Goli Taraghi, author of "The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons." (Farhad Daryoush)
Drawing on childhood experiences in the old-money neighborhood of Shemiran in Tehran and, later, adult exile in Paris and Tehran after the 1979 revolution, Iranian novelist Goli Taraghi captures universal experiences of love, loss, alienation, and belonging — all with an irresistible sense of life's absurdities. Out this week from W.W. Norton, a new collection of her short fiction, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons, translated into English by Sara Khalili, gives English-language readers an opportunity to meet a writer Azar Nafisi has hailed as "a natural storyteller, at once original and universal, filled with passion, curiosity, empathy, as well as mischief — definitely mischief."
For a sense of Taraghi's range, the title story relates how a woman traveling from Tehran to Paris is obliged to help an old woman, the Pomegranate Lady, find her way to her fugitive sons in Sweden. In "The Encounter," meanwhile, a woman's world is upended when her former maid becomes her jailer. And in "Gentleman Thief," excerpted below, a new kind of polite, apologetic thief emerges from the wreckage of Iran's revolution.
Taraghi will read from The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons and discuss her work in a conversation with Brigid Hughes at Asia Society New York on Monday, October 28. (For those who can't attend in person, the program will also be a free live webcast on AsiaSociety.org/Live at 6:30 pm New York City time; the online audience is encouraged to submit questions to email@example.com before and during the webcast.)
My mother, my grandmother, and I lived a comfortable and peaceful life in three adjacent rooms and three separate worlds in a two-story house with a garden, a reflecting pool, and an old weeping willow tree.
I was a second-year student of philosophy at the university and I thought about anything and everything except a revolution, a war, the closing down of the universities, and becoming a rootless drifter.
Grandmother was eighty-four. She thought she would live for many years to come and would continue to command and to rule over us.
Mother was a gentle and fragile woman. She loved doing embroidery, making floral arrangements, and cultivating fragrant flowers in our greenhouse. She liked plants more than she liked people.
We had a cook named Ali Agha and a maid named Nanny Henna-Hair. As soon as the revolution broke out, they left us without any notice. Without any explanation. Still, we were grateful that they didn't report us to the authorities; otherwise we would have ended up in prison. At the time, my father was in Canada on a mission for the Shah's government. He had close ties with all the ministers, ambassadors, and government bigwigs. His head was certainly destined for the noose. We thanked God that he was out of the country and we encouraged him to stay away and wait for the revolution to end and for the Shah to return to Iran. Sadly, a few months later he died in a car accident on an icy mountain road. And the revolution didn't end and the Shah didn't return to Iran either.
My mother screamed and cried so much that she not only drove herself crazy, but she drove us crazy, too. She never recovered from my father's death and she lost a bit of her sanity. She took dozens of sedatives every day, spent much of the time half-asleep, and often forgot where she was and what was going on around her. Grandmother grew quiet — the sort of dangerous silence that could suddenly erupt, like a sleeping volcano. She was seething inside and rumbling quietly. At the time, I was in love with a classmate who was pro-revolution and it was this tentative love affair that saved me from going mad like Mother. I would cry for hours, but then with the first telephone call from the young man, I would forget all about my father's death and go running around the streets, raising a ruckus with him. I was oblivious to the treachery and deceit of politics.
My love affair was short-lived. My revolutionary friend was arrested and his family moved away from our neighborhood. I was young and my broken heart healed quickly. Soon I was daydreaming about another love. I believed the revolution would not touch us and I was content in this delusion. That is, until the Revolutionary Court issued a warrant for our house to be confiscated. We received a notice saying, more or less, The good days are over, please take your leave.
"Take our leave to where?" Grandmother said.
The court's server who had delivered the notice said, "That's not our concern. You can take your leave to hell for all we care."
Grandmother was ready to pounce on him. Mother was watching from a distance. Her eyes were half-closed. She looked like she was dreaming. I threw myself at Grandmother and covered her mouth with my hand. I was no match for her. She weighed ninety kilos. Perhaps more. It was a blessing that she was an invalid and couldn't stand up. Instead, all her strength was concentrated in her sharp tongue.
Grandmother would not be bullied. She wasn't afraid of anyone.
She held her head high and said, "I will not go. This is my house" (it wasn't) "and the deed is in my pocket" (she was fibbing), "and I will shoot whoever sets foot here."
Grandmother produced a rickety rifle from under her pillow and laid it on the ground next to her. It was the old rifle my grandfather used when he hunted wild goats and ducks. It had no trigger and no pellets. Grandmother kept it under her pillow in case she needed to scare away burglars. Thank God the court's server had left.
Mother fainted the moment she saw the rifle and we had to call Auntie Badri and her husband. Grandmother was all fired up and kept aiming the rifle at anyone who came near her.
I thought Auntie Badri would rush over to our house. But she called three times, at one-hour intervals, to say that she was on her way. It was strange, but strange things had become normal. The world, our world, had turned upside down and we couldn't grasp the meaning and logic of events and incidents.
It was close to dusk when Auntie finally arrived. She was worried and upset, but she was trying hard to hide it from Grandmother. She kept smiling for no reason and constantly showered us with flowery terms of endearment. My aunt's husband was standing in the entrance hall and refused to come in. He looked very pale. At first I thought he was sick, but then I realized that he was terrified of being in our house. It was as if he thought they would confiscate him, too. He kept looking at his watch and wanted to leave as soon as possible. I had always had a different image of him — that of a witty and confident man. He was talkative and had an opinion about everything. He wore Western suits and silk ties and his watchband was white gold. Now, everything about him had changed. He hadn't shaved, he wasn't wearing a tie, and he had an old leather watchband. He looked like a faded and altered photograph. It was hard to recognize him.
I could hear Auntie and her husband arguing. Auntie started out by whispering, but gradually her voice grew louder and louder and then she suddenly screamed, "What would you have me do? Leave my mother out on the street?"
Her husband kept repeating, "It's dangerous. They'll come after us."
"Why would they come after us?" Auntie asked. "Are we breaking any laws? I just want to bring my old mother to live with me."
Again, he said, "It's dangerous. They are watching us."
Finally, Auntie told her husband, "Go sit in the car and don't interfere."
Grandmother loved Auntie Badri. She put down her rifle next to her pillow and said, "We will stay right here. We won't trouble you."
Auntie Badri laughed and said, "Dearest Mom, where in the world did you find this dilapidated rifle? Put it away. People will laugh at you. And don't worry about the house. We will file a lawsuit with the court. But it will take a couple of weeks. Come and stay with me until then."
"With me" was a phrase that delighted Grandmother.
"My dear," she said, "I'd give my life for you." She looked like she was going to cry, but she went on to say, "No, I'm more comfortable here. Your house is too big. I won't come."
Mother had taken her sedatives and was dozing off, but she could hear everything. She mumbled, "Here. There. What difference does it make? The sky is the same color no matter where we go."
Auntie Badri insisted. She sat next to Grandmother and kissed her face and hands. "Everything will be all right. I promise. Things won't stay like this. This is all temporary."
Mother moaned and muttered, "Everything is temporary. Everything." And then she started calling for Ali Agha.
Grandmother shook her head sadly and said, "There is no Ali Agha, my dear. That double-crossing louse got up and left the minute things changed."
"He is gone, too," Mother said. "A temporary cook."
Arguing was useless. Grandmother knew we had no choice but to leave. Yet she wanted to at least put up a fight and not surrender too easily.
"I've prayed and fasted all my life," she said. "What the heck do they want from me? As a matter of fact, they should reward me with a second house."
Who were we? Three lone women. We were no match for the Revolutionary Court and the Foundation of Martyrs. We were no match for anyone. We were scared of our own shadow. Grandmother's huff-and-puff was just a big bubble in the air.
Where would we go? For now, to Auntie Badri's house. But what would we do with our belongings and all the household furnishings?
"Don't make it hard on yourselves," Auntie said. "We'll call secondhand dealers and sell everything — from the tables and chairs to the refrigerator and the stove."
Grandmother shouted. Balked. She clawed at her hair and at Mother's hair.
"You want to put my life up for sale?" she screamed. "You want to leave me bare-assed and living in other people's homes? You want to sell the carpet from under me?"
"No," Auntie said. "We'll put the carpets in a bank vault for safekeeping."
The next day, the secondhand dealers came to the house and got busy appraising everything and buying the tables and chairs and the silverware. My heart was breaking for Grandmother. She had lived a lifetime with these things. She felt her pride and honor were being auctioned off and her past put up for sale.
"Mr. Secondhand Dealer," she said, "excuse me, would you please come over here?"
Auntie looked at Grandmother in alarm and stopped haggling with one of the dealers.
The other was holding a large frying pan under his arm. His face was flushed with excitement and he kept running around, asking for the price of this and that item. He walked over to Grandmother.
Grandmother was sitting in her wheelchair, smiling. Her good humor was cause for concern.
"Hello," she said. "How much did you pay for the frying pan?"
Auntie took a few steps forward and said, "Mother, please don't tire yourself." She meant, Please don't interfere.
"Let me see the frying pan," Grandmother said.
The dealer obeyed and handed it to her. He was in a hurry. The other dealer was picking out the better pieces.
Grandmother grabbed the frying pan by the handle and shouted, "You unscrupulous scamp. Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You've raided someone's home like a vulture and you're robbing the dead? But I'm still alive. I'll teach you a lesson, you scoundrel." And before Auntie and I could make a move, she raised the frying pan and slammed it on the dealer's head. Auntie screamed, "Oh!" The dealer yelled, "Ouch!" And he leapt back and groaned. The other dealer laughed and Grandmother, proud and satisfied, laid the frying pan on her lap.
Auntie ran and fetched a glass of water for the man. She apologized a thousand times and whispered to him that Grandmother wasn't well, that recent events had made her emotionally unstable.
Grandmother heard her and shouted, "Not at all! My brain works better than ever. You're the ones who have lost your mind."
Auntie put one of Mother's sedative pills in Grandmother's tea and made her drink it in one gulp. Barely ten minutes later, Grandmother's head dropped down on her chest and she fell asleep. I pushed her wheelchair and took her to her bedroom.
The dealers hastily bought our past for a pittance and left.
The next day, we stuffed our clothes into suitcases and got ready to move to Auntie Badri's house. As we were leaving, Grandmother paused at the door. Sitting in her wheelchair, she turned and looked back at the house and suddenly burst into tears. She wanted to go back. She wanted her home.
Auntie Badri's house wasn't like it used to be — happy and with lots of people coming and going. The sofas in the living room were covered with bedsheets. They had taken the antique paintings off the walls and rolled up the carpets and stacked them next to the wall. It looked as if the homeowner was away or getting ready to go away. They had even taken down the chandeliers from the ceilings. Instead, there were a few small lamps on the side tables and they weren't all that bright. The house was almost dark.
Grandmother looked around and frowned.
"Oh, it's so depressing here. It makes you feel like it's the end of the world," she said. "Let's go back to our own house. Otherwise, tomorrow they'll pack us up, too, and God knows where they will send us."
Mother was tired. She dropped her handbag on the floor right next to the living room door and lay down on a sofa. One of her shoes fell off and in a bristly voice she said, "We don't have a house anymore. It's finished."
Auntie Badri assigned each of us a separate bedroom. Mother slept in her own room, but in the middle of the night she came over to mine. She had had a bad dream. And then she started imagining that there were people walking around in my room.
"Do you see them, too?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
Grandmother was in her own room, fast asleep and snoring. She was neither scared of burglars, nor of ghosts and spirits.
Life at Auntie Badri's house wasn't easy. Our clothes remained in suitcases and we felt as if we were living day by day, as if it was all temporary, just as Mother had said. We changed our rooms a few times. The house was noisy and doors were constantly being slammed shut.
"This is a ghost house," Mother said. "I can see them. They roam around the rooms."
Grandmother took a few folded sheets of paper with prayers written on them and tucked them under her prayer rug.
Every night, a group of people came to Auntie Badri's house. They would all sit around the radio and listen to the BBC and Radio Israel. We watched them from a distance. Auntie's husband constantly looked out the window and kept an eye on the garden. He was afraid the Revolutionary Guards would show up. Listening to Radio Israel was a crime. He kept turning down the volume on the radio.
"Gathering in groups is dangerous," he said. "It creates suspicion. They may think we are plotting something."
"Who can see us? Have they put cameras in the rooms?" Auntie asked.
"Yes," he said. "They have equipment that allows them to see through walls."
"They can read our thoughts," Mother said. "They go inside our head. Inside our dreams."
Excerpted from The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi (W.W. Norton, 2013). © Goli Taraghi. All rights reserved.