Four summers ago, I decided to drive from London to Moscow. We never did it. Fear of the old car breaking down, fake Russian police and potholes on Russian roads. An internet advisory also said that Russians reserve their smiles for family. I had no family in Russia. But in my heart, Russia was different. Ivan fighting dragons, Siberian tents, Babushkas with samovars. And the cosmonauts. My Russia of the Indian 70s was charming, mysterious and ambitious.
Russia was the only alternative to America. I remember telling a cousin, that if I left India, I would go to Russia, but it wasn’t glamorous like America. And we had laughed. That was Russia then: solid, dark and grey. America was all sparkle, dazzle. Then Russia crumbled (we never called it USSR), and many things changed forever. Including India. Including Kashmir.
This year, Russia surfaced again. Our children were amused by my descriptions of Russia. For them, Russia was Stalin, Lenin and the Tsars, from their history books in England. We flew to Russia. Moscow sparkled, dazzled. Neon buildings, wide roads, a buzz. Even St. Basil’s Cathedral, a museum in the Red Square, had a Disneyian luminosity. The striped domes of the museum tapered into golden crosses; the sight was magical, surreal.
The Moskva river was on fire, like the Vegas strip, all shimmer and glimmer. The evening boat plunged like a dragon into the waters, gulping down the glittering city. And no Ivan in sight. My childhood Russia had changed. Then I saw the sky-high walls of the Kremlin, and their endless red girth. It brought a strange chill. Inside the Kremlin walls were cathedrals, now museums, beautifully painted, elegantly designed. Inside the frames of gold were apostles. Inside Kremlin’s gilded rooms were Tsars.
The Tsarist cocktail of church and chair, God and governance, was toxic. It had made the Soviets pull religion out of Russia and turn the churches into museums.
The Izmailovsky flea market was all dolls, birch souvenirs, Soviet relics. Stacked on shelves and spilling on the pavements were paisley scarves and furry Siberian hats. I had landed in the Russia of my storybooks.
In the middle of a bunch of pretty Matryoshka dolls, I saw three dolls of Stalin, Putin, Trump. I had read somewhere that Matryoshka dolls were ‘full of themselves’. The man behind the stall smiled.
Outside the flea market, on the verge of the road, men and women sold beads, scarves, belts, cups, books. On seeing a police officer, they wrapped up their wares. As he walked away, they unrolled their homes again, settling for quick bargains.
In St. Petersburg, at the Tsar’s palace, the audio guides were in Russian, but I heard how the Tsars lived. The gold, the gems, the grandeur and the gods spoke. Inside a fortress was a prison where the Tsars had trapped all revolts and muted all the voices of Russia that were poor and bold.
“Then the Bolsheviks took over,” said my son.
“Have you heard of Stalin’s horrors?” he said.
Was this what my children thought of Soviet Russia?
“What about Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin? And India’s first cosmonaut in a Russian rocket?” I said.
My children did not know Yuri Gagarin or Rakesh Sharma. They knew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. They stuck to their history and I to mine. I was in no mood for discussions on Russian history that night. Or Russian food. Like your taste buds, it’s hard to mould your histories.
The Kashmir connection
The Indian restaurant had a Russian samovar on the drinks bar. A tall, pale-looking waiter swaggered towards us. In his 20s, he had an impatient, don’t-care streak about him. His accent had an Afghani lilt.
“Where are you from?” I asked, curious.
“Kashmir,” he said.
I went still. Had I forgotten what Kashmiri accent sounded like?
I spurted, Koshur chhui sa tagan? “Do you speak Kashmiri?”
The young man stopped in his tracks, he went quiet for several moments. There was a flicker of fear, a flash of recognition, then a rollback to a time when Kashmir was peaceful.
Ahan haz , he said, “yes,” his tone deferential.
He lived on the Dal Lake in Kashmir, he had his own boat there. He wanted to talk more. I went to university by the Dal Lake. I wanted to talk more. In between the forks, knives, kebabs and the curries, Kashmiri slipped in. It wove silken threads, carved a conversation, broke some ice.
“How is Kashmir?” I said.
“Bad, very bad,” he said. Was that how you described Kashmir now? In two words?
I noticed a Kashmiri samovar next to the Russian samovar. Delicate, dignified, emanating a coppery red glow. His name was Atif. “I was born after 1990.” He hesitated, then said, “In your days, you used to study, my father told me.”
He was talking of a past he did not know. And the Kashmir he knew, I would not understand. It was a dialogue between two Kashmiris separated by three decades, raised with different histories. It was like a conversation between my children and I about Russia.
If Kashmir was not at war, it would have been home. We would have shared the same history.
After we ate, Atif negotiated with the taxi driver. It took him long, but he persisted. My son was amused that he spoke to the taxi driver in Russian and to me in Kashmiri. I always thought there was something common about the two accents.
“Tomorrow,” said Atif, “I will organise a bigger car for you.”
I didn’t know if I would see him again. Or hear Kashmiri spoken in Russia and have a floodgate of memories open. In Kashmir, this would have been a hug.
“You were at university when I was not even born,” he said. “For that I salute you,” he mumbled.
As we drove away, Atif waved as one would bid farewell to a family member. Waiters don’t call taxis for you, translate for you, negotiate a price and then salute you. My eyes filled.
Russia is now a memory of sparkling cities, empty golden palaces and churches that are museums.
It’s also the quiet, bold man with the Matryoshka dolls.
I will remember that I spoke Kashmiri in Russia. I will remember Atif, and his carefree, caring manner. I hope religion and rule don’t merge where my children live. So that they can be in their homes. So that God can be.
Note: Names have been changed
to protect identity.
The writer was born and brought up in Kashmir, and lives in London. He writes short stories about Kashmir.
Moscow dazzled. Neon buildings, wide roads, a buzz. Even St. Basil’s Cathedral had a Disneyian luminosity
Tsars had trapped all revolts and muted all the voices of Russia that were poor and bold