Books · World

My Holmesian Adventure

It was a bright warm day in June, and the clocks were striking eighteen. The plan was in place, the game was afoot. The office party allowed me to slip out after half an hour of eating and mingling. As I rushed out the door, I formulated Sherlockian routes, time-optimized, of the New York City subway.

The best case scenario involved 2 well-timed switches and a brisk walk. The worst (and dreadfully boring) was 38 minutes on the local. It wasn’t going to cut it. Why not take an express as far as it could go? Aha! Because the express from Wall Street makes 2 extra stops before meeting the local at Chambers. Local-Express-Local was the way to go.

The uptown trains were crammed full of tourists and rush-hour suits. Thankfully, we’d ditch the former in that great cesspool of Times Square. 3 stops and 20 minutes to go. The ride came to a nail-biting finish with me entering the place with just 3 minutes left on the clock. Reserves, scanned, packed and out in 2. The fruits of my labour:

  • Midnight’s Furies27sm_midnights_fur_2527310e
    • In 1947 a country believed to be on the cusp of a civil war was divided into two: India and Pakistan. Political leaders thought it was the only way to avert the bloodshed that seemed imminent. They were wrong. The largest mass migration in history resulted in somewhere between 200,000 to 2,000,000 deaths. Freedom at Midnight? Midnight’s Furies.
  • The Pity of Partition440px-saadat_hasan_manto_photograph
    • Saadat Hasan Manto was born in pre-Partition India and died in post-Partition Pakistan. He is described as  a “writer, playwright and author considered among the greatest writers of short stories in South Asian history”. As a South Asian and a voracious reader, I was surprised that I had never heard of him. I find that popular works that have strong ties to India but originate in the western “Muslim” parts of the world have been purged from our national consciousness, like Shahnameh. The Pity of Partition.
  • Bombay Stories
    • Manto’s short stories about a city that we both love.
  • Pink Sari Revolution
    • A movie called Gulaab [Pink] Gang is supposed to be based on a true story of women in rural India fighting the traditionally patriarchal society that they were born into. It stars two fine, older actresses that I rather like. Though the women’s group is several years old and the movie is a couple of years old, I stumbled upon them on Netflix and was intrigued by their story.
  • Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?
    • How did I get here? Was it Goodreads? My brain on the Internet processes too much information to remember where it got it from. A (hopefully) light-hearted read in the midst of all this heavy stuff.
  • Maus: A Survivor’s Tale440px-art_spiegelman_-_maus_28197229_page_1_panel_3
    • The survivor is a Polish Jew.
      Nazi fascism and its atrocities are drawn as a literal cat-and-mouse (completely un-fun) game.
      Man, all of my reading this month sounds like its going to be wholly distressing and heart-rending followed  by questioning the necessity of the existence of humanity, the monsters that can do the absolute worst to each other.
      A Goodreads recommendation based on PersepolisHave I mentioned that I love Iran? The Iranians that I have met are so friendly, their culture is so rich and varied that it reminds me of India, and miraculously, their food is delicious even though it isn’t spicy (in the traditional Indian sense: “Asian countries within the sphere of, mainly, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese cultural influence, traditionally consider pungency a sixth basic taste.”)
  • Girls of Riyadh
    • This one is contentious. It’s either got 4-5 stars or 1 in its reviews. The low rated reviews are in Arabic and so I assume that they must be more authentic. While I am wary of views of the East influenced by Euro-centrism, this was the most reviewed Saudi Arabian book written by a Saudi Arabian woman on Goodreads. While I do intend to read outsiders’ and male accounts of the Middle East, I must admit that I am most interested in what the Middle Eastern women have to say: Elif Shafak, Marjane Satrapi, Ayesha Jalal, Rajaa Alsanea.


Books · World

Persepolis, Iran

Marji is 10 at the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. She loves Michael Jackson and hates the veil and can’t fathom why her friends from last year have to study separately now because they are boys. They said something about “decadence”. She also knows that she’s destined to become the first female Prophet of Islam. She’s thrilled that her grandfather was a prince and disappointed that her father is not a “hero”, so she doesn’t have glorious tales of his hardships in prison to show off to her friends.

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel autobiography, Persepolis, is  written and illustrated by her. She also co-directed Persepolis, the movie based on her books. As in the trailer, Marji is young, spirited, and gradually learns the joys and sorrows of living in a country in turmoil. Demonstrations aren’t wonderful, torture chambers are horrendous, the Shah is not appointed by God, and Iron Maiden posters from Turkey can be snuck in past Iranian customs in the lining of her father’s coat.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was a fallout of the 1921 coup d’état. The Iranian coup d’état was orchestrated by the British to make Reza Shah Pahlavi, an illiterate soldier, the Shah of Iran in exchange for oil. Marjane’s grandfather was the son of the emperor who was overthrown. His possessions were confiscated by Reza Shah and was appointed Prime Minister as the only educated man in the sea of the Shah’s uneducated entourage.

This is the narrative in the book, but the British version of events is that the previous emperor was incompetent and they wanted to halt the advance of the Bolsheviks to protect their Indian colonies. The oil probably didn’t hurt either.

Reza Shah Pahlavi, the  man that they instated as the new Shah of Iran was not a bad man. He loved his country and wanted to modernize it. His son was not cut from the same cloth though. Protests were commonplace and Marji has a great time begging to participate in demonstrations and playing a new game that the children of her neighbourhood invented based on the events occurring in their country: fighting, torture and martyrdom.

Eventually, the Shah was overthrown and a republic was established. They said that 99.99% Iranians voted for an Islamic Republic. Women were forced to wear a veil, told off for wearing makeup or behaving in any way that could cause a man to get excited (like running to catch a bus). Partying or being  with a man who was not related to you were both punishable offenses but they continued behind closed doors, in the privacy of people’s houses.

Soon things got so bad in Iran that Marji’s parents decided to send her away to Austria to study. There she had a hard time adjusting to the abundance of food and freedom, while feeling guilty about all that she left behind. Through the series of ups and downs we end up really invested in the life of this girl and the young woman that she transforms into through words and pictures. How does one deal with being a teenager far away from home when conservative Iran and liberal Europe are like chalk and cheese? What if you don’t see your parents for so long that they fail to recognize you? How do you navigate a city you’ve never been to in a language that you can’t speak?

Along the way, I learnt a lot more about Iran that’s relevant to how I understand the country today than what cold and clinical newspapers could give me. Marji is funny, cool and relatable. She makes her life, her people, her culture accessible to me and makes me see that we aren’t so different at all. Even amidst wars and revolutions, human nature will find a way to bloom and grow as we figure out our way in the world.

EDIT: John on Iran’s Revolutions