The Stationery Shop of Tehran
Look at love
How it tangles
With the one fallen in love
Look at spirit
How it fuses with earth
Giving it new life
To say that the year 2020 has been unprecedented is nothing more than a cliche as we pass thirteen million Covid infections worldwide at the halfway point on the calendar. As I walk around my neighborhood trying to make peace with cancelled travel plans and graduation ceremonies, I am glad to report that reading has been an unexpected bright spot these last few months.
To my list of books by authors from countries that I haven’t yet visited (and don’t seem like I will anytime soon), I just added the beautiful novel “The Stationery Shop of Tehran,” by Marjan Kamali.
Set in 1953 in Tehran with the main protagonist, Roya, a bookish schoolgirl who frequents a neighborhood bookstore, the tender story about young love is painstakingly created with believable characters who live and breathe through a tumultuous time in Iran’s history without becoming stereotypes for a country or a generation.
Roya meets Bahman, a young man who wants to change the world, in the stationery shop. Juxtaposed against Roya’s meek view of the circumscribed world she inhabits with Zari, her younger sister, and parents who are forward-thinking and have ambitions for their daughters, Bahman is a firebrand, a political activist who is attracted to Roya. Their mutual love of books and Rumi’s poetry is nurtured against the backdrop of the simmering conflict in the country within the safe confines of shop owned by the kind Mr. Fakhri who plays Cupid.
Through Roya’s smitten eyes, we see her world and its possibilities open up from the safety of Bahman’s arms. Her naivete is slowly replaced by wonder at his sophistication as she meets him for dates at Cafe Ghanadi where he introduces her to pastries and takes her to parties where she sees boys and girls mingling freely while trying to dance the tango. But even the early days of their romance are tinged with a taste of the ugliness of life that ultimately descends on the young lovers.
The book traverses continents and decades as the political fate of the country intersects the sweet love story and takes Roya and Zari to far away America where they enroll in college and try to fulfil their father’s dreams of scientific and literary careers for his girls.
Kamali’s simple prose describes California of the mid-fifties and reveals how the act of moving from a sheltered family life into a new country impacts the two sisters differently. Getting used to new ways of being (shaking hands, wearing shoes inside the house), new food (burgers and fries) and of course, learning the nuances of a new language are gently introduced into the narrative without over the top exotic narration.
Multiple references to Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and detailed descriptions of recipes using saffron and rose water fit seamlessly into the narrative which is focused on the life of Roya. The author’s deft touch in setting up the scenes make them vivid without seeming to be included for the sole purpose of laying it out for readers not familiar with cultural nuances.
As Roya becomes entrenched in her American life with Walter, the narrative shifts to a more straightforward narration that is not as evocative as the previous part in Iran. But the story about thwarted young lovers is pieced together through letters and reminiscences that flash forward through the years before bringing the lovers back into each other’s lives.
There is something unusually poignant about the bond between Roya and Bahman that jumps out in the scenes that features both of them. Can someone fall in love so deeply at the tender age of seventeen and carry the burden of the love and the mystery of their separation while living fully engaged lives without contacting each other? It seems unrealistic in today’s age of constant contact and communication. Perhaps the beauty of the story lies in the inability and unwillingness of the protagonist to rip apart the reason for her heartbreak and her capacity to carry on.
The premise of the story seems unrealistically simple at times. Roya’s family life and relationships, both with her sister in the early years and with her husband, Walter, in the later part are uneventful and rock solid. Even with the looming shadow of political unrest, there are no outright villains and saviors, no absolute heroes. Among the main players who chart the arc of the love story, some rise above petty selfishness and societal restrictions to improve the lot of others, while others are unable to break the shackles of their personal pain and tragedy.
Although I would have liked to see more grey shades in some of the impossibly perfect characters, the story is an easy read, a soothing balm in these uncertain times that reminds us, once again, that although time may dull the memory of certain wounds, it still remains a part of our DNA. Instead of giving up or giving in, it is acceptance of oneself and of the other, that can help us move forward through life.
My opinion: A simple love story that lightens the heart.
Have you read this book? Or come across similar books by writers from other countries? ? Drop me a note in comments.
Photo credit Ranjani Rao’s personal archives