At the weekend farmer’s market by the riverside, I was simply contemplating the picture of the ladybug on that welcome board and wondering what ladybugs have ta do with fruits and vegetables, when all of a sudden this couple stopped and kissed.
I imagined kissing in Kolkata’s Gariahat Market and a fish wala yells, “Oh Dada, Didimoni, edike ashoon, chumu khaben porey, dekhoon tatka bhetki, paanch minute aage kotha koichilo. Niye jaan, phish phry banaben ar chumu khete khete khaben.”
But seriously, this tacit assurance – that you have a right to kiss almost anywhere – is a hallmark of the west. Feel like doing something? As long as it doesn’t harm others, go right ahead and do it.
If this was Saudi Arabia, those two would be nabbed by the Muttaween (religious police) and stoned or beheaded publicly to death in their infamous ‘Chop Chop Square’ or the Al Jafali Mosque. Public executions in Islamic nations bear an air of festivity. Folks will be out in colored clothes and the streets will be lined with ice-cream carts and cotton candy stalls and blood-thirsty Saudis will bring their families along to watch, their little kids sucking on lollipops. The Saudis make beheading seem like a pleasure sport.
In Afghanistan, the ‘Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi An al-Munkar'(Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) will pack a soccer stadium in disuse with their common folk and flog you mercilessly, while ice-cream vendors walk around the aisles selling their wares. Yes, that Afghanistan, where men buy little boys for some fun.
The Iranians call their religious police ‘Gashte Ershad’. I had a run-in with a patrol once, on the streets of Esfahan. My wife and I were walking along a beautiful tree-lined boulevard when an open-topped Land Rover came screeching to a halt, right next. It had four swarthy, heavily bearded guys in khaki, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. In the back was mounted an old M1919 Browning machine gun that appeared to have seen better days and was probably hardware that the Yanks had left behind when they left in a hurry in 1979.
The ‘Basij’ (Guardians), as they are called since they are seen as guarding the Iranian Shia faith from immorality, are mainly rustic goons drawn from small towns and villages, zealots who are completely ideologically brainwashed and can kill without reason if they choose to. They played a particularly murderous role during the failed 2009 ‘Green Revolution’.
The guy sitting closest to the curb gestured us over and glowered at me, sizing me up. It was a tense moment. If he chose to put a bullet between my eyes, it wouldn’t even make the evening news. It was clear I was an outsider and so, he demanded to know from my wife who I was and what relation I had with her. In Iran, a woman is allowed to go out only with her husband, brother or father and they had better have identification to prove their status.
When the goon was done checking out my wife’s papers and found that we were both married, he leaned back on his seat and grunted and gestured to me for my passport. The moment he was convinced I was Indian, his face changed, breaking into a broad smile; he began parodying loudly off-key, “Mera joota hai japani, yeh patloon inglistani..’ and they all began laughing hysterically.
(Oh, yeah, three decades after he began raising the daisies, Iranians still remember Raj Kapoor).
Clearly these guys saw Indians with a special warmth. The bonhomie wasn’t always there though. During the Shah’s time, when Iran was a wealthy nation of plenty, Iranians were a snooty, snobbish lot. They looked down on us Indians, preferring to holiday in Europe and sending their kids to American universities.
That all changed in 1979, when the Ayatollah came to power. The mood toward developing nations like India softened. When crippling sanctions made the developed world virtually boycott Iran and bring its banking system to its knees, they turned to us Indians and we began a barter trade that proved profitable for both sides. They took our steel, our vehicles, our rice and our tea, in exchange for reasonably priced oil, saffron and nuts.
The Islamic revolution in Iran brought about another event that had a direct bearing on me. Iranian high school graduates stopped going to America for higher education and came to India instead. They began enrolling in Indian engineering and medical schools and that is how I had the chance to meet my wife. Thank you, Ayatollahkins.
Back at the curb, as the Land Rover idled, the guy gave me a final once over.
‘Hole chetorey?'(how are you?), Mr Beard grunted at me.
‘Kheyili khoob, merci,shoma khoobi? (I’m fine, thank you and you?)’ I replied with a smile and that sent them over the edge, breaking them all up.
‘Farsi balade!’ (he speaks farsi!), they exclaimed in glee and with a wave, the Land Rover screeched off, its tyres squealing.
Of course, if my wife and I had been kissing, the day would have ended very differently – we would have been whisked away on the back seat of that same Land Rover, never to see the light of the day again.