by Iftekhar Sayeed
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21st March. Spring equinox. And Eid-e-Nawrooz in Iran.
The precision with which the Iranian New Year’s Day coincides with the onset of spring strikes me every year as simply marvelous. On that day, our teachers at the Iranian Cultural Centre tell us, Iranians leave their homes to spend days in the open air. (Our New Year’s Day, of course, comes three weeks later; it was a Persian-speaking emperor, Akbar, after all, who gave us our calendar. Perhaps that is why the word fasl, ‘season,’ in Bangla means ‘harvest.’) My wife and I also try to welcome the New Year on that day by leaving the city. How infinitely more poetic than 1 January!
Farhang-e Jamhoori-e Islami-e Iran dar Dhaka – to give the Iranian Culture its proper name – sits quietly, largely unnoticed, on the old Road 15 in Dhanmandi. Who would infer from its modest facade that here lies the gateway to one of the world’s greatest civilisations? Who would suspect that through the small, beautiful flower garden on your right after you enter, there’s a library with the entire volumes of the Shahnama, volumes – bound in lovely black leather – of the Gulistan, the Bustan.... And there are the splendid modern poets like Parveen Ehtesami and Md. Taqui Bahar.
And who would care?
I myself must have crossed and re-crossed that road a thousand times, ignorant; until one day my steps were guided, along with those of my wife, past that portal of plenty. For we had realised that here lay our parent culture.
The Farsi for ‘spouse,’ incidentally, is hamsar – literally meaning, ‘same head.’ The word encapsulates the ideal of marital union and harmony. And harmony – hamahang – was what we sought there: harmony with our past, our historic origins.
I am told by my students that at the Alliance Francaise – a gateway to Canada -- the crowd has grown several fold since September 11th. There always used to be a crowd of Bangladeshis milling around in the evenings: they came to watch French films, learn French, or just for assignations. For the last purpose, the British Council Library, of course, was and -- I notice -- still is the favoured haunt. Our tryst was of a different calibre.
There must have been around forty of us when we began the course. Only half finished. Even fewer went up to the next level. That year, the authorities decided to introduce a further one-year course, on a par with the one administered at Dhaka University. We shall forever be grateful for the decision. Alas! There were only three students in our class – but we were the privileged few, we felt ‘chosen,’ the elect. The third student was a retired gentleman: his command over the language embarrassed us, and inspired us in equal measure.
There had been three hundred Persian poets once in Dhaka, our teacher informed us. Persian was the language of the Mughal court. Babar brought the language with him – we were conquerors in a new land. Even Nehru’s father had had to study Persian and Arabic as a child – though Nehru only studied English, for by then we had been effectively conquered. In fact, the name Nehru comes from the Arabic word nahrun, meaning canal. Nehru’s great ancestor had been given a house by a canal by a Mughal emperor, and since then the family had had the title nahrun. Such had been the vicissitudes of Farsi in the Indian subcontinent.
“Early in the eighteenth century,” wrote Michael Edwards in his biography of Nehru, “a distinguished Sanskrit and Persian scholar named Raj Kaul left his home in Kashmir for the Mughal imperial capital of Delhi.... In the usual manner he was given a grant of land, with a house situated by a canal on the outskirts of Delhi.”
Today, only place names record the bygone splendours. Pilkhana, where the Bangladesh Rifles Headquarters are lodged, reads filkhane in Farsi: fil meaning elephant, and khane meaning place or room. Hence, the place of the elephants. Topkhana similarly means the place for cannons (top).
In Bangla, we have borrowed many words from Farsi. Otashbazi means fireworks: otash, fire, and bazi, game; nazir means example; shekar, hunt; greftan, capture; sabr and shukr need no explaining, of course. And since Farsi and Sanskrit are both of the same linguistic family, we have expressions like benasheen, so like our boshun; for kardan, we have kora – as in bazi kardan, to play. Similarly with the imperative: bazi kun – in Bangla, khela korun. At Chittagong railway station, I asked the guard at the waiting room how far away the bus-stand was, and was surprised to hear him reply: nazdik, meaning near.
There was another interesting surprise in store. I could never understand a Hindi film; however, after a few months of Persian lessons, I found myself in front of a TV screen at a relative’s house where they were watching a Hindi cinema. I was stunned to learn that most of the words were Persian! Later, when we saw Sharavi for the first time, the beauty of the song imtehan ho gai intezar ki struck us as magical: both imtehan (exam or test) and intezar (waiting) are Persian words.
But it was of course our final ability to read the great classics that filled us with ecstasy. We came to see how phony was FitzGerald’s translation of the Robaiyat. Even good translations pale next to the original.
Een yek do se rooz noubate omr guzasht....
This is the first line of the first robai of Khayyam. Its sheer beauty lies in its utter simplicity. Translation: With one two three days in turn life has passed by. The simile that follows reinforces the thought: Like water to a stream and wind to the field. The quatrain evokes a sense of complete loss and transience.
In many ways, the quatrain tells of the loss of our heritage – the Persian language. Have we lost it forever? Have we lost it in the stream of history and the fields of neglect? Day by day, over the years, under alien rule, we neglected our great civilisation, and became aliens ourselves. And we are willing to pay handsomely for this despoliation – not only in fees to institutions offering other languages but also in terms of the chaos of our society, which springs from drawing our inspiration from a language at odds with our culture.
Yet there is a manzil-e-kuchak – a small building – on khiabane poozdah – Road 15, where what appears to be a pond holds, in fact, a sea. And the brave and patient diver will find pearls aplenty should he or she persevere. For, as Rumi said,
Knowledge for the sake of your
heart will be a friend
For mar (snake) and yar
(friend) rhyme and sound similar, but are antitheses.
(Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics and is a language consultant to several organizations. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text, Unlikely Stories, Freezerbox, Pennine Ink, Current Accounts, Mouseion, Poetry Monthly, Asia Week, the Journal of Indian Writing in English, Himal and many other publications.