Marjan Kamali’s book, The Stationery Shop, is set in the tumultuous backdrop of a major political upheaval in Iran’s history. In the year 1953, democracy was ousted in favor of monarchy with sponsored riots and secret covert operations. Iranian coup d'état, known otherwise as the 28 Mordad coup d'état, involved the ousting of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh, to strengthen the rule of the Shah, Mohammed Raza Pahlavi, aided by British colonial powers and the American Government.
Following the coup, which was motivated by vested interests in Iranian oil, the Shah was reinstated as head of state and ruled for thirty-six years until the Iranian revolution in 1979 when the Islamic Republic, formed by religious clerics, took over.
At the center of this political drama, and on the dusty roads of Tehran, is a small stationery shop where two fates intertwine. This shop, with its rows of fountain pens, calligraphy sets, and books of Rumi, is a haven for the protagonist, Roya, where every Tuesday, after school, she spends immersed in the ocean of Persian literature. It is here that she meets Bahman Aslan, a young handsome boy with dark hair and olive skin, and with whom she falls in love.
“The boy who wants to change the world,” Bahman, is a strong Mosaddegh supporter and believes in democratizing Iran and freeing it from the clutches of the Shah, and thus, the Western Governments. He is a devoted political activist often found distributing pamphlets for the anti-Shah Campaign. As per historical records, Mosaddegh, at the time, wanted to limit the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) over Iranian oil resources and expel the foreign powers from the country. Bahman’s activism wins him the favour of Roya’s father who is himself a pro-Mosaddegh activist. He is welcomed into the family with open arms, and the young lovers begin to dream of their future, unaware of fate’s baleful design.
Although their young love, with its passions and pitfalls, is central to the story, this book is much more than two star-crossed lovers; it brings to life Iranian culture prior to the Islamic revolution. Through the lives of her characters, Marjan provides deep insights into various aspects of the culture. This is first evident in Roya’s familial dynamics. They are a closely-knit, loving family with western and modern views. This is in lieu of the liberalization and the westernization campaigns by the Shah before the revolution. The Shah had imposed de-veiling, and non-veiled women were encouraged to work and were even offered high positions. They were allowed to participate in sports and mix freely with men. This was a manifestation of the western influence on Iran’s political climate.
The book is also a trove of Iranian cuisine. Roya’s maman (Persian for mother) is an excellent cook who leaves no stones unturned when it comes to the upbringing of her daughters. She makes mouth-watering Iranian delicacies which are described elaborately in the book with a curious passion. This is not the first Middle Eastern book I’ve read where scores of pages are dedicated purely to the preparation of culinary dishes. Cuisine seems to be at the heart of Middle Eastern literature and, from what it seems, a matter of pride for its female authors.
Kamali describes the character of Tehran vividly with its dusty lanes, busy cafes, spring blossoms, and populous squares. She skillfully covers both the urbane and rural facets of Tehran and one can see a stark difference between the two classes. On the one hand, there are parties with people doing the Tango to old English songs playing on the gramophone. On the other, there is a melon seller selling slices on his cart while his daughter hides behind him, evading the salacious gaze of passersby.
The celebration of the Persian new year, Nowruz, is described at great length in this book. The welcoming of the spring, the dusting of the carpets, the deep cleaning of the houses, the purchase of new clothes, the cooking of delicacies, and the get-togethers depict the fervor and dedication with which this festival is celebrated.
It is against this rich backdrop that Roya’s and Bhaman’s love ripens, taking them through the promise of marriage and the blight of separation. The story traverses the length of their lives, converging at the sunset where they are forced to confront their aborted love. The Stationary shop, the planet around which their lives revolve like moons, drawn not only by its gravity but also each other’s, reveals itself more profoundly towards the end. The reader discovers a new, and mystical, dimension to the story - the role of two lovers of a different time in sealing the fate of Roya’s and Bhaman’s love.
For such a small book The Stationery Shop is heaped with surprising treasures. A brilliant piece of work, this book will leave the readers wise and rich with history, culture, and passion. One significant aspect of the book, as I see it, is its addressal of mental health. Bahman’s mother, who suffers from chronic mental ill-health, is shown to have severe mood swings and a caustic tongue with an abundance of curses that spares no one, especially not Roya. The book shows how mental health disorders can cause as much harm to one’s family as to oneself. There is an instance in the book when the protagonist laments the life they could have had, had there been enough awareness and treatment for mental health disorders.
Though The Stationery Shop is a story of ill-fated love, and we tend to sympathize with the lead protagonists, the book holds key to so many other doors that it leaves the reader more inquisitive and curious at the end of it. I spent a whole day researching Iranian history and culture after reading this book. To not read this it is to miss an out on a precious experience.
Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children, and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.
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