An ancient connection draws a professor to a land which feels to him as home.
In Professor Khorshed Mehr’s daily evening walks by the Zayandeh, listening to underground music by the courageous youth, who could be jailed simply for singing or dancing publicly, he would often think about what made Persia, and the powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated Sassanids fall to Islam, and what was it that helped India remain Hindu, to date. Despite 800 years of Islamic rule.
Khorshed old and frail struggled against his captors, his voice muffled. He heard himself chant silent prayers for help. They had not only gagged and blindfolded him with great dexterity but had also tied his hands at the back, a skill that was no doubt acquired by watching a few routine Bollywood films. The two young village men who had come to meet him for ‘consultation’ during his dinner at the roadside dhaba should have raised an alarm in him, he who was so used to being accosted by secret police should have sensed something was amiss, yet he had not.
Coming to this country had made him drop his guard. He had felt completely at ease and at home. After all these years of dreaming and envisaging of what he would do once he set foot in India, he could hardly keep pace with his grand plans…..he had wanted to soak it all in before the rush of deadlines, project submissions, meetings and presentations. All that can wait, he had said to himself on his way here by train, after landing at the Mumbai International Airport. He had wanted to see the real country, meet real Indian people, all of which would not have been possible if he had intimated his hosts of his arrival date. So, now no one knew he was here already, except for maybe that smiling welcoming immigration officer whose name he had been remiss to observe. What a fall Khorshed! An academician-researcher of your repute not being alert at all times, what a fall!
The young men who had appeared from nowhere to sit opposite him while he was munching on his spartan meal, had as usual grilled him good-naturedly about his name, background, his personal details, his interest in India, and having gotten used to such intrusions in the past 24 hrs, he had given automatic answers that would satiate their curiosity without causing any consternation. His attention had gone back to his delicious roti, daal, and shaak which he had succumbed to after being on a voluntary fast since his arrival… when one of the young men came and sat next to him, “Korsidbhai, this coin we find in well, digging, high value..?” Before Khorshed could react, the other man dressed similarly in dhoti kurta interjected, “How old this is? You like? Solanki khazaana?” Without replying to the pointed query, Prof. Mehr waved to the young boy who had served him, and thrust a 200 note in his hand with a quick affectionate nod, and got up to leave.
The villagers followed him ambling along, pestering him to take a look at the coin. Khorshed had wanted to be anonymous, he had wanted to settle in before being called out to duty, he also did not want to get on the wrong side of the Indian government, nor his own. Definitely not his own, and at this sudden thought, he got paranoid. How could he be sure that he was not being trailed, tracked, followed? Anything was possible. His every movement would be reported back, but of course. He could not afford to jeopardize his passion and work of a lifetime to satisfy some antique dealers. Crazy fellows selling their country’s wealth! With renewed energy, he stepped up his pace and started to amble quickly towards the dak bungalow. It was dark as Goddess Kali herself, perhaps it was amavasya. They overtook him in no time and pressed the gold coin into his hand, and gently pushed his head downwards to help him take a look, there was to be no more talking, that much was clear. Khorshed let out a strange cry. A gasp, a gulp, a person whose lungs have suddenly been pumped with air after being underwater for long. No, it could not be. How was it even possible! After all these years…nay centuries… “Only a few Modh brahmanas know of these, how did you get hold of them, tell me the truth, or …or..I will have to report you to the police”, being right in front of his government accommodation now, he was unafraid to speak up. The two strangers slithered away into the dark night, and Khorshed entered his temporary precincts exhausted from all the unexpected strange happenings on his first night in India.
He had not learnt from his mistake, he had assumed that the worst was over, and had heaved a sigh of relief. Opening the rickety wooden door he entered his quarters. The door creaked even while it announced his presence, but this did not stop two other men who emerged from the shadows, to deftly gag and bind him, before dragging him away from his room towards a second-hand Jeep that was parked close to the entrance gate. How had he missed this? Were his faculties failing him? It was time to retire, he knew that…but this one last project had been his dream since….he was gently goaded into the back seat, while the engine whirred and spurted and took off, the night rolled past, with winds howling their presence to all those awake at this hour. Khorshed tried to memorize the path they were traversing, at least let me be alert now. “jee, jee, it is him, definitely, he knows about the coins and all”, they spoke in a mix of English, Gujarati and Hindi which he could not understand completely, but could definitely comprehend that he had been kidnapped.
Khorshed had landed in Mumbai just as the monsoons were making their way northwards from Kerala, good timing too, as the suffocating humidity and harsh summer stings of June would have made his explorations and research well nigh impossible. It had taken all of six months to get the requisite permissions for his field study, and he was already exhausted. He was not his usual brisk self, the slow drizzle of rain while washing away his apprehensions on taking up such a monumental task, had also lulled him into relaxation with a thunderous clap. He found himself standing in the never-ending queue at immigration awaiting his turn. His excitement was palpable in that he kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as though desirous of a visit to the loo, but those who knew the Professor well knew this to be a sign of something major brewing in his head. In his 70s, gaunt, with piercing eyes, and a dark tuft of hair framing his wide forehead, that harked back to his more handsome days, he was as usual dressed spiffy. As though for an awards ceremony held in his honour, an honour that was late in coming, an award that he had been waiting for all his life, an award he was sure to receive…yet. It was not easy to find recognition in a community where you are not accepted, where your every move is judged and commented upon, where you have no voice, and your only chance to liberate yourself is to flee.
He had flown in from Dubai, and the person seated next to him had interrogated Khorshed incessantly. It had been extremely tough for him to get permission for this mission, to get out of his country, and the journey too seemed to pose as many impediments, without allowing him any respite. With a sigh, he accepted his fate, at least he was alive.
“What do you do sir?”, an innocuous start to a polite conversation in any society, the absence of which might be construed as lack of manners, so he had replied appropriately, wanly, “Am an architect by training…umm…historian by interest…umm you could also say archaeologist if you will..well I teach a multidisciplinary course on epigraphy…”, that should keep his neighbour thinking for a bit, but no! “Where from sir?”, well I suppose I asked for it, thought Khorshed, and replied curtly with a sharp clip to his answer, “Isfahan”. “Oh! Is that …where is that sir? Saudi? Qatar?”. This is what he had feared, not the infamous Indian bureaucracy which surprisingly had not been as circuitous as he was given to understand. On the contrary, Indian officials had gone out of their way to make his whole plan an actionable reality by advising and suggesting various changes to his itinerary helping him get the most from his short stay here. But this, this incessant probing questioning curiosity. “Your good name sir?” All the personal queries were bunched into a subset – name, age, marital status, religion. “accha you are from Iran…you are Shi’a …myself Salim from Gujarat…Godhra you have heard?….I am doing Sales”. This assumption that he must be Muslim always irked Dr Khorshed, and also that it was always assumed that he was a practising one at that. And he did not miss the unfriendly way Salim said Shi’a.
Not wanting to get deeper into this unwarranted tête-à-tête he extricated himself from the vice of his youthful seatmate and switched on his overhead light to read. “Very complicated, that is drawings for a building?” Salim was over his shoulder, into his seat space, and peering onto the laptop uninvited, a mark of an Indian, or mark of the young, or both Khorshed was not sure. “Yes, but not mine…these are by an ancestor…sort of ..you could say…but yes there is some common blood somewhere…” Khorshed was pensive, dreamy almost while saying this, “Have you heard of Al-Beruni?….Ferdowsi who wrote Shahnameh?….Farrukhi maybe….Borzuya definitely…no? Okay…anyway…I am presenting my findings on Hindu architecture, and astronomy on…”, Salim interjected incredulously, “Hindu architecture!! First see Taj Mahal Professor saab…the seventh wonder of the world, built by the Mughals….”, and here Khorshed lost his cool, and was close to shouting, “the Mughals did not know A of architecture, it was the Hindus and the Persians between them who could actually build anything meaningful and beauteous. You are from Gujarat you say…have you been to the Sun Temple in Modhera?” Soon as he burst out Khorshed knew that he had lost a potential Indian friend, but why should a temple be anathema for appreciation, why should anything beautiful be subject to hate. No, he would not give in to social niceties.
Salim now visibly upset lost his pleasing countenance, and instead turned on his marketing mode of pestering till a sale is made, “Professor saab what are you saying, you are saying Taj Mahal is not beautiful…?”. I would love to see the Taj and study its history and architecture when they open the basement and other rooms for proper excavations and documentation thought this Professor of Archaeology etc., the Qutub Complex built from the remnants of 27 Hindu-Jain temples would of course be a painful visit, the Babri Masjid itself built on the janmasthan of Lord Rama was a blot on history, Khorshed knew that there was no point in pointing out these obvious facts to his detractor, so he simply asked, “What do you think of the Hagia Sophia decision?”, caught unawares Salim mumbled that it was good that such a splendid structure was finally declared a mosque and not some secular museum, not realizing the trap he had fallen into, “It was not a mosque, nor a church, before all that it was built by the locals of the land as a temple, locals who learnt a lot of what they know of art and architecture from the East, from the Sassanid Persians, from the Buddhist, Hindu, Jain architects and artisans of Hind…it is all chronicled…all chronicled very well..”, Khorshed’s statement had an air of finality and supreme confidence.
That had done the trick, poor Salim from Sales was devastated to learn that a Muslim, even if he be Shi’a, was not going to add revenue to the Taj. And thus having been left alone, in fact, ignored completely, Khorshed was able to complete the rest of his PPT giving finishing touches to his project that he was so excited about…an airport clerk gestured to him to move forward in his line, “Welcome to India!” the immigration officer said smilingly looking up at his face, and then at his passport, stamping it, “You are here on invitation by the Government of India! Welcome, Sir!”
Hind! Hind!I am here finally, thought Khorshed, and smiled to himself wistfully.
The Shatabdi ride to Ahmedabad was over in no time, while he refused all the food that was being offered every few minutes due to his medical condition, he nevertheless engaged in cheerful banter with all those around him. He evidently looked different, and some kids in his compartment were excited to spot their first foreigner. “So you study manuscripts? And buildings, really!”, “Your name means the Sun? Like Surya?” Khorshed found it easy to share his personal details with all these strangers, yet so familiar to him. After years and years of transcribing epigraphs and manuscripts, he had attained a sense of closeness to these people, though they knew it not. His colleagues had warned him of going to a state like Gujarat which had been much maligned in his home country, the Gujaratis were reviled for having elected a Hindu government many times over. It made Khorshed laugh, look what the Marxists and Islamists did to my country, together they have made our life and growth impossible, and not for the first time too. Armenians, Bahais, Parsis, Jews, Tibetans all had fled to India over centuries looking for a safe haven and had found it. They were all granted refuge and had prospered, while his Iran was nothing but a homogenous entity bereft of its indigenous peoples by design. Talking to all these fellow travellers he was neither threatened nor looked at with suspicion, he was merely plied with more food and more questions. No one asked their kids to stay away from him because he was not one of them. He knew then that he had made the right decision. It was worth the wait, worth every trouble.
At the Ahmedabad Railway Station station which was very spic and span to his suprise. he booked a taxi to take him to the dak bungalow in Mehsana. “Saab, you are coming from which country?”, of course, the driver would be talkative, but he was in no mood to respond, he was too overwhelmed. “I think you are coming from Israel, we are getting many tourists from Israel..” Khorshed smiled at this interesting misidentification, pity more Iranians did not make it to India unless they were fleeing Islamic persecution. He let the driver make that assumption, and settled back into his seat, looking out lazily at the passing shops, reading the boards, breathing in the air. The taxi went past many mosques, he also saw many a roadside Hindu shrine with people bowing and praying, of course the stray cattle, dogs, goats were everywhere, as was expected. It filled his heart with great warmth.
“You like Bollywood saab, I will put FM for you”, although Khorshed would have preferred something more classical he did not want to offend the affectionate driver, so he asked over a loud tinny Hindi song, “What is your name? How long are you driving taxis?” The driver who was enjoying the song more than his passenger was, and swaying along with the drumbeats, could hardly hear Khorshed, and then out of nowhere, he applied the brakes suddenly, bringing the taxi to a bumpy halt. “Mangoes! They are early! You must try them saab, we have the best mangoes in the world”, saying this the driver jumped out of the car excitedly, selected two baskets one for himself, and one for Khorshed, and came back smiling ear to ear pleased with his transaction. He opened the dashboard, brought out a fruit knife, started cutting the fruit, and offered the first piece to Khorshed. “Take take…eat!”. So similar to his own people, yet so different. So different. His thoughts for the next two hours pondered on the wonder that is India, whose hospitality was like no other, its inexplicable diversity, the easy acceptance and affection of its people, their innate sincerity and friendliness. Impossible to find anywhere else in the world, definitely nowhere else in history. Nowhere where the people who had been raped, enslaved, killed, and destroyed year after year for almost a 1000 years, and had still managed to smile and continued to accept the other with a trusting heart. Prof. Khorshed was indeed an Indophile.
After all his bloodline was of Borzuya, the Persian who had translated the Panchatantra, and another great great great great grandfather who was Al-Beruni’s assistant, who had accompanied him on his journey to India. Invasions they were, barbaric too, bleeding this country of its wealth, while humans were reduced to chattel traded at the slave markets of Ghazni, killed in thousands along the way on the dreaded Hindu Kush, the Hindu-Killer mountain range. To see his surroundings so calm and serene with spring in the air, heralding the vernal equinox a mere 48 hrs away, he could hardly picture the horrors that were recorded by his ancestor, that were committed on this very land, he was surprised at his own fate that he had made it thus far…..that he was alive to tread tamely in the footsteps of his illustrious adventurous forefathers.
Sipping chai while his friend sold expensive carpets to rich Europeans wanting their drawing rooms to reflect class and taste, Khorshed had whiled away his time thinking of the how. Lone morning walks by the Si-o-Seh Pol admiring the architecture, weekly visits to the hamam to cool his deep-seated anger, Friday afternoons playing chess at a chic cafe in the Christian quarter of Jolfa, under the spires of the lone Armenian Vank Cathedral, with hopes for a brighter future, and every second of his precious time that was spent at the Ateshgah in spiritual reflection, Khorshed had thought of the how. How was he to escape this seemingly perfect life of his? All his star students were escaping one by one, to Turkey, to Dubai and onwards to Sweden, to Germany, many had made it to the US even. Many claiming refugee status, many acquiring free scholarships, everyone who he could converse with intelligently was fleeing. True, he was in a much better position than the poor Syrians, Isfahan was still gorgeous,yet how long before they came for him! His people were dwindling right before his eyes, the whole political system, the majoritarian religion around him, the monocultural ideology surrounding him was stifling him, squeezing out every bit of the diversity, clamouring for sameness. Khorshed was not willing to give in anymore. He wanted to live life on his own terms, as per his own belief without having to hide it. The only Ateshgaah in Isfahan that helped him keep sane was slated to close soon for lack of numbers, and when that happened he wanted to be in India, among his people, and never return to the land of his ancestors. But how?
It was a magical accident that had led him to discover the ancient text, or was it! Sitting by the roadside teahouse sipping chai at the Naqsh-e-Jahan town square, in the shadow of the resplendent Blue Mosque, he had spent hours pouring over the ancient works that spoke of the knowledge transfer from the East, scribes after scribes who were commissioned by invaders, dictators, and emperors alike to record for posterity what they were capable of. Many of the official record keepers had to kowtow the political line but if you were an obscure assistant, one of the many, who was good at keeping his head low but eyes everywhere, you could grasp what was happening, you could write what you wanted on the side. Centres after centres had sprung up in Baghdad, Isfahan, Ghazni to translate the works of the Hindus – from architecture, astronomy, medicine, engineering, metallurgy, there was so much to learn, and share. Persian translations inspired the Arabs, who in turn inspired the Greeks, and thereby the rest of Europeans. To now hear someone like Salim from Sales tell him that Mughals had created architectural marvels was laughable. If the knowledge system is not yours, the artisans are not yours, and even the money that is used to build is not yours, nor is the land, what is Mughal about any structure but merely the period in which a certain monument is built! He had argued this case very often with his colleagues at the University in Isfahan and was constantly referred to as Professor ‘Hindi’, as someone from Hind, or in love with Hind, some said it playfully, but mostly it was derisive.
While reading the account of travels to India by various chroniclers, Khorshed had time and again encountered the Magas. He had gotten so engrossed in his personal research of the Magas that he had been warned twice by the University to suspend all such personal activities and this unwarranted digging into the past. The Magas, although Zoroastrians, were considered equal to the brahmanas, much respected by the Hindus. Perhaps it was because of the common practice of revering the elements, of fire worship, of venerating the cow, or something else, he was not sure. Whatever be the reason, they were even allowed to consecrate certain Hindu temples and conduct prayers, to install deities and participate in life-giving rituals of the moorti, a great boon, granted to very few. Especially in the temples dedicated to Soorya Devata, the Sun God. So fascinated was he by learning of all this that Khorshed had started to frantically search his family’s old trunks for books, texts, for any lead to these particular accounts. And on one such visit to a long-forgotten library hidden away from the public eye in Mashhad, looking for more information on the Magas, he chanced upon an all but forgotten manual on architecture by the junior assistant to Al-Beruni who had accompanied the terrible Mahmud of Ghazni to India on his annual loot and plunder. It described the magnificent temple at Modhera with every minute architectural detail leaving Khorshed hungry for a visit. He then spent hours on the internet looking at pictures and videos completely fascinated, and yet he kept craving for more, for the real darshan.
This tattered manual would help him get out, he peered at it unbelievingly, was it really an original? With silent prayers to his Ahura Mazda, Khorshed kissed the text gratefully, and gently slipped it back into its place after taking photographs of all the relevant pages.
To be Continued in Part 2