Authors: Anosh Irani
The Cripple and His Talismans (2004)
The Song of Kahunsha (2006)
The Bombay Plays: The Matka King & Bombay Black
For my father, Adi,
for all the Iranis of Dahanu Road
THE NIGHT BEFORE
he was to leave for Yazd, young Shapur was unable to sleep. Thoughts of butter and cream melting in his mouth filled him with delight. After all, his father had promised to take him to the most famed confectioner in all of Persia—Aflatoon of Esfahan. Customers compared his sweets to the poetry of Rumi and Hafez.
Shapur sat up all night dreaming—biting, crunching, savouring, letting chunks of cotton candy remain in his mouth for eternity.
At the slightest hint of light, he was ready.
“You are a true Marco Polo,” said his father, stroking the long beard that hung from his chin in an inverted triangle.
Vamog offered his son almonds, but Shapur did not want any.
“We have a long journey ahead of us,” said Vamog. “You need to eat.”
Shapur gobbled the almonds down, hoping they would not
occupy too much space in his belly. He was only ten, and even though he had the appetite of a man, he was still physically small. He wanted to reserve every inch in his stomach for the creations of Aflatoon.
After trudging through red desert sands and then hitching a ride from a caravan of silk weavers, father and son finally reached Yazd.
They stopped outside a Zoroastrian fire temple. Vamog longed to see the fire that burned in an inner chamber, in a large copper vase, a fire that had been kept alive for over a thousand years. Lovingly tended by a grand priest, it was a symbol of purity and goodness for all members of the Zoroastrian faith.
A bearded angel adorned the yellow entrance, a golden disc in its hand.
“Do you know what that is?” Vamog asked his son.
“A fravashi,” replied Shapur. “It will protect me wherever I go, day and night, in this life and the next.”
When Shapur had first learned of the fravashis, he imagined a pair of strong golden wings enveloping the domed roof of his house, and it immediately made him feel safe and warm, even on chilly winter nights when wolf howls mixed with the whoosh of the wind to make things so eerie.
Instead of taking his son into the temple, Vamog led Shapur to a well that was outside the temple gates. The old bucket creaked as it rose up the narrow walls, causing the sparrows that stood on the parapet to fly away. Vamog took a mug full of water and held it to his son’s lips. Just as Shapur opened his mouth to drink, Vamog emptied the water on his son’s head.
A surprised Shapur went into a fit of laughter.
“That’s what I wanted,” said Vamog. “The prophet Zarathushtra came out of his mother’s womb laughing. So one must always be cheerful when standing in front of this place of worship.”
Shapur had never heard his father talk about their beloved prophet in this manner. Vamog always spoke of Zarathushtra with such reverence, but now there was an element of mischief in him. Even his long moustache twirled so high it almost reached his cheekbones, as though it were the handiwork of a tiny goblin that had crept into their house the night before.
But Shapur did not want to go inside the fire temple. At least not right now. The fravashi was no doubt close to his heart, but something else was even closer, more alluring.
Vamog detected the eagerness in his son. “Let’s go,” he said. “Before the great Aflatoon retires for the day.”
He soaked his white handkerchief in the mug of water and placed the handkerchief on his neck to soothe the skin that had been burned by the sun. Shapur took one of his slippers off and was about to overturn it.
“Not yet,” said Vamog. “The sand must be emptied only when we are
Yazd. That way we are helping the desert claim the city.”
Vamog told his son how Yazd was caught between two deserts, the Dasht-é Kavir and the Dasht-é Lut. No matter which desert one crossed to reach the city, a strange magic took place: the moment a man stood still, sand moved towards him and covered his feet, filled his sandals to the brim, in the hope that every grain would be spread throughout the bazaars and courtyards of the city. It seemed that both deserts were
fighting for the city’s affection, but in the end neither could claim her, and she had to be shared. “It is for this reason,” said Vamog, “that Yazd is known all over Iran as ‘The Bride of the Desert.’”
Outside the city gates, an old man rubbed his hands together. Shapur thought maybe there was a lamp stuck between them and he was in dire need of a wish. But he soon realized from the man’s outstretched palm that it was his way of asking for a tip from travellers.
Around Shapur, tall arched wind-catchers stood erect on domed roofs.
Everyone in Yazd, from the tailor who laid down the most perfect embroidery on silk to the wrinkly grandmother who shared proverbs with her brood, was grateful to the windcatchers for the way they swallowed the breeze and funnelled it into their homes to keep them cool.
Shapur soon arrived at Persia’s sweetest spot.
“Aflatoon’s Candy Bazaar.” The words shimmered on a green banner. Shapur marvelled at the winding line outside the sweet shop. It coiled just like a candy stick. There was a fragrance in the air, not just the sweetness of pastries but the happiness of customers as well; the fact that they were buying sweets meant they had reason to celebrate. Shapur took in as much as he could, and if there was a special compartment in his nostrils that stored scents, he would store this one for life and take it with him wherever he went.
No one cared about the heat. It was mean and dry, yet people waited with a jovial air. The sun blazed down on everyone, but all it could do was cast shadows on the ground. That was the only darkness in all of Yazd.
“Papa, what do you think Aflatoon’s secret recipe is?” asked Shapur.
“No one knows,” said Vamog. “When the oldest member of the Esfahan family is on his deathbed, he reveals the secret to his successor, whispers it into his ear so softly that even the wind cannot hear it.”
Shapur was impressed. He didn’t think anything could stay hidden from the wind.
He wondered if Aflatoon had a son. One day the magic ingredients would be whispered into his ear and he would become Persia’s most admired confectioner.
“But if you ask me, I think it’s just a ruse to hide the truth,” said Vamog. “The real secret is simple. It’s the sweetness in Aflatoon’s heart. It oozes into everything he touches.”
It would soon be their turn to enter the shop, and Shapur could now see the delicacies in a glass case, and samples on the counter, in bright yellows, pinks, and greens, which customers had dipped toothpicks into to show their appreciation, a rating system of sorts.
His father put his hand in his pocket and took out a coin, but he dropped it, and it rolled on the ground, teased him by making a circle. It amused Shapur to see his hulk of a father chase a coin like an eager child whose mother would scold him if it was lost.
His father almost had the coin in his hand.
In bending down, Vamog’s body cast a shadow on the ground. Part of that shadow touched a Muslim royal.
Shapur saw his father falling. The Muslim royal’s henchmen, three of them, kicked Vamog. Shapur ran towards his
father, but a hard push from one of the henchmen was enough to send him reeling back.
“You lowly Zoroastrian,” they said to Vamog. “You unclean infidel. You have tainted a Muslim royal.”
They ripped his shirt open, took the sacred thread that was tied around his waist and noosed it around his neck. Then they paraded him alongside a donkey, calling the donkey the more handsome of the two.
Shapur went numb.
No one from the long, winding line at the sweet shop had moved. There was silence, then a murmur, like the noise of insects flying in groups, and Shapur wanted to move away from them all.
When the henchmen finally left, Shapur watched as his father removed, with shaking hands, the sacred kusti from his neck. For years, his father had kept the soft sheepskin thread completely spotless, and now it was covered in dust.
Shapur could not look into his father’s eyes, so with his hands he brushed his father’s back, tried to clean the dirt off it. He spotted the coin still on the ground. Shapur went to retrieve it, but his father stopped him.
Vamog just shook his head.
The journey back to their village was solemn.
Sand collected in their slippers, making them heavy.
Shapur wanted to know where his fravashi was and why he did not fly to the bazaar. All he had to do was swoop down from in between the blue minarets that seemed to reach the clouds and help his father.
When they reached home a day later, Vamog told his son that they were leaving Iran for good. But Shapur did not
understand. This was the home of the Zoroastrians. “For over three thousand years, we have lived here,” his father had once said. A man should not have to leave his own home.
“We are treated like dogs. No, we are worse off than dogs.”
Vamog told his son what the Arabs had done to his friend Bizhan, who lived next door to them before Shapur was born. To punish Bizhan, he was tied to a dog, and both were severely beaten, so that the dog, scared and in pain, pounced on Bizhan, shredding his arm, while the Arabs made a sport of it.
“There was a time when if a Zoroastrian was murdered by an Arab,” Vamog continued, “the punishment was a mere fine, equivalent in value to the price of a camel.”
That was what their life was worth.
“Things may never change,” he said. “Our days in Yazd are over. Let us see what India has in store.”
They left two days later, on a donkey with a bundle of clothes, oranges, almonds and water, and when Vamog looked back at his home for the last time, he waved out to it, but it was not the mud-brick walls he was waving to—it was his wife, who had died when Shapur was seven.
After an exhausting journey, after the donkey died not even halfway through, after they begged and stole and got rides any way they could for weeks, they reached Karachi, and from there made their way to Bombay, a far cry from the cypress trees and arched streets of Yazd. They found shelter in the fruit orchard of a famous Zoroastrian philanthropist. There, under the shade of a fruit tree, Vamog lay on the ground.
Young Shapur saw the dying light in his father’s eyes.
“Ahura Mazda has led us here,” Vamog comforted his son. “Ahura Mazda will provide.”
Vamog’s eyes closed, and Shapur stayed by his father’s side for a long time, hoping that Ahura Mazda would show Himself. But there was no sign of the One God.
As Shapur bent to kiss his father’s forehead, he saw a small brown fruit near Vamog’s hand.
THE SMELL OF
mosquito repellent pervaded Zairos’ small room, but he was used to it. Each night his father, Aspi Irani, would come into the room, shut the door and windows, and spray the repellent with great flourish as only an artist would. His father was obsessed with mosquito repellents and owned every brand on the market, from Baygon to Killer. He treated his array of repellents with the kind of passion usually reserved for record collections.
Zairos scratched his thigh and realized that he had been bitten by a monster. A few mosquitoes lay on the ground, some flat on their backs, some sideways, giving the impression that the place had been bombed. But these mosquitoes were part of the everyday death toll in the coastal town of Dahanu. In Dahanu, old-timers high on snuff reminisced about their childhood days in Iran and spoke to themselves in Farsi and Dari; tribal fishermen drowned in the sea, possessing neither the strength nor the will to prevent their boats from capsizing;
retired schoolteachers drank country liquor until their livers understood their plea and put them out of their misery: and the young women who worked in balloon factories became balloons themselves, puffed up, bloated with the air of disappointment.