Ali Salami

The Indian Crow By Fereshteh Molavi

I wake up in Delhi to the cawing of a crow perched on a willow branch, to the dance of light on the shadow of a dream, to the scent of a tropical morning. Spring. The awakening of spring. The elation of travel. I pull aside the cotton curtain, open the window and the quiet courtyard of the hotel welcomes me. The soft sunlight on the meadow, the chirping of the sparrows and the scent of eucalyptus from the small garden dispel the fear of being in a foreign country. I get up, go to the bathroom and take a shower, avoiding my reflection in the mirror.

The intense gaze of the young hotel owner, his dark and large eyes, lift my mood like a “leaf in the wind”… The warm milk swirls in my hands. I breathe in its pleasant scent. The fresh green of the lawn beyond the glass door attracts my eyes with its dewy softness. The young man mentions that today is the day of the Holi festival and that stepping outside would mean getting colored. I laugh at his words, his face, his look, and leave the hotel. I turn away from the porter’s Anglophile bow, his dark skin, his thick lips and the pipe in his mouth.

The street is deserted, vacation silence. I walk, the warmth is pleasant, my hair loose and my shoulders bare, a day to wander, a night to meet. When I am called, I stop and turn around. An Iranian family: a man, a woman and two children. They have come to spend their vacation here. The woman, disheartened by the unexpected closure, is delighted to find someone who speaks her language. She is eloquent and polite, as long as she is not nosy! A question or two reveals my empty wallet. I have no idea of the prices of the goods and the bargaining options. She is a little disappointed, but knowing the streets and markets well is a treasure in itself. For me, hearing her melodious voice and sweet accent is a treasure. Her words float past my ears, carried on the breeze: she regrets not choosing Thailand because it is so affordable and the goods are better. After years, she manages to travel abroad, only to end up in India out of desperation. Her husband, a customs officer, knows all the tricks, but this foreign country is unpredictable. Despite his cunning, he is often outwitted. The little foreign currency they have is not enough for sightseeing and souvenirs. A bit of smuggled money, a bag of pistachios and almonds, packets of saffron and gold, gold, gold. Where can you exchange all this? Barter… Trade… Trade… The insatiable desire for trade, the addiction to it…

I seek only the sound, the melody of words, the fleeting connections that slip through our fingers. Words are just fleeting air. The warm breeze flutters through my shirt. I look at the woman’s thick, walnut-colored hair, long and untamed, and smile. She breathes in deeply. Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, she dreams of buying several summer blouses. Her heart desires so much: saris, sandals, sequined scarves, linen nightgowns, earrings, necklaces, ivory bracelets, bedspreads, cashmere scarves, silk! So many things… So many colors… Oh, how nice to be colorful!

A cyclist with a smiling face and menacing hands rides by, leaving a trail of muddled colors in his wake. A bus drives by, sun-kissed youths in tattered clothes, with gleaming white teeth and colored hands lean out the windows and shower us with handfuls of paint as they laugh. I try to wipe my face with my hands, which only smears the paint even more. The two boys from the Iranian family burst out laughing when they see their mother and me. We look around, but there’s not a tap in sight. We find ourselves at the edge of a shady street, next to a water channel. Reluctantly, I wash my face with the muddy water. The children tell me that my ears are still red and my forehead is green. I’m not keen to go back to the hotel just yet. An old man squats by the water, his gaze as empty as the bowl next to him. Another group of rowdy youths approaches, covered in paint. This time I don’t step aside. I have become immune. We laugh, the children and I, as we walk towards the young people. Their sunburned skin, their shining eyes, their dry, chapped lips, their big white teeth, their faded clothes, their bare, scaly feet, their colored hands. The colors: green, red, yellow, purple, blue; simple pleasures. I can hear the beating of their hearts, the warm air trembling.

The trembling warmth, wave upon wave, the smell of human sweat; people passing, moving on; people who have been and gone. Seventeen, lost in the feverish turmoil of the market. The sky above us is dense, even, blue and empty. Below, all noise, all colors, everything and everyone. The lingering sweet taste of zahedi dates in my mouth, the faint smell of bananas in the air. The smell of perfumes, fruits, the smell of Lux soap, tea, the smell of Yardley cream, spices. Stalls, mats, stores. Shopkeepers, smugglers, shoppers. Villagers, city dwellers, Kurdish horsemen with rifles slung over their shoulders. Donkeys, cars, bicycles. The hustle and bustle, the tumult, the colors, the smell. Qasr-e Shirin and its palm trees; Qasr-e Shirin and its narrow, spit-strewn streets; Qasr-e Shirin and its sweltering summer heat; Qasr-e Shirin and its small, squat houses; Qasr-e Shirin and its seventeen-year-old dreams; Qasr-e Shirin and its relentless striving, its endless passion, its fixed gaze, its flushed cheeks and the beating of its heart!

The heartbeat of the seventeen-year-old girl from Qasr-e Shirin echoes in the shivering warmth of the Delhi air. I hear her heartbeat, her heartbeat.

I stroll through the alleyways and markets. Tourists with sun-kissed thighs and arms, cameras around their necks and shoulders, in sandals and with little yellow, orange and white flower garlands. Cozy cows adorned with flowers. Strict Sikhs with turbans. Women in silk, chiffon and cotton saris, with long, braided black hair, bulging brown bellies, barefoot, with colorful lips, big eyes with kohl pencils and adorable bindis. Green-faced children wobbling on their feet with their mouths open. Men walking leisurely and disillusioned, men sprawled on the ground, in the grass and on the stones of parks, streets and alleyways. Men with fat bellies, chapped lips and greasy skin. Skeletal men with hunger and longing. Skyscrapers rising amidst the dominance of short brick and stone buildings. Wide, tree-lined, deserted streets lined with small old cars, battered motor rickshaws and rickety bicycles. Old Delhi. The chaotic marketplace full of movement and noise, the hectic mixture of the misery of poverty and the hustle and bustle of life. The old Delhi!

In the quiet embrace of Nehru Park, amidst the gentle afternoon stillness, I hear the breath of the plants. My gaze wanders among the guests, but I can’t find him. And yet I know he will come. The dark-skinned waiters in their immaculate white dresses meander through a mosaic of guests, offering sweets, sandwiches and lemonades with a carefree cleanliness. Small groups have formed in every corner, and it’s only half an hour until the traditional dance and performance begins. A middle-aged host approaches with a small plate of paints and wants to dab my forehead with the festive colors. Disinterested, I tell him that I have already been dyed in the morning. I avoid familiar glances and hop restlessly from one place to another until I find a lonely chair. A canopy of leaves above me, a carpet of grass beneath my feet, the gentle breeze on my feverish skin. A forgotten poem whispers on my silent lips: “A leaf in the wind…” My memory is a jumble of memories, heavy. “A leaf in the wind, I drift with the storms of my dreams.” Which poet wrote that? Which lover has clothed his longing in such words?

He asked my age. “Thirty-seven,” I replied. He didn’t believe me. My smile made him lower his head. He grabbed my arm and squeezed gently. I repeated slowly, “Thirty-seven.” He shrugged his shoulders and admitted that he was no longer young either, a good seven or eight years older than me, and felt himself occasionally losing his footing. He asked about my daughter. “Seventeen,” I said, “and alone, under the bomb-ridden sky of Tehran…” He interrupted me and mentioned his own daughter, who is the same age as mine and lives with his wife in Rome, far away from him. His longing to see her was palpable as he tightened his grip on my arm again.

The sky is drawing towards dusk. The seat next to me is empty. My heart is restless, my mind in turmoil. The damp green presses against the dry shell of my solitude. The garden of Delhi. The small garden of Venice.

On Mawlana Azad Road, a gentle, indifferent cow strolls by, a garland of flowers swinging lightly around her neck, her eyes shining, her gaze serene. A man follows slowly behind her. It is a spring morning on Azad Road, a tree-lined street. The trees, old and twisted, full of branches and life, give me the feeling of sitting on the edge of a tropical rainforest, feeling the humid warmth and seeing the bright clearings. The sun, the all-encompassing sun of spring in Delhi, the sun of Iran, my sun, shines above me. The bright leaves, the vibrant green, yellow, red and orange leaves. A gardener tends the lush lawn of a government building, the fresh green flies from the blades of the lawnmower. The clear splashing of fountains and sprinklers mingles with the breeze gliding through the air. The sweep of a broom across the thin veil of silence, the smoke from piles of burnt leaves that twist and turn in the clear air before disappearing. The chatter of sparrows, the song of colorful little birds whose names I don’t know, and… The cawing of crows! Every now and then a leisurely pedestrian or cyclist passes by. Away from the metallic noise, I enjoy the fresh, crisp morning with all my senses. The light, the warmth, the freshness get under my skin. At thirty-seven, I thirst for the freshness of youth. The longing that has long been buried under the heavy snow of fleeting moments, accumulated experiences and the dregs of tiredness and decay suddenly comes to life. The rebellious tree shakes its scaffolding. I get up to go to his house and discard the idea of hiring a cycle rickshaw. The rickshaw driver is young, darkly colored by the sun and sinewy. The muscular veins on his slender brown legs, the protruding veins on his neck, the sweat trickling down his neck, the constant movement of his lean body and the slow progress of his rickshaw instill in me a reluctant shame. I am desperate. I bite my lip and swallow the rickshaw ride, a relic from the Middle Ages, a stale, moldy piece of bread, not knowing how to digest it. With my shame and despair, I pay for a loaf of bread and a movie ticket.

I make an effort to turn away from anything that hides his face. I close my eyes to the long road ahead, the uneven journey, the midday madness and the lethargic doubt halfway through. Searching for love or passion or joy or whatever else has slipped through my fingers, I make my way to his house.

He looks at me in disbelief. The weight of the lonely man’s sad gaze casts a shadow over my excitement. Nevertheless, I am glad to see him, to have come to his house and to have decided to be with him. Slowly, he says he thought I had left, slipped away from him. I tell him I am not leaving today, but maybe tomorrow… He covers my mouth with his hand and pleads: “Just until tomorrow.” I close my eyes and inwardly admit to myself that I want that too. Not to see tomorrow. But tomorrow lurks heavily and insistently in the corner of my heart. I sink into the only comfortable chair in the room and watch his childlike joy with satisfaction as I talk to myself. He is completely taken aback and clings naively to this sudden joy. I pity how quickly he believes in happiness! So naive! And yet he can still find joy as effortlessly as a little boy. He’s not old yet, but I have come to terms with the fact that love has passed me by. That it will never return. That I am now just a leaf in the wind, moving with the faded gusts of my dreams. But on this last day with this stranger, this unknown Venetian in exile, I am happy. The bittersweet happiness of a lonely woman who knows that she has lost love forever.

The darkness descends gently and gradually. He asks what else. I say nothing more. There is nothing to say. The Venetian wants me to talk. The childish euphoria of the afternoon has evaporated. He has accepted my departure, my slipping away, with the same naivety. His anger is deeper than his despair, but he covers it up with his constant chatter.

At his side, I am not afraid of midnight in Delhi. Our night walk soothes me. He wishes I could forget everything, just for this one night. I say nothing. He knows I cannot. The first time I met him, he asked me about the war and involuntarily reminded me of Qasr-e Shirin. Qasr-e Shirin from twenty years ago, the young girl passionately in love. But now the terrible shadow of a destroyed Qasr-e Shirin stands between us, between me and him, with me but not with him, shoulder to shoulder. He says, what is sleeping together if not a form of sympathy! I shrug my shoulders. Unlike him, I am not even looking for comfort.

The darkness descends gently and gradually. The garden of the small Venetian guest house is shrouded in shadow. My daughter, seven years old, had fallen asleep in my feverish embrace. A day spent wandering the narrow streets of Venice, marveling at all the exotic sights and the strange sensation of walking on water, the delightful weight of my soft little daughter in my arms, could not banish the persistent fantasy of love from my mind.

I take the Venetian’s arm. I tell him I wish I had seen him when I was twenty-seven. He laughs and asks if that was the year I went to Venice. I nod. He asks if I was there with my family. I nod again. Laughing, he asks if that was when I realized that I no longer loved my husband. I say nothing. The starry sky above me, a stranger next to me and the suffocating specter of loneliness pressing down on me.

We reach a lighted street. We pass a movie theater. A swarm of beggars descends on us, mostly children. He says it’s just another stale, moldy piece of bread we have to force down. They crowd in on me from all sides. One leaves, another takes his place. My wallet empties. He says I was warned that once you start, you cannot stop. We quicken our pace. His nonchalance makes me angry. He says he’s not used to it. A young woman with a child in her arms does not let up. She follows us for a few meters. For a moment I think she’s chasing me with a ladle of boiling pepper potion. I want to run away. He pulls my arm and tells me to calm down. Inwardly I say that I cannot. Eventually the girl gives up. She angrily kicks an empty tin can in our direction. The Venetian bursts out laughing. He asks if there are no beggars in Tehran. I do not answer him. I despise myself. Inwardly I say that there are beggars, wanderers and a heaven in Tehran…

As I wander beside him through the depths of the Delhi night, the shadows draw me more and more under their spell: Qasr-e Shirin, Venice, Delhi; at seventeen, twenty-seven, thirty-seven. Cut off from the spring morning on Azad Street, in the depths of the Delhi night, I can still hear the daunting cawing of dawn. The Indian crow, hiding in the darkness, continues its song, shredding my dreams to pieces!

 

© Ali Salami 2022

About the Writer

Fereshteh Molavi was born in Tehran on September 19, 1953. From 1976 to 1998, she worked as a research assistant at the National Library of Iran. She immigrated to Canada in 1998 and now lives in Toronto. From 2004 to 2006, she worked as a Persian bibliographer and librarian at Yale University’s Sterling Library in the United States, where she was responsible for developing the library’s Middle East Department collections and providing research services to faculty and students. She then returned to Toronto and taught literature and language for several years.

Molavi has taught Persian language and literature and essay writing at the University of Toronto, and for several years.

In addition to writing novels and short stories, Molavi has written numerous articles for newspapers and magazines in Iran and abroad, and several of her short stories have been published in English. She has also been a visiting writer at Massey College and Brown University in Toronto. For several years, she also organized a cultural program called “Tehran Book of the Month”,” in which twenty remarkable Persian books were reviewed and discussed by renowned experts.

Fereshteh Molavi has published four novels, several collections of short stories, two collections of essays, a bibliography and several translated books. Her novel “The Two Acts of the Season” (2009) won the Mehregan Adab Award. Her various writings have appeared in media inside and outside Iran, and some of her stories and essays have been published in English anthologies and magazines.

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