Once upon a time, only a hundred or so years ago, and earlier, Iranians were our neighbours. Many were friends, relatives – uncles, grandparents, ancestors, some were husbands, wives and lovers. And cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Murshidabad and Hyderabad spoke Persian better than they spoke English, or even Hindi. The distance from Tehran and Isfahan to Delhi, Lucknow and Lahore, or across the water from Bandar Abbas to Bombay or Karachi, in miles and in the imagination, seemed less than what we can even begin to understand today.
The Bengal renaissance had one of its points of origin in a Persian broadsheet called Mirat ul Akhbar published by Ram Mohan Roy in Calcutta. The first Iranian talking film and the last ‘Irani’ restaurant both have their origins in Bombay. The Sabk-e-Hindi, or the ‘Indian Style’ continued to adorn the more ornate fringes of Persian poetry in Iran. The miniatures painted in the ateliers of Delhi and Agra owed a great deal to the paints, brushes, colours and visions of visiting masters from Tabriz. The sitar and the sarod came from Iran, and stayed on. We shared jokes and stories, poets, prophets and pranksters, wine and spices, surnames (Kirmani, Rizvi, Mashadi, Yazdi) and clan histories, heresies and wisdom and a thousand other things that neighbours, friends, cousins and lovers share.