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With Dinshah Irani in New Iran[1]


Celebrated Trips

Historical Figures


Masani, Sir Rustom

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Dinshah Irani

One afternoon, in February 1932, when I was sitting in the Board Room of the Trustees of the N. M. Wadia Charities, in Bombay, two esteemed visitors were announced Dinshah Irani and Aga Kaiyan, Consul of Iran in Bombay. I could surmise the object of Dinshah's visit: he had at last arranged to proceed to Iran, with Dr. Tagore, to fulfill his long cherished desire to kiss the dust of his beloved fatherland, and, as a dear friend, he would not think of leaving India without calling on me. But why should the Consul accompany him?  I had not to wait even for a minute for the explanation; Immediately he entered the room, the Consul said, Mr. Masani, we want you to go with us to Iran. Do come.

Years ago I had jumped at the invitation to join, as a delegate, a Mission set up by the Government of India, to investigate the commercial possibilities of South-Eastern Iran. Owing to differences of opinion, however, concerning the question of appointment of the President of the Mission, the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and the Mill-owners Association, whose delegate I was to be, had to withdraw from the arrangement. Since then whenever I arranged to go to Iran, unforeseen difficulties upset my schemes. At last, after twenty-eight years, when I was immersed in other preoccupations, there was another call to embark on the oft-frustrated journey.

Curiously enough, on this occasion, too, I was invited to undertake a commercial mission. “You know," said the Consul, “the Government of Iran want Parsis to develop her trade with India. You know that Parsis are also willing to establish closer relations with Iran. If you come with us and make independent investigations and then advise the community what business schemes could be safely and store for us advantageously undertaken, a good beginning can be made."

This appeal, reinforced by Dinshah, was irresistible. I tore myself away from the literary work I had in hand and joined the party. Before our departure the Persia Industrial and Trading Company was hurriedly constituted with Sir Hormusji Cowasji Dinshaw as Chairman and myself as Managing Director.

I do not propose to talk of sordid business in this article, life in Iran interesting though it would be to trace the genesis of the joint Parsi-Irani concern, the Khosrowi Mills, established in Meshad, a couple of years later, to the conversation I had with the Consul and Dinshah on that memorable day. The object of this article is merely to record a few impressions of New Iran.

Reza Shah Pahlavi
on cover of Time magazine

It is a characteristic of eastern countries that though inert for centuries, once they begin to move, they move faster than western countries. Iran is no exception. Even before we witnessed with our own eyes the transformation wrought during the regime of the present Shah, within seven years after he had assumed the reins of government in the year 1925, we had heard of several reforms carried out with lightning speed in the social and political institutions of the land, and of improvements in the amenities of life, such as the construction of motor roads in place of mule tracks, the organization of the police and the road guards to ensure safety, and the electrification of several cities. I had, however, also heard reports that in respect of of sanitation Iran was still mediaeval. When, therefore, the time for landing at Bushire arrived, I was nearer cold feet than ever before throughout my experience of difficult journeys. It was certain that owing to lack of sanitation and sanitary conveniences our lives would be made indescribably miserable until we should reach Tehran.  In Bushire we had a foretaste of the difficulties that were in store for us and during the journey to Shiraz, and in that city itself, there was the same trouble. Even in palatial buildings there was not more than one lavatory, and that too of the primitive type, and a bath-room was a luxury to be met with only at the houses of those who were doubly blest with wealth as well as the sense of personal hygiene. For the pilgrims to the fatherland this was by no means an exhilarating experience. However, as we entered Ispahan, life in Iran wore an altogether different aspect. Special sanitary arrangements were made for the guests of His Imperial Majesty. In Tehran and Meshed, too, there was no cause for complaint.

Throughout the journey from south to north and from west to east I was greatly impressed by two remarkable features. The first was the presence of the Amnieh, the road guards, at short distances. If deterrence of crime and establishment of law and order could be regarded as the best proof of the efficiency of the road guard, we had such proof in abundance wherever we traveled. Had I not traversed, day and night, the far flung areas in all directions, I should have hesitated to accept the statements I had heard before that the roads in Iran were absolutely safe. Wherever I went I enquired whether the inhabitants had heard of any case of murder, assault or theft in their neighborhood. To my surprise I found that the men from whom I sought the information had to make an effort to recall any such incident. If after some minutes they could cite a case of petty theft or violence, it was easily accounted for as the work of a domestic servant, or a disappointed lover, or of an inflamed relative. The highwaymen had deserted their haunts; the professional robbers and law-breakers were frightened out of their nefarious pursuits.

The second notable feature was the sight of gangs of laborers repairing or widening the roads. It was heartening to notice that money was forthcoming to meet one of the essential requisites of commerce-good communications. The roads were generally devoid of beauty, but we found that during the new regime khiābans, boulevards, had been constructed on European model in all principal cities. The buildings abutting on these boulevards were of improved and uniform design. Especially at Tehran, Ispahan and Meshad the Iranis seemed to have been engaged in the work of city improvement similar to that I had witnessed when the Bombay Improvement Trust took in hand the Dadar- Matunga Scheme.

It must be admitted, however, that, on the whole, Persian cities are drab and unpicturesque, surrounded by equally uninviting walls. Even a city like Shiraz did not appear to be the peerless garden it was in the eyes of Hafiz. Once, however, we entered the courtyard of houses we found beautiful gardens and rooms neatly furnished and decorated with some real gems of Persian art such as a carpet illumining a corner or a curtain hanging over a door or a window.

What appeared to have been sorely neglected was an adequate system of water supply and drainage. Through many a street little canals of water were seen bubbling along in the open or coursing underground in a channel having a few openings. Here we saw Irani men and women squatting and performing their ablutions. If it was a woman, her couching figure was busy rinsing Swabs of cloth. The dirty water flew onward to be used by others waiting at a distance with pots to clean, kiddies to bathe, or sores to wash.

No wonder the toll annually taken by typhoid and other water-borne diseases was excessive.

I had not gone to Iran merely to pay my homage to the fatherland. It was my mission to study conditions and investigate prospects of strengthening the ties between the Parsis and the rnodern Iranis and of developing commercial relations between India and Iran. The defects, therefore,  could not escape myeyes. But Dinshah was there merely to preach the gospel of love, to kiss the sacred soil of Iran and the burly Iranis, too, who greeted him with kisses and shed tears of joy in embracing him! He had, therefore, no eyes to notice things which to me appeared to be serious handicaps.

The strongest point in favor of Iran is its climate. It helps to cover a multitude of sins of insanitation and slovenliness. Nature is also bountiful as regards the food supply. The most fateful test by which ruling dynasties and cabinets stand or fall is the bread available for the people. Wheat bread is the principal item of the Irani's food, and wheat in Iran is plentiful. So too other kinds of grain, meat, eggs, poultry, vegetable and fruit, fresh and dry.

The cost of living was on the whole cheaper than in India. Even in Tehran it compared favorably with that in Bombay. The city was lit with electricity. Water was laid on, the flushing system of water closets was being gradually introduced, and I was delighted to find that the Sanitary Engineer who had practically a monopoly for such work was a Zarathushtrian, Mr. Jehangir Badhni.

One afternoon the Court Minister, Teymour Tash, took us to the most fashionable club in Tehran. It seemed to me as if one of the clubs from a continental city, including its fashionable members, had been transplanted in Tehran!  There were the English, the French, the Swiss, the Germans and the Iranis, and, if the visitors for that afternoon could be included, the Parsis too, men as well as women of distinguished appearance and manners, dressed in European style, partaking of refreshments served in European fashion, and dancing to the tune of European music. When I was intro~ duced to the charming Russian wife of the minister, she offered to dance with me. I apologized profusely for my inability to dance; so did Dr. Sorab Meherhomji who was  standing next to me. Never in my life did I feel so annoyed  with me for neglecting dancing.

The official religion of Iran is Islam. But I found that most of the Iranis were free thinkers. Borne Parsis in India believed that as there was a tendency among the modern Iranis to hark back to the days of Cyrus and Darius, Jamshid and Noshirwan, they might in course of time revert to the religion of the ancient Iranians too! Far from it. It is my impression is that there is as much or as little chance for it as there is for the Irani to embrace Christianity or Judaism. The fact is that the people of Iran want all to go there and to take their capital there and help in the industrialization and regeneration of Iran, but on condition that the Iranis and the Iranis alone should be the masters  in their own house.

When Reza Shah ascended the throne, the country was groaning under the tyranny of the Mullahs and the brigands. The brigands have been completely routed; nay, as if by a talisman, the highwayman of yesterday is turned into the yeoman of today. As for the Mullahs, they were once the true rulers of Iran, being able to support or smash any government and to stifle any measure of reform likely to undermine their hold on the ignorant and superstitious masses. Those days are gone. Under the new rules a Mullah's turban is no longer regarded as the sole proof of one's qualifications to be a priest. He has to prove his knowledge, and innate worth. This in itself has thinned the ranks of those inveterate enemies of progress. The few that remain have been relegated to their legitimate position in the State.[2]

Speaking of the masses over whom the Mullahs used to exercise overwhelming influence, I found the people as a whole still illiterate and inarticulate. No doubt, they have natural intelligence and are peace-loving and law-abiding. There is no caste system militating against homogeneity and unity. Under the present constitution all the subjects are equal before the law.

Reza Shah Pahlavi
on cover of Time magazine

Many a traveler has lightly passed judgment on the character of the Irani. I should not presume to generalize without wide and intimate experience spread over all classes and for a long period. That the Irani is a pleasant fellow, perfect in manners, delightful as a host, endowed with wit and humor, rather easy going and inclined to live in the sky, is well known to all. I shall refer to one or two traits of character which cannot be passed over in silence. He is certainly no slave of the clock and in no hurry to start. A meeting may be fixed for five o'clock; business may not begin till six o'clock. But in respect 0£ this lordly trait of character Dr. Tagore might well claim to have excelled the Irani, for he seemed to have made it a rule to make his audiences wait for nearly an hour, no matter if ministers and courtiers, the honored guests of His Imperial Majesty, the President of the Irani Anjuman of Bombay and the Managing Director of the Persia Industrial and Trading Company, included, should be swearing all the while!

You may be invited to dinner at eight o'clock. It may not be served till ten o'clock. You wonder if there would ever be an end to the stream of salutations, shafts of witticisms and the rounds of tea without milk offered to you. Tortured by hunger, you may sip the tea or chew the dry fruit or shirini (pastry) laid in front of you.

Readiness to please you or to concur with you, although unconvinced, is another peculiar trait in the Irani's character. Such an anxiety not to differ or displease, has been often misunderstood and variously interpreted. The fact is that he generally does not want to deceive you but gives you merely an evasive answer if he thinks that the truth, if told, would be unpalatable to you or savour of incivility. For instance, if he tells you that the road along which you are to travel is good when it is bad, he is merely trying to be pleasant to a visitor from a foreign land. If you ask him to do a thing or fetch something for you, he would invariably say chashm (with my eyes), but would not often move even his little finger. You might wait patiently for him to turn up and bring what you wanted, but you might as well wait till Doomsday. Once I was much annoyed at such loss of time repeatedly inflicted on me and said to the Superintendent who  was looking after our comfort on behalf of the Darbar,[3] "My dear friend, if I ask you to do something which you cannot carry out, there would be no harm in telling me it is not possible. But you  always say chashm[4] and do nothing and upset my time-table! For a man like me who has many things to attend to within the very few days I am here, this is a great hardship."  Smilingly he replied: "My dear sir, you do not to understand that I simply cannot say NO to anything you say or ask. Even if I cannot comply with your wishes, I must say YES, otherwise I should be guilty of being impolite!” When I related this incident to Dinshah, he laughed heartily but added a few words, lawyer-like, in defense of the lying Irani.

One of the most interesting features of New Iran was the New Woman. Emancipated from the tyranny of the "purdah",[5] she was free to move about wherever she willed and as she willed, veiled, unveiled or semi-veiled. Very few, however, came out without the black  "chaddur", which concealed their face, figure and dress. Most of them wore the peak, which shaded the eye, till they drew up the  “chaddur” over the lower part of the face at the approach to a stranger. Monogamy was understood to be the rule. There was, however, that singular system of temporary marriages, called sighé, legalized by ecclesiastical law, on payment of a small fee, for a fixed period ranging from one day to ninety-nine years. In Meshed, especially, many a pilgrim - from neighboring lands was expected to relieve his loneliness by contracting a temporary marriage.

Until recently, child marriages were not prohibited. Under the new rule,[6] however, such unions are forbidden. Divorces are still swift and plentiful. The Pahlavi regime has given to the wife the right to demand dissolution of the marriage tie for a valid reason, but the husband continues to enjoy the privilege to divorce a wife at a moment's notice according to his caprice. Such inequalities seemed to have provoked much resentment among the new women of Iran. When we were in the country, the Society of Patriotic Irani Women, a branch of the Shir-o-Khurshid, the Red Cross Society of Iran, was agitating for the abolition of the institution of temporary marriages and the law of divorce. The bulk of Irani womanhood appeared, however, to have been still submerged in ignorance and superstition. Even in the household of cultured Iranis women generally lived an isolated life in the anderoon, the interior of the house. They were seldom seen in the biroon, the separate house in the same compound where their husbands received visitors.

Now a word about the Shah. On the 2nd May, 1932, we had the honor of being presented to His Imperial Majesty. While we were waiting in the audience hall, during the time the poet was closeted with the Shah, I found myself transported to the realms of romance and history. One by one the stirring scenes of prowess and glory of the illustrious sovereigns and heroes immortalized by Firdousi flashed across my eyes. Many a monarch had since ascended the throne of Iran and descended into dust. Not a few of them had been endowed with kingly attributes, but within a few minutes I was to greet one, who, according to all reports, had excelled his predecessors in innate worth.

Dr. Tagore came out; we were ushered in. There I saw Reza Shah, the symbol of Iran's unity and nationhood, standing in the center of the room, dressed like a soldier. There was something singularly charming in the personality and presence of this monarch which, for the first time in my life held me spellbound. Cool and collected, agile and alert, superb in stature and majestic in demeanor, he gave one an idea of kingship incarnate. Dinshah was the first to be introduced. Then came my turn. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Aghai Fouroughi, muttered the name Rustom Masani. With eyes beaming in astonishment, as it were, His Majesty exclaimed: "Rustam-e-Sani" (the second Rustom)! We all laughed heartily, but the comparison made the pigmy namesake of the national hero mortally ashamed of his stature!

His Majesty’s message to us was simple and straightforward. He expressed his regret that the descendants of the ancient Iranians had very little contact with their fatherland. He wished to see more of them. He did not ask that they should take their money with them from Hindustan to Iran, Although he was anxious to see the resources of Iran developed and the Parsis taking a hand in it." Come in small numbers," he said, "see things with your own eyes; wait and watch and then decide for yourselves whether some of you should not sett1e down in the country of your ancestors.  We will welcome you with arms outstretched.”

[1] Article taken from “Dinshah Irani Memorial Volume,”  published in Mumbai, 1948

[2] This article reflects on the evolving conditions of Iran under the progressive rule of Reza Shah, the founder of modern Iran. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate by the British after Iran was invaded by the allied forces in the opening years of the WWII in order to control the Iranian oil fields to gain access to roads.  The conditions changed and reverted to the old order with the advent of the Islamic revolution of 1979.

[3] Darabar is the Farsi word for “The Royal Court”

[4] Responding Chashm in Farsi means that it will be done

[5] Purdah or Chaddur was the veil woman were forced to wear to cover themselves in a traditional Islamic society.  The justification for women being forced to wear the head to leg cover was to protect the men (male dominated society where women were considered as mere material possessions) from getting sexually aroused. 

[6] This was part of the great reforms introduced by Reza Shah’s initiatives