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When war strikes home

Engineers from the Bhilai Steel Plant with the children of Azovstal plant workers in 1956.  

Engineers from the Bhilai Steel Plant with the children of Azovstal plant workers in 1956.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The first batch of Bhilai plant engineers just before leaving for Moscow in 1956.

The first batch of Bhilai plant engineers just before leaving for Moscow in 1956. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Some of us who grew up in Bhilai in the 1960s have been following the “special military operation” launched by Russia against Ukraine with much sadness. The Bhilai Steel Plant came up as a result of an agreement between India and the Soviet Union in 1955.

My father, the late K. Gururaja Udupa, a postgraduate in metallurgy from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, was in the first batch of Indian engineers recruited by the plant who were trained in the Soviet Union under the terms of the agreement.

His Autobiography of an Iron and Steel Engineer has one chapter, Training in the USSR. He writes that their batch of 80 engineers left Bombay on September 3, 1956 for Prague, via Cairo and Rome, and thence to Moscow, via Warsaw and Tbilisi.

It being the first time that trainee engineers from India were in Soviet Union, they were much pampered and attracted attention wherever they went. After some days in Moscow, they were divided into three groups: 35 engineers were sent to Zaparostal (also spelt Zaporizhstal) in Zaporizhia to undergo training in steel making and blast furnaces; 40, including my father, went to Azovstal to be trained in rolling mills, foundry and machine shops; and five mining engineers were sent to Krivairog.

Zaporizhia, Azovstal and Krivairog are all in Ukraine. Azovstal Iron and Steel Works is located in Mariupol (formerly Zhdanov). My father and his colleagues who had been sent for a year’s training ended up staying in the Soviet Union for 15 months because the steel plant in Bhilai was not ready.

In those months, they integrated themselves well into the local culture. They had learnt Russian as part of the training. Their social interactions with the steel workers had helped them make lifelong friends.

Back in Bhilai, for the first few years, their bosses were senior engineers from the Soviet Union. One among them was Veniamin Dymshits, who later became Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers. I grew up listening to the names of my father’s bosses — Gaibeyee, Serov and Cherednichenko.

There were nearly 100 engineers from the Soviet Union in Bhilai, many of them with their families. There was a “Russian school” for their children. The area where they lived was called “Russian sector”.

We would attend cultural programmes organised by them, especially during October-November to celebrate the October Revolution. One particular gentleman would belt out popular numbers from Raj Kapoor’s movies, even passionately acting them out. He would bring the house down with his Mera Joota Hai Japani, Yeh Patloon Englistani, Sar Pe Laal Topi Russi, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, with emphasis on Russi. He had a red headgear and would dramatically pull out a plastic “heart” with an India map on it. They would present their folk dances in eye-catching colourful attire, with tremendous gusto and foot-tapping music.

Part of life

Many children from Bhilai went to the Soviet Union for higher studies. We felt as though Bhilai had a branch office in the Soviet Union, and we could lay claim to it anytime.

Without getting into the politics and the aspirations of the citizens, the disintegration of Soviet Union into 16 republics had by itself resulted in pangs of sadness among us. It was as though our own house had been divided. It felt as though an important part of our growing-up years in Bhilai was being cancelled out of our lives.

The recent events have opened up those unhealed wounds.

Gagan (name changed on request), my friend from the Bhilai neighbourhood where I grew up is from a family where the elders had experienced death and destruction during their move from Lahore to Amritsar in 1947. His succinct comment a few days go says it all, “In 1947, our neighbours became our enemies. My parents had to abandon everything in Lahore to save their lives. Today, Russians and Ukrainians who had so lovingly taught steel making to my father, are not just killing each other, but are also obliterating our association with them. For me, this is like experiencing another Partition. I wish human beings could learn to live in peace and harmony.”

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 12:04:56 am |