Life lived on her terms
MARYAM Mazar's complex character and her memories of her difficult past, form the basis of Yasmin Crowther's very interesting novel, The Saffron Kitchen.
A major part of the story takes place in Mazareh, a village in Khorasan, Iran, where Maryam spends her childhood and early adulthood. The other part is about Sara's life in London. Sara is Maryam's and Edward's only child.
The book begins with a tragedy. Sara has a miscarriage; it is a consequence of Maryam's strong reaction to an unconscious raking up of her past by her twelve-year-old nephew. (Saeed's mother, Maryam's sister, has recently died and the boy has come from Iran to live with his aunt).
Beset by guilt and sorrow at this sudden turn of events, Maryam departs for Iran without being able to say goodbye to Sara who doesn't want to see or talk to her. The story unfolds as Maryam journeys back to her village and her past appears before us.
After undergoing cruel punishment as a young girl for a wrong she had not done, Maryam had had to leave her home. She had gone away to London, banished from all that she treasured. (Many years later, she tells someone, "Some freedoms can be gifts of hate as much as love", remembering her father's last words to her, "She can go by herself ….she is no daughter of mine").
Although she makes a life in London with her caring husband and beloved daughter, Maryam never really feels that it is her life. A part of her lives on in Mazareh. She occasionally visits Mashhad, a town close to Mazareh, but has never gone back to her village until now.
The background to Maryam's childhood is a troubled Iran during the times of the Shah. Maryam was a spirited, freedom-loving girl who wanted to be a nurse, but her unreasonably stern father had no tolerance for any kind of deviation and wanted to marry her off at a tender age.
Maryam's fate is decided by the circumstances caused by the revolution in her country. She is dealt a severe, undeserved punishment which leaves behind scars, visible and invisible; her personality and psyche are gravely affected.
Her emotional bond with Ali, a young, handsome orphan who serves her father and teaches her all he learns from books, creates an overwhelming tenderness in the reader. It is one of those rare and precious relationships that neither time nor distance can destroy. Maryam finally meets him after four decades; their feelings for each other have not changed.
Maryam's longing to live life on her own terms, and the road her life eventually takes, speak volumes about the importance of being true to oneself.
On the other hand, we have Sara who feels neither totally English, nor Iranian. Despite having an English father and an English husband, and being brought up in England, she has grown up on Iranian culture and memories.
This deeply-moving book about having to let go has some fascinating characters. Fatima, Maryam's wet-nurse, endears herself to us. Here's a very touching extract of Maryam's thoughts: "Her baby is dead because of me. My mother was forbidden to nurse me and I was given to Fatima instead. I sucked her dry and her own baby died. When I found out years later, my father said that her son had been born weak anyway. I know that is not true. I killed him before I could walk. It was the first thing I did in my life. Fatima should hate me, but she loves me".
The understanding and acceptance shown by Edward and Sara relay clearly that loving someone means wanting that person to be happy in the way he or she wishes. Ali's remaining constant in his feelings and intentions, yet not being demanding or expecting anything in return, also confirms this. He tells Sara, "If we put our own needs aside, the important thing is for Maryam to know her own mind, when it is not driven by fear or guilt or obligation. That is what she always wanted she should have that freedom as a woman, should she not?"
Feeling good about being back in her roots, Maryam writes to Sara to ask her to come and see her there, in her element. Sara's trip to her mother's village helps her to understand her mother better; it brings them closer.
Meanwhile, Saeed gets along very well with Edward and Julian, Sara's husband. This spreads a feeling of warmth, both among the novel's characters, and the readers.
Beautiful verses by Omar Khayyam, Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot herald the chapters and charming tales of Iran's plains and mountains are blended in the narration.
This is a book I recommend highly, mainly because of its protagonist, who in a niece's words is a "strange, foreign aunt, who was awkward and old-fashioned in her Iranian customs, her scarf forever slipping from her hair."