Author's Note: I served as IMF Treasury Advisor in Georgia in 1994-96. It was the time when the soviet economy had crashed and was replaced by the philosophy of open market economy enunciated by the Western Bloc. The conditions in Georgia were pathetic, its people going through tough time. It was a heart rending experience to see surgeons, scientists, professors and Olympians working as drivers, cooks and maids. The transition was malevolent if not cruel.
This story is dedicated to the loving people of Georgia.
It was the month of November of the year 1994. Winter had set in and power and gas supply in Tbilisi was conspicuously absent. It was the same story last year since Turkmenistan, one time ally and a sister State had refused to supply gas to Georgia because she could not pay for it at international - open market rates. New economic philosophy with emphasis on commercial considerations had overtaken friendly ties of several decades. The common man felt miserable and lamented, “Is this the price of freedom? What freedom is this where life is reduced to drudgery and a burden? Weren’t we better off in earlier system?”
There were no jobs. Most of the factories were shut down. There was no gas for the factories and there was no money with the government to pay to labour, doctors, engineers and teachers. The government was being compelled to privatise utility companies, health centers, medical and engineering colleges. There were no takers.
Dr. Anna Salaridze was a lecturer in the Center for Linguistic Research in Tbilisi a couple of years ago. For every Georgian writer it was an honour to be a member of the Institute. In fact, every Georgian writer of repute was on its roll. The Institute was proud of having published several volumes on genealogy of the Caucasian languages. Anna’s paper was greatly appreciated in the Conference of Soviet Writers’ Union held a few years ago in Kiev. She had felt good. Her father, a renowned painter was proud of her and accompanied her to the Conference after selling his car. He felt the price paid was worth it since after the award ceremony, his family was accepted in the elitist circles of Georgia.
Then came the ideological, political and economic emancipation aided and abetted by the West. Anna’s institute, which survived on government grant, was in the first list to be axed. The unabated inflation in the country had reduced the Rouble to a piece of paper. It was only a matter of time that many of the lecturers got the sack. Anna’s family had to depend on the salary of her mother who worked in the government bakery. In fact, the sword of Damocles hung over her job also since the government had been asked to privatise the bakery.
In earlier days, Anna’s father had never bothered about household matters. That was left to his wife and Anna. He used to spend most of his time in his studio and with his friends. Long discussions, lengthy dinners with liberal supply of Georgian wines was the way of life. All that had changed.
Like every other artist, Salaridze had no money and was going through the bad patch. Most of the Georgians known to have a penchant for the fine arts were going through abject penury, which was evident from the household paintings, carpets, crockery, cutlery and show-pieces placed for distress sale in the flea markets.
Salaridze, lamented over the trivial inadequacies he was subjected to and cursed everyone until his last breadth, which came suddenly. He was run over by an army truck; both his legs had been crushed.
“I always thought there was a lot to do in life. As an artist I was ambitious and I had lot many dreams, which I wanted to paint on canvas. I know my hands are OK and I can hold a brush but in the present conditions of our country, I wish to go,” he had told Anna a day before his death.
Professors, engineers and doctors were working as drivers with the international agencies and women intellectuals were engaged as maids in the houses of diplomats. It hurt their pride but there was no alternative. Anna had accepted a maid’s job in the house of a German family who was quite impressed with her work and punctuality. They never thought of asking her about her academic background.
Yes, it was a cold November evening of the year 1994. Anna was waiting at Saburtalo Metro. She had come to buy poultry and grocery items for her employer. That was one of her duties. It meant carrying back two big bags from the market to the Metro, hurling herself into a compartment and then carrying it to the seventh floor apartment in the Rustaveli Street where she worked. The job did not tire her as much as it hurt her.
She had been waiting at the Metro station for over an hour. Metro services in the town were quite unpredictable due to power failures. Suddenly there was commotion on the platform, which was a sign that the train was coming. Anna struggled with the bags, preparing to enter the train when some one, came to her.
“Can I help you?”
That was strange and Anna noticed that the person was not a Georgian, perhaps an Asian. She wanted to ignore the offer but the man with an unassuming look, took the two bags and they entered the train.
She looked at him. Yes, he surely was an Asian. His dark complexion, black eyes and his features confirmed that. But that didn’t matter.
“Thank You,” She said feebly not looking exactly at him.
“Arapris” He replied with a friendly smile.
That surprised her a little. “For how long are you living in Georgia?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, I am a research scholar. Learnt Georgian for two years and now I am working on the phonetic evolution of the dialects of nomadic tribes of western India. You know it is very interesting,” he said and then suddenly stopped, giving her a second look.
Perhaps she was a common housewife and the subject may not be of any interest to her, he thought.
“That is surely very interesting. Georgia will give you enough evidence of Euro-Asian transitory culture. You must have noticed the similarity in the musical notes in the folklore of Georgia and those of the nomadic tribes of India. The closeness is simply amazing....” Anna spoke unmindful of her status and then she too stopped suddenly.
Both were quiet, looking at each other. The stranger was surprised.
“Well, I agree with you.” He said and then paused and looking at her bags he added, “I presume you are interested in linguistics.”
Anna kept quiet. The stranger continued, “My name is Suman Das. I am from India and I am staying in Ossati Street.”
Suddenly the train stopped with a violent jerk, throwing the passengers off balance. It was pitch dark, the power supply had failed, which was not unusual. Anna collected herself and stretched her hands to feel for the bags.
“Please wait until your eyes get adjusted and don’t worry for your bags. I am holding them,” her newly found companion assured.
“Thank you,” She said.
Georgians are heavy smokers. Soon there were cigarette lighters glowing in the compartments. Luckily, the front end of the train had reached the Rustaveli station. People started surging through the compartments, brushing each other.
“Let me help you,” he said lifting the bags without waiting for her response.
As they came out of the station, Anna said, “I am sorry. It has been a bad day for you.”
“Not at all, on the contrary I am happy; I met a person of common interest.”
Anna said nothing. They walked silently up to her apartment. Anna felt as if her wounds had been opened.
As Suman was about to leave, Anna said, “I am Anna, Anna Salaridze. Didi madloba, very sweet of you.”
“Arapris,” he said smilingly.”
“I am sorry I cannot ask you to come in. I am a house-maid here,” she managed to say but failed to check the tears rolling down. Suman knew the conditions prevailing in Georgia.
“Please don’t bother. Perhaps we can meet at my place. I live in 10, Ossati Street. Easy to remember, no?” He tried to humour her.
“Na Khawamdees,” Anna whispered as she saw him walking down the lane. Then she suddenly recollected. 10, Ossati Street was the house of her friend, Natia.
Anna reached home after finishing her work. She was badly shaken. It was her academic interest that had cost her marriage. Her husband could not bear her digging in to books, refusing to accompany him to parties and not joining his friends in drinking sprees, a typical Georgian trait. The marriage did not last long. Her dedication to the research work and her marriage could not co-exist, it ended in two years.
She never regretted the decision. The reward came when she was nominated to the Union of Soviet Writers. It was a landmark achievement but the dissolution of Soviet Union had disrupted her life and her ambition.
Anna did not talk to her mother and went straight to her study. There lay the old volumes, now covered with dust. She took out some of her research papers and started looking through them. She remembered that she had done some work on the subject the Indian talked about. Anna told her mother not to disturb her. The ageing mother knew Anna’s ailment, she knew Anna’s mind and soul were hungry.
Anna was looking through the papers and making notes. A little later when her mother brought her dinner, she looked up and stray thoughts crossed her mind.
“Why should I bother myself? It was nothing out of sort that he had done. In any case, I didn’t ask for help. Why should I wreck my brain for him? Let him do his work … he can not share my destiny.”
Yet she kept on working till dawn, making notes for the person she did not know. When the clock struck five, she could not believe it and she still wanted to continue. She was tired but there was an unmistakable glow on her face.
Next day she rang up Natia and asked if she had taken an Indian as a paying guest.
“Yes. Anna, you know the conditions as they are. But how do you know? Where did you meet him?” Natia asked with some apprehension.
“I met him yesterday at the Sabartalo Metro. His subject of research is one that I was working some years ago.”
“Oh! I see. Too much of coincidence,” Natia said in an icy tone. Anna ignored it and continued, “May be, I will come over in the evening to give him some of my reference papers.” And then she added, “Please don’t tell him anything about it.”
Natia, once a rich woman was not happy at the prospects of the meeting. Anna was not the best of her friends. For one thing, Anna was a bright and popular student and she was beautiful. She was tall with remarkable agility and an appeal; no one could miss even at the first sight.
But that was several years ago. How many? Anna and for that matter Natia didn’t remember. Now they were too occupied to think of matters like personal beauty.
Anna worked as housemaid for three days and on other two days, she taught piano in a private school. Life had become like an old spinning wheel. Whining, creaking, shaking but moving nonetheless. Sometimes, she entered her favourite bookshop, gazing at the new publications and magazines, which she could not buy in her present position.
Knitting was her past time. After the day’s work when she entered her room, she would sit in her rocking chair, take the needles and look vacantly through the shelf of books, which once took all her time. Her hands knitted and her mind wandered restlessly.
As Anna walked to Natia’s place in the evening, she felt as if she were once again the good old research scholar. A whiff of air blew her hair and she remembered her days in the college. A smile appeared on her lips.
Even before she could knock at the door, Natia opened it and took her to the living room. “Mr. Das will come here. I have told him that a friend of mine was coming to see him,” she said and then added, “You know, you have to be very careful with the foreigners.”
“Yes, I know,” Anna said briefly.
Suman Das entered the room holding a magazine in his hand, not anticipating that it would be Anna sitting with Natia. It was a pleasant surprise.
“Good evening… Gamarjuba...Gamarjuba…” He was fumbling with words to wish her when Anna said, “Gamarjuba! Mr. Das.”
“Gamarjuba....Gamarjuba! He repeated, still unable to contain his excitement.
Anna came to the point, as was her wont.
“I was doing research on the subject close to one you were talking yesterday. You see the conditions in our country have changed and I have abandoned the project.”
“I am sorry.”
“It is OK. We have compromised with the conditions.” Then trying to control her self she added, “I have these papers by two noted anthropologists and these are some of my notes. May be you may find them of some use,” she said handing over the bundle of papers to Suman.
“Thank you very much. What luck it was to meet you Miss Salaridze. I have no words to express my gratitude. If carrying bags for a few steps can bring such an invaluable treasure, I can not but thank my stars.” And then with his inimitable smile he added, “I am going to be at the Metro every evening.”
“Thanks if you really value them. They are of no use to me. I thought, perhaps you may like to go through them.”
Suman while glancing through the papers noticed that the notes looked very fresh. He could not resist asking her, “It seems you have been working through out the night.”
Anna did not reply. She noticed Natia’s contracting eyes and got up to leave. “It is getting dark, I must leave,” she said to Natia and then looking at Suman she added, “Mr. Das I wish you good luck.”
“Let me come up to the bus stand,” Suman told her.
“Oh! Please don’t bother. It is quite cold outside. Moreover, we prefer to walk these days,” Anna said with a wry smile.
“I must come some distance, nonetheless,” Suman insisted following Anna.
As they walked down the street, Suman asked her, “Is it possible to meet you and discuss some of these papers?”
“Mr. Das, I wish I could help you more than this. I work five days a week and I have several other responsibilities at home. Really, I would have loved to help you but... ” Her voice trailed off.
Suman was not put off. “I can not insist but if you can spare some time on Sunday mornings. I could come to your place and discuss your work ...if you will allow me.” And then he added, “I will cook Indian food for you while you talk,” unarming her with his typical smile.
“Well if you insist.”
“Yes, I do.”
They met on Sundays and after couple of meetings on Saturdays and then nearly every day. It was now only six months for Suman to make a dissertation before the Academic Council of the State University of Georgia. There was still a lot to do.
“Suman, I suggest you shift to my place. There is a lot to do and you lose so much time, going up and down. Moreover, we can work until late in the night. You can use my father’s room,” Anna told Suman one day.
Suman was in a dilemma. He had already paid Natia for the rest of his stay. His scholarship was barely enough to survive. Anna read his mind.
“You don’t have to pay me anything. I shall explain it to Natia. It is necessary that you complete your work in time,” She said in an assertive tone.
Suman thereafter was a busy man. At daytime he worked in the University, making notes and discussed them with Anna in the evening. Anna worked with him every evening. For her it was a return of her academic days. Knowledge was her passion and in Suman, she had found a dedicated and intelligent student. The work was getting in to shape.
Anna’s mother was relieved to see animated Anna but dreaded the day when Suman would leave.
It was the last week of Suman’s stay in Tbilisi. He was enjoying the luxury of a beer as his mind raced through his stay in the country. He had come to love the town. “I would miss this city and the people,” he often thought.
He had observed Anna closely all these days, working with him relentlessly. At times, he could smell her and feel his blood rushing at the touch of her body.
Her silky, flowing blonde hair and her big blue eyes swayed Suman to height of passion but he knew she was an enigma, a cold ocean he could not fathom. They would look at each other on those occasions and then resume the work.
“What was in it for Anna? How could I ever repay her? Were words adequate to thank her? Was it destiny that he met her?” Suman pondered as he sipped his beer. He had no answer for any of the questions.
“I wish I could come back again with leisure,” he said adjusting his papers.
Anna had reverted to her knitting. She did not respond. Suman was sad and pensive. He wanted her to speak to him, talk something, like a woman to a man.
“I have ironed your shirt and the suit and there is a matching tie. You should go properly dressed before the Academic Council. These things matter,” she said after a while.
“Anna, some coffee for you?”
“No. We are not going to work any more and you must look fresh tomorrow. You better go to bed.”
“Aren’t you going to sleep?”
“No,” she said without raising her head from the knitting.
Suman could bear no more.
“Anna couldn’t you behave like an ordinary person? Like a woman, at least once, for these few moments,” he spoke holding her hands.
She didn’t reply.
“Tell me, after a couple of days when I go away, how will you keep yourself occupied? You have been working so much for me, for what? What did you get in this?”
Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell on his hands. She broke down, the armour had come off. The emotions choked for years had inundated the hard exterior.
With her voice shaking, she said, “Suman, I too have a heart. I too had the weak moments.... but every time the thought that your work came first, never left me. For me it was the most important thing, rather the only important thing. Tomorrow, when you present your thesis before the Academic Council, can you imagine my happiness?
Suman looked at her, dumbfounded.
Pausing for a few moments, she continued, “For a scholar, pursuit of knowledge becomes an obsession leaving no time for other matters. Working with you gave me a new life… for me it was like resurrection.”
Suman’s heart wept for her as he looked at her lankyl trembling frame.
Controlling herself, she added, “I was alive all these days but ...death stalks me, waiting for you to leave.... I should instead thank you...” And then resting her head against his chest, she broke down.
Suman lifted her face slowly, waved aside her flowing blonde hair and kissed her.
“Annino, you have an indomitable quest for knowledge that even death can not overtake,” he whispered.
PS: May I request all my readers to spread my blog reference amongst all their friends.