A Journey in Various Moods

A day-long journey along the Black Sea from Russia to Georgia can be quite an experience for anybody. The journey I took on this route, left an everlasting impression on me in many ways. Before coming to the USSR for higher studies, I had spent most of my life in the plains of Ganges in India. I had always thought that the horizon is where the green fields met the sky. I had had a singular chance of travelling across Garhwal1 and witnessing the grandeur and expanse of its mountains shortly before my foreign study trip. But the stretch along the Black Sea left an indelible impact on me not only for its natural beauty but for the experience that enriched my life. 

Along with two Indian and three Nepali students, I boarded the train on one of the several railway stations of Moscow. Moscow has several railway-stations, from each of which trains bound in a particular direction run. The station we took our train from is called Kurskaya, and trains bound towards the south start from here. 
I had grown up listening to tales of the Soviet Union and the glory of the socialist world from people who had witnessed (or believed to have witnessed) the fruits of socialism. And I had seen these people working for and believing in the cause of socialism with full devotion and dedication. My father spent his whole life working for the welfare of the working class, farmers, and down-trodden, believing that one day a society in which everyone is equal, will be built. Here, I have to mention with distress, that in the later part of his life, my father had realised that the purpose to which he and many his colleagues had dedicated their lives was not an attainable one. And he was not alone in this disillusionment; most of his comrades underwent the same agony and pain. Though this realisation distressed him a lot, it did not deter him from doing the work of social uplift till the last days of his life. I had heard tales of the dignity of labour, complete equality, of a healthy and developed society in the USSR from childhood. 
 
When people arrive in a foreign land for the first time, generally they are a bit apprehensive, excessively careful and continuously on alert. Contrary to all this, thanks to the childhood tales, when I arrived in Moscow on the 22nd August 1981, I was very relaxed. We were briefed in Delhi that on arrival someone would come to receive us at the airport and take us to the specified destination. While waiting for the person, I dozed off at the airport amidst all the din around. Such relaxed attitude in a completely new place is incomprehensible to me today, but it was an indication of how firmly I believed in the Soviet system, thanks to my upbringing.    

Let me give a brief explanation of why were we on the train to a place so far away from Moscow. This explanation is again going to be a proof of my naivety. I had arrived believing that I was going to stay and study in Moscow. And when after staying for two days in the University hostel, where all newcomers from all over the world were put up before being assigned to their respective colleges, I came to know that I would have to go to a city called Tbilisi for my studies. I gave out a cry of anguish. I will again deviate a little from the track, but it is worth mentioning here that one of the most outstanding contributions of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Block had been to provide higher education to the poor and deprived students of the so-called ‘Third World’ countries. Though I was going there with a group of two-day-old acquaintances, the news had had a devastating effect on me. I was not in a mood for engaging in small talk with my companions or sharing my distress with them. The other students going with me looked quite happy both with the news and the prospective journey. I had arrived in this vast country without knowing a word of Russian; that was true for most of the others too.        

                 My journey to a new dawn

On the train, my fellow students soon started to converse with other passengers in gestures, and in the process picked up certain words and phrases of the language. The journey was going to be of 44 hours long, which once started, I felt would never end. We all used to get a stipend of 90 roubles per month. Since it was going to take us almost two days to reach Tbilisi, along with our tickets we had received six roubles each. Our train started around 7 in the evening. Thus we were supposed to arrive at our destination in the afternoon of the day after. The warm welcome by the passengers and the entire staff of the train was exceptional. Everyone appeared to be in cheerful mood; all were walking across the bogey and chatting with people around them; everyone was sharing food with others; in short, the atmosphere was quite festive and warm on the train. Many people offered us fruits and chocolates and later even invited us  to dine with them. I being in a bad mood had declined all the cordial offers, and in turn, had to stay hungry, lonely, and grumpy. Soon the sounds of songs and smells of delicacies began reaching me, but I stayed put in my self-made misery.                                                                                                     

The Georgians love to play the accordion. Raj Kapoor had a great fan following in the Soviet Union, especially in Georgia2. A few of Raj Kapoor’s songs that everyone knew was now being sung on the train. My compartment partners came back thoroughly enthralled with the food and the warmth they had received. It was a late August evening, quite hot and humid to sleep in a locked small compartment. We kept the door and windows of our cubicle open and went off to sleep soon after all the hustle-bustle had settled down. We got up in the morning when the attendant of our wagon started distributing hot tea and some biscuits. Shortly after tea, again the other passengers began calling us for breakfast. Soon everything on the train was same as on the previous evening. I thought of writing letters and sharing the torment I was going through in order to reduce my pain. I reached for my handbag to get the pen. The very first look told me that someone had touched it. I took out my pen but also noticed that the twenty dollars we were allowed to buy at the Delhi airport was not there. I told this to the other three students in the compartment, who on checking found their dollars missing too. The same had happened with the other two in the next cubicle too. The Nepali students had had more dollars, and all of that was missing from their wallets. Our roubles were untouched. We tried telling the attendant about the loss in our poor language. She said she could not help us in this matter. This was the shock which first shook our blind beliefs of the idealistic Soviet society. We all were travelling with a notion that theft and other social evils did not exist in this country. Our journey into socialism thus had its first encounter with the realisation that people all over are the same. We were very young and inexperienced at that time, and our eyes could not distinguish any change any of the co-passengers behaviour. The loss of money and shattering of my illusions added to my misery.

     Moscow-Tbilisi Railway along the Black sea

Soon our train was running along the Black Sea, and the vista before our eyes was breathtakingly beautiful. The tireless and comforting hospitality of the people around us, the scenic beauty, the sea breeze, and the warmth of the day were acting as catalysts for invoking a state of bliss and happiness. I continued writing my letters, though their content and tone had miraculously shifted from melancholy to one full of hope. We on the train got our first taste of the exquisite Georgian cuisine, which till date is my favourite. On that journey, I for the first time experienced the sea-blue, the sea-green and many ever-changing shades of water with the shifting position of the sun. 

As the train was moving forward, clouds of despair and doubt from my mind were clearing off. Soon the travel of 44 hours was to come to an end, and people had started getting ready for getting off the train. When the train pulled over at the Tbilisi station, we saw some Indian faces beaming with broad smiles welcoming us. Three of our senior students- Ravi, Suresh, and Babu had come to receive us. I don’t know what happened at that moment but a total shift in my mood took place. I momentarily became chirpy, cheerful, and mentally calm that other students were quite taken aback. The air of Tbilisi from the very first moment had an enchanting effect on me; I started considering myself very fortunate to have been allocated Tbilisi from the very second I landed in that town. 

Our hostel was in a beautiful part of Tbilisi, which was in those days one of the posh areas of the town.

                          Beautiful Tbilisi

This place was slightly away from the city, situated amidst small hills. There was a little valley behind our hostel and across the valley was the other side of the picturesque town. More seniors were waiting anxiously for us in the hostel. After the meet and greet ceremony, they took us to one of the rooms. In that room, tables were laid with hot chicken curry, mixed vegetables, ragu, tomato-cucumber salad and Georgian bread ‘Lavash.’ I have yet to taste a meal so tasty and satisfying as that. Probably the main spice added to all the dishes served was love and care of the hosts. And, these are the ingredients which have become very scarce to find nowadays. 

In the wildest of my dreams, I would not have imagined that this beautiful city of mountains and gorges was to gift me with so many high moments of my life and engrave such profound impressions of bonding, love and friendship in my heart. 
The journey which had started for me in despair, went through a shock of losing the dollars, and had finally ended in a most pleasant state of mind. I earnestly wish to have such end to all my journeys of life. 

Pragati Tipnis lives in Moscow

 

Footnotes

  1. In northern India, part of the hill state Of Uttarakhand
  2. A popular actor of the Bombay film industry

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