Saturday, May 30, 1998

From Russia with love

What struck me most the first time I visited Russia was that there were no spies anywhere. Perfectly normal people walked down the street on their way to work, to shops, or home, or to pick up their kids. They smiled at each other, and behaved like people do anywhere. None of that sinister cloak and dagger business anywhere at all. Amazing.
James Hadley Chase, Leon Uris and Ian Fleming, and the Western media in general, had helped create internal archetypes which, it had never occurred to me, were ridiculous. I – and so many of my generation – had been thoroughly conditioned by the great American concepts of the evil of communism and the essential villainy of the Russian. It took me several months to recover from the experience of strangeness that Russia was a normal place with normal people. Today the clich├ęd vision of Russian as KGB spy is somewhat outdated, having given way to one of an abject, poverty-stricken individual belonging to a nation driven to its knees by the might of capitalism. Poor fellow. Yet another stereotype.
Between these two extremes, I had a range of tourist experiences. On my first trip, I met a young Russian woman who longed to marry the Indian film actor Mithun Chakraborty. She had, she confided, seen his film Disco Dancer forty-two times. She had written a letter to him, describing her passion, devotion, and intentions, and entrusted it to my care to post to Mr Chakraborty.
As it happened, in those days I lived just down the road from the disco dancer. I had seen his nameplate when I went to visit a classmate who lived in the same building – although, to be frank, I never once bumped into the much-desired gentleman in the lift. So I knew what address to mail her letter to, and did. I don’t know if there was any happily-ever-after there, but we would doubtless have heard about it if there had been.
With the Kulbakin family at House of Soviet Culture, Mumbai,
in 1982 
What astounded me most about this episode was that the young lady who wanted to marry Mithun was twenty-three years old; not a goggle-eyed teenager. I was precisely the same age at the time, and considered myself a mighty sophisticated woman of the world – though I persisted in refusing to drink wine for fear of what might happen next. I just could not believe that she was serious.
But I believed it when she brought her mother to meet me the day we were leaving. We got along very well. I had been trying to learn Russian for a year by then, and could manage some basic conversation. A while later, her mother took me aside and pulled out her wallet. Rolling her eyes and making mmm…mmm noises, she slid out a picture from a secret compartment and showed it to me coyly. It was a photo of Amitabh Bachchan. Of course I knew where Amitabh Bachchan lived. Hardly anyone in Bombay could escape that knowledge. But in this case, I desisted from trying to arrange an alliance.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 29 May 1998