Bombay Rain, Part I

Denver Quarterly-dWritten by Payam Yazdanjoo |
Translated by: Poupeh Missaghi | Edited by: Adam Seth
(c) “Bombay Rain” was first published in Denver Quarterly, Vol 48, No3, 2014, and it is being republished here by permission of copyright holders  | Header Artwork by Javad Alizadeh

Marcel too knew that Hedayat[i] had published The Blind Owl in India, right here in Bombay. The first thing I had done right after we met was to encourage him to read the book and the history of its local publication. I then told him about my plans for making a movie about Hedayat in India. Marcel showed interest in helping out. We decided that it needed to be a feature film, including recreations of parts of The Blind Owl, with the supposed author as a ‘shadow’ and Marcel and I as interpreters. Three months after our first encounter, Marcel went back to France, and was now back in Bombay after two years. Several photos from Hedayat’s time in Paris, a short interview with an Iranian-American woman who had left flowers at Hedayat’s grave inPère Lachaise, and several white-covered octavo books, French translations of Hedayat’s short stories, were Marcel’s souvenirs from his time in Paris.

I was in charge of the main part of the work, writing the script — which I had not yet done, since the research process had not gone as I had hoped. There was not much information about the author’s visit to India. The total of all Iranian and non-Iranian material on Hedayat did not amount to more than two pages. The whole account of his time in India could be summarized in a few points: Hedayat came to Bombay with the help of a Zoroastrian employee of the Iranian consulate in India, named Shin Partow. Here he met Bahram Anklesaria, learnt Pahlavi language, and translated into Persian some ancient texts including Zand-i Vohuman Yasht and Book of the Deeds by Ardashir son of Babak. Meanwhile, he wrote two short stories in Persian and French. Later on, he came to know Mirza Ismael Shirazi, a minister of Mysore Maharaja, and frequented his court. He traveled a while in India. According to his letters to the Czech Orientalist Jan Rypka, he eventually returned to Iran, disappointed and frustrated. The most important souvenir he took with him from India was of course The Blind Owl. He had written the book before his trip and had published it here in an edition of fifty copies, each containing the note, ‘Publication and Distribution Prohibited in Iran.’

I was not looking for this kind of general information. I was curious to see how coming to India had influenced Hedayat’s writings: were the India and the Indians he had described in the book the same India and Indians he came to know during his trip? If not, did he later make changes and corrections, edits and revisions? I had read The Blind Owl several times. I remembered that Bugam Dasi was a dancer at the Shiva temple and I knew that the ‘Dancer of Lingam Temple’ was probably an Iranian fantasy, but I still decided to visit at least three or four temples of the twelve grand Shiva temples to compare Hedayat’s observations with mine. In three years, I visited three grand Shiva temples in Nasik, Elora, Benares, along with dozens of other temples here and there in India. In none did I find the lingam Hedayat had imagined, in none did anyone have any remembrance of the ethereal dancers. Hedayat’s Shiva temple, lingam, Bugam Dasi, and even the yogis, and Benares all were born of the author’s readings and imagination, not of his objective observations in India.

The discovery put an end to my dream that as an Iranian who had lived in India for four years and made acquaintances with Indians and French I could form an Iranian-Indian-French triangle to reinterpret The Blind Owl. I eventually came to the conclusion that the book could have been written anywhere in the world and there was no need for Hedayat to actually visit the land of Shiva, which was exactly what the author did. He had finished the novel before traveling to India and being here meant nothing to him. Neither did he write a story about India during his stay here, nor did he remember his visit in any of his later writings. He arrived here as if he were never to return to Iran. He left as if he were never to return to India.

Among dozens of Hedayat’s postcards sent from India, there is one to his father, Etezad ul-Molk Hedayat. The postcard, dated March 3, 1937, reads, ‘With heartfelt greetings to all family members on the occasion of Nowrooz. May all be merry and hearty.’ It is a picture of the Rajabai Clock Tower. A gray picture which shows the black tower in the background, far away, surrounded by a white sky and the tall trees of Fort Campus of the University of Bombay. The real tower, white and ocher, was built by the British architect George Gilbert Scott in the style of London’s Big Ben in Gothic-Venetian fashion. The tower was ordered by Premchand Roychand, founder of Bombay’s stock market, who wanted it to be named after his mother (Premchand’s mother was totally blind and as totally faithful to Jainism. Following the Jain tradition, she was to have supper before sunset. The ringing of the Clock bell helped her do so without depending on others). The construction project started in 1869 and finished in 1878, some sixty years before Hedayat sent his postcard from Bombay’s Victoria Terminus to Tehran’s Khaghani Street. Some seventy years later, Marcel and I stood in front of Rajabai Tower under the summer rain with not much to say to one another. The rainy season started before summer was even over and it was hard to see the Tower through the storm wandering the skies. We could not overcome the lethargy of the rainy afternoon, even for an hour or two, by going up the Tower. It had been closed years before, as it had come to be known as an ideal spot for suicide.

Standing there, Marcel took it upon himself to confess, ‘I agree with you. This won’t go anywhere. I mean it won’t go anywhere anytime soon. But remember this: The only reason I have come back after two years was for this project.’

‘I’ve also spent a lot of time on it.’

‘I know. I just mean I don’t want to go away empty-handed.’

‘Empty-handed? Do you think there is anything we can do?’

‘Well, forget about The Blind Owl. We’ll make a short film about ourselves and somehow relate it to Hedayat.’

‘That’s it?’

‘That’s it! A film about not being able to make a film about Hedayat in India. We’ll make the film of the film that can’t be made.’

A film of a film, a story of a story. The idea was a cliché, but Marcel was not letting go. He expected, insisted, not to go away ‘empty-handed.’ Generally, I did not have good memories of working with friends from that time period. I thought the only good thing about the project not going through was that I did not have to put up with the follies of Marcel’s friends and familiars. Marcel himself was an exception.

‘Just one day, man! You, me, and Krishna Chandra!’ Marcel said.

‘I’m not sure. I don’t know.’

Krishna Chandra had gone out that morning and was not yet back. His father had recently passed away and the house was totally upside down. Marcel and I arrived earlier than Krishna Chandra and spent ten minutes in the rain waiting for Chandra Krishna, the family servant, to open the door for us. It was the tradition in Krishna’s family to choose the master’s son’s first name as the servant’s last name and Chandra was the servant’s own first name. Chandra as usual nodded and went back to his work. By the time we dried ourselves, lunch was ready. We sat down and devoured our lunch forgetting about Chandra who was eating his lunch by himself in the kitchen. According to Krishna, Chandra never went out with anyone, something that seemed self-evident. After lunch, Marcel got busy watching television and I began to go through the dust-covered objects around the house.

Everything was exactly the same as two years ago when I last had visited Krishna, when I came to say that Marcel was back in France but had promised to return so that we could continue with the project. I brought him a copy of Fitzgerald’s translation ofKhayyam’s Rubaiyat, along with a copy of my own translation of Hedayat’s introduction to the Rubaiyat. I brought him the introduction so he could get more in touch with Hedayat. The heavy dust over the mess of the objects around the house was a reminder of Krishna’s father’s death. Chandra was not allowed to touch anything in the house. Krishna’s room bore the melancholy one expected of it. On the windowsill lay a picture of Krishna, while other pictures hung on the walls: two full-length pictures of his mother and father who both now had garlands around their necks, along with pictures of Indian actors and actresses with whom Krishna had once worked. Naturally there were several lovers and girlfriends among them, but one could not know which ones had received that honor. Krishna never talked of the past. It was all gossip out there. I had heard from Marcel that Krishna had been a top student in Delhi University but dropped out before the end of the second year, went to Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, then wandered, going door to door, eventually returning to the world of cinema celebrities. His life in the movies had been full of ups and downs. Regardless, Krishna Chandra had been the glorious star of all student films made in the Institute and a wandering shadow in a bunch of movies produced in Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, and Whateverwood. The shadow was however not welcomed in the living room. Facing the window loomed a large picture of Rajabai Clock Tower, underneath it a picture of Krishna’s mother dancing under the Clock Tower, and underneath that a small picture of the same Tower, like the one in the postcard Hedayat had sent.

The rest of the household furniture was also left to itself, frozen in time. The antique armoires were filled with books and papers, with plates and jewelry and masks of gods and broken clocks and glass vases and plastic flowers. Everything was as it had been before. Except for the worn-out Rubaiyat, not much had been added to the books: volumes by Nehru, Narayan, and Dickens, Krishna’s father’s favorite author, were still there, still almost as new as before. Next to them stood old romance-murder books, all of whose titles included ‘Bombay’ and had something to do either with day or night: from Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield and Bombay After Dark by Allen V. Ross to Bombay: The Twilight Zone by Benedict Costa and Bombay by Night by Captain F. D. Colabavalla. The most noteworthy of these were books by M. M. Kaye, Krishna’s favorite author, who had been born in Shimla and had not left India until the British had departed. All his books were here: from his famous books, including Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions, to his detective novels, Death in Andamans, Death in Berlin, Death in Cyprus, Death in Kashmir, Death in Kenya, and Death in Zanzibar; all of which Krishna, according to himself, had bought ‘with much trouble’ and read ‘with much enjoyment.’

The bell rang. Marcel was still busy watching television. Chandra came out of the kitchen and went to open the door. No one was there. Perhaps he had mistaken the ringing of the bell of the Rajabai Clock Tower for the doorbell. He turned around, but before heading back to the kitchen, he stood in the middle of the living room, looked at us, and said something in Marathi, the language of the people of Maharashtra. Though clear and articulate, what he said was not comprehensible to me. Marcel’s Marathi was no good either but he was more used to hearing it.

‘He is saying something about Rama Krishna, Krishna’s father,’ he explained to me.

I turned to Chandra and said in Hindi, ‘Say it again. Say it in Hindi.’

Chandra barely knew Hindi but managed to say a few words. Among his words I picked up khudkushi, suicide. In his Chandra language, Chandra was insisting that we not mention anything about the incident. We were not going to. Neither Marcel nor I had met Krishna’s father and his self-chosen death had nothing to do with us.

An hour later, the old boy greeted us from the threshold, with a withered bouquet in hand, a musical instrument on his back, and Surya in his arms. The black cat was a gift from a merchant from Benares to Krishna and on Krishna’s suggestion was named Surya by Rama Krishna. It leapt down from Krishna’s arms and walked to its spot on the windowsill. Krishna looked tired. We had expected him to be extremely pleased to see us. He was not. He simply welcomed us with a line from Khayyam, whose Rubaiyat I later realized he had read so much that he almost knew it by heart. He took his sitar out of his sack and put it on the armoire.

‘Has the boy taken care of you?’ he asked.

Krishna called the fifty-three-year-old Chandra the boy because, at almost the same age as himself, the servant too was still a bachelor. We thanked him for his hospitality. He sat down next to us and started chattering. First about how he regretted not having had read Khayyam until that age, then about quitting professional acting after the ‘demise’ of his father and now only playing music for himself and for the shadow of Rama Krishna who, not having reached moksha or the ‘final salvation,’ continued to hover around. I took his words as part of his eclectic beliefs, his desire to turn anything material into some transcendental concept, his habit of lecturing any atheist about polytheism. He picked his sitar up, played for a minute or two, and put it back on the armoire. He announced he was soon off to Benares to spread his father’s ashes in the Ganges to both put his father’s soul to rest and bring himself peace from his father’s shadow.

Marcel lay down in front of the television.

‘So tell me about Khayyam!’ Krishna told me.

‘You already know about Khayyam. Marcel and I have actually come to talk to you about Hedayat. Surely you remember Hedayat?’ I replied.

Krishna stood up, opened one of the armoires and brought out the folder of notes and pictures from two or three years ago. He had written on the backs of almost all the pictures and underlined many of his notes. He recited the first few lines of The Blind Owl and said, ‘I have read it three times so far. I need to read it two or three more times.’

Marcel stood up and joined us. ‘Tomorrow we will take a camera and find a suitable spot close-by to shoot. Some ruins or an abandoned house or somewhere similar. It’s a one-day job. You read from the book, we converse with you, and shoot the whole thing. The rest we’ll take care of later,’ Marcel explained.

‘Tomorrow?’ Krishna asked as if he was still an actor with a busy schedule, with no hours to spare.

‘Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. We don’t intend anymore to make you up to look like Hedayat. I have brought some of my grandfather’s clothes, a hat and a vest and a raincoat. You just put those on. You don’t need to become Hedayat himself. You just need to become a shadow, or a ghost, giving the illusion of Hedayat.’

Krishna nodded for a minute, whispering, ‘You realize I’m not the Krishna of three years ago. Even if I wanted, I could no longer play the role of the young Hedayat.’

I jumped in, ‘Marcel suggests that we make a short film, only ten minutes long, go look for a producer, and only then begin to go all the way to the end.’

‘It seems you didn’t understand me. I’m now more fit to play the bent old man, not Hedayat or the narrator.’

‘We only need your shadow, not you yourself.’

‘I have not yet digested the novel well. I told you, I need to read it two or three times more.’

‘Right now it’s not about digesting the novel. It’s about shooting the film. Please don’t say no.’

Marcel went back to the television and did not go on. He turned it off and picked a magazine to browse. Having lost the desire to talk, Krishna took up his sitar again. His music was more depressing than desperate: heavy, short, and intermittent. The rain continued to pour and the lights went out. Surya silently reclined at the window, not taking its eyes, even for a second, off of Krishna. In the dark cloudy evening, its eyes were the only source of light, making the tar black of its fur look bright.

Krishna began to talk again, ‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’

‘Believe?’

‘Okay. Don’t start again. I remember our conversations about your belief in disbelieving. Let’s forget about beliefs. Do you think reincarnation is practically possible?’

‘No,’ I said, lying there on the couch, looking up at the ceiling.

‘Let me explain what I mean. When I talk of reincarnation, I am not talking of consecutive destinies but of shared destinies,’ he said, immediately continuing to expand his point.

‘Stop it, Krishna! Your father died by his own choice. This doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps,’ interrupted Marcel.

I brought down my eyes. Krishna was not there. I saw Chandra, standing at the kitchen door, giving me a reprimanding look.

Chandra did not understand English. I gestured to ask about Krishna. Without responding, he went back into the kitchen.

‘Where did Krishna go?’ I asked Marcel.

‘Krishna?’ Marcel asked.

I did not answer him and he went back to reading his magazine. A few minutes later Krishna showed up again. He had walked in from outside and was soaking wet. He had a flower in hand and a sack over his shoulder. The sack was bloody and wet.

‘Where did you disappear?’ I asked him.

He laughed briskly. ‘In search of my father’s shadow,’ he said and rapidly swallowed his laughter. The Rajabai Clock bell rang again. Krishna, assuming it was the doorbell, stood up to go open the door.

‘Sit down,’ I said.

He went to the door, opened it and after a few seconds closed it, and came back again.

‘The old boy has got you too delusional,’ I said, pointing to Chandra who was back at the door of the kitchen, not taking his hostile eyes away from me.

‘I went out. I saw a Muslim who threw stones at the chameleon.’

‘Chameleon?’

‘It was sitting right here on the branches, hiding under the banyan leaves.’

‘Was it afraid of the Muslim?’

‘It had taken refuge from the rain.’

‘Was it waiting for the rain to stop?’

Krishna did not reply and I did not follow up. Two minutes later he continued, ‘Its skin will lose its quality if it gets wet. You know that, don’t you?’

I called out to Marcel. He was not there. ‘Did you see Marcel?’

‘Marcel?’

I stood up to go look for him, tell him to forget about shooting tomorrow.

‘He might have gone to bed,’ Krishna shouted after me.

I did not find him in the bedroom. I came back to the living room. ‘I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t there.’

Krishna was lying down on the floor, wrapped in a sheet. It was not nighttime yet and no sane person would sleep so early in the evening. I pushed the sheet aside. Krishna had buried his face in the pillow. He raised his head.

‘I am the boy, the old boy,’ he said, in English.

His face was Chandra’s face. The bell rang. It was not the Clock’s. I went and opened the door. Nobody was there. A few steps away, a shadow was thrown on the floor. It could be Rama Krishna’s shadow. It was totally still. Its outline was exactly what one would expect from the pictures of Rama Krishna on the walls. I returned. The lights were on again. As I was closing the door, I noticed Surya. It leapt, throwing itself into the hallway. I closed the door. I walked to the kitchen, took a beer from the fridge, and walked back to the living room. Surya followed me around. Chandra stood up, collected his bed, and went back to the kitchen, his haven. Surya tottered towards the windowsill. The Clock bell rang nineteen times.

With no real intentions, I went back to the door. The rain kept pouring, not seeming to want to stop. Krishna was at the door. He had gone out to shop for dinner. He had seen Marcel going to the Clock Tower under the rain.

‘You didn’t say why the Muslim threw stones at the chameleon,’ I said.

‘Did you see my father’s shadow?’ Krishna replied.

‘I saw him but he had no head,’ I said and laughed.

Krishna ran to the sack he had put on the armoire, took it, and threw it out of the open window.

‘Bastards! They finally did what they were hoping for! They took revenge at last,’ he said angrily.

‘Revenge?’

‘The Muslim hated chameleons. It was a chameleon that had betrayed the Muslim prophet who had gone into hiding in a cave. Changing colors, it had showed the way to the infidels. The prophet had cursed the chameleon, demanding his followers to kill the innocent creature wherever they saw it.’

‘So?’

‘The chameleon was my mother’s passion, my father’s love and mine. The Muslim had no right to kill it. He killed the poor animal and I killed him. I beheaded him and brought in the head. Perhaps he has taken revenge by beheading my father’s ghost. I hope he finds his head soon and gives back my father’s.’

I told Krishna to sit down. I brought him a beer. I opened the bottle for him.

‘Do you remember our first meeting? We were sitting on this very couch and I was talking about the differences between religions, and you kept repeating an irritating refrain: There is no difference. There is no difference. Meaning that Allah is Krishna and Krishna is Rama and Rama is Buddha and Buddha is Jesus and . . .’

‘I’m still of the same opinion: There is no difference. But what does that have to do with this?’

‘You keep talking about reincarnation. The Muslim has a superstition of his own,’ I said.

Krishna took a gulp of beer. ‘They are a world apart, reincarnation and this superstition.’

‘So in the end there is a difference.’ He took another gulp. ‘I still say what I have always said: There is no difference. This is a different matter. The chameleon hadn’t harmed anyone. I loved it, like I loved my mother, my father. It was dear to me, like the old boy, like Surya. What is the difference? There is no difference. No difference!’

The lights, which had gone out again, came back on. Chandra was now sitting next to me on the couch. I walked to the kitchen. I saw Krishna, squatting on the floor. He was playing his sitar but no sound rose from it. He himself was the one crying, nodding and reciting Khayyam. I walked back to the living room. Krishna was lying down on the couch, quiet, calm, holding on to his sitar. Chandra rose from the kitchen floor, shook himself clean, walked to the door, said something about the Rajabai Clock Tower, and pointed to the pictures on the wall, gesturing to me once again not to ask the son anything about the death of the father.

It was almost eight o’clock and Marcel was not yet back. Krishna turned to me and asked, ‘Did you understand what the boy was saying? My father threw himself down the Rajabai Clock Tower. Surya was the one showing him the secret path.’

‘Are you sure you saw Marcel?’ I asked.

‘Let’s go to Marcel,’ said Krishna.

The Clock bell started to ring again. It was to ring twenty times. Krishna rose halfway. I firmly held on to his arm and did not let him stand. He let out a dry laugh.

‘Don’t panic. I’m not going to go to the Tower. It’s useless with the rain. The moon should be up in the sky.’

I let go of his arm. He stood up and went to open the door. He came back with Rama Krishna’s shadow. It was still headless. Father and son sat down next to one another. The father was silent for a few minutes, then called out to Krishna. Chandra stood up from next to the shadow and walked to the kitchen. Krishna came out of the kitchen. With his white cuffs he wiped his face and came and sat down at his father’s feet. He started playing his sitar.

The Clock bell rang nineteen times. I rose to head out. Surya was not on the windowsill. The father’s shadow was not there. The son was not there.

‘I’m sorry. I know you won’t be coming back. So give my regards to Marcel,’ said Krishna.

I walked out. The rain kept pouring, not seeming to want to stop. At the door of the house, I came face to face with the Muslim. He was throwing stones at Surya. Surya leapt away. The stone hit the window of Krishna’s house. A headless shadow appeared at the window. There was not much of a distance between the house and the Rajabai Clock Tower. Ten minutes later, Marcel and I were standing in front of the Tower under the summer rain, with not much to say to one another. I looked up. Surya was fast ascending the back stairs of the Tower, lighting the secret path for the son.

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Poupeh Missaghi

Poupeh Missaghi

Poupeh Missaghi is a Persian English translator and writer. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, Fiction, at the University of Denver.
Poupeh Missaghi

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