Geneva Diaries #52*

Lingua Franca, Persia, Houris and The Immigrants Tale


Dear Roger,

Its super to get email from you! Especially with you describing your bunker like dwellings, with no electricity, running water, and refrigerator (now That I thought was almost attached to every American life form) in the East Bay, while I, the recipient, all the way in India, lie cloistered in a similar bunker like habitation, entrapped within the four walls, unable to step out even onto the balcony for fear of being vaporized, with variable electricity (God forbid that runs out at 45 degrees celsius) and water, yes basic utilities which hold us at ransom and we tread delicately praying to see those few drops running through a continuous stream. Your situation, where you have every amenity available and take your infrastructure for granted with uninterrupted electricity and water, and then opt to ironically mimic our lives in New Delhi from the security of your campsite in Northern California would drive most Indians in a state of frenzied rage at the tragedy/irony of the situation. So dear Roger, as you may mail this to me during the peak of Delhi summer, I caution you against sending this around to your other Indian friends and write to you as I sit chewing ice chips wondering what possessed me as I lay in my beautiful garden in Northern California…dreaming of India. Now, I guess i am being a bit harsh with the “campsite” quip etc, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be environmentally aware and minimize the human imprint on our environs, one which we are indiscriminately ravaging, but personally i believe in balance, a bit of comfort and blobs of concern. Some organic, pesticide free, non genetically engineered piece of brown cracker with a dollop of foie gras! 

On to more serious things… have you read that they have released two thousand TLD’s, Top Level Domain Names, like the “.com” and “.org”, the corner stone of the internet address system, the foundation, the markers of the new world/universe highway and it appears that only a handful are in any other language/script. What happened to Lingua Franca? I write this to you as you as a professor of French and one that would be concerned about the future of the French language in the New World in the Alternate World in any world! Well, looking at the state of things in the Cyberworld, fast becoming everyones New World, it appears that your passion and my paternal grandmothers words quoting another time that “French is the language of the world, Lingua Franca”, appears to have somehow lost itself in time and space.

Talking about languages and cultures lost in time and space, I must share with you my passion, my language and pieces of my culture (even though everytime I say that word “culture” I hear it pronounced with a French accent in my brain…that darn froggie!). And ironically, even though I speak to you about my language, I write to you in English but I believe that though it may sound like it is being translated from the English streaming from my mind, I am convinced it is otherwise. Yes, Im convinced after much deliberation that the mind does not use language as we understand it but possibly some form of universal code with cultural adornments, for when i see a French movie with English sub titles and attempt to translate into a comprehensible format, the sub titles actually throw me off! The sentences are not in the same order and I find myself in a dreadful tangle. And its possible that my mind has already translated the French into Hindustani(Hindi/Urdu), understood it, and then retranslated that into English and then is attempting to follow the story…and it ends up in complete chaos like the rest of me. So, I’ve just given up on French until I find a way to live within tutoring distance. Yes, at this point, the idea of being Geneva based sounds just divine.

Urdu, as I had mentioned in a previous email, evolved from Persian mixed with the indigenous tongues. A “camp” language of the soldiers who had come into India with Mahmud Ghazni written in the Perso-Arabic script embodying the Persian influence in India, from the time of the Sultanate. The Mughal emperors who came into India as invaders from Central Asia and then settled brought with them and perpetuated Persian culture and language in the Indian sub continent and its influence is vivid not only in the monuments but our cuisine, dress, language and every aspect of our culture. Persian literature is our literature with every Indian carrying a piece of Laila Majnu (the eternal love tragedy) in their hearts, the miniature art forms depict our scenery, our kings, palaces and gardens. So naturally, upon reaching India, I decided to explore this aspect of my culture that I had taken for granted all this while. Before I continue, I must mention that this seamless all pervading culture appeared to have followed me all the way to California. Yes, California! I met the most incredible emancipated beautiful women(fellow attorneys , doctors, business women) who would look curiously/admiringly in my direction as well and upon further inquiry, I was informed that they were Persian ( I noticed how they would always say “Persian” like my Indian-Parsee friends and not “Iranian” perhaps its to do with pronunciation for “Iranian” sounds Aye-Ran-Nian in American). And then I met an American in India, a Roger Moore look alike and someone from your genre, who had lived a colorful life having lived all over Asia especially Iran during the time of the Shah, a life to rival James Bond himself. It was during our brief interchange during a cocktail party before he vanished into the undergrowth, he reconfirmed that he knew the revolution was coming when all the real estate was being bought up in California, the paradise of the New World. Armed with enough “ammo” to keep the fire burning, I bundled up on all the books I could find on Persia, Persian poems, literature and its influence on my culture.

See below Indo-Persian miniature paintings from The National Museum in New Delhi commissioned during the Mughal dynasty in India showcasing the syncretic culture of the subcontinent, the first depicting a scene from the Persian translation of the great Indian epic Mahabharata namely Samudra Manthan or the churning of the oceans, the second miniature depicts a scene from the Shahnama, a long epic poem by the Persian poet Ferdowsi :

Of course Roger, once again I found most of the books selected were written and published over seventy years ago, well before even you were born and that shiny chevy came to life. The pages were brittle yellow and crumbling, and it appeared as though they had held themselves together just to be consumed by me. As I leafed through the pages they gently fell into my hand. Alarmed I rushed to the librarian for cover, he pronounced the end of the road for some of these books, “unsalvageable” he said, “and doubtful if they will ever return to their shelves”.  I leave knowing that for eternity they will reside in me. The chapters flash through my mind as I look forward to sharing snippets with you on my journey: Orientalism and Lucknow, The System of Unani Medicine, The Sufi saints, Omar Khayyam, Persian/Urdu poetry, The Legacy of Persia. But first I must start with not the oldest but my most recently read chapter/book: The Legacy of Persia by A.J. Arberry published by the Oxford University Press in 1950.

 This collection of essays on the history, language, literature, religion, gardens, science and perception by the West of Persia would be in my opinion the ideal introduction to Asia, and a “must read” for every student, soldier or arm chair traveller with an order or a desire to cross his horizons. I am mesmerized as I turn the first few pages and immerse myself in the chapter titled Persia and The Ancient World by J.H. Iliffe. Here the author points out how “the vast Iranian panorama in which our ancestors arose and flourished seems as remote to the majority as the moon”(here the majority i assume is the educated the West). The author blames this on the lack of a Persian chronicler for the Persians, with no Herodotus and Xenophon, they were viewed through the lens of their arch enemies, the Greeks (I have been struggling to find Herodotus’s giant ants uncovering gold nuggets that he found in northern India, of course that interpretation/hallucination is possible with spiked chai or naive audiences). The author reiterates “This is a powerful handicap to present the Persian side is to assume the role of  advocatus diaboli: so completely has it gone by default”. Roger, almost seventy years since these lines were penned does that not still ring true…but Oh how I love that role of advocatus diaboli or the Devil’s Advocate as translated in English for the English speaking universe! Then the author completely disarms me by going on to state ” An historical attitude of mind, however, compels us to look at the reverse side of the medal” and I find myself returning sympathetic once again with White Devil, The English, somehow reiterating a long ingrained belief that there will be a voice that will unravel the truth. 

See below the Persian imprint on India through art, architecture, language, literature, customs, culture and aesthetics like a glittering mist, a sensual fragrance pervading our senses through the jalis or filigreed stonework usually found on windows letting in air and patterned light, arches, inlays, domes and beautiful garden arrayed with a sprinkling of fountains and waterways. See below snapshots of this exquisite Indo-Persian signature with images from The Taj Mahal, The Humayun’s tomb, The Lodi Gardens :

Purnima in Magical Delhi

And a photo of mummy at The Taj Mahal, Agra:

Mummy (Veena Viswanathan) at The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Then I meandered through a maze of Greeks, Scynthians, Persians, Turks, Mongols and all the colors, sounds and flavors of Central and South Asia. I encountered words like “bimaristan” which translated to hospital and with my knowledge of Urdu I understood it to be the same, the “stan” or place for the “bimar” or the ill. There were references to Tavernier and his journal while traveling these lands in his voyages which of course took me back to the shores of lake Geneva. There were paragraphs in French which i was delighted at being able to translate sufficiently to get the gist, and so I felt somehow elevated, floating between realms, universes, exclusive airtight worlds of English, Urdu/ Persian/Hindustani and French. My culture was Indo-Persian, My native language or at least the language in which I hold my internal debates and dialogues is English, and some part of my spirit, after months of being holed up in the bunker dreaming of the Alps, I read French Thought in the Eighteenth Century: Rousseau Voltaire Diderot by Rolland, Maurois and Herriot (having revisited Voltaire after almost thirty years, yes I read Candide as a young precocious kid, I found myself) I discovered was French! 

Roger, you have to introduce me to Voltaire, I sense i have found a soulmate in another time/space and I wish to meet him, read him. He is introduced in the above mentioned book as one who spent a long life of rebellion against authority and oppressive autocracy, whether King, Church or the Law and that he used his talents and wealth on behalf of the oppressed. I like that Roger, I see me or a wannabe me. Now, first step, how do i acquire the wealth i need to be independent, if needed an outlaw, a pirate. The next few steps i am sure you can mould, help me fine tune so that I may become the blitzziest blogger on either side of the Atlantic. 

Back to the Legacy of Persia, it was the chapter on Literature and the word “houri” which sent my mind wandering. Houri is described as an ethereally beautiful woman, a nymph in the classical Persian sense with pale skin and long dark hair and dark eyes.

See below the depiction of a houri or alluring woman from my fav book – The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, and a photo of a friend that fits the description (No selfies as I’m still compelled to adorn my monkey mask – a book for another time):

hou·ri  (hr, hr)

n. pl. hou·ris

1. A voluptuous, alluring woman.

2. One of the beautiful virgins of the Koranic paradise.

[French, from Persian r, from Arabic rya, nymph, houri, from r, pl. of ‘awaru, feminine of awr’u, possessing awar, intense whiteness of the sclera contrasting with deep blackness of the iris of the eye; see  wr in Semitic roots.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

houri [ˈhʊərɪ]

n pl -ris

1. (Non-Christian Religions / Islam) (in Muslim belief) any of the nymphs of Paradise

2. any alluring woman

[from French, from Persian hūri, from Arabic hūr, plural of haurā’ woman with dark eyes]

Roger, even though the online dictionary says French at the bottom, I did not find the word Houri in the French dictionary. Are you aware of the word or its popular usage in the French language. I do find it used by the English in reference to a Persian beauty but not a beauty per se, all this in books by English authors familiar with Persian and Indian culture publish before 1950, another group from another time/period.

However, I have heard the word “houri” being used innumerable times by my maternal grandmother who spoke primarily in Punjabi, a dialect of the north which I subsequently discovered while browsing through the essays listed in the Iran Chamber (after the dozen or so fervently championing their subjects, I found some very good balanced writing), that upto 60 percent of Punjabi consisted of Persian words. Now that region of the Punjab where my maternal family originates has had its share of bloody wars, conquests, migrations and consists of an intermingling of races, languages and cultures of south and central Asia, the last blood bath being that of the partition of India into India and Pakistan and the mass migration of humanity in the millions crossing borders, lines drawn in the sand by persons many worlds removed. The word houri resonates in my mind as my grandmother, a hardy earthy woman, who had seen both the high life that her status as the daughter-in-law of this acclaimed pundit family of Lahore (living in a house that still stands albeit in shambles being occupied by eight families with the name Shourie House still engraved atop the home) and an immigrant who had to leave house and home, flee with whatever she could carry in her hands with her infants (my mother and uncle) in tow and arrive impoverished and at the mercy of those that could house and feed them in Delhi. See below Shourie House, Lahore:

The Shourie Clan at Mom’s Wedding-The Shourie’s Reach India

Till the end, she never failed to recount those stories of horror, as though those screeching trains filled with chopped bodies that had arrived at the Delhi railway station had just arrived, and the fires that burned around them were vivid and alive in all their fury. She used the word houri, especially “at” me in disdain. She would warn me time and again “do you think you are a houri?”, “before you blink, the world can change”. Her world did, and she never for a moment took anything for granted. She had no time for the “nakharas” or attitudes of women, the helplessness, the hopelessness. She had seen it all, she had seen the women of her home town(Lahore) with all the affectations of society (which she suspected I was a sub sect of) and seen how they were destroyed in times of crisis. She saw their families scattered, and she saw how they were mentally and physically torn and incapable as their high life and mansions reduced to rubble. They were unable to gather themselves and accept their new surrounding, they were unable to use their hands. This was a “biggie”, being unable to use your hands. It was almost a sin for her to keep hands idle. It was imperative for my grandmother that even if she was chatting with friends, her hands must not remain idle. She would knit constantly and crochet constantly, somehow that survival instinct did not leave her till the end. She had to prepare her daughters trousseau and would gather every piece to put in a large steel trunk under her bed. She would stare at me with her unrelenting age rimmed steel grey eyes, when everyone volunteered to go in my place to make tea ( i took advantage of my incapacity in the kitchen) and would squeeze my hand and say…too soft, not capable of any work, let alone hard work…and the world can change in a blink. Hers did, and her heart correctly told her mine would. But, I wish she could see, I wish she could see me use my hands.

See below my grandmother Bimla Shourie who successfully journeyed to India:

My grandmother Bimla Shourie

Hugs and kisses to all,



Disclaimer 😛

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto

Published by Purrnima

Travel Writer - Art Blogger - CyberSmurf

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