We thought we’ll try something different today. Sometimes people miss stuff in their inbox so we thought we’ll start doing these as blog posts so that you can come back and visit whenever you feel like to give some of these posts a read.
This week we are presenting an excerpt from Lenin for Sale, this fascinating novel by Mustansar Hussain Tarar that we have been thinking about. It’s one of those pieces that doesn’t leave you for a long time.
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Lenin for Sale
Gazelle of the Night
Noon Meem Rashid
O gazelle of the night!
How do I quench your thirst?
Shall I show you the mirage in my heart?
The mirage that is a fearful magician
Deceiving the simple wayfarer
On the road from dawn to dusk
Born of a mirage, creator of mirages,
Assuming a thousand shapes
A lodestar at every step
All powerful, all consuming
In the wilderness of the imagination.
It has settled in my heart like a certainty
Possessed me entirely.
O gazelle of the night!
My past and present
My near and far
Have veiled themselves
From this troublemaker.
How do I lift the veil embroidered on my heart?
So I can look into my soul
Where there’s no fear or sorrow
Or flowing mirage.
O gazelle of the night!
Translated by Durdana Soomro
The fleshy leaves of the aak or milkweed plant, greyish-green like the bezoar stone, their veins filled with a viscous, poisonous, milky sap, and the numerous pods hanging in the midst of the dense foliage were waiting in suspense. Which one of the pods would be forced by the scorching heat to open its mouth and let out the ‘Old Lady of the Aak,’ a sprite made of downy white fibres? Inside her softness was a black seed which she would take with her as she flew to distant lands. There she would fall with a gasp and the earth would take the seed she was hiding into the warmth of its embrace so that the shoot of another milkweed plant emerged; the race would go on.
That blistering afternoon, in the desolate waste, the heat ripened one of the pods. It matured and its mouth opened. The silky silver-haired sprite hiding inside, who had been waiting for this moment – the mouth of the pod opening, setting her free to roam the heavens – came out impatiently and was swung up on a hot blast of wind high into the air. Weightless, she glided here and there her silky white form borne on the shoulders of the wind, when suddenly she collided with the windscreen of his car. And this car was nowhere near Burewala where he had been born and where the weather was hot; it was travelling on freezing Bolshoi Street in Moscow when the sprite’s downy white fibres got stuck to its windscreen.
‘Where have you come Zaheeruddin?’ she asked him.
She remained glued to the windscreen under the pressure of the wind until a greedy gust got hold of her and she lost her grip. Separated from the windscreen she floated off into the air swirling and twirling like a ballerina.
Galina never said a word, she went about silently in her wheelchair, but his daughter Svetlana would say to him with a sarcastic smile on her fine chiselled lips, ‘Daddy, you’re looking a little lost these days. You seem to be perpetually in a dream talking about some white-haired sprites lighter than cotton coming out of milkweed plants. Please stop being silly . . . pull yourself together. . . you are just getting confused, imagining things.’
If Svetlana had been here with him, this very moment, while he was on his way from his flat to the farmers’ market to buy fresh mushrooms she would have seen that it was not something he was imagining. Sprites do exist, even in Moscow. He could catch the one that had got stuck on his windscreen and was now swirling in the air in front of his eyes, open his closed fist in front of Svetlana, and show her that it was not his imagination, he was not hallucinating.
He put his foot down on the brakes of his Moskvitch car. These cars from the Soviet era were solid and sturdy but they didn’t stop unless the driver put his full weight on the brakes. He parked along the footpath and got out to capture the proof swirling before him in the icy winds of Moscow. Coasting on the shoulders of the wind the sprite was rising and swooping, challenging him, ‘Come on Zaheeruddin, you used to chase me madly in the barren wastes of Burewala 60 years ago bent on imprisoning me in your fist! Come on now, catch me if you can!’
And he was determined to accept the challenge on any terms, to pin her down. He would show Svetlana: ‘See! This isn’t an illusion, or a mental breakdown. Sprites do exist.’
There were many of them flying around in the skies of Moscow. The Russian pedestrians, the drivers on the roads, the idle old men sitting by the windows of the tall apartment buildings, and the young cyclists at the edge of the footpath saw the wheat complexioned white-haired Asian-looking old man waving his hands in the air like a madman trying to catch something. The foreigners living in Russia were truly uncivilized and insane. Look at this crazy old man running madly about!
Had Zaheeruddin told them, ‘Look here, I have gone back 60 years and am in the barren wastes of my town, Burewala chasing a sprite which has popped out of a milkweed pod, I am in my senses’, they would have felt sorry for him. They would have said to him, ‘Comrade what delusion are you under? These are no sprites. In the month of May, the silk cotton trees of Moscow produce balls of fluff; it is these white apsaras that are flying in the air. You are mistaken.’
But when did Zaheeruddin ever listen to anybody? He was madly waving his hands about in the air trying to catch the old lady of the aak, oblivious to the fact that the pedestrians, drivers, the old men sitting by the windows and the young cyclists were taking him for a lunatic. The white apsara, the sprite made from cotton fibres, was teasing him, ‘Come on Zaheeruddin, catch me if you can!’
He would never go straight home from school. Beyond the railway line, away from the rice husking mills and the mud-plastered ground where the white heaps of cotton lay in the burning sun, was the wasteland where apart from milkweed and wild jujubes there was nothing. Yes, there were some chameleons wandering about distracted by the heat and some snakes. If they made the slightest move the grasshoppers lying motionless around them would jump about in a tizzy. He would enter that wilderness, fearlessly, clasping his slate to his bosom, and crouch under a wild jujube bush where there was some shelter from the hot sun. He would stare fascinated at the milkweed plant: at any moment one of its pods could burst releasing a sprite. And when this happened, the moment a pod ripened with the heat and opened its mouth and a sprite emerged, he would shoot out of his shelter and run after her to capture her. But he was always unsuccessful.
All he wanted to do was to check the black seed suspended inside this soft, wispy, ethereal creature . . . did it hold the sprite’s soul?
Today his lifelong frustration would come to an end. His raised hand was about to close over the downy fibres of the sprite playing hard-to-get in the Moscow air. It was about to be proved that he was not an old man suffering from delusion or confusion. A sprite rising and falling on the shoulders of the wind was within reach . . . ‘Zaheeruddin, catch me if you can!’
They were falling softly like snowflakes from the tall silk cotton trees along the footpaths surrounded by multi-storeyed apartment blocks. Overhead, through the thickets, were patches of murky, listless sky, so different from the piercing brightness above Burewala that would plunge through your heart like a hot blue dagger.
How the skies of Moscow had changed before his eyes, eyes once bright and full of hope, dreaming of a red dawn. In those days, headstrong and young, inflamed with a passion for socialism, he could think of nothing but the spurned and downtrodden of the Third World, people who had nothing to lose except the fetters on their feet. It was for Zaheeruddin to grasp their hands, to pull them from the gutters of ignominy and take them to a red paradise.
Had anyone paid as heavy a price as he had for a dream? There were many like him, from different nations and races – Africans, Asians, South Americans – who had abandoned the identity and beliefs of their ancestors to settle in the ‘Empire of the Workers,’ longing for the coming of a red dawn. How could they believe in the promises of that other paradise when the feet of those around them were bound by chains of oppression and poverty? Certainly He is powerful and just but the lives of the worker in His world are very hard; how can He then be powerful and just? And how can one rely on Him?
There was still a light, bloody scratch on Zaheeruddin’s left cheek where he had cut himself, when instead of seeing his own face in the mirror he had seen that of his father. And his hand had faltered. It had happened that morning while he was shaving in his tiny bathroom. Svetlana and Boris were hammering on the door one after the other. It was the only bathroom in the flat and they also needed to get ready for work. In the mirror, waving a red flag, was the union leader of the thousands of workers of Burewala Textile Mills – his father! Yes, this was his face. The apoplectic face of Shamsuddin Inqilabi, Shamsuddin the Revolutionary.
When he mounted the stage at the head of a protest march, those before him, crushed by poverty and helplessness, looked at him as though he was Jesus addressing his flock. But the glad tidings he brought were not of God’s kingdom, rather of the workers’ kingdom. The prisons were filled with envy: what kind of a man was this behind bars who could not be bought? Because there were some among them who could not bear the hardships and had repented against suitable compensation. But the blood in the veins of Shamsuddin Inqilabi was pumped by the ideologies and commandments of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The books of these prophets were arranged in his shabby two-room quarters and had become the heavenly texts in which he believed. And he was confident that they at least would be powerful and just.
Each person believes with their heart and soul that the faith they were born into is the Truth. When Zaheeruddin reached awareness he heard Marx, Engels and Lenin whispering in his ears instead of the call to prayer and he believed in them. These were the bearded elders whose pictures were plastered on the salt-stained walls of his quarters.
Without doubt Shamsuddin was a Marxist revolutionary but he also considered himself a Marxist Muslim in the tradition of Maulana Hasrat Mohani. A very decent Qari sahib would come to their quarters to teach him the Quran. He would keep his eyes down to avoid the atheistic communist posters on the wall. Qari sahib didn’t know why he had consented to teach the Quran to the son of a socialist atheist. To tell the truth, he had a soft spot for socialists, coming as he did from a poverty-stricken household and having faced hunger and humiliation. His parents didn’t have the money to send him to a regular school or college so he was handed over to a madrassah. He would often go about the neighbourhood in the company of his maulana master to read the Quran, to recite prayers learned by rote for the absolution of the dead, and to read as many chapters as possible on the third day of a death so that the soul of the deceased would get the maximum reward. It was a kind of sacred almsgiving and it rankled him. At such gatherings, the eyes of the students sitting on the brilliant white sheets, swaying as they read the Quran, would be fixed on the dates, pakoras, bananas and guavas which had been laid out before them. In their heart of hearts, may God forgive them, they would pray for the last prayer to be over so that they could fall upon this feast and thank God. Although by now the Qari sahib’s circumstances had improved, he had been branded by these humiliations. In Shamsuddin Inqilabi’s person he saw a man who had devoted his life to erase the stains of these ignominies. If only he had not been an atheist!
Zaheeruddin was not a bright student; his ability was ordinary and his performance did not merit praise. The embassy of the Soviet Union in Pakistan was always trying to bestow favours on ideological labour leaders like Shamsuddin Inqilabi but he was not looking for rewards or benefits and avoided them. He was working heart and soul for an order based on justice and equality which had been promised by Islam but which had not materialised. But when the embassy’s first secretary offered to send Shamsuddin’s son to Moscow State University on a special scholarship and said that he could obtain a degree in the subject of his choice, he was unable to refuse: love for his son triumphed over his reluctance. Such facilities were extended by Soviet embassies not just to the children of revolutionary and trade union leaders and sympathetic communists in Pakistan but all over the world.
On the advice of his father, Zaheeruddin chose to study Marxist Literature in the Third World but as a young man with limited abilities from a Burewala school where they had sat on mats, he was unable to shoulder the heavy burden of learning and research. By the second year he lost heart and could not complete his education. Perhaps one reason for this was Galina.
Obviously the language used in the Moscow State University was Russian and in order to enter the university foreigners had to take a six-month compulsory course in the first year. Although Zaheer wasn’t bright, he surprisingly mastered the language without difficulty. He became more fluent than the African and South American students; and one of the reasons for this also was Galina.
She was a class fellow. Dressed in a loose, flowered frock her plump but attractive body drove him crazy. For Zaheeruddin, coming as he did from Burewala, a typical Punjabi village of peasants, she was an apsara, a milky-white flask of intoxication brimming over with a wine from which only the fortunate could drink.
Galina was the daughter of a worker who lived in a hut on a collective farm in the outskirts of Moscow. She believed sincerely in the arrival of an order which would unite all the workers and peasants of the world under a red dawn and change their fortunes. She fell for this somewhat shy, somewhat stupid, pleasant young man from Pakistan who did not say much in class. Russian girls are very practical; they don’t waste their lives looking for the romantic ideal. If you like someone and his communist convictions are strong, why let him go? In those days, she looked so buxom in her floral dress, she could arouse him instantly.
And now, fifty years later the same Galina, after only two children, had become so fat and ungainly that she had difficulty moving and had to resort to a wheelchair. She even had problems speaking. Ukranian vodka was dissolving her bones like acid, making holes in her lungs, but she couldn’t live without it.
Those were the days when the dreams were still alive . . .
Like everything made in the Soviet Union – sturdy and long-lasting but squat and basic, whether it was a television, car, or tractor – the cycle also wasnothing to write home about. Its seat was of thick leather but it didn’t show: Galina’s fat bottom would hide it. Following behind on another cycle would be Zaheeruddin, panting and out of breath. He would see a cycle on the white track beside the Moscow River stretching out into the distance far away from the city but he would not be able to see its tyres spinning or the white forests of birch around them; nor would he see Galina because she would be flying ahead in her flowery frock.
Like the Pakistani youth of those days Zaheeruddin was an innocent soul, an untouched virgin. Let alone experience of women and sex, he didn’t even have any technical knowledge as far as they were concerned. He was also a little more naïve because he didn’t come from a big city, but from Burewala. He had grown up on the romances of A. Hameed and been titillated by the novels of Vahi Vahanvi and Dutt Bharti; and every morning when he woke up to find his shalwar sticky he would be ashamed. He had no idea how to woo a girl, the wiles and guiles used to get her ready and willing and then, once she was, how best to deal with it. He was green as a cucumber. Consequently it was Galina who made the first move. To go on a Sunday on rented bicycles out of the city to picnic in the birch forests spread out along the Moscow river, a favourite haunt for Muscovites, was her idea: Galina’s.
Zaheeruddin realised for the first time that European and especially Russian girls were more muscular and stronger than Pakistani girls. They had an innate masculinity. It wasn’t for nothing that they drove tractors in the socialist system. They worked beside the men in the fields and even harder than them. Most of the taxi drivers in Moscow were girls, or women. He had seen them bent double under the weight of heavy sacks and crates being lifted from steamers anchored in the Moscow River. On one of Moscow’s central squares there was a monumental sculpture commemorating the socialist revolution – a powerfully built labourer holding a hammer in his raised hand and next to him, and on an equal footing, a woman holding a sickle.
Once the last vestiges of the city had been left behind they found themselves in the open air. They had been riding side by side but suddenly Galina shot off ahead. He pedalled after her until he was ready to drop but kept falling further and further behind. Her saddle tucked under her bottom, Galina was flying on ahead. Now and then her flowered frock, caught by a gust of wind, would balloon upwards revealing her milk-white legs and dazzle Zaheeruddin’s eyes dripping with sweat.
That afternoon in the shade of the birch forest . . .
In his nostrils the fresh scent of wild grass growing around the trees and the heady female fragrance emanating from Galina’s white body lying beside him partially hidden by her flowered frock . . . What kind of fragrance was this? It had neither been distilled from the roses of Shiraz nor had it come from any perfume maker’s vial. All perfumes are made from flowers that have either fallen or been plucked: flowers that blossom unseen and unknown among snowy peaks; the white Harsinghar, or night-flowering jasmine, with orange stems, that begins to fall with the first rays of the sun at the end of September. But the fragrance that was emanating from the hidden depths of Galina’s flowery frock, from a body on heat, was more powerful than all these. This fragrance was coming not from any yellowing flowers but from the sweaty surrender of a living warm-bodied woman and it drove him mad.
How could Zaheeruddin resist . . . an innocent, a frozen pat of butter until now, how could he not melt? All his life he remembered that moment and wondered whether this surrender had been spontaneous or planned out in advance.
Like them their cycles too lay gasping in the grass. The grass that was under their bodies had not been wet in the beginning. The birch trees towered over them and the wind wafted the moist fragrance of their union up to the highest branches and broadcast it in all directions. The following Sunday they presented themselves in a dreary government office and were married.
Galina saw Burewala as a horrible place and never warmed to it. Zaheeruddin pretended that they had only come to Pakistan for a few days, for the summer holidays. ‘You can see what my ancestral country is like, its trees, flowers and shrubs, fields, springs and rivers, its seasons. You can meet my parents . . .’ But in his heart of hearts he didn’t want to go back. He wanted to see how she would react. In spite of being a staunch communist, her outlook as a wife, however, was capitalistic. She needed comfort and ease, a civilised society. She couldn’t accept living in the shabby quarters of Shamsuddin, a comrade who in ideological terms was more active and effective than her.
And for Shamsuddin, Galina, his daughter-in-law, was no ordinary girl. She was a red dawn that had risen over his poverty-ridden quarters. He always looked at her with awe and respect. How fortunate I am that a girl from Lenin’s country, born in the Soviet Union, has come as my daughter-in-law. If only I could wash her feet with water and drink it!
One night Zaheeruddin found himself alone with his father. Galina had been sitting for a long time on the parapet of the well surrounded by roots in the courtyard. Then, bored with the monotony of the environment, she had popped a sleeping pill in her mouth and gone off to sleep on a rope charpoy.
‘Abba, I am in the system which you are struggling to impose in this country. A day will come when the downtrodden masses of the world will break their chains and rise up and all of us will be linked together by the bonds of equality, without differences of religion or nationality. I am in the capital of this communist order. And I can help to bring about the red revolution in the whole world. I want to live there, in your dream.’
Shamsuddin was taken aback by the change that had come over his son. His abilities had always been limited and he had never been especially interested in communism. He was proud that his son could be of assistance in this global transformation and he readily agreed.
Galina heaved a sigh of relief. While she sang ‘The Internationale’ with great fervour in festivals and youth gatherings, at heart she could not be international, only Russian.
Shamsuddin Inqilabi was taken into custody along with Hasan Nasir for the crime of being a communist and inciting armed revolt among the labourers. After being tortured by ice slabs, having water and sand thrown in his eyes, and his ribs and bones crushed in clamps, Hasan Nasir’s body was thrown off the ramparts of the Fort followed a few moments later by a still alive Shamsuddin Inqilabi. It is only Hasan Nasir’s name, however, that has gone down in history. Shamsuddin Inqilabi was the trade union leader of an unknown town like Burewala. He had no direct links with the Communist Party or with the Soviet Embassy, nor was he the scion of a nawab family like Hasan Nasir. So he died in obscurity, unsung and unmourned by the left.
In the old days, people walking on the roads, and peasants and labourers who had come to their holy city Moscow from Russia’s far-flung expanses – visitors from Ukraine, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Daghestan – would be bowled over when they saw Zaheeruddin and Galina walking arm in arm on Gorky Street or Pushkin Square. An Asian comrade and a Russian girl arm and arm were the fulfilment of a great dream in which there were no boundaries of colour or race. They would look at Zaheeruddin with gratitude. O Comrade, you have abandoned your country and beliefs to come and help us and be a part of the greatest dream in human history!
And now he was an untouchable! His wheatish complexion and foreign face had become a burden. He would go about hiding his face in the kingdom where he had once been king, a VIP! While walking on the pavement, or travelling on the underground people would look down at him with contempt. Who is he? And what’s he doing here? Why doesn’t he get out of our country? One night in a dark alley (and another time while coming out of a theatre) Russian skinheads – boys and girls – returning from the May Day parade had beaten him up, and spat on him.
When cracks appeared in the framework of the Soviet Union and it collapsed, Zaheeruddin’s life and lofty ideals of equality disintegrated and he was left standing alone in the midst of a huge pile of rubble wondering, Where should I make my home? Where should I go from here? Galina, who had been his enthusiastic partner in the dream of an ideal world turned out to be very weak. She could give him no support. In the early days he had taught her to say a few phrases of Punjabi in a romantic tone: Mainoon tere nal piyar ho giya ai! I love you! And she would deliver them with such perfect pronunciation that she could easily pass for a Punjabi peasant girl. But now she had forgotten everything. Slumped in her wheelchair, she guzzled Ukrainian vodka and cursed him in Russian. He couldn’t even blame her. What had he given her in all these years except for this pokey two-roomed flat with a single bathroom, two children, and constant money problems?
In the old days when the Moscow River was tinged with the redness of the horizon, and his dreams floated among the birch forests in a heady mist, he used to receive a monthly stipend from a special Asian Revolutionary Fund. In addition to this he was an obscure worker in an obscure government department with responsibilities that were also obscure. However, the salary was enough to live on. As soon as the tables turned, and the hundreds of thousands of statues of Lenin in the town and city squares throughout the length and breadth of the Soviet Union came tumbling down, to be replaced by the obscene mermaids of capitalism, not only did this stipend stop but he was also sent packing from his place of work.
Immediately after the birth of Boris, Galina had got a job as a sales girl in what was then the world’s largest store, GUM. It was as though she had become royalty! She was not simply a salesgirl but a goddess bestowing favours. The Russian needy would fall at her feet, begging and pleading with her because despite all the progress it had made in industry and in space there was an acute shortage of commodities for daily use in the Soviet Union. To get a television – no matter how ugly and basic – was a miracle. The queues of those looking to buy a woollen coat, a few socks, a pair of shoes, or one tie, could stretch all the way to the tomb of Lenin. It was up to Galina to choose the handful of people among all these hundreds whose wishes she would grant. Sometimes she would oblige a needy person in return for a gift or two under the counter. This extra income enabled them to live in comfort. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Galina’s rule came to an end. The heaps of woollen coats, socks, shoes and clothes that arrived on her counter every day remained unsold. In the new order, their prices had soared out of the reach of the common man. Moreover, behind the red building of the GUM Store an international market had come into existence with the most expensive designer clothes from all over the world, watches, overcoats, pens, handbags, cigarette lighters, lingerie etc. And because the largest number of billionaires in the world were now in Moscow and they were freely spending the wealth they had made overnight thanks to the new capitalist system, no one was going to Galina’s counter: the locally made lingerie that was for sale there scratched the breasts and private parts of the ladies.
When a great civilisation declines it brings down a whole system; it becomes useless and is thrown away into the dustbin of history. All the cogs and wheels of this system – except for those that change their colour like chameleons – become dysfunctional and useless. In their place new people come, in the government, in culture, journalism, even in literature and art. All the producers and drama writers who had worked in the state television would present the red dawn of the labourers and peasants in their dramas in accordance with the instructions of the Party and in the light of the thoughts and writings of Marx and Lenin. In every scene there were ever-smiling peasant women singing revolutionary songs and muscular labourers waving sickles in the air; and, rising in the background, a red sun. All these guidelines were in their blood; even if they had wanted to they could not have turned their backs on them, so they also broke down and became useless. The new people who came in their place were spokespeople for the new system. They presented American comedy shows, or sitcoms, in the Russian language. They projected American pop stars, and commented knowledgeably on how Madonna’s breasts were still so firm and defiant. The Russian public too was fed up of peasants, labourers, pickaxes, hammers and sickles, and great fathers, and had fallen for the shamelessness of the semi-nude women in Baywatch.
Eventually Galina was sent packing from Gum Store. She was turning into a dumpy old woman and there were many young and shapely girls who were there to take her place, chewing gum and greeting every customer with a ‘Hey guys!’
The two of them – Zaheeruddin and Galina – were now at the mercy of Boris and Svetlana. If it hadn’t been for them they too would have been begging at the doors of churches or from tourists in Red Square like many of the other Russians who had been rendered useless.
Boris, still unmarried, was his 40-year old son, who had lost an arm in the Afghan War. When he sat in front of him, he would look for some reflections of his own face or complexion but he could never find any. His was a distinctively Russian face and had always been one. There was no vestige of Zaheerudddin there or of Shamsuddin Inqilabi’s race. Boris’s eyes were those of a stranger and had no warmth. Sometimes he doubted if he was his own son. They were not comfortable in each other’s presence. Whenever he saw Boris looking at him he wondered if he was judging him, trying to decide if this foreign person sitting in front of him should be sent into cold storage in Siberia. Surely he has committed some crime. And Zaheeruddin would sit there holding his breath afraid of being sentenced.
Boris, on the other hand, felt that the man had never accepted him as his son – He doesn’t like my Russian face. Sure, Boris was cold and indifferent, but in spite of wanting to he could not get close to his father – He keeps talking about some Punjab and smiling for no reason. No deep-rooted ties ever formed between the two. And Svetlana Zaheer . . . Whenever Zaheeruddin was absentmindedly sipping his tea, or coming out of the bathroom or entering the flat and found her before him he would get a shock: she was the spitting image of her mother! He would see a cycle disappearing into the birch forests, a flowery frock receding before his eyes.
During her university days she had come under the influence of some of the new rebel elements who abstained from vodka, considering it an old fashioned communist drink. Having abandoned socialism they waved the banner of absolute personal freedom in the nirvana of heroin and marijuana. Their leader was the son of a colonel who had fallen in the Afghan War and received the award of ‘Hero of The Motherland.’ He always declared that he had no regrets about losing the Afghan war because if the Russians hadn’t gone to Afghanistan then the hashish that eased your troubles and the heroin that took you to the heavens would never have come to Russia. After university some of these new rebel elements were absorbed into Russian’s new order and some turned to the fine arts. Svetlana, who had a passion for acting, would stay idle for months. Then she would get a call from somewhere that they were adapting an American comedy show into Russian and she would be employed for some time. She was trying to make her name as a comedy actor on television, which had been repositioned in accordance with the new trends.
Svetlana agreed with Boris’s fears and worries. Their father – who neither of them was ever close to – was becoming more and more of an enigma every day. He was getting all muddled up. They well remembered that when they were children he would exhort them to stay away from religion, because it was an opiate. He was proud of being an atheist.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Christianity, which had been biding its time hidden away in some nook and corner, suddenly resurfaced. The cross began to overpower the hammer and the sickle. New churches popped up throughout Russia like the mushrooms that spring up overnight in the birch forests after a spell of winter rain. Even Putin – the staunchly communistic and atheistic KGB agent – was going about bowing in front of richly clad bishops kissing their robes reverently and expressing his devotion to religion. But Galina didn’t turn towards the religion of her forefathers, nor did Boris and Svetlana develop any interest in Christianity. With their liberated, atheistic outlook they slipped into the new capitalistic system without any qualms.
However, Zaheeruddin, who used to advise them to shun religion had now begun to sit in front of them preaching that they should study Islam, that their grandfather, despite being a revolutionary and being executed as a communist, was a Muslim. This had nothing to do with faith, there was something seriously wrong with his head. They had seen many Uzbek and Tajik youngsters in search of employment being pushed around and humiliated on the footpaths of Moscow and being beaten up by the police. When their countries became independent these people had become unemployed. Dying of hunger they made their way to the same country from whose talons they had happily escaped. They were Muslims. Boris and Svetlana didn’t see anything in common, no affinity in terms of outlook, between these people and themselves; if anything it was hostility. How then could they turn towards their religion? As far as their father was concerned it seemed as though all his cogs and wheels had broken down. Little grains of sand – the sand of religion – were getting stuck in the wheels which at one time had been oiled by atheism and communism. He would often insist that the two of them should accompany him to the Friday prayers to see how the hordes of people in the Uzbek mosque prayed. Along with turning towards religion, he was straying from the landscape of his own country, Russia, and was focusing on the seasonal festivals of his Punjab, its flowers, shrubs, seasons and the white-haired sprites springing out of milkweed plants. He was shunning the physical realities of the present and journeying towards his past. But they wouldn’t accept Christianity or Islam. For them religion was decadent.
Galina was slumped in her sturdy but uncomfortable Russian-made wheelchair, the vodka bottle lying empty in her lap. There were signs of tiredness in the eyes of Boris and Svetlana. Galina was an expert in making mushroom soup with Russian herbs. She had sent Zaheeruddin to the nearby market to fetch mushrooms and he hadn’t returned as yet, though it was late. Who knows which forest of mushrooms he has got into that he hasn’t come home yet . . . It wasn’t as though they were worried for him, just irritated that they would have to go without mushroom soup that evening.
There was a loud hammering on the iron door of the flat. First Zaheeruddin came in head down avoiding their looks. Behind him were two young men of the Moscow police with hard faces, looking disgusted. One of them addressed the three, ‘Can you confirm that this man lives in this flat with his children? Do you know him?’
‘Yes.’ Galina had emerged from her drunken stupor. Pushing down on the wheels of the chair she came to them. ‘He’s my husband. Has he committed a crime?’
‘We can’t say,’ said the one among them who looked more fed up. ‘But this man, this foreigner, had parked his car along the pavement, and was behaving very strangely. He was in a cluster of silk cotton trees waving his hands running here and there chasing the fluff that was falling from the trees. He could have hurt himself so we took him into custody. You know him, do you?’
‘I told you that he’s my husband.’ A hint of curtness had entered Galina’s voice.
The two policemen looked contemptuous. A Russian woman and this pathetic foreigner! ‘What’s his nationality? Indian? African?’
They scrutinized his citizenship papers and Russian passport in disbelief; compared him with the photo stuck on his passport and left muttering, a little disappointed.
‘Where were you Zaaheer?’ Galina scolded him.
He stood with his eyes down like a criminal.
‘You went for mushrooms, so where were you till now?’
‘I . . .’ Zaheeruddin raised his head and a childlike smile spread across his lips. ‘I got lost chasing the sprites and it became night.’
Lodged in his hair that was turning white – as though a part of it too – they saw a wispy, silver-haired sprite.
Her lovely face framed by a still luxuriant mass of snow-white hair was bent over him. Hiltrud! Despite the wrinkles marked by time, she had not lost her looks. Like Ingrid Bergman, she too was a dignified, attractive woman in old age, sexy enough to merit a second look. How would she have been in her youth?
As a Young Communist Volunteer, her chest emblazoned with a red ribbon and bronze hammer and sickle medals, she used to knock at the doors of the flats in the well-ordered rows of high-rises along Stalin Alley in East Berlin, distribute pamphlets on the miracles of communism to the workers living there and leave with a red salute. Among the dozens of teenage German volunteers – girls and boys – her captivating face must have stood out because the occupants of the flats would happily accept her pamphlets just to humour her. Heaps of them lay in their dustbins already.
Like any pretty girl, Hiltrud was well aware of the effect she had on people but she wasn’t haughty. She was convinced that she had been blessed with her looks only to spread the eternal message of Marx and Engels.
Among her volunteer comrades there were some boys who, deep down in their hearts, resented the Russian victory over Germany. They were adherents of a philosophy that had its roots in Germany – Marx was from their race, if a Jew could be said to belong to their race – but they hadn’t forgotten their country’s humiliation at the hands of the Russians. They were proud of their Nazi past. It was the Russians who had defeated them in Stalingrad and Leningrad before turning towards Berlin. So how could they really accept the sovereignty of the victors? If they were devoted members of the Communist Party it was only because they were opportunists and wanted to better their own futures. Their active participation in the party would enable them to get into university easily and land better jobs. But Hiltrud had no such opportunistic ideas. She believed sincerely in the philosophy of communism, its universality and its role as the sole means of liberating humanity.
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