Monday, December 20, 1993

Marx to Michael Jackson

Eight years ago, when I first visited Russia, the skyline was dominated by large billboards that sang the praises of Marx and Lenin and generously wished long life to Communism and Socialism. They have vanished and in their place stand shy saplings of consumerism – billboards of varying sizes which urge you to buy shoes, computers, cigarettes and so on. What happened to the old boards? Some, apparently, were torn down with ceremony and amidst rejoicing at the changing of the old order. Others disappeared quietly and the wood was appropriated by the workmen who put it to use in their dachas – that’s capitalism, isn’t it?
I can remember shopping, last time, in stores called beriozkas. Here you could buy handicrafts, crystal, souvenirs and very cheap but high-quality Russian vodka. The medium of exchange was the US dollar. Now these commodities are available everywhere: at street stalls, where the needy might dispose icons and other family heirlooms; and in department stores, where you can catch the attention of surly-looking salesgirls by calling out, “devochka!” the Russian word for girl. Sated shoppers at the one-year-old Sadko Avenue (already a match for Bond Street; already more a symbol of Russia than the Red Square) peel off notes from wads stuffed inside their wallets, confident that there’s plenty more where that came from. The WASP expat newspapers refer to this prototype sneeringly as the man in the lime green suit with the fat gold Rolex on his wrist. But they also tolerate him kindly because it’s he who is firing the economy.
The US dollar is legal tender, but we preferred to make our purchases in roubles as the economical option. Smirnoff, the American vodka made from the fabulous recipe of a long-ago Russian (as everyone knows) was available much cheaper at the kiosks than the dollar shops and it’s possible to shop from one kiosk to the next looking for the best price. The kiosk is a Russian version of the panwallah, and stocks cigarettes, booze, chocolates, lingerie and electronics, much of it imported.
Russian food is not as bad as propaganda has it. But when, in nostalgic fits of longing for more familiar fare, we ate at the restaurant Delhi, we found it as popular as its food is atrocious. We were also told that food here is actually only cooked once a week; that it was now run by the mafia, (a word Russians use to describe the antisocial section of their society) and frequented mostly by Indian expatriates. You can still see a weekly Hindi film on television – the one we saw bits of had Rekha and Shatrughan Sinha speaking such fluent Russian that it quite boggled the mind. The advertisements are peopled by characters who look like they would be more at ease back home in America. And in a country which the world views with concern for its food shortages, we were amazed at the number of television ads for dog and cat food.
I didn’t come across anyone like the Mithun girl this time. They’re there, I suppose – but no doubt leaning more towards Michael Jackson. On one occasion, though, my cabby casually began to chat about Rao (as in the Indian Prime Minister, PV Narasimha) and his political ideologies of which I believe he knew more than I did.
This cabby was in fact not a professional taxi driver, but the owner of a private car who, according to local custom, would be willing to ferry you to your destination for a small fee if it happened to be on the way to wherever he was going. If you stand on the side of the road in Moscow and wave out your hand until someone stops, you can specify your terminus and negotiate a price.
Over a series of meetings in those few weeks, it struck us that this could well be the reason why no one ever seemed to be on time. And on this trip we had another of those interesting coincidences that call forth that “Oh my! What a small world!” refrain. We sat chatting with an Indian businessman and our conversation went something like this:
IB: Oh so you’re from Pune!
We: Yes, that’s right. Do you know the place?
IB: Um … sort of … I have a brother who lives there.
We: Really? Where does he live?
IB: Er… can’t really remember, it’s a funny-sounding name … I think it begins with a W …
We: Would that be Wanowari?
IB: That’s right! He lives in Wanowari!
We: Oh how nice … we live there too! Where in Wanowari?
IB: Er … you know, it’s one of those new gated-community kind of places …
We: Really? We live in one of those too! Which one does your brother live in?
IB: Er … I can’t remember … what’s the name of your place?
We: Clover Village.
IB: Yes! That’s where my brother lives. Clover Village.
We: Wow! What a coincidence.
IB: He has a row house there … I can’t remember the name of the lane but I know it’s the second left turn after you enter the gate.
We: No! That’s our lane, Flemington Terrace.
IB: Yes! That’s my brother’s lane! He lives at No 2 Flemington Terrace.
Me (aghast): No! We live in No 2 Flemington Terrace.
Me (thinks fast): How many children does your brother have?
IB: Two
Me (looking suspiciously at husband, wondering, ARE YOU THIS MAN’S BROTHER BY ANY CHANCE?): But we live in No 2, and our neighbour has four children!
It turned out that this Indian businessman’s brother was our next door neighbour. The extra two children were a third brother’s, who lived with them. Small world, right?
I enjoyed that stay in Moscow very much. I still had enough halting Russian to find my way around on my own. The metros were still as clean and organized as they had been before – relics of a more rigid era. A ticket to anywhere by metro or by bus was just ten roubles, a very small amount. Still, few passengers would buy one. I saw a ticket inspector patiently explaining to a woman who did not have one that she should have and that everyone was supposed to. Sadly, my stop came and I had to reluctantly get off without hearing the rest. But I doubt whether she was led before a firing squad to be shot, which may or may not have been the procedure in the old days.
parts of this first appeared in The Metropolis on Saturday 18-19 Dec 1993

Saturday, February 27, 1993

Home out of range

If you lived, say, in Los Angeles, and commuted to work, the most relaxing part of your day would be the journey home.
Commuting, Los Angeles psychiatrists and mental health workers concede, with all its opportunities for unwinding and allowing the day’s events to fall into perspective in the individual’s private space – a sort of limbo between work and home where you are answerable to none – is the most deeply therapeutic technological advance made by humankind. This is what a Los Angeles psychiatrist, visiting Bombay on a powerful grant to make a longitudinal study of why residents of Versova, Marol, and other satellites of Andheri are so insufferable and nasty, confided to me.
This was several months ago, and we were on our way home (to Marol and Versova respectively). Crouched comfortably on the edge of the stony, crowded planks that pass for seats in the Local, we chatted amicably while other women thrust their bags in our faces in revenge for having occupied places they might otherwise have had, and unwound rapidly to the jerking jiggety-can of the train and the high-pitched complaining sounds that the occupants filled it with. Therapeutic: deeply so.
After a particularly vicious jab on the forehead, the psychiatrist casually, quite without thinking, stepped hard on her assailant’s little toe, looking innocently at me all the while so as not to get involved in any scuffle that might ensue. Marol, Versova, Los Angeles, what’s the difference, I mused. The only way to retain my sanity, I decided, was to dissociate myself from psychiatrists.
So I got myself a lovely little place in Town (yes, truth they say is often stranger than fiction), about as far from work as my former home was from the station, and moved.
It was goodbye forever to the Ladies – train compartment, I mean, not toilet. In one smart stroke I had evolved from being a poor sod in a mob, devoid of identity, into a genuine, suave urbanite.
Two-and-a-half hours of travelling time saved every day, and god knows how many calories of energy. I was the envy of the old crowd I was leaving behind to carry on chopping vegetables on their laps, tearing their mothers-in-law and bosses apart, and shredding vendors to bits for bindis, bangles, and samosas all the way home.
Everything is so much more expensive in Town, they said enviously. Ah, but think of how much I’ll save on transport, I gloated. You’ll find my address easy to remember I went on, trying to conceal my triumph. It’s the same as the number of the train we battled our way onto for so many years.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I’d been gloating in vain. The hours dragged, long winter evenings went on and on. And travelling by bus – that was just no way to go, though I will admit that some conductors came close to compensating my deprivations, the way they harangued passengers for change and flung pathetic old geezers off with a nifty ting-ting of the bell.
Of an evening I’d wander down to Churchgate station and gaze nostalgically at the frantic, grasping, gasping crowd – a wretched, lonely onlooker. It was no good. Being a mere observer only deepened my sense of isolation. I searched for solace and found it one day when I discovered the Colaba Woods.
Now this Colaba Woods is not the venue for a teddy bear’s picnic where tree lovers might bask in forest glades or other such poetic concepts. It is a landscaped garden with parallel tracks for walkers and joggers, and very enthusiastic they are, too.
I’d walk down every evening and relax there for an hour, feeling at home. It was quite a lot like rush hour, with toes available for trampling, large abdomens to jab with sharp elbows, and smelly little brats to jostle out of the way. When the monsoon came by, it was even more jolly therapeutic. I’d march down with my umbrella, delighting in watching the walkers and joggers skip smartly out of my way. It was ever so soothing.
That took care of aggression and subliminal vindictive urges. Adventure was a little more difficult. Where could I find an equivalent of dashing young men leaning at desperate angles from speeding Locals, clinging by the skin of their fingernails to window rods or clutching tightly to the roof, seemingly intent on acquiring a one-way ticket to that great Dombivali up in the sky? There was no easy solution to this. I tried to satisfy honour by watching pedestrians break through rope barricades to make a dash across the road through zooming traffic. Not many got hit but occasionally the wrath of a policeman would nab a miscreant and that would keep me going for a day or two. And when my pining for the rabble of hawkers rose to an unbearable ache, I would catch a cab and persuade it to stop at a traffic light. It wasn’t much, but it helped.
first appeared in Saturday Times 27 Feb 1993