By Vikas Datta
One of the world’s oldest, most vibrant, and yet still thriving literary traditions, its impact spans centuries and continents. Were it only known for its medieval – but still popular – Sufi mystic poets, its national epic that spans mythology to recorded history, or its tales of star-crossed lovers, it could rest on its laurels. But Persian literature has far much more up its elegant sleeve.
Take, for example, a 14th-century satire that could be the possible predecessor of the cartoon Tom and Jerry, an early 20th century work so darkly pessimistic that it was banned on the grounds that it could make its readers suicidal, and an outspoken coming-of-age story, amid revolution, war, and heartbreak – in a graphic novel format.
What’s more, there is a distinct Indian connect to modern Persian literature too – both as far as content and production go, in line with the centuries-old links between the two civilisations.
Whenever we think of Persian literature, however, what generally comes to mind is its glittering firmament of classical poets, who flourished from the ninth to the 13th centuries. Let us begin with them only.
There is Hafez (or Hafiz), who was even once quoted by Sherlock Holmes (though there are some literary scholars who dispute the reference), or Sheikh Sa’di, of the Bustan, a verse work enlisting standard virtues for people, and Gulistan, a prose work, sprinkled liberally with short poems of aphorisms, advice, and reflections on the fickleness of fate, and one of the earliest expressions of the absurdity of human existence.
Omar Khayyam, the ‘Sage of Naishapur’, has, to his credit, the Rubaiyat, one of best-known works of world poetry, especially after its English rendition by Edward Fitzgerald. This rather free-wheeling translation would not only go on to inspire titles of works by such diverse authors as Agatha Christie, Eugene O’Neill and Rex Stout – but achieve the singular task of making Khayyam popular all over again in his homeland.
And above all, there is Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, whose focus on personal paths to understand and unite with divinity, and the overwhelming nature of selfless and sacred love, make him one of the world’s foremost and popular poets – especially in the US, where even recordings of his work top the music charts.
And then there is Rudaki, the first poet to write in New Persian. He was said to be so skilled that he was once commissioned by homesick courtiers of a king to persuade their ruler to abandon his favourite camping ground – where he had been ensconced for over two years – and return to their hometown Bukhara.
Rudaki crafted a poem so evocative that, according to one account, it moved the king so much that midway he jumped on to a horse and rode away so fast that his courtiers had to pursue him to for miles before they could persuade him to wear shoes as well as leggings, and he never drew rein till he reached home.
There is also Nizami Ganjavi, whose fame rests not only on two works of passionate but doomed love Khosrow and Shirin (of which the Shirin-Farhad episode is more known than the whole work) and Layla and Majnun, which is Arabic in source but substantially reworked.
He also deserves to be known for his Iskander-Nameh, telling of the historic and fantastic episodes of the life of Alexander, and the highly exotic and esoteric Haft Paykar.
Mention must also be made of Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, an another arcane look at the path and purpose of life, told through a discussion at a gathering of feathered beings, as they search for a ruler.
In the realm of prose, Ferdowsi/Fardushi’s Shahnameh is not only an engrossing read of the country’s mythology and history, but it also stands as a glorious testament of how a national civilisation thrives despite religious change.
And there is the 14th-century writer Ubayd Zakani, whose Mush-o-Gorbeh (Cat and Mice) is about a cat who drinks and kills mice, then repents, but gets so mad about a mouse as to gather an army to fight the little creatures. It may seem like a fable for children, but is actually a trenchant political satire targeting organised religion and its hypocrisies.
Persian literature did not leave its commanding heights in the modern times too – even as the country was embroiled in social and political turmoil. There was a growing belief that literature should reflect, not remain distant from, contemporary realities. There was even a directive from a leading mid-19th century statesman, who upbraided a poet for “lying”, that literature must espouse modernism.
But litterateurs are a stubborn bunch and work on their own whims and fancies. Let us take a look at some modern works too.
Among the first stand-bearers of Iranian modernist literature, Sadegh Hedayat is known for his overly morbid The Blind Owl (1936 in Persian, 1957 in English) – originally published in a limited edition in Bombay and stamped with “Not for sale or publication in Iran”.
With Hedayat in India to learn about his country’s ancient Zoroastrian religion and picking up Sanskrit too, the novella infuses Indian and Iranian myths and icons.
In two parts, it begins with an unnamed painter as the narrator, who sees in his feverish dreams the regular presence of death, and whose daytime nightmares start when he goes to get something for his uncle who has returned from Bombay, and then starts writing. The second part is set in the past and with his character – who is no less miserable – as the narrator.
Hedayat, who himself committed suicide in 1951, was a prolific short story writer too – but these too are far from cheery.
A bit happier but unrestrained in its satire is Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon (1973 in Persian; 1996 in English), a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II.
At its heart, it is the story of the struggles of the unnamed narrator – a high school student – to stall his cousin’s pre-arranged marriage to another cousin in order to get her for himself.
She happens to be the sole daughter of his maternal uncle – the ‘Napoleon’ of the title, a name sarcastically given to him by his nieces and nephews due to his obsession with the French Emperor, and otherwise, a paranoid and delusional character who believes the British and their “lackeys” have invaded the country to get even with him for “opposing” them during the Constitutional Revolution over three decades back.
A phalanx of constantly intriguing family members, police investigators, government officials, an incompetent doctor, a preacher, sly servants, and others complete the cast. Standing out among them is an Indian Sikh businessman named ‘Sardar Maharat Khan’ and believed by Uncle to be a British spy.
And finally, no literary tradition can be complete without mentioning the voice of women, who, repressed otherwise, can use the pen to share their plight and even hit back.
Shahrnoush Parsipur’s Women Without Men (written in the 1970s, but first published in 1989 in Persian and 1998 in English) uses inter-woven narratives and Magical Realism to depict the social condition of Iranian women and their desire to break free.
It depicts five women – a former schoolteacher grappling with a disquieting experience, another who seeks independence and a husband, an old woman shaken by revelations about virginity, a disenchanted middle-class housewife, and a cheerful prostitute, who meet in a mystical garden, where they can freely reflect on their lives, dreams, and desires.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series is well-known as a semi-autobiographical account of loss of faith and trust in religion, society, and even relationships, but it is her Embroideries (2003 in French; 2005 in English) that is more-hard hitting in its candid discussion on sex among three generations of women of a household and some of their friends and neighbours.