The splendour under the Ayatollah's chador
Iran is a wondrous contrast to how the West has often presented it
Iran is not just another country for India. Since the days of King Darius to the Mughals, and from the families of Jamshetji Tata and Godrej to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and Ghorban Mohammadpour, we have so much of Persia amidst us. So much that it has silently merged into our being, giving a distinct flavour to our languages, culture, strengths, mores and habits.
Hence, an Iran sojourn had to be a special for me - a distinct experience - and it certainly proved to be that and much more. My first interaction in Tehran was a pleasant surprise and had all the elements of the poetic serenity of Hafez Shirazi.
"You know what the meaning of Hindostan is," he asked me with a twinkle in his ageing eyes and a face that radiated the warmth of an old friend. And without waiting for me to answer, he continued: "Hindostan means Dostanto, the world, a great land that is friend to the entire duniya." Then, with a big smile, he added: "It's a wonderful country, so many languages, religions, different people in a vast area, yet you are keeping them all together. You have so much to give to the world, I wish you make the entire world a Hindostan! Then there will be no problem. You can teach all how to live together."
I was making a courtesy call on a renowned and highly acclaimed literary figure of Iran, Mohammad-Ali Mo'allem Damghani, president of The Iranian Academy of Arts, and a personage considered to be a close aide to the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We discussed literature and the ancient threads that bind us together for more than an hour. He presented me a fabulously-produced limited edition of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. And yes, another very special book, a Persion version of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's Devdas, translated into that language by Fatemeh Hashemnejad.
Iran continued to remind me of old Persia and all its richness - the fragrance of each gulaab (rose), the redolent recitations of the works of Ferdowsi and Hafez Shirazi and, no less, the epic Iranian mural that looks down from the ceiling of Rashtrapati Bhavan's grand Ashok Hall. Each time I attend a swearing-in ceremony there, I gape at the sheer beauty of that work. And some other paintings of Iranian origin that adorn the walls of the hallowed hall.
The three days I spent in Iran just a few weeks ago changed a lot of my perceptions about that country, its people and culture. Iran, as routinely reported to us by Western government and media agencies, is everything that stands against human values and democratic practices. Is that stereotype true? Should I not say something about what I saw and experienced for myself?
Iran must be seen and understood by Indians through Indian eyes. Iran is a people, a tehzeeb that defines itself in unmatched subtlety and finesse; it's a poet's dream, it's dance, it's drama, it's fun. It is a land of unparalleled brilliance and beauty. We in India might still be debating about our Aryan roots, but Iran is sure and proud to be an Aryan land. That name itself - Iran - is directly derived from the word Aryan.
They are different from every other Muslim land - so distinctly refreshing and civilised that it cannot but strike a visitor. It reminds you that whatever form of extremism tries to envelop a society, the soul of a people finds its expression in a thousand beautiful ways.
We could see a softer, liberal, open side of Iranian society, a side not often showcased. Restaurants were as noisy and chaotic as in Calcutta or Bangalore, rolling with Cokes and pastas and all manner of kebabs. A large number of cars on the roads were driven by women, who not just waved at our visiting caravan but also shouted with their necks out - "Hello! Welcome to Iran!"
Visiting the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient city of the Persians - the Parsis - also known as Takht-e-Jamshid, was an amazing experience. It reminded us of the vast empire once ruled by King Darius and Cyrus the Great, and later devastated by the invading armies of Alexander in 330 BC. Parsis, the people from Persia, were later persecuted by Arabs and they took shelter in India, and we all know how immensely they have pioneered and contributed to the India growth story.
Contemporary Islamic Iran has kept its ancient pre-Islamic heritage preserved with such touching care and pride that we can learn a few things from them. My local interpreter, Mehdi Baghfalaki, said the biggest festival Iran celebrates is Nowruz, the pre-Islamic Parsi festival welcoming the new year.
Another revealing moment for me was paying obeisance at a Hindu temple and a gurdwara - both on the same campus - at Bandar Abbas; these structures are meticulously preserved and maintained by the Iranian government's culture department.
What I found incredible throughout our trip was the spontaneous show of warmth and friendship by the Iranian people. We had been fed a very different perception all this while. And had we not experienced it for ourselves, Iran first hand, we would probably have laughed away even the suggestion of what we came across as false or propagandist.
I am an international car rally enthusiast and driver. As a member of Parliament in 2012, I was part of an Asean car rally that drove through six countries. This time, it was driving up from Bandar Abbas through Iran in a first-of-its-kind International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) Car Rally. We were part of a bold move by Odisha's indefatigable Ramesh Mahapatra and his Kalinga Motor Sports Club's Team Maharaja.
Along the entire route from Bandar Abbas to Shiraz to Isfahan to Persepolis and Tehran, the pride of made-in-India Mahindra vehicles were India's poetry-in-motion-on-road, a long verse of close friendship indeed. We saw a fun-loving people - connoisseurs of music and the arts, selfie-obsessed folks that were out having family picnics anywhere and everywhere along roadsides. On highways and inside the cities, on the lawns of malls and in public gardens, any patch of grass was good enough to open up a casserole of biryani, kebabs, naans and curries flavoured with aromatic zafran or saffron. The garden city of Isfahan is a sonata of flowery treats all its own; it is a joy indescribable, at every turn, there's a raunaq.
All of this came to transpire along the 7,200-kilometre INSTC, which has been receiving the focussed attentions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for obvious reasons. India's help in developing Iran's Chabahar port is a milestone in the overall development of INSTC. It received a boost during Modi's Tehran visit and, in more than one way, it underlines the critical importance of India-Iran co-operation .
Yes, the American sanctions wrecked the Iranian economy. The Iranian riyal's value dipped so low that a single room in a standard five-star hotel begins at 42 lakh riyals and a deluxe suite would cost 1 crore 34 lakh riyals per night. After the Barack Obama-driven nuclear treaty, things began moving slowly for the better but Donald Trump's recent reversal of it is making Iranians, frighteningly, pushed against the wall once again; it's like a journey in reverse.
But everyone should trust that for Delhi, the road to Tehran doesn't pass through Washington DC. Our relations with the Persian people go beyond strategic needs. It's a matter of the heart. For me, the journey to Persia was also a matter of de-learning some things and weaving something new - a serenade of serenity is what I would call it.
The writer is a member of the BJP national executive and also a former member of Rajya Sabha