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.
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.
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.
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.
Pragati Tipnis lives in Moscow