“So papa where all did you go in Russia?” a question, I had asked him many times, but had never really gotten a proper answer. I grew up listening to my father’s first ever work related trip to Russia. He traveled to many other countries after that, to Nigeria, England, Germany, Indonesia, South Korea for work, and finally the USA to visit me. But Russia remained close to his heart.
After all it was his first window to the world outside his comfort zone in India. He grew up in a village in Punjab, the first fifteen years of his life, followed by the next four years in Agra, near the great Taj Mahal that shone beautifully on a full moon night and there were times he studied at the banks of river Yamuna, solving problems in Mathematics and Physics over and over again, until it became a part of his heart beat. According to him, you should able to solve any problem using the right formula, even in your sleep.
He was one of the illustrious 9 people chosen to join Mechanical Engineering at a prestigious engineering college in Chandigarh, back then it was the only Engineering college in the three states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. After a little less than four years, he was a Mechanical Engineer. He went on, to work at the Bakhra Nangal dam for a while before embarking out on his own to a completely new state, Madhya Pradesh. The Bhilai steel plant was his next place of work. Less than a year of working there, and he was packing his bags for his nine month trip to Russia.
He loved the transportation system, especially the train system in Moscow which is circular, kind of like concentric circles, so you never needed to walk more than two Km, no matter where you went around in Moscow. He visited the art museums and was completely mesmerized by the paintings as gigantic as the size of a whole wall of a room. He visited a lot of museums, often times getting the privilege of skipping a long queue, because he was a visible guest of Russia. The turban on his head made him stand out, he and his colleague, Chawla Uncle were the only ones in a large group of engineers from Bhilai, who wore turbans and that accorded them a special treatment. One time they were greeted at the train station with garlands, and their pictures were in the local newspaper. No wonder, they felt like celebrities, but the thing that endeared him most about Russia then was the free soup kitchen, where anybody could walk in and get a bowl of soup and bread for free. “That is how it should be in India too, nobody should go hungry,” he would often say.
“In the winter it can get down to -40C, one can wear about five to six warm layers and an overcoat to top it all and yet cannot stand outside for more than 5 minutes, as the air is so thick that it is hard to breathe”, he would say. At that time sitting in our living room in Bangalore, where the temperature was almost always in and around 27 degree C. I often wondered what a snowy winter felt like? I dreamt of fall and winter as I savored the beautiful pictures of paintings in a book, that he had brought from Russia. The fallen leaves on the vast never-ending meadows looked so alluring, the snow-covered banks along the frozen Volga river were simply divine. It was my favorite pass time to leaf through those paintings and imagine I was there, actually there, inside the scenery, enjoying the beauty, the majestic beauty of nature. The tall trees in the woods were so inviting, I knew I wanted to walk in the path between them and it didn’t matter if I got lost and never found my way back. If the paintings gave me a visual treat, the stories fueled my vivid imagination with lives of the Cossacks and the gypsies. Makar- Chudra, that hauntingly beautiful story made all the characters come out alive on the meadows and the river banks that I saw in the paintings. Amongst the beauty of the landscape, there was loss and sadness too, pictures of wounded soldiers in the battlefield, some fighting, some bleeding, and some dying. I read many stories by Tolstoy and Gorky about the harshness of life, the poverty and the austerity of monks at the monasteries. Some Russian words like pishkom ( going for a walk) and dengi (money) became a part of our vocabulary at home, so much so that I was surprised to know that “Pishkom” was not a Punjabi ( our language at home) word when I tried to use it, in a conversation with my newly married husband.
There is much joy and excitement at the thought of going to see Russia for the world cup soccer for the very first time with all of us together, my brother, me and our families. Although, I have no way of knowing, where all he went in Russia other than Moscow, I can feel Papa’s joy at the prospect of us finally visiting his favorite country. After all, the mention of “Russia” and me learning the Russian language, helped cheer him up on the last “proper” phone conversation that I had with him. I have no idea how our trip will go, but knowing that my father will be there with us in spirit, seems very comforting, just like the fresh slice of bread from the bakery soaked in warm milk topped with a sprinkle of sugar that he brought to my bed, when I was sick. My comfort food!!
I shared this post with my son before posting and his reaction was “What??” “ I always assumed Dengi was a word in Punjabi.”