There are 1.1 billion Indians in this world. It, therefore, always comes as a bit of a shock when people exclaim, "Ti iz Indii!!!" (You're from India!!!) as if I'm some sort of a cross between a Hollywood celebrity and an endangered species!
Yesterday, I had gone to Novgorod, one of Russia's oldest cities around 180 kms south of St. Pete, with Hanne, Johan and Wille. At a souvenir shop next to the Vitoslavsky Museum of Wooden Architecture, as I checked out wooden toys, matryoshka dolls and jewellery, the Babushka who owned the shop stood up to help me out.
"40 roubles. 30 roubles", she said as my hands investigated the different objects.
"Sorok. Tridsat.", I repeated in Russian to indicate that I did speak the language a little and would prefer it over English.
And then almost out of the blue, she asked, "Devushka, ti iz Germanii?"
"Nyet, iz Indii", I replied.
She then went on to tell me that she had never seen an Indian in her entire life and that I should come to Novgorod and to her shop again in the Summer. And to stay true to her sentiment, she offered me a 10 rouble discount for the 2 bracelets I picked up. Whilst I was totally flattered by her gesture, I obviously paid my entire share. If only I could speak enough Russian to tell her that there were another 1.1 billion people exactly like me and it would be positively disgraceful to rob a Babushka of 10 roubles by pretending I was anything special!
But this was just the appetiser...
On the bus back to St. Pete, I was showing Hanne this month's National Geographic Traveller and the 10-page section they did on India. Suddenly, the man sitting in the seat behind me stood up and said the famous words, "Devushka, ti iz Indii???"
"Da", I said proudly, punctuating my response with an anticipatory silence to allow him to express his amazement and joy for having met me. (You can tell I have gotten used to this game!)
Vladimir could barely contain his excitement and told me he has always wanted to go to Balleiwood! Perhaps, I burst the bubble by telling him that Bollywood may be the biggest movie industry in the world but we don't have a location as exciting as Galleiwood's! (The Russians convert the English H to G - so its Gollywood, Galloween, Gimalayas, Gitler...)
Vladimir and his girl-friend, Galina were on their way to St. Pete from Moscow and had made a stop at Novgorod as well. When we got to St. Pete, we exchanged numbers and decided to meet the following day for a drink.
Today, Vova, Galya and I spoke about India at length - about Goa, cows, yoga and why someone would be stupid enough to leave India and come to place as cold as Russia! And we obviously spoke about Bollywood...
They told me that when they were little, they used to watch Bollywood movies dubbed in Russian on TV!
Galya asked me if I had seen the one with the Indian Charlie Chaplin. Upon a little probing, this turned out to be Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker, unarguably the most famous Bollywood movie in Russia - if only because it had a Russian circus and Russian actors!
Then Vova jumped in his chair and said, "Aanchal, have you seen Zita i Gita?" ('i' is Russian for 'and')
"Zita i Gita? What is that?", I asked. Gita is definitely Indian but the Zita completely threw me off. I couldn't think of anything that fit the bill.
"It used to come on TV all the time...with the two girls...who looked like each other...and a fat lady...", Vova explained, unable to hide the desperation on his face.
"Seeta aur Geeta? Seeta aur Geeta! You have seen Seeta aur Geeta!!!"
Oh my God! They have seen Seeta aur Geeta! Even my sister hasn't seen Seeta aur Geeta!
How incredible! But it's a shame that India and Russia don't have such strong ties anymore. During the Cold-War, we may have been non-aligned but our non-alignment wore the Soviet hammer and sickle. Just as my parents were taught to call their parents "Mummy and Daddy" at a time when India was recovering from British colonialism, my sister and I were taught to call our parents, "Mama and Papa" which had become popular with the Soviet influence! When Indians were naming their children Natasha, Irina and Vanya, some in the USSR named theirs Indira!
And today, we may maintain workable relations with Russia but the strength of our relationship has certainly weakened! We have come to love America more! Even long after the Cold War, it seems like a choice between heads and tails on a coin toss, between a hit and a miss on the dartboard - you can't have both!
Perhaps, we need to get back on Russian television! What say, Bollywood?