My Elephant Thinks of India

By Mary Marks

When my twenty-third birthday arrived, my roommate, Alice Phinney, had scurried around the bazaar, shopping by mime, as only she could, for my gifts. “How did you ever come up with an egg beater?” I asked, after opening an oddly shaped package. “I’ve never seen one here.”

“I found a sympathetic-looking merchant in that section where they sell pots and pans and silverware,” she said. “When I had his complete attention, I just turned into an egg beater, that’s all, moving my hands and arms, trilling my lips. I think my shoulders got into the act as well.” Thank goodness I wasn’t there. It hadn’t taken long for Phin and me to learn that solo trips to the bazaar worked better for both of us. Her antics made me want to sink into the floor; she complained I cramped her style.

“At first, the guy in the kiosk just looked confused,” she continued, her eyes laughing at me, “but all of a sudden, he got it. The little boy who works for him — don’t they look like little men in those suit jackets? — led me to down the lane to another seller. Voila!” With such a back-story, this gift would hold a unique place in my culinary collection.

But del-am tang shodeh, my heart tightened, as the Kermanis would say, when I opened the birthday box from my parents. Along with a book and underwear, was a National Geographic magazine. As I flipped through the pages, I discovered bright red maple leaves, dusty brown oaks, yellow sycamores, even palm-like fronds from the California redwood my dad had planted in our front yard — all pressed between sheets of waxed paper by my father. Unwrapping a hand-crafted Christmas tree ornament from my mother, strips of pale blue velvet ribbons and bright red and silver sequins affixed to a Styrofoam ball, I could picture her at the yellow Formica kitchen table in Homewood, chewing on her lip while she concentrated on the proper place for each piece of glitter, careful not to let the tiny pushpins fall to the floor where our dog, Spike, might find them. Soon it would be Christmas; I would be here in Kerman, they would be there in Homewood.

Kermanis have a special way of expressing the loneliness one feels when reminded of home. “Fil-am beh yad-eh Hindustan oftad,” they say — my elephant just remembered India. As summer changed to fall, and fall transformed into winter, my elephant had been thinking about India with disconcerting regularity. I didn’t miss the place of Illinois, where my parents now lived. It was just the last in a string of places. My heart tightened, in the Persian way, for my mother, my father, my brother, even my grandfather and grandmother, for the shared experience that made us a family.

That fall, when questions about being away from home came up, I couldn’t dismiss them. Sitting at the long tables in front of the blackboard in a Bahmanyar High School classroom, my six Kermani women students were discussing the hugely popular movie, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which, dubbed in Farsi, was playing at the local cinema. Mrs. Homayunfar felt sorry for the young women who had been kidnapped by the brothers to become their brides. Taken away from their families, she knew they missed their mothers.

I could feel it coming. “Don’t you miss your mother, Miss Mary?” asked Mrs. Faroukpay. Before I could respond, Mrs. Bahrami chimed in. “I couldn’t bear to be so far away from my family. When did you last see your mother, Miss Mary?”

“It’s been more than a year. I haven’t seen my parents since I came to Kerman. I especially miss my family during the holidays,” I added, startled by the strength of my feelings.

“Perhaps you can call them at Christmas,” suggested Mariyam-khanum, an elementary school teacher and a new friend. “You know that my husband works for the telephone company.”

“That would be nice,” I answered, dismissing the idea. Telephones were a rarity in Kerman in 1965. I hadn’t spoken on one more than twice since I’d been here.

It was mid-November, cold enough to turn on the kerosene heaters, when Mariyam invited me to lunch, a casual affair, she’d explained. Her husband, Mohammed, wanted to talk to me about the holiday phone call. Phone call? Was it really going to happen?

The taxi stopped in front of Mariyam’s house, a walled-in abode at the other end of town from my apartment. Ahmad-agha, the Azadis’ elderly manservant, answered my ring, leading me through the winter-bare garden into the house.   Mariyam and I were standing by the window chatting, her two-year old son in her arms, when her husband came in. As we said our hellos and settled down on the floor to eat, I realized I’d never been in such an informal situation in Iran with a woman’s husband present. Mohammad Azadi, like every professional of either gender I’d met, worked for the Iranian government. A tall, slim man, with a moustache, of course, he did something at the phone company. As his English was only slightly better than his wife’s, our luncheon conversation was bilingual — when he couldn’t find the right word in English, we tried Farsi. If I couldn’t talk around the idea I was trying to express in Persian, I switched to my native tongue. This half and half communication was my way of life these days.

While we ate — delicious rice, khoresht, and dolmeh — Mohammad explained that he would need my family’s phone number to schedule the call from his office. Maybe this was for real! There was one thing yet to be resolved. How much was it going to cost? When I posed the question, Mariyam and Mohammad gave each other a look. This was no time for taa’rof, no polite refusals, they must have decided. It would be expensive, Mohammad acknowledged. 200 tomans. Twenty-six dollars, I calculated quickly, more than a third of my monthly Peace Corps living allowance. But I had some savings — living in Kerman didn’t cost me very much. “That’s fine,” I said, gulping.

I danced out of the Azadi house that afternoon. I was going to speak with my family. They would be so excited. If I called them on Christmas Eve at five-thirty in the afternoon Kerman time, that would be 9 a.m. in Homewood. I puzzled over the correct phone number. Sycamore 8-5746, that was SY 8-…. How did SY translate into numbers? There were no letters on the 1, I was pretty sure, then three letters each until we ran out. 798-5746, I hoped. I wrote home immediately. December 24th was less than a month away.

* * *

Christmas Eve day took forever to pass. I counted and recounted my money, then checked the clock. One p.m. I tried to take an Iranian siesta, but sleep wouldn’t come. 1:30. I wrote letters to occasional correspondents—my aunt, my grandmother, an ex-boyfriend. 2:30. I baked Christmas cookies in the oven we’d inherited when the U.S. Mappers left town. 4:15.

At last it was five o’clock, and time to go to the telephone office. I checked again to be sure the 200 tomans were wrapped safely in my pocketbook, and hailed a cab.

“I’d like to see Mr. Azadi,” I explained in my most assured Farsi to the doorman at the phone company. “He’s helping me make a call to America.”

“Mr. Azadi has gone home for the day,” was the response. “He said to tell you it is not possible to call today.”

“That can’t be. My parents are waiting. They’ll be very upset.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t do anything to help you.”

A dusty winter wind peppered my face as I trudged home down the unpaved street — past the movie theater, past the bakery, past the communal water tap. Iran was an impossible place to live. And, like every Iranian in the world, Mr. Azadi was impossible, too. He deserved to live here.

“I knew it! I just knew this would happen,” I exploded to Phin. “I got my family’s hopes up that I’d call them on Christmas Eve. I even gave them the exact time, and what happened? Nothing — a big nothing.”

“It may still work out,” Phin tried to reassure me.

“Oh no it won’t. It never does. Iranians just say what they think you want to hear. Mariyam’s husband never had any intention of letting me make that call.”

With that, I stalked into my bedroom, banged the door shut, and threw myself down on the bed. Not only was this botched phone call ruining my Christmas, but it was messing up my family’s as well. I should have known better.

I couldn’t stay put. Pacing up and down the long, narrow room, I finally ended up at the window where Willie the Cat was sleeping, sprawled across my writing supplies.   “Hey there, sweet kitty,” I cooed into his ear, picking him up and hugging him close. “You wouldn’t do this to me, would you?” With that, Willie jumped out of my arms and headed for the door. Fickle kitty, I thought, letting him out of the room. Even you don’t want to be around me when I’m unhappy. I selected a blue aerogram from my stationery stash, found a black ballpoint pen, and crawled back up on the Esfahani bedspread to pour out my frustrations in a letter to my parents.

My phone funk continued right through Christmas Day. My poor family. What would they think? Reluctantly, I helped with the turkey, an escapee from the U.S. Commissary in Tehran. My mother’s ornament dangled over our dining room table that afternoon, as the Kerman volunteers and a couple of others from nearby towns feasted on American bounty and my homemade cookies. But in spite of the camaraderie, the day felt flat. I was angry—especially with myself for letting down my guard.

I was still moping around three days later when our mentor, Mr. Sayeed Nejad, appeared at the door to our apartment on Cinema Nur Street.

“Come on, Mary-khanum, let’s go,” he said, motioning toward a waiting taxi.

“Where?” I asked, not budging.

“To the telephone company. You can make your call.”

“It’s too late. Christmas is over. My parents won’t even be at home.”

“Mary-jun,” Mary, dear, “Mr. Azadi has gone to a lot of trouble so you can call your parents. You must come.”

“I don’t have to do anything of the sort.” But I got my coat and my money and followed Mr. Sayeed Nejad into the cab.

“So how come I can call today, and I couldn’t call on Christmas Eve, when it was all arranged?” I asked, as the cab bumped along my unpaved road.

“The telephone lines were all busy. Everyone wants to call home at Christmas.”

“We made these arrangements a month ago,” I complained, staring out the window at a flock of goats and sheep being herded down the street. “And why didn’t Mr. Azadi let me know if it wasn’t going to happen?”

“He did, Mary-jun, he did. Remember, there was a message waiting for you.”

Before I could protest further, we had reached the telephone company. I nodded briefly at Mr. Azadi when I was led into his office, but didn’t say a word, staring, instead, at a spot on the wall behind him. He was gracious, ignoring my bad manners and directing me to a nearby booth. Minutes later, he signaled to me to pick up the receiver.

“Hello, Mother.”

“Hello, hello, I can barely hear you, Mary.”

“Well, you’re as clear as a bell,” I said.

“What did you say? All I can hear is a word or two, and a lot of static.”

“I can hear you fine. Is Daddy there?” She must have heard “Daddy” for then my father was on the line.

“Hello, Mary, did you get our package?”

“Not yet. How are you?”

“Mary, I can’t hear you. What did you say?”

And so the conversation went for three whole minutes. Then the line went dead. Struggling to hold back my tears, I apologized to Mr. Azadi for my abrupt behavior. “I didn’t understand that you were working on the call,” I explained, and fished in my purse for the 200 tomans — a lot of money for ‘I can’t hear you’. But there was something comforting about sharing real time with my parents, who were more than one world away, anyway I looked at it. And for the next few days, my elephant grinned every time she thought of India.