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April 26, 2015

Second Chance

Illustration by Rahul Das

Journeys mean different things to people hailing from diverse backgrounds and classes, especially in the light of today’s global geo-political developments. Author Saskya Jain explores the tensions between real and imaginary journeys during a trip she had taken to Iran

In the small yard in front of Darya’s house there grows an olive tree. In the evening, we go outside to water it.

“My father planted it when I was a young girl,” she says. “He told me that one day he would no longer be here, but that this tree would remain.” She turns on the hose and sprays the bark with water. I feel the heat rising off the cement tiles. “I didn’t understand at the time, but now I know that his spirit lives here, in this tree.” She moves on to the rose stalks and jasmine shrubs surrounding the stem, their heavy fragrance reminding me of our garden in Delhi, just off India Gate, when I was a child.

With her back turned, she says, “I can never leave this house.”

Darya and her mother Afsaneh live in the legendary, central Iranian city of Isfahan, which I am visiting as part of a three-month stay in Iran. Darya is in her late thirties and a property lawyer, like her father was. She likes shopping, and has a special fondness for cars, the fast ones. As we drive through the streets of Isfahan in her Peugeot 206 on our way to see the sights, she points out the different models. Then she says, “Lock, please. Always lock your door when you’re in a car.”

Afsaneh is a retired teacher. She spends most of her days at home now, looking after the house and her daughter. She is an excellent cook and prides herself especially in her ghormeh sabzi, a lamb stew with herbs and dried, whole limes. Together, the women live in a beige, two-storey house that Darya’s father built.

On top of the TV there is a ceramic plate in a plastic holder with a photograph printed on it. The picture shows two women wearing sleeveless tank tops, tie-dye sarongs, and large, dark sunglasses. It takes me a moment to identify which is the mother and which the daughter. The picture was taken in Bangkok earlier that year when Darya took her mother on their annual foreign vacation. The previous year they had gone to Dubai. These are the countries they can get visas to — Thailand, the Emirates, Malaysia, India.

Darya’s brother lives in Canada. He has not been back to Iran in years. Every now and then, Darya talks of emigrating. She asks me about job opportunities for lawyers in the West, and whether I think her English is good enough to get a job. On the last evening of my visit, she wants to see my passport. Carefully, she turns each page, tilting the laminated sheet to see the hologram of my photograph, and reading out aloud the countries that issued my visas.

In Iran, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance sends out what people refer to as parasites — electronic interferences — to obscure satellite channels as diverse as BBC Persian, the evangelical God TV, and the Franco-German culture network Arte. The parasites have given rise to a new sub-category of jobs for cable operators, who offer to tweak the tuners of television sets for a small fee to circumvent these distortions — until the government sends out a different, more powerful interference. If the change happens within a short period of the tweaking, the operator will return the fee.

By far the most popular of the banned channels is Farsi 1. Broadcast from Dubai, it runs dated American sitcoms such as Dharma and Greg along with Korean drama serials with titles such as Story of a Mermaid, all dubbed into Farsi. The show I encounter in living rooms over and over again, however, is a telenovella called Second Chance, produced by Telemundo and Film in Florida. On its Wikipedia page, Second Chance or El Cuerpo del Deseo in Spanish — literally The Body of Desire — is described as the story of “a wealthy old man (…) in love with (…) a gorgeous younger woman, Isabel Arroyo (…). He dies suddenly, but returns to Earth through transmigration (…), in the body of Salvador Cerinza (…), a handsome (yet poor) family man.”  It doesn’t take long to get the general idea: a love drama set in a sprawling mansion with a swooning mistress and a long-haired, smooth-chested hero for whom buttons on shirts were invented purely for decorative purposes. Add to that a generous cast of servants spawned by a cross between Heidi and Frida Kahlo — black pigtails, red lips, dirndls — perpetually dusting mahogany mantles covered in fake-marble busts, and a head-servant giving his lovesick mistress the stink-eye, brows clenched together comically, and you’ve got the gist of it. It may also not surprise you that Farsi 1 is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the creator and owner of the Fox Network.

Darya and her mother both sleep in the same L-shaped room with a twin bed at each end of it. Every night between 3 and 6 am, the two women get up to watch back-to-back episodes of Second Chance on Farsi 1. They have discovered that that’s when there are no parasites. I ask them whether they set an alarm. “No,” Darya replies. “Our bodies are our alarms. And if one of us sleeps through it, the other will wake her up.” Darya says she can go to the office late sometimes, and that she usually comes home by lunch unless she has hearings at court. Catching up on sleep is not a problem. “I think Iranians work fewer hours than people abroad,” she tells me as we stroll along the Zayandeh River towards the iconic Sio-Seh Bridge.

On my last evening in Isfahan, Darya and I sit on the porch occluded by high walls with a bottle of Ukrainian vodka tucked between the bolsters. She pours me almost half a glass and adds a Delster, a very popular new drink in Iran described on its label as a “non-alcoholic malt beverage”. Darya tells me how she buys her liquor from a man in Tehran, and it sounds like something from a black-and-white movie: dark glasses, a suitcase, and wads of cash. As the night wears on, she insists that I have another and then another drink, each time pouring herself a generous one.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Darya asks me.

I think about it for a moment, then I say no.

“When I was younger, I thought I would be married by now,” she says.

“Maybe we’re both just buying time.”

Darya looks at me. “What does it mean, ‘buying time’?”

My lids are heavy on my eyes. I remind myself to drink water before bed, which I hope to crawl into soon. “It means not being in a hurry.”

“Yes,” she says. “I am not in a hurry.”

Saskya Jain, who is proud to call New Delhi and Berlin her homes, holds an MFA in Fiction from Boston University, where she received the Florence Engel Randall Award and the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. She published her first novel Fire Under Ash last year and is currently working on her second.

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