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Pages from my Helsinki Diary (May 13 to 30, 2004)

May 25

After a whole day of the conducted tour through St Petersburg, we returned to our Hotel Moscow towards the evening. [This was a 2-night break that the teachers and administrators from CILECT member schools were taking after a weeklong conference in Helsinki. St Petersburg is just a 4-5 hour train ride from Finland’s capital city.]

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In front of one of the many water bodies of the city

Tripurari Sharan with late Prof Wofgang Langsfeld

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Picture 4 is Tripurari Sharan with late Prof Wolfgang Langsfeld of the Munich Film school in front of the Hermitage Museum and 5 inside the museum showing some of Picasso’s pottery and porcelain

Although both of us were very tired, boss Tripurari Sharan was ‘horny’ for Indian food. So picking up on his investigations from the previous night and reading the city map, once again we came out of the hotel and stopped in front of a door within the same compound. It turned out that this inconspicuous door was entry to an underground tube station!

Stepping inside we spotted a booking window among a cluster of stalls and tried to enquire what the system was. The woman, seething with bad temper and furiously knitting, dismissed us in chaste Russian. Then, even as we were recovering, somebody tugged at my sleeves. This was an old beggar looking directly into the eyes—begging is really a menace in today’s Russia. Wholly disgusted, I asked Sharan sahib to just forget the whole thing and withdraw to our familiar half-kilometre corridor restaurant in the massive Hotel Moscow. But showing extreme restraint and patience, Sharan decided to make another attempt at the window. Handing in a 20-rouble note, this time he just gestured for two tickets and waited. It worked. He got back some change and two plastic coins. These it turned out were the single use tickets on the city network in any direction and for whatever distance.

Joining others we proceeded along a short passage, generally approaching some kind of a mechanism issuing a deep hum. Across a row of wicket gates, everybody dropped their coins in a slot machine to gain entry and we did the same. Once inside, an elaborate escalator system began to take us down. Others were coming up on the other side. Looked like this was going to be a longish descent and we waited patiently. But gradually it came to notice that the end of the tunnel was receding as you went. After a while, anxious not to be conspicuous and making it as casual as possible, I turned round to look back. Even the end we had left behind had disappeared into infinity. I had heard stories of the Moscow underground being really deep and indeed able to accommodate thousands in the event of a nuclear attack—I hadn’t had occasion to use it last year while there—but had no idea that St Petersburg too had been similarly modelled. This was the deepest escalator tunnel that I have ever been inside. In fact people rode it in the manner of public transport, ready with books to read, couples engrossed in domestic talk, some even sitting on the steps to catch a nap. [The real explanation came years later in the US from a Russian settler. It was owing to its vast water bodies that St Petersburg underground had to be dug so deep!]

Finally we stepped off the escalator and came to what should normally have been the platform but another surprise awaited us here. This was neither a platform, nor indeed any kind of a hall but just one long subway of sorts! Where are the trains to be had from, further down somewhere? Just then one was heard approaching. Loud and rattling. But it didn’t seem to have any effect on the waiting crowds. When it stopped, its doors seemed to slide open, but to no apparent effect on anyone. Then followed another wave of doors sliding open. These opened along one side of the length of the subway, getting us a peep at regular intervals directly into the compartments! Yellow light inside the train set against the white florescent of the platform provided for a clear visual separation. So, it wasn’t after all an open platform where you could see the trains come and leave, but a closed one blocking off everything except a safe access directly into the train. How on earth do you commit suicide here in case you felt a sudden urge?

After we sat in our direction of the train, the two sets of doors slid close and the train started. The usual plate over the doors listing stations and the common European practice of announcing them on the public address system was limited help to us because of the strange Russian alphabet. But vigilant as ever, Sharan had taken care to remember the pronunciation, plus we kept scrupulous count—ours was the fourth station to get down as per direction given by the Indian restaurant the night before. Thus, eventually after a longish ride in a rather fast and noisy train when we got down, no one among the silent brooding, staring, reading, romancing or dozing Russians would have guessed that we were complete strangers to their language and had only about 20 minutes back discovered this fascinating world of their underground.

Once over ground, we had more Russian and Russians to deal with. Sharan prefers first to work through observation rather than ask anyone. We were on a shopping street and reading the restaurant’s address from a printed brochure we carried, he tried to match the number with one written on the shops. The pattern broke off just after a hundred metres. Then he tried to follow other codes but was bounced back each time. What had worked so beautifully for us in Paris, seemed here to constantly block. Annoyed he gave up and began to ask. Just for the mistake of opening our mouths, we found the Russians would smother us with a barrage of passionate Russian. Finally we put out the printed address to them and kept shut. Again, that worked. After some gestures and signalling, we were on the track. At a turn, all of a sudden Sharan remarked that women tell you better than men and immediately stopped two women to ask confirmation of our route. The young ladies turned out to be bright and playful and in an exaggerated display of fun and frolic on both sides, the foursome of us then ‘talked’ at the street corner. No, we were not taking a bus but planned to walk, we mimed. Walk!?, they expressed surprise. Yes, we made why-not faces. The women exchanged looks and while one smiled, the other mimed footsteps with two fingers and kept ‘walking’ them in the air for a long, long time. Both then exploded into a laughter and wishing us luck, walked on.

That turned out to be the five-kilometre walk I referred to at the beginning of this day’s account. Running parallel to the market place where we had emerged from the underground, this was a straight wide road through a residential area all the way. Walking by itself was fun. No traffic, no crowds, no pollution; just some cross roads, at which you had to wait to let an occasional vehicle pass. The countdown on house numbers was slow but unbroken—except for a stretch where a park came in between. We saw a life-size statue of Lenin in front of a compound and wondered what that building might be. From time to time Sharan would reassure himself through stopping and showing me the map but I worried more about reaching the restaurant before it closed. Finally we sighted a neon sign over a lone door on the pavement and homed in. That was the Indian restaurant. And it was still open.

Owned by an Indian expatriate, who had business interests here and in Helsinki, the place was managed by a young Punjabi. We were the only customers at that late hour. The manager (he was the one Sharan sahib had spoken to the night before) took the order—subzi, dal and tandoori rotis; and not to forget piaz and hari mirch—and a Russian girl served us, first bringing munches and papads while food was being prepared. Craving for a pure Indian meal in the closest possible home ambience, we didn’t want any kind of drinks to ‘dim’ the experience. “No, not wine either,” we told a somewhat disappointed waitress.

Energised by good food, I was game for returning the same way as we came but Sharan sahib decided that that would be too much. The manager stopped us a passing taxi on the road just outside, settled the fare at 120 roubles and we started. By now it was dark and the traffic was rather thin. For a long time we kept going without speaking, clearing blinking yellow signals, crossing an occasional public transport bus—surprisingly St Petersburg doesn’t have trams; at least I didn’t notice any—and turning on wipers now and then to clear a brief run of drizzle. Then at one point we joined the great expanse of the river and kept driving along it in the wide open. After a while a doubt arose in my mind. We should be going towards Hotel Moscow along that route but equally we could be going in the opposite direction! The driver was a thick set middle-aged man and looked—well, who could tell? The restaurant manager as we started had mentioned he had noted the registration number, but when? On what? He wasn’t carrying anything to write with or to write on! But sitting beside the driver Sharan appeared nonchalant and absorbed in the scenery. So was I going hyper, I wondered.

Just then Sharan spoke up. In Hindi. Are you too thinking what I am thinking Chawdhary sahib, he asked? We couldn’t have come all this far following our palates, could we? Behind the cool exterior, he too had been having the same apprehensions as me. But there was hardly anything we could do, we decided, except maintain our cool and stay on the lookout for surer signs of danger. A while later, at the end of a long curve of the vast river—which reminded me of Marine Drive—a familiar skyline came into view. It wasn’t quite the Hotel Moscow but we finally knew we weren’t being taken for a ride.

As I put my weary head on the pillow that night, I wondered if the taxi driver ever got a hang of our fears. I think he did. The entirely universal scene needed no sub-titles. Nothing of our exchange could have been lost on him, translation or no translation, I think.

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