I first met Shokoofeh Azar in Fremantle about 3 years ago after reading a story she had published in the Westerly. Within 5 minutes we were chatting as if we had shared a childhood and memories we both knew we hadn’t. At one stage we cried. She said she loved India and I said I was writing a novel in which Iran featured. Connections like this are rare and when they happen I need to ask why. Which is why, when I met Shokoofeh again in Fremantle, 3 years after that first meeting, I asked for permission to tell her story.
Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian born writer and artist. She arrived in Australia 6 years ago on a boat – and says that is the thing Australians find most interesting about her. As if surviving a boat journey defines a person for life. It is a loaded existence, charged with a larger-than-life meaning that she does not own. How I got here is not what I’m about, she says. I have stories I want to tell. I paint. I’m a mother. None of what she’s about has anything to do with how she came to be living in Perth.
She is a writer of fabulous magic realist tales and a talented artist. I know the power of her stories because that is what led me to her. In my humble stalker fashion, I tracked her down, sent her an email and asked to meet her. At the time I was writing my own novel of intersecting histories and wanted (desperately) to connect with an Iranian writer who could be a sounding board.
And in that first meeting, I tell her what I’m trying to do. She nods and tells me about travelling the Silk Road on the back of a truck. I speak of the lost boy from Abadan I knew when I was a girl. She likes Delhi, she says, with a look in her eyes that situates her there in an instant. I tell her of my desire to visit Tehran. She provides a cautionary tale about trees and blind men and women standing by street corners, but it is not a description – it is a fable. And the conversation continues in this fashion with neither of us questioning its intent. I leave with a sense of purpose and work on my novel with joy. She, meanwhile, discovers another way to tell her stories – she paints and sculpts and potters. The mythical birds and beasts she writes about are translated into paintings and bas-reliefs and visions of beauty.
When I next speak to Shokoofeh in the shadow of the asylum in Fremantle, a weak sun slants over the rooftops, and I am reminded of stories my grandmother told me. Shokoofeh’s language is steeped in the lore and myth of ‘other’ places. Her first language is Farsi; it sounds magical and lyrical to my untrained ears. When she speaks English she is translating ideas, thoughts and words that come to her from the language of Rumi and Firdaus, but also Marquez and Kundera. She reads copiously, in Farsi, and writes like a woman possessed, also in Farsi. Her first novel (The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree) is complete and waits for a publisher. She thinks it will be hard to find a publisher because it is not a story about surviving as a refugee; rather it is about surviving as a person, a political, magical, fabulous person. Her current project is about love, she says. She mentions Gilgamesh and Romeo, Shireen and Shakuntala and I remember again that this is how conversations used to happen in India, before I became Australian. Our myths breathe again, our stories resurface and our belongings straddle the cultural divide in the most unexpected conversations.
Shokoofeh’s literary page is here and this is her artist page.
The narrow gauge toy train staggered slowly up the steep slopes, up and up – almost 8000 feet up, towards the old summer capital of the British in India – Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas – the final leg of my journey through India.
The Viceroys of India lived here; the Lords Amherst, Auckland, Curzon, Dalhousie, Mountbatten. Curzon built his famous golf course on a hilltop and named his daughter after it – Naldehra. The Freedom Treaty was signed here. M.M. Kaye who wrote The Far Pavilions was born here. The Afghan President studied here. And the Dalai Lama was visiting when we arrived from Delhi.
The University of Himachal Pradesh hosted this stage of my research journey. The campus on Summerhill is approached through thick forest and winding roads. Monkeys swing from pine and deodar trees and rhododendrons spill down the hillside. Students and lecturers walk busily up and down the steep slopes and everyone smiles – it would be hard to be immune to the remote beauty of this place. On a tour of the gothic Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (formerly the Viceregal Lodge) it was easy to imagine liveried servants carrying tea and cucumber sandwiches up the curve of carpeted staircase to men wearing monocles and medals.
The colonial burden is felt here deeply – it is evident in the formality of University business, where the Dalai Lama is invited to bless graduating students; in the Tudor buildings that rise from its hilltops; in the naming of those buildings – Gorton Castle, Wildflower Cottage, the Town Hall on The Mall. Yet there is a fresh patriotism here, dissent and challenge in the voices that murmur in the hallways, subversion of the colonial stereotype in the choice of literature and research, of what it means to be Indian.
The academics at the University are clearly in this for the passion of their calling. They teach 20-30 classes six days a week and manage a cohort of 10-20 postgraduate students each. Somehow they found time for me. Nothing was too much trouble. I presented on a topic of my choice (Re-inventing Home) and ran a workshop on Creative Writing. Dr Pankaj Singh, Chair of the Centre for Australian and New Zealand Studies is now on my list of the top ten inspirational women of all time. She and her team are the most dedicated and nurturing teachers I have met in a long time.
And on a personal note, this is where my research made sense. For the past 4 years, I’ve been writing and re-writing my novel endlessly, with no idea how it was going to finish. On a cold sleety morning in Shimla, with snow on the Himalayas just visible over the ridge, I knew.
The third leg of my journey took me to the nation’s capital, Delhi. We arrived here just before the spring festival of Holi and a friend invited us to her house to experience this riotous explosion of colour, food and drink. My friend and I had been at school and university together, then gone our separate ways and countries to grow up and raise our own. And in her high-rise apartment, watching the festivities below, we remembered our younger selves tenderly. Our daughters are now older than we were in that time.
As I write this piece, Indians have just voted in their big, noisy, democratic general election. Everyone had a political opinion, usually a savvy one, about the state of the nation. A woman on the train said to me that Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great grandfather had all been Prime Ministers of India, was a joke. ‘And we don’t need a comedian to run the country,’ she said. ‘What about Modi?’ I asked. ‘Oh, he’s scary,’ she replied, ‘and we don’t need a villain either.’ And there it was – the complexities of deciding between a weak secular-minded leader and a strong right-wing nationalist leader, reduced to the simple binary of a Bollywood movie. There were other characters in the cast too – an actress from the south of India, a man who wore a cap and had ink thrown at him at rallies, the incumbent Prime Minister who had disappointed a nation for too long and the Italian born mother of the latest hopeful from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
‘I am a Muslim,’ the cab driver on my first morning in Delhi said when I asked him who he would vote for. ‘For the first time I’m scared. It doesn’t matter who I vote for. Modi will become Prime Minister.’ On a different cab ride, this time to the 12th century Victory Tower built by a Muslim king, another driver switched off the engine impatiently in a traffic jam and blamed ‘immigrants’ for the state of his city. ‘I grew up here,’ he said, pointing to the ugly flyover to the right of us and the decrepit buildings staggering to the left of us. ‘There were fields here, flowers, trees – peacocks roamed here – then the immigrants came in from other states and ruined my city.’
I looked out at the Islamic buildings we rolled past, Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Humayan’s Tomb and wondered what Delhi would look like without its Muslim heritage and the tourist dollars those buildings brought in. ‘It’s good you don’t live here,’ the driver said, twisting around to flash me an unexpected smile. ‘It would break your heart.’
Posted in Books and writing
Tagged books, Delhi, history, Identity, immigrants, India, literature, memory, place, travel, writing
My first morning in the town where my parents now live looked like this.
This is an army town, once known for its quiet, rustic charm and healing hill station air. Sanatoriums still dot the town and weary Mumbai folk still come down on weekends for a quick getaway. These days it’s a lot busier, at times chaotic, the bazaar crowded with people and cars and dogs and goats and cows. Trucks rumble through its dusty streets at dawn and dogs howl all night. It’s still a small town though; with friendly locals who all know each other, but it’s not my small town. It’s not my homeland. I did not spend my childhood here and my parent’s home is not the one I grew up in.
I set up my laptop and settled down to write. The Australian scenes in my book became clearer as I watched a group of mynah birds pick their way through a dry stretch of grass. I couldn’t help myself. I counted – there were seven – one for sorrow, two for joy – and seven for a secret never to be told. A woman combed her hair slowly under the shade of an old gulmohar. Calls to prayer and a motorcycle starting up somewhere with a screech punctuated the first morning. At night a crescent moon appeared beside the gulmohar and sparrows fluttered when someone started drumming on a tabla. These sounds ought to have been familiar but thirty years away had rendered them strange.
I remember bringing my daughter here when she was five. A man appeared by the front door one morning, leading a pony and encouraging her to hop on while he led horse and child slowly past the houses. Later that day another man turned up with bolts of sparkling fabric on the back of his bicycle. He travelled down from Kashmir every year and wandered the small towns in Central and Western India with his wares – pashmina shawls, embroidered saris, jewelled shoes, brocaded bed sheets. He sat patiently while we made up our minds and promised to return the following year, asking me if I would be there.
There is continuity here, a feeling that things occur in cycles, that appears to have always been here. I slip into this life easily. The crowd parts to let me in and closes around me again. Shopkeepers remember me from a previous visit more than three years ago and ask how long I intend to stay. It appears not to matter that I’m a stranger here. They know I am someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s aunty. It’s enough.
A native knows the scene, right? Wrong. I was born in India and have been a fairly regular visitor for the last thirty years. Earlier this year, when my university in Perth gave me a travel grant to go to … Continue reading