copyright 1995, 1999
copyright 1995, 1999
For seventy-four years now Seyyed Nasrolla Vali had had a monotonous life; four times a day he had walked to and from work down the alley called the Wazir's Bath. Now, for the first time, he had an opportunity to travel abroad, to India.
So far he had not traveled within the country; he had not even seen Kashan, the birthplace of his ancestors. The only traveling he had ever done had been a three-day trip to Damavand. That trip had proved exhausting and had made him quite uncomfortable. Besides, when he got home he found that his house had been burglarized. And this had made him apprehensive of traveling.
Since Seyyed Nasrolla's life had been dedicated to the acquisition of the arts and sciences as well as to spiritual enhancement, he had married late--at the age of seventy-two. Within the short span of two years, however, he had added two "little philosophers" to the human race. Seyyed Nasrolla, although he had not documented his erudition in any concrete way, was an exemplary master of Persian, Arabic and French literatures as well as of Eastern and Western philosophy, mysticism, and ancient and modern sciences. He was a breed apart, especially from those scholars and men of letters who had gained prominence by writing lengthy articles in their own defense, or by capitalizing on their lucrative political status, their trips abroad, their unrevealing interpretative notes in the margins of worm-eaten manuscripts, or by plagiarism or flattery or all the above.
How could Seyyed Nasrolla condescend to pen a book when he pronounced Arabic words so well that his eloquence and learning could not escape the audience. Even though he spoke softly, enunciating each word, there was no philologist on the face of the earth who could find fault with his logic, rhetoric or syntax. Indeed, Seyyed Nasrolla was an advocate of the saying which goes "If speech is golden, silence is a jewel." When having to say something for the benefit of others, one should examine his thoughts at least seven times before uttering the first word!
And this had made the Seyyed famous. So much so that one day His Eminence, Hakim Bashipur, the Minister of Education, summoned the Seyyed to his room to discuss some urgent and important affair. After interminable greetings, exchanges of pleasantries, and praise of the Seyyed, and after countless promises of future promotions and the like, he said, "It would be a pity if we did not attempt to bring to the attention of the Indian people the miraculous strides that our ancient land has made in the field of education, strides that indeed have claimed the attention of the world at large. India, after all, is the cradle of the Aryan race and is populated by millions of Moslems whose language is Farsi. They must be apprised of our dazzling educational system, especially of our newly invented lexicon."
Then, in order to argue with concrete proof, he handed the Seyyed a booklet filled with words newly coined by the Language Academy. The booklet was signed by His Majesty and sanctioned by the finest savants of the age. He also gave the Seyyed a generous supply of his own photographs--photos taken in various positions: profile, frontal, sitting, standing, serious, etc.--and carefully instructed him to distribute them among the Indian journalists so that they could reproduce them in the pages of their newspapers and journals.
Hakim Bashipur's kind words affected the Seyyed greatly. Nevertheless, shaking his red, bald head, smiling knowingly and citing old age, innumerable factitious health problems, and the separation from his family on the one hand and the distance to India and sea voyage on the other, he rejected the offer. He then advised that this mission must be delegated to another important propagandist. Mr. Hakim Bashipur, however, insisted that the mission at hand, being strictly confidential, could not be doled out to just anyone and that the Seyyed embodied the age, the fame and the erudition that this high office required. And so, after hearing the minister out, willy-nilly, Seyyed Nasrolla acquiesced to the will of the higher authorities and agreed to undertake the mission gladly.
Leaving Hakim Bashipur's office, Seyyed Nasrolla recalled the difficulties and the discomfort of his short trip to Damavand. Then he visualized the distance between Tehran and India. The comparison brought a vague but so terrible anxiety into his heart that he felt giddy and began to shake. When he reached his desk, he rang the bell and asked for a glass of water. Then, his anxiety subsided, he began to think. He placed separation from his family, confusion caused by temporary dislocation and pounds of weight that he would lose on the one side of his imaginary scales. On the other side he placed capital gain, fame, invitations to parties and tours he could take on government funds. None of these, however, could calm him. Because, more than to anything else, he was dedicated to his own well-being and the pursuit of a carefree life. It did not seem wise to jeopardize his current situation for some hoped-for gain. As a result of these thoughts, he developed a nasty hatred for Hakim Bashipur. But hatred was useless. The mission had been imposed on him as an official duty. He could not renege on it. Besides, he could not give up the cash involved--Seyyed Nasrolla, who was something of a miser, would receive double salary, travel and lodging expenses as well as compensation for performance of duty in an unsuitable climate. There was an additional incentive to all this: perhaps, like the medieval physician Borzuye, he could uncover a book like the Kalile va Demne and bring that back with him from India. That, he thought, would immortalize him. Then he heard himself murmuring:
Time went by, but these thoughts remained. Soon the news of his upcoming travel was made public. And groups of his friends came to congratulate him and wish him bon voyage. In response to all this, Seyyed Nasrolla acted as though he were being victimized. Shaking his head, in a serious tone he would say, "What am I to do? We have to serve our Motherland!"
Eventually, after a month of consulting with the astrologer and with the Unseen, at an auspicious hour Seyyed Nasrolla ceremoniously passed under the Qur'an and the mirror. And then, amidst a commotion of reporters who took countless pictures of him, he set off. Before leaving, however, he handed his wife his will and testament.
He did not enjoy the trip between Tehran and Ahwaz at all. So he seized an opportunity to inspect the education office in Ahwaz and briefly to test some of the pupils. And, in spite of the fact that Arabic was their mother tongue, he severely criticized their pronunciation. Then there came the directors of the various governmental offices in Ahwaz, each trying to outdo the other in extending invitations to the Seyyed. He, being fatigued, accepted none. He knew that all these pleasantries were artificial and ordered from the top. Besides, he was tired of delivering standard good-will lectures and of hearing standard flattery in response--all these made him feel sad and melancholy. Deep down in his heart he wished nothing would disrupt his calm and monotonous life. Moreover, he had decided to pen a lengthy article in praise of Hakim Bashipur and to suffuse it with real Arabic words, scientific notes, and philosophical as well as theological points. But he had not had a chance yet. And now the anxiety and the worry arising from the voyage interfered with his decision. Every time that the car passed a dangerous ravine, he would feel death upon him--he would recite appropriate verses from the holy Qur'an and wipe the sweat from his brow with a folded handkerchief produced from his pocket.
He was well received in Khorramshahr; the ticket for his voyage and everything he needed were waiting for him. He stayed the night at the education director's house. He had some nasty dreams. In the morning the education director accompanied him to the river. Although he had come under the pretense of seeing the river, the Seyyed had really come secretly to study the sea. With a special curiosity he surveyed the palm trees flanking the river, the small boats and several large boats anchored in the distant sea. So far he had seen the sea only on maps and palm trees in geography books. Now he was seeing these in person! Quickly he recalled the praises of travel cited in ancient lore. The world appeared large and mysterious. He murmured to himself, "Much travel is required for a greenhorn to become a master!" Then he felt a kind of philosophical conceit. But, as soon as he recalled that he had to board the ship that evening, his heart began to pound and he felt tired.
Until late afternoon, when the ship was scheduled to leave, Seyyed Nasrolla spent his time at parties. But, like those who are scheduled to go to surgery, he felt anxious. He continued his queries about sea voyages until, at sunset, like a cry of disappointment, the ship's whistle was heard. Seyyed Nasrolla's heart sank. The stewards quickly took Seyyed Nasrolla's luggage from customs and placed it in a small boat. Then they had him sit among them in another small boat and headed for the ship. On his lap close to his body, Seyyed Nasrolla had placed the briefcase into which he had put the notebook and Hakim Bashipur's photos. The small boat rocked, the waves on the sea shone under the silvery moonlight and the dark green trees stood motionless on the sides of the river. Seyyed Nasrolla viewed all this with disdain and felt like a camel selected for sacrifice --decorated with the best ornaments available. He felt that all these ceremonies were undertaken to deceive him. The small boat rocked from the attacking waves. Feeling completely vulnerable but masking his dread, Seyyed Nasrolla decided to speak to the boatman in eloquent Arabic. But the boatman did not understand the eloquent speech and responded in an Arabic that tortured the Seyyed's very ears. Seyyed Nasrolla then deduced that he would not be able to find even one Arab to understand him!
In the distance, the ship's lights shone brightly. The one bound for India was the most beautiful and the brightest. The sea breeze bore the salty smell of decomposing fish, moss and those decrepit odors not yet dispersed by the storms. The first boat to leave for the ship was the ship's doctor's. There followed other motorboats carrying the ship's cargo. The commotion, the shouts and cries of the Arab porters and the noise of the engine made the Seyyed absolutely uneasy. Finally, when the crowd was cleared, like a pregnant woman, they lifted the Seyyed by the arms and helped him; trembling with fear he went up the ladder. When he set foot on the ship, a philosophical smile crossed his pale lips. His friends placed his belongings in his cabin, bowed, said goodbye and left.
Seyyed Nasrolla felt giddy. He sat on the narrow bed of the second-class cabin and put the briefcase containing the lexicon and the photos at his side. Of course the government had arranged for him to travel first class, but the Seyyed, parsimonious as ever, had preferred second class. Could he have traveled third class without censure, he would have done so. The voices of the passengers and the noise of the crane came in through the window. He got up and looked out of the window: shore lights twinkled in the distance. Along the ship's corridors, Arab porters were going back and forth in groups. This scene only quickened Seyyed Nasrolla's heartfelt remorse. Several times he decided, before the ship set sail, to pretend that he was sick and to disembark. He even thought of resigning. But he felt that by now he had gone too far. Deep in his heart he said goodbye to his wife and children and the quiet life he had led beyond those lights on the shore. Then he bit his lip, turned and viewed his new room. It was a small white-washed room of steel and wood.
The room had three beds, two of them forming a double bed. There was also a sink, a wardrobe and a small table. It appeared to be a clean, sturdy and fail-safe room. But then some stories from his reading--about the creatures of the sea, Sindbad the sailor and mythical tales of India--whelmed up in his mind. At the same time a tall, black, Indian orderly in an immaculate white uniform entered and said something in English, something that the Seyyed did not grasp. Feeling ignorant, he blushed. He realized that the limit of his knowledge had been the four walls of his house; there were other languages, peoples and lives in the world to which he had been oblivious. Then, without any cause, he directed his hatred towards the Indian orderly, as if that person there had been instrumental in his undertaking this journey. The orderly brought sheets and blankets and fixed them on the beds.
Eventually the outside noise subsided. Tired, Seyyed Nasrolla lay down on the bed. The bed was narrow and uncomfortable. The orderly knocked on the door again, entered and with hand gestures communicated to him that dinner was being served. Then he led the way, climbed a flight of stairs and ushered Seyyed Nasrolla into the ship's restaurant. At the Seyyed's table were two passengers speaking in Persian. Seyyed Nasrolla inspected and tasted every food item to make sure that it met his standards and that it was not cooked with Indian spices. He believed, along with the ancients, in the hot and cold aspects of foods. He had brought some cold spices with him to restore the balance in his body were he to need such treatment.
One of the Iranians at the table gave his order in English and called the Indian waiter "chakra." Seyyed Nasrolla was sure that he had found one who could speak English to him; thus, using "chakra" as a means to break the ice, he joined the conversation saying, "The Hindi language is a child of the Persian. In their consecutive invasions under Darius the Great, Alexander, Sultan Mahmud and Nader Shah, the Iranian armies took Persian into India. Your word 'chakra' is, in my opinion, the same as the word 'chaker' in Persian. Furthermore, 'chatni,' the Indian spice, is also taken from the Persian word 'chashni.' In general, in the same way that all races of man stem from Shem, Ham and Japheth (or is it Salm, Tur and Iraj?), all world languages draw on Persian, Arabic and Turkish. For instance, take the word samovar. Everyone thinks of it as a Russian borrowing. Well, I have discovered that it is a compound of three words: the Persian se (three), the Arabic ma' (water), and the Turkish ver (bring). The word, therefore, means 'bring three waters'. Languages abound in such words!" And thus the Iranian passengers were left in awe of Seyyed Nasrolla's knowledge of history and philology. In the course of the conversation, Seyyed Nasrolla learned that the youth who knew English had been in India before and that now he was traveling to Bushehr for official business.
After his coffee, Seyyed Nasrolla returned to his room. He was tired. He looked into the mirror; his face was pale. Reciting a verse from the Qur'an, he lay down on the bed and went to sleep. At dawn, partly because of the soft movement of the ship and partly because of the noise of the motor, he woke up. He opened his eyes in astonishment as if he had not expected to wake up in a ship. His head ached. After breakfast a roster of instructions in red attracted his attention. He approached the wall and read:
B.I.S.N. Co. Ltd.
Emergency Instructions for Passengers
There followed a long description in English and three pictures of a man. One showed how to fit the floating device to the chest; the others showed how to tie the straps.
Looking at this sheet, Seyyed Nasrolla confirmed his view that English was indeed renegade French, misspelled and mispronounced. He thought to himself that the English word emergency must stem from the French word "emerger." Thus he translated the heading of the instruction sheet as follows: "Instructions for Retrieving Passengers." Just then he looked up at the ceiling. Two compartments caught his eye. One held two flotation devices and the other one. Seyyed was overtaken with fear. These very devices were proof enough that one could not depend on Western technology. This ship, in spite of its apparent majesty, might sink. He searched for a dictionary. He could not find one. He tried to read the instructions in English; he did not get much for his effort. He could only guess the meaning of some of the forms. One thing, however, was clear to him. The sheet discussed the manner of saving one who is already in the water and is drowning.
Quickly he put on his clothes and went onto the deck. Two Indian natives were sleeping by the smoke stack and an Indian orderly in a greenish uniform was running to some destination. And as far as the Seyyed could see, water was rolling on water. A vague trace of the shoreline was barely visible in the distance. He surveyed the side of the ship. The word "Valro" appeared on the white straps attached to the top railings. Since he had seen the same word on the ship's menu as well, he concluded that the ship's name must be Valro. An Indian lady, clad in a sari and adorned with golden rings in her ear and nose, passed by.
A thousand unpleasant memories revived themselves in his mind. Hadn't he read two years ago in the newspaper that a gigantic ship had sunk in the Atlantic? Hadn't he seen, not long ago, the picture of a French ship burning on the Red Sea? The odds could be two billion to one that something like that could happen to this ship. But why should he have taken that chance and jeopardized his life? He thought and thought.
Then he recalled Hakim Bashi whose neck got thicker by the day and who helped no one but himself. Yet he was an illiterate charlatan. Weren't the letters that left his desk full of morphological and syntactic errors? Besides, he was known to be a Jew who, for the sake of securing a diploma at "The American School," had converted to Christianity. Recently he had been chummy with the mullahs. He would borrow an error-ridden translation of Carlyle from his Jewish son-in-law and lecture on it. On the one hand he would uncover anti-Islamic tracts and on the other would get in line with the Westernized infidels. He would have the newspapers print his name along with those of Plato, Socrates, Avicenna, Ferdowsi, Sa'di, Hafez, and the others! Why should I have jeopardized my life for the sake of a base individual like Hakim Bashipur who would soon be bragging and say, "My picture has appeared in the Indian press." Why did I allow myself, thought Seyyed Nasrolla, to be manipulated by a selfish fool? Who, with my substance and status, would take a bunch of ridiculous and meaningless words--words which are neither Persian nor Arabic--to India as a sign of progress? What if I encountered a couple of scholars who were really in the know! What would their reaction be? Why, instead of one of his young and up-coming disciples who scratch each other's back and who, under the pretense of education, roam Europe so that they can become his future propagandists, why did he commission me? Each one of these students in Europe receives at least two or three thousand tumans to write a book like "St. George and His Teachings to the World," then to be published by the government. Why couldn't I, Seyyed Nasrolla thought, stay home with my wife and children and write works like that or worse yet, publish erroneous translations of French texts under my name? Why should I become the vagabond adventurer and have to undergo perils to promote a bunch of Hakim Bashipur's propagandists? Why should I make a spectacle of myself? Couldn't they send a more viable educational project? Then, suddenly, Seyyed Nasrolla realized that he was allowing his feelings to rule his mind. During his life's experience he had learned that the hype and the propaganda promoted by a bunch of nouveaux riches who mock people and rake in the money have been the only way to make bread and butter. Besides, didn't they force him to deliver lectures on the "Dazzling Age?" And he had accepted partly to show himself and his eloquence and partly to tell the others who is boss. And what a subject I chose, Seyyed Nasrolla thought! Comparing the Motherland to a dying woman saved by Reza Khan who appears at her deathbed carrying a suppository and a cupper's bowl! This recollection, in spite of his depression, brought a smile to his lips. Others could never deliver such weighty words and pleasant phrases. He had dealt with all these scholars and knew them fairly well. He knew the Westernized and the modern ones as well as the old ones--they were all the same; only their titles differed. Before this they used to go to Najaf and become Hojat al-Islams; now they went to Europe and returned with a doctorate. Their main business was deceiving the masses; their main concern was their belly and lower. Everyone thought of three-storied houses, cars and official residences abroad. Seyyed Nasrolla had not been abroad himself, but he had mingled with the majority of medical doctors and scholars who visited Iran. For instance, while an Iranian doctor's wish was to become a director, an advocate and a minister, the late Dr. Tuluza had spent every minute of his time studying. Why was he himself less successful than the others? Because he was given to learning. He recalled how his audiences swallowed his every word and how often after lectures they congratulated him on his performance. His Majesty himself had shown favor towards him! But the next time they had forced him to deliver a lecture, he had refused! Was he being sent on this perilous journey because of that? He shook his head and murmured, "Those who seek peacocks must suffer the perils of India." When Seyyed Nasrolla left the restaurant after lunch, he bumped into the Iranian man who knew English. He acknowledged the man and complained about the weather. Then, without any prior discussion, he asked, "Are you traveling alone?"
"If you like Isfahani gaz, please come with me to my cabin."
He led the man to his room. With great difficulty he produced a box of gaz from the suitcase, placed it before him and began to speak softly, "No matter how much of his life a man dedicates to learning the sciences and the arts, it will never be sufficient. Isn't it a pity that we cannot freely spend all our time on learning? The smallest change of inspection is sufficient to uncover new unknowns. Were we to scrutinize the most minute of things, my assertions would be confirmed. For instance, if we put a dry leaf under the microscope lens, we would discover a new world with its own system and rules. A grain of dust might set off great philosophical discussions, much thought and searching the soul! As the mystics have said, 'If you could open the atom, you would observe a sun within it.'
Today's speculative science has proved that what the ancients considered a continuum is a universe unto itself. And if we look at the sky and observe the unchangeable rotation of the heavenly bodies, we become so perplexed that we cannot but admit, 'I have learned enough to know that I know nothing.'
We are surrounded by mysteries and unknown things. I agree with Hermes Terismazhist who says, 'Whatever obtains here below, obtains up there as well.' However, the reason for this lengthy discussion is this: the mystery of the many--too many--tribes, clans and languages in the world is too deep for us to fathom in our short lifetime. My regret, however, is that during my youth I did not learn the English language. Now I have difficulty sorting out words and phrases. The reason could be that Anglo-Saxon roots are not the same as Latin roots or that I am not familiar with English words and phrases. Take that instruction sheet on the wall. I could deduce the title. Apparently, it instructs us how to retrieve drowning passengers."
The newcomer, who had a piece of gaz in his mouth, listened perplexedly to the Seyyed's weighty philosophical assertions and without understanding them agreed, "Of course, certainly. It is as you say."
"Is there a real danger of sinking?"
"No air, never. Simply a precaution. It shows how prudent the Europeans are. Of course, one cannot deny the possibility of accidents."
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean. We are talking about accidents as possible, not absolutely avoidable."
"But have they found any means for avoiding accidents?"
"But of course."
"Can I impose on you, briefly of course, to translate this instruction sheet for me?"
The man who knew English got up, read the instruction sheet and translated for Seyyed Nasrolla its directions for using the life jackets. The sheet emphasized that passengers should test their flotation devices to acquaint themselves with the jackets.
Seyyed Nasrolla listened very carefully. Then he wiped the perspiration off his forehead and said, "What if the ship is on fire or sinks for some other reason? Such a thing is possible, isn't it? Only last year, for instance, a French ship caught fire on the Red Sea. And I recall reading in a Latin newspaper that a gigantic ship sank in the Atlantic while its passengers were dancing and playing music right up to the time that death overtook them."
"In a Latin newspaper, did you say?"
"Yes. Of course, I refer to French as Latin. I am sorry to bore you, but I am a born learner. I like to use every opportunity for enhancing my knowledge. What if, when the ship is sinking, someone has not mastered the art of swimming?"
"As you said, there are large boats on either side of the ship. Those boats are put into the water. They put the passengers--children first, ladies next and men last--into those boats and wait for a rescue ship."
"But aren't there dangerous fish in the water? They might inflict harm!"
"Yes, of course. Accidents may happen. It's a possibility. For instance, it is possible that the telegraphic apparatus of the potential rescue ship catches on fire when the ship is away from the shore. In that case, even if they put all the passengers into the life boats, they may die of starvation and thirst before a rescue ship arrives. Many accidents are possible in life--none is imminent though."
Seyyed Nasrolla shook his head thoughtfully and murmured, "Accidents are possible but not imminent."
Then he asked, "Did I hear you say there are large boats on the side of the ship?"
"Yes, haven't you seen them? Come on, I'll show them to you.
"Thank you. One last question. Does this ship anchor in other ports?"
"This is an express. It stops only at Bushehr, Karachi and Bombay. It will anchor for a couple of hours in Bushehr."
Seyyed Nasrolla, deep in thought, said, "Thank you so much for taking the trouble..."
Then he fell silent. A special hush descended on the cabin. The man who knew English said goodbye and left.
Seyyed Nasrolla produced a handkerchief and wiped his burning brow. Then he got up and cautiously went to the ship's deck. He looked carefully. Two large, black boats which he had not noticed before were hanging on the sides of the ship. The word "Oxford" appeared on the boats. Seyyed Nasrolla read the name on the straps of the flotation device once more and repeated the word "Valro" several times as if he were familiar with that name. He thought to himself that Valro must be one of the gods of Assyria or Greece. Then the sea attracted his attention. The waves roared, attacked the ship and receded only to attack again. He gazed at the greenish, almost black color of the water. The sea looked like a living liquid or a living, slippery entity which twisted and turned in pain and which was ready to swallow hundreds of these ships without even considering the learning and the knowledge of those on board! He felt that he hated the blind forces of nature. Besides, under the sea there were creatures waiting for something to happen. Hadn't he heard in Khorramshahr about children and women who had approached the water to wash clothes? Sharks are known to have dragged them into the water and cut them in half. He felt the ship's soft tremor under his feet. Then he heard the metallic roar of the engine. As far as the eye could see there was water attacking and reattacking the ship. The ship cut into the water and left in its wake a stream of foam resembling the pus in an open wound. Two small birds flew behind the ship, their nesting places unknown. All this appeared strange, singular and incredible to the Seyyed. Then he thought of those who lived under the deck. What kind of human beings were they? Strangely enough, none of the other passengers was worried or, if worried, knew quite well how to mask it. But the fact that others were not worried was not sufficiently soothing for Seyyed Nasrolla--he was a breed apart from the others; he was the pride of mankind!
Seyyed Nasrolla was of the opinion that the ascription of cowardice to the Kashanis was an injustice. Hadn't Herodotus written that the ancient Iranians dreaded the water and the sea? Besides, wasn't Hafez from Shiraz and was he not afraid of the sea? He recalled reading in a book that the Indian sultan Akbar had invited the poet Hafez to India. Hafez, balking at the ship and the sea, gave up the trip saying:
The Indian woman with golden rings in her ear and nostril passed him without noticing him. All the ship's passengers appeared dreadful, conniving and mysterious to the Seyyed, as if they were all part of a conspiracy to take him by surprise, torture and kill him! He felt giddy. He was tired of thinking. He took refuge in his cabin. He took off his clothes and lay down on the bed. A thousand thoughts milled around in his head. He could feel the monotonous tremor of the ship better now, as if his senses had become keener. He felt that the tremor was resonating with his heartbeat. Gradually, his eyelids closed and he went to sleep.
He dreamed that a group of Arabs wearing life belts were standing on the deck. They were putting on the flotation devices and shouting, "Valro!..." Another group already wearing their devices replied from the water, "Valro!..." The Seyyed himself was wearing a flotation device over the Bushehri cloak that he wore in the house. He was carrying his children on his shoulder. When he wanted to jump into the sea, his wife pulled on his cloak. Terrified, he jumped and woke up. A cold sweat covered his whole body. His head ached and a bitterish taste hung in his mouth. He saw the cabin, he heard the metallic roar of the ship's engine and felt the ship's tremor. He closed his eyes again as if trying to escape from this hell. Involuntarily he began to think about his family and his home. He recalled their korsi and the red embroidery that covered its top. He yearned for the pillows and the soft mattresses that were placed around the korsi. His child who had just begun to babble enunciated the words so correctly. He recalled his wife separating pomegranate seeds from the pomegranate skin and putting the seeds onto a plate. He recalled his office and good things associated with it. But now, suddenly, all these were hazy and distant, as if they belonged to some mysterious and magical world. He promised himself that when he returned from India he would choose the safer means--he would travel on land and by train.
He cursed Hakim Bashipur from the bottom of his heart. The latter had sent the Seyyed on this perilous mission while he himself sat at his ministerial desk smiling, exploiting young boys and girls--straightening out the affairs of the State. He gave his cronies--thieves, liars and propagandists--the lucrative positions and created new titles for them. He assigned them to the Farhangestan to coin ridiculous words and shove them down people's throats. Seyyed knew that elsewhere in the world new words are accepted into the lexicon only after the public has used them and authors have adopted them. Why should he, peerless in the science of philology, have to be the bearer of these childish and tasteless words! Doubtless they were getting at him. They meant to get rid of him. He had refused to obey orders and had denied some youth their high school diplomas, youth who thought they were sanctioned by Venus. So far he had chewed the cud partly because he had an easy life and partly because he, too, could catch a fish or two from the muddy water. Recently, however, for no reason at all, they were going for the jugular vein. He sat up. It seemed that the direction of his thoughts had changed. He remembered that his pajamas had lost a button. To busy himself he began sewing on the button. He thought how, if his wife were there, he would never have to undertake this menial, womanly chore, completely incompatible with his learning and erudition.
At this time the captain sounded the siren and the ship stopped. The commotion of traffic in the corridors picked up. Seyyed Nasrolla's heart sank. He thought something unusual had happened but soon realized that they had reached Bushehr. Hurriedly he put on his clothes and went into the ship's vestibule. The port could not be seen. Only a faint distant light was visible. A couple of motorboats and a dhow were on the water. The porters' clamor reminded him of his dream. He felt that now he had submitted to a waking nightmare. The seashore was so dark and distant that the thought of going ashore seemed meaningless. He looked at his watch. It was time for dinner. He went to the restaurant. Perhaps there, he thought, he could find some useful information. But everyone there, even the man who knew English and the waiters, seemed reserved and low, as if they were trying to hide some ominous news from him. He lost his appetite. A few spoonfuls of soup and a banana were all he ate. He intended to keep his stomach in order. The man who knew English waved goodbye to him and left. The man hurried out as if someone were waiting for him. Disappointed, Seyyed Nasrolla returned to his room. He was pensive.
In order to muffle the commotion outside, he closed the door and the curtain. Although the air was damp and warm, he thought he should not turn on the electric fan. He brought out pen and paper to jot down some notes for his forthcoming philosophical lecture. But he could not concentrate. He had written a few things on the paper, but he did not like what he read. He scrutinized the note. Then, as if "reading between the lines" of his own writing, he read, "Whenever they say the nation, they mean themselves. All this is in order to aggrandize their fabulous leader--the one who used the cupper's bowl and drew the people's blood. By mandatory education they don't mean making the people literate, rather they mean enabling them to read so that they can read his praises and those of Hakim Bashipur, the Minister of Education. They want the people to think in journalese and to speak the same. They want the native languages, the most noble heritage of the Persians, to be forgotten--neither the Arabs nor the Mongols could accomplish that. They wish to impose on the people an artificial lexicon, one which represents neither the language of Xerxes nor that of Mashdi Hassan. Fabrication. It's his fabrication. He treats his own gains as if they were the nation's holy gains. What qualifies him to decide the fate of this nation?..."
He read that again and asked himself if he were not going crazy. He grinned. Never before had he thought about such sentences or uttered the same. Was he under the sway of some outside force, or was this a result of a sea change? Or perhaps it was the lack of sleep and rest? He tore up the paper.
The monotonous noise of the crane had stopped. And the ship was moving again. Seyyed Nasrolla got up, put on his clothes and went on deck. To see the rest of the passengers calmed him because he had thought he might have been left alone on board the ship. Large, dark masses of clouds moved threateningly to and fro and the lights on shore dimmed. The water of the sea was the color of tar. On the other side, where there were no clouds, Seyyed Nasrolla spotted the big and the little dipper. The moon was low in the sky, almost touching the water. A silvery reflection, like a river coming from below the moon, crossed the dark waters and joined the ship. The lack of wind was suffocating.
All this seemed to constrict Seyyed Nasrolla's heart. But now his anxiety subsided. Without being able to account for it, he felt a special calm within... as though, for the first time, he felt reconciled with nature. His entire life appeared to him to have been a distant, useless and shattering dream. Feelings from childhood awakened and combined themselves with feelings of loneliness and separation. And so he felt an unbearable sense of pity for himself. Taking long, heavy steps, he returned to his cabin. He picked up the pen, thought for a moment, then wrote, "India has continuously been the cradle of Persian literature. Now, under the auspices of our crowned Father, ever-growing educational programs..."
Then he ran out of ideas. So he tried to describe the moon in literary language. He picked up the pen and wrote, "Tar-colored water with a thunder-like roar challenges the ship. From the corner of the sky the moon, wearing a silvery coat of arms, smiles upon the waves without taking sides!" This, too, did not gain his approval. It was as though some unknown force had sapped him of his spiritual and philosophical knowledge.
Then he decided to write his wife a letter. His head ached. Suddenly he caught sight of the ceiling and in it the flotation device. He got up and closed the door of the porthole. Then he pulled the curtain closed. When he was sure that he could not be seen, he cautiously took one of the devices out of its compartment and tried it for heft. The device consisted of four pieces of light wood put together in the form of an oblong. The whole thing was covered with a canvas grey, gunny-like material. Carefully he put his head through the cork oblong, the sides of which were connected with material. Two of the pieces rested on his chest and the other two rested on his shoulders, just like a back pack. He then walked over to the instruction sheet and tied the straps as shown. The flotation device was just the right size for him. Then he went to the mirror and looked at himself.
His pale face frightened him. He looked like a murderer on death row, one who had suffered sleeplessness and hunger for months in prison. He remembered his dream and thought of how terrible the moment of falling into the water would be. He began to tremble. His knees were like water and his teeth chattered loud enough for him to hear. He took his own pulse and involuntarily murmured, "Valro... Valro..." His voice was hoarse. He had a splitting headache. In his heart he said goodbye to his wife and children; tears appeared in his eyes. He turned his back on the mirror so that he would not see his own face. He decided to undo the flotation device; then, on second thought, he decided against it. Should danger threaten, he thought, it would not be easy to get into that contraption. Erring on the side of caution, therefore, he preferred to sleep while wearing the flotation device. A cold sweat ran all along his body. He felt that he was seriously ill. He took two aspirins and then, reciting a verse from the Qur'an, he went to the bed and lay on his side. He was uncomfortable and he could count his heartbeat.
Closing his eyes, he began to dream. He dreamed that the ship was on fire. He was standing on a pulpit on the deck, but he was wearing a woman's sari, a sari similar to the one worn by the Indian lady with golden rings in her ear and nostril. He was delivering an exciting lecture about the use of flotation devices. The ship's siren and the chiming of bells made him raise his voice louder and louder. Then, too, every now and then, he would put his briefcase, produce some pictures and strew them over people's heads. Disappointed, the passengers were throwing themselves overboard and huge fish, with angry shining eyes, tore them into two pieces. The surface of the water was filled with chewed-up bodies. Suddenly he noted that his children were sitting in a black boat on which was written in white letters "Oxford." The man who knew English was rowing and taking them to an unknown destination.
The moment the flame touched him, he threw himself into the water. A huge, terrifying fish with fiery eyes attacked him and caught his chest between his four blunt teeth which were like four bricks. Then the fish pressed his jaws together so hard that Seyyed Nasrolla fell unconscious.
In the morning the Indian servant found Seyyed Nasrolla's lifeless body in his cabin. The strap of the flotation device had strangled him.
Two months later, in the Wazir's Bath alley, a large crowd had gathered around Seyyed Nasrolla's statue. The Seyyed had been sculpted as holding a briefcase close to his body with one hand and pointing in the direction of India with the other hand. Under his feet he was crushing a bat, the symbol of ignorance. Mr. Hakim Bashipur, sad and affected, was standing on a pulpit and delivering a lecture in praise of the departed. Repeatedly, in the course of his lecture, he referred to that unforgettable calamity and the vacuum created by the demise of that eighth wonder of the world--the philosopher of the time and the ocean of knowledge. Then, addressing the children of the Motherland, he concluded, "You must emulate the words, deeds and thoughts of this patriotic genius who evinced a unique sense of valor and dedication for his country. And he persisted in upholding his standards until martyrdom. It is incumbent upon every patriot to place a statue of this savant on the mantle or at least a likeness of this peerless scholar on the wall of his house. You must take pride in the existence of such patriotic individuals amongst you and must try hard to dedicate yourselves to the aims of the Motherland and of the educational..." (he choked). After a three-minute pause, he continued, "I shall suggest to the Language Academy to change the name of Wazir's Bath alley to 'Patriot Street'. And out of my devotion and love for my homeland, I shall change the departed's name from Seyyed Nasrolla to 'Piruz Yazdan' with the additional title of 'Patriot'.
Let no one be mistaken. Our departed, loved one is not dead; he lives in our hearts because of his incessant work and his dedication. As the poet said:
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