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Unravelling the knots

Aziz's Notebook presents a damning picture of a society that turned on its own.

books Updated: Mar 23, 2013 00:35 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times

Aziz's Notebook, that weaves together the notes of an old Iranian man struggling to make sense of the state's killing of his daughters, the commentary of his anthropologist granddaughter Chowra Makaremi, the author of the book, and family letters written in the early 1980s immediately after Iran's Islamic Revolution, is both moving and revelatory. Revelatory because the rest of the world still hasn't confronted the magnitude of what happened in Iran during those years when the theocratic state set about destroying everyone - including the Mujahedin or Left-leaning Islamists, who had enthusiastically supported the revolution - with even a slightly different agenda to their own.

Chowra Makaremi, author of 'Aziz's Notebook'. Raj K Raj/ HT Photo

The statistics are chilling: 15,000 political prisoners were executed between 1981 and 1987 and 5000 more were killed in the summer of 1988. Many of these had been denounced by neighbours, colleagues, even former students - as in the case of Makaremi's mother.

"At that time, people were very ideological. That student who betrayed my mother (by pointing her out to the Sepah or the 'Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution') did it because she believed so strongly in the cause," Makaremi said when she was in Delhi earlier this week for the launch of the English edition, translated from the original French by Renuka George.

This isn't an easy book, and Aziz's struggle to comprehend the slow collapse of his world and his determination to record what happened to his daughters Fataneh and Fatemeh, including descriptions of the torture to which they were subjected, is sometimes too heart-wrenching to read. But, like the unexpected flowering weeds that break through cracks in concrete, there is beauty too in Aziz's own restrained writing, his quiet religiosity, his apt metaphors and his propensity to quote from Farsi poets like Hafez of Shiraz. Makaremi, who was directed to the notebook by relatives who knew her grand father had wanted her and her brother, brought up by their father in France, to know the truth, deftly places the writing of different members of her family within the context of a society that turned against its best and brightest.

"I was actually inspired by the work of anthropologist Veena Das who has written extensively about violence during the Partition of India," she said adding that she is unsure if the book will ever be published in Farsi.

Considering that many including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Guide, and even Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the 2009 uprising that was brutally suppressed, were active participants in the institutionalised violence of the 1980s, it seems unlikely that Aziz's Notebook will be found any time soon in bookstores in Iran.

For readers in India, however, where it has been published in English for the first time, this excellent book presents many lessons on the dangers of fundamentalism and what Hannah Arendt, in an entirely different context, had called the banality of evil.

First Published: Mar 22, 2013 23:50 IST