MADE IN RUSSIA: AN INDIAN SAGA
National Geographic Traveller India|March - April 2021
An Indian raised in the U.S. finds himself in uncharted Russian lands east of Siberia—and acultural caper ensues
AJAY KAMALAKARAN
BY LOCAL STANDARDS, IT’S A PLEASANT LATE WINTER EVENING, with temperatures hovering around minus 10 degrees Celsius. Thermal underwear, jeans, shirt, sweater and a winter coat, along with a pair of gloves and a woolen cap make the conditions tolerable. That is not to forget the special boots that keep me from slipping and falling on the icy sidewalks of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, eastern Russia. The capital of Sakhalin Island is a town of 200,000 that is geographically far closer to Tokyo and Beijing than it is to Moscow or St. Petersburg, and I’m just getting under its skin. It is March 2003, and in my backpack are soap, a change of underclothes, a towel, and a couple of bottles of local unfiltered beer. Victor, one of my two local friends who speak English, has invited me to the banya or Russian sauna. He says this is the best way to become “one of the guys” in Russia.

ONE NIGHT IN YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK

As we walk to the locker room, I am faced with my first cultural shock. We’re supposed to enter the steam room in our birthday suits! “It’s totally normal here, and it’s all men,” quips Victor, who will remain, 18 years later, one of my closest friends. Just outside the steam room, I see a group in their early 20s and 30s, each one looking like they live in a gym. They sit by a table with beer, squid rings, chips, sausages and most importantly, dried korushka or smelt (fish), an integral part of the Sakhalin experience. Some were expecting to see an Indian man, so there is no surprise, but a prepared welcome with practiced Englishlanguage phrases. Others are fascinated to see such a visible foreigner, in a place that was closed to outsiders from 1945 till the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Either way, I feel welcome, and the more generous of the lot even make it a point to teach me the worst swear words in the language, adding a discretionary note to use them cautiously outside the building. Between rounds of beer, steam sessions and dips in a cold pool, I make friends with a group of people who are as excited to talk to me as I am about engaging with them, even with my for-now limited Russian skills. “Don’t worry about the language, after a few rounds; we’ll all understand each other better,” a new acquaintance assures me.

Indeed, between rapidly disappearing bottles of Russkiy Standart vodka and Korsakovskoye light beer, our conversations swing wildly from old Hindi films to life in India—another land destined to star stupendously in my strange immigrant life. Adding fume to my post-sauna, happy liquor daze is the realisation that here, 8,000 kilometres away from the country, my inheritance of Indianness actually excited people! It’s a far cry from what I was used to.

A DESI KID IN NEW YORK

Jump back 16 years. It is the mid ’80s in New York. As an Indian kid whose father found a job as a banker in Park Avenue, for years I found myself lonely in the mean streets of NYC—the only pop culture reference of my Indianness relegated to the questionably-accented character of Apu from The Simpsons. India, not having sided with United States during the Cold War, was neither perceived nor showcased in a positive light in America at that time. From initially having to explain the difference between ‘feather Indians’ (an old street slur for Native Americans) and ‘dot Indians,’ (that’s me right there) I was promptly othered as ‘Hindoo’ (some still spell it like that) and ‘Ghandi’. The racism also came from other minorities in New York, each person trying desperately to find his or her place in that monster puzzle called the American Dream.

Children adjust, and soon enough, I internalised the racism. I would morph into a proper young Republican when I was around White kids, and a die-hard basketball player among my African-American peers. An hour with my Black friends— one of whom, Randy, I’d befriended as my protector on the streets—and I’d become a miniature version of Heavy D, a rap sensation of the ’90s. Between the jacket-and-tie facade of my Queens education, and the relatively safe space of colour with the ‘Brothers of the Hood,’ my life felt more parallel than Walter Mitty’s.

BOMBAY BLUES, COLD MOVES

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