​​Two Uzbeks in Moscow Greet Me
with Song from Old Hindi Movie

The Kremlin Palace Complex and the Kremlin Wall on the Moscow River side, as seen from a bridge on the Moscow River. The complex includes the Great Kremlin Palace, built in 1838–49 as the Moscow residence of the czars, and many other structures built before and since. Notable among those nineteenthcentury structures is the Armory, connected to the palace by a tunnel. Among the pre-nineteenth-century buildings that were incorporated in the complex are the Terem Palace, the Palace of Facets, and several old churches. Two Soviet-era additions to the complex are the School for Red Commanders, built in 1932–34, and the Palace of Congresses, built in 1960–61.

July 27–28, 2009—Monday to Tuesday

​​​Moscow’s international airport is quite far from the city proper. For those who rely on public transportation, it takes at least two and a half hours to reach there -- two hours by subway, plus half an hour by surface train from where the subway ends.

In Moscow, the public transportation system, including the metro, shuts at midnight and reopens at 6:00 a.m. So, if you have to catch an early-morning flight, you will have to leave the city well before midnight. Unless, of course, you are prepared to take a taxi and pay 80 U.S. dollars.

My flight to the Latvian capital of Riga, the next stop on my European tour, was at 7:30 a.m. And I was not prepared to take a taxi and pay 80 dollars. (That I ended up paying much more, because of a blunder I committed, is a different matter. More about the blunder in a little bit.) I chose the other option: public transportation. Which meant that I would have to leave the city well before it shuts down at midnight.

Though I had all day at my disposal, the fear of being stranded prevented me from going into the city and wandering around. The possibility of being stranded is always there, when one wanders alone in a city one is not familiar with. So, I decided to spend the day leisurely on the premises of the hotel.

I got out of my hotel room around 10:00 a.m. My first thought was on a light breakfast. “Breakfast is not included in this,” the lady at the reception desk had told me on the first day itself, while collecting from me three days’ rent in advance. "You will have to pay for it."

"If I have to pay for it," I had thought to myself when I heard it, "I would rather eat at some fast-food places than at the high-priced restaurant of the hotel."

There were a few such places, open 24/7, near Izmailovo Hotel. I walked into one of them. As I walked in, to my pleasant surprise, two middle-aged men working there serenaded me with a song from the old Hindi film ​​Awara. The 1951 film — produced and directed by the legendary actor Raj Kapoor, who also played the lead role in it — had been very popular in India. I was elated that two total strangers chose to welcome me in this manner. Elated, because they identified my ethnic origin even before we exchanged one word. 

“So, you have seen ​​Awara, eh?” I said.

“Yes,” both replied at the same time.

They spoke a little English and also knew a few Hindi words. They learned those words in their teens, they told me, when they used to watch a lot of Hindi movies. Hindi movies, they added, were very popular in Tashkent, their hometown, in those days.

“I know that Hindi movies were, and still are, popular," I said, "not just in Tashkent, but in many other parts of the former Soviet Union as well. But I never knew that they had this much impact on the people there.”

“Oh!” one of them exclaimed. “We loved.” He rattled off the names of some of the popular Hindi movies of the 1950s and '60s he had seen while growing up in Tashkent.

“We loved Raj Kapoor,” his friend added. “We also loved Vyjayanthimala.”

I could see they were getting nostalgic. They were disappointed to hear from me that both actors were dead and gone. (I was to learn later, to my shame, that Vyjayanthimala was still alive. By the time I realized my mistake, I had already left Moscow and, so, could not apologize to them.)

The two men had left Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and come to Moscow as teenagers, when Uzbekistan was one of the republics of the Soviet Union. They decided to stay on in Moscow, even after their country became independent in 1991, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Every time they met an Indian, they told me, their memories would go back to their Tashkent days, when Hindi movies were their only source of entertainment.

“Married? Family?” I asked.

“I married,” one of them said. Pointing to his friend, he added, “He not married. My wife Uzbek. One son.”

When I saw that there were other customers waiting in line behind me, I decided to end the conversation. “Nice talking with you,” I told them. “I will come back later.” I picked up the egg sandwich and coffee that I had ordered and left.

While having my breakfast in the nearby park, my mind was still with the two Uzbeks. “How many such people might have come from all former Soviet republics and made Moscow their home?” I wondered. “Do they feel at home among native Russians who are proud of their ethnicity and language, and never miss the opportunity to show that pride?”

​​Chat with a Russian Undergrad

As planned, I checked out of the hotel well before midnight and took the underground metro to the station from where the above-ground train to the airport leaves.

Sitting next to me at the station, waiting for the same express train to the airport, was a young man, maybe in his late teens or early 20s. I was happy that he spoke good English. He also knew a bit of German, he told me. We started chatting.

In a few minutes, the train arrived, and we continued our chat on the train. He said he was an undergraduate student at the Moscow State University. He impressed me as one of the new generation of Russians which has been relishing every moment of freedom and openness that came with the end of communist rule in the country.

“Until recently, we were a closed society,” he said, opening himself up. “It will take years for us to catch up with Western Europe. Thank God for the Internet. The authorities may block the channels they don’t like. But we can still access some channels and find out what is happening in the rest of the world.”

Thanks to the Internet, he was able to secure an invitation to a summer program in Rome. He was on his way to attend the two-week program, organized and paid for by an environmental protection agency.

“I came upon this because of my habit of web-surfing,” he said. “Our universities don’t have programs like this. And because my parents encouraged me to learn English, I am able to take advantage of it. Most of my classmates know only Russian. Some universities, including mine, have foreign-language courses. But they are not that popular. I hope things change soon.”

He said he would be completing his bachelor’s degree in physics in two years. “I am fascinated by history,” he added. “I am also fond of traveling. So are my parents. They loved the few days they spent in your country, especially their time in Goa.”

By the time we reached the airport, it was past midnight. His flight was at 6:00 a.m., and mine at 7:30. We decided to have a coffee at the first airport coffee shop we came across. We continued our conversation for a few more hours. I was flattered when he told me that he learned a lot about India, “thanks to our meeting.”

“You already know a lot about India,” I said. “I learned a lot about Russia from you, too.”

His intellectual curiosity was impressive. Before taking leave of me, he volunteered to walk with me up to the terminal from which Aeroflot operates. It was a long walk, made longer and more difficult because of the construction activities that were going on at the airport.

I thanked him for his help, and added, “I would have wasted a lot of time locating the terminal on my own.”

I didn’t see any airport shuttle buses helping passengers move between terminals, as is the case at most international airports. Having had such a long and friendly chat, I felt comfortable enough to tell my new Russian friend what I thought about the airport: “This is the most unorganized international airport I have seen in my life.”

“I agree with you,” he said, nodding. “I have seen a few European airports by now. Compared with them, this is very primitive. But do come back to Russia. You will see things different next time.”

“I will come back,” I told him, “if not for any other reason, to see how much things have changed for the better since democratic values started trickling in.”

When we reached the Aeroflot counter, he said, “I have to go further. Alitalia operates at another terminal.”

We exchanged our addresses and phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. I gave him a warm hug and thanked him for the wonderful time I had with him. “I wish you all the best,” I said. “You will go far in life.”

He blushed.

​​A Costly Blunder

And now, to the blunder I made. I was waiting in line in front of the Aeroflot check-in counter, casually leafing through the air ticket. I couldn't believe what I saw: I had arrived at the airport a day earlier!

Shocked and disappointed, I withdrew from the line and sat on a nearby bench. This blunder would not have happened, I said to myself, if I had done the one last thing I always do before leaving for airport or train station: verifying the ticket one more time, even though I knew I had done it several times before. For reason I was unable to explain, I didn’t do it this time. I felt bitter about it. 

“What to do?” I started mulling. “Should I go back to the hotel, explain to them what happened and stay there one more day? After all, I have already paid for it.”

Of all the places I stayed in during this trip, the Izmailovo Hotel was the one I enjoyed most. That it cost me more than the other places did bother me a little, but the TV in the room — with 24-hour access to BBC News — compensated for it, somewhat. For a news junkie like me, it’s a big deal. I didn’t have that luxury at the other hotels and hostels where I stayed.

Going back to the city in the morning rush hour, only to spend a few hours there, and then going through the ordeal of getting back to the airport as I have just done, didn’t seem like a good idea. The other option was to check with Aeroflot whether there was any seat available on the flight that would take off in a few minutes. I approached the booking counter.

“There are plenty of vacant seats,” the lady at the counter said. “But changing your existing reservation will cost you one hundred and fifty U.S. dollars.”

Thus I ended up paying $150 for changing the flight and losing $160 that I had already paid at the hotel for the day I did not stay there. Add to that the money I was going to pay at the hostel in Riga for the one extra day I would be staying there. The money wasted was quite a bit, especially for a person traveling on a shoestring.

I tried to forget all that, saying to myself, “The wonderful time I had with the Russian student, who gave me an entirely different perspective on his generation’s attitude toward their country and the outside world, was the outcome of this blunder. Look at the positive side, you idiot.”

​​​(Published on July 2, 2017. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 15 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available only online. It can be ordered at amazon.com, xlibris.com and through any Barnes and Noble store. The India edition of the book is available at amazon.in, Flipkart and Pothi.com)

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