made with rice & green leaves like coriander, sauf/mouri leaves etc) . Then there would be plain ‘polo’ and ‘polo’ with mutton. Rarely with chicken. Along with it, there used to be different kinds of kebabs made with mince meat and meat pieces.

‘Polo’ used to be cooked in an intricate and time consuming way. It was very tasty but different from Indian (read Bengali) ‘polao’ . ‘Takit’ was the most important feature of the Persian ‘polo’. As it was cooked for a very long time, the lower layer of the ‘polo’ used to be hardened and formed into a sort of crust. This  hardened crust was called ‘takit’. While serving the ‘polo’, the ‘takit’ used to be broken into small pieces and kept on the top . It was the tastiest part of the ‘polo’. (I vouch for that … Kalyan)

They sometimes used to cook a vegetable curry which resembled our ‘bharta’ to some extent. They peeled & mashed roasted brinjal.They then fried it with onions & tomatoes. When it was almost ready, they would break 1/2 eggs over it and mix the whole thing. It looked like’ bharta with scrambled egg’. (Wonder if it’s baba ganoush – Kalyan)

Salad was a must in every feast. Green chilies, called ‘fel fel’ in Farsi, used to be in a separate plate. You could eat as many as you wanted as they were not hot at all. The feast was followed by ‘Shirni’/sweets

I must not forget to mention ‘chelo kabab’ without which this post would be incomplete. It was similar to the one we get at the ‘Peter Cat’ restaurant of Kolkata. Two/three kebabs, made with mince meat, covered with freshly boiled long- grained white rice. Floating over it was a dollop of butter. It was a very common dish in road side restaurants. It did not occupy a high place in the social ladder of Iranian menu. I do not seem to remember anyone serving us ‘chelo kebab’ when we were invited for a feast

Food was served in abundance. They would cook for 20 people if they invited 10 people. Food would be heaped on huge plates. I always wondered what they did with the left over food as the servants were given only naans and onions. We were supposed to be asked at least ten times before we touched any of the food. The hosts would repeatedly say, ‘Aga bokhor, khanum bokhor’ ( Eat sir, eat madam). We would be called ‘greedy’ if we did not wait for a while before we begun eating. Funny how different customs can be. In Britain, biscuits, cookies and apple pies would vanish (be taken away) if we refused them even once. But then that’s the Orient for you.

If one’s best friend was Haji Aga, a fish seller, then how could one forget to say a few words about the fish of Iran? Haji Aga was a perfect gentleman. He did not stink of fish at all! His major earning came from selling dried fish, which I never touched. ‘Mahi safed’ ( as far as I remember the name) was the most aristocratic fish in the whole fish clan. You could very well compare with the ‘trout’ fish of Britain.

An Iranian way of eating the ‘mahi safed’ fish was to wrap the fish in newspaper, put it in the tandoor and roast it. There were other types of fish too which were not that expensive. We Indianized/ Bengalized them according to their taste. If it was ‘parshe’ or ‘ Illish’ type, we would cook it with mustard paste.  

We would grind mustard, put in a bit of water and salt, slit chillies (green) and make a paste. Then pour the paste over the curry when it was almost ready.  If it was of ‘rui’ or ‘bhetki’ type, we would cook it with potatoes and cauliflowers.

Going native at Rasht… of garlic breath, majestic carpets and a beautiful language

K's 5'th birthday party (that's me in a white tee) where Indians and Iranians met

During the weekend, we would invite over Indian friends for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They were mostly engineers and doctors. They came from all parts of India. When you go abroad, all Indians become one. The ‘doctor’ would merrily cook for all of them. These gatherings did not include the Iranians. The Indian community there liked to keep to themselves and drew a ‘Lakshman Rekha’ around themselves which seemed to say , ‘‘so far and no farther’. Only on occasions such as K’s birthday party, did we invite both Iranians and Indians together.

Iran was a garlic eating nation. They would immerse whole bulbs of the garlic in vinegar and preserve them. Men would greet other men by embracing them and kissing them on their cheeks with garlic flavoured breath. The Indian men were rather wary of this Iranian tradition.

The Iranians were very proud of their carpets. The carpets were mostly woollen and priceless. They were real works of art and could be matched only by Kashmiri carpets. We were gifted a small woollen Persian carpet as a token of appreciation by a patient whose life was saved due to a surgery performed by K’s dad. We brought the carpet back to India where it drew a lot of admiration.

We started  picking up the Persian/Farsi language. We could manage to communicate with each other in Farsi. This court language of Mughal Emperors is very courteous & modest. For example, in Parsi you would say, ‘khanumesuma izazat bede’ meaning ‘please give me permission to leave’ almost as if we had chained them. When they met us, they would bend a little forward and greet us by saying ,’Nafare suma’. It meant, ‘I am your servant’. What a stark contrast between the two languages -English and Farsi!

Learning English from an Indian

Ma and me with her students

Farsi was the official language as well as the colloquial language. But with the arrival of the British, the Americans and other foreigners, the need to learn English arose. Men started picking up ‘broken English’. Some of them went to the British and the Americans to learn English paying high fees. Somehow they came to know to know that ‘khanume doktor’ could also speak English and teach it. They preferred female teachers for the ladies. I had no objection as I was getting a bit bored. I had also taken a special course for teaching spoken English in a Summer Institute at Delhi University organized by British Council, Australian Embassy and Delhi University.

But they were not willing to pay me much as I was an India. After all English was not my native language! Still I did not mind and started experimenting new techniques of teaching spoken English. At that time ‘situational method’ of teaching English was in vogue and I found that method very useful. Later on it gave way to ‘functional communicative approach’ of teaching English. I framed my own curriculum and experimented with new techniques which filled me with happiness & success. Ladies would come to our house in the afternoon to study. I would form groups and teach them how to greet people, how to serve food and how to carry on a conversation in a party. Young people would be taught how to face the interview board and greet people of the opposite sex (I too was young once!).

Mothers sent their children after morning schools to learn English from me. But when I started paying attention to the other kids, the green monster in K (that's me, Kalyan) made him beat the other children.  K was, otherwise, the best kid in the world. I realized what the matter was and suspended that batch immediately. I found this experience of teaching in Iran very useful in my later life.

Persepolis…the women of Iran

K was getting restless. I decided to put him in a Farsi school so that he could get habituated to schools. Primary education was free. K  picked up a few Farsi poems. The best part was that the children were each given a packet of pistachio, kismis & other nuts weighing at least 100 gm as Tiffin. Like a dutiful son, K would keep it till the school was over. Then the mother & the son would happily eat the packet on their way home. Pistachio, different types of nuts and zafran were easily available. (I loved this image - Kalyan)

It was here in K’s school that I met a few of K’s teachers & became quite friendly with them. We visited each others houses. They often opened up to me. They were facing a strange dilemma. Due to modern times, arranged marriages were no longer the trend. Yet, they were not permitted to mix freely with men to choose their own husbands. They were a bit envious of the Indian women as their husbands were chosen by their parents, if the need arose.

There were very few women who worked. Most of them stayed at home. Modern and rich women wore dresses whereas ordinary women wore burkhas while going out. Iranian men and women were very fair complexioned and well built. Many of the women could put Cleopatra to  shame when it came to looks. But forty per cent of beauty comes from inside. The women of Rasht seemed unsure of themselves and seemed more subdued than their Indian counterparts. Indian women seemed to have more access to education at that time than the Iranian women had. Iranian society was quite conservative. It was in sharp contrast with the free society that we found in the UK."...                                                                                                     (To Be continued)


With the women of Iran (my teachers I think, Kalyan)