1. REDISCOVERING NATIA
Harry Royston was working for World Food Programme. His beat included Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia being central to other two countries, WFP had based him at Tbilisi. Harry had taken a flat on Rustaveli Street and engaged a part time help to assist him in household chores. The woman was introduced to him as Miss Nani by Zurab Machiavelli, his locally appointed assistant. Harry knew her as Nani and had been calling her by that name.
He didn’t know her official name, never occurred to him to ask her even though she had been working for him for nearly a year. Nani was in her late forties. She was reasonably good looking, tall with an athletic figure and she was a spinster.
One Saturday evening Harry invited Zurab to his place. Zurab told him that he will bring some freshly brewed white wine of Kakheti.
“Kakheti white wine is the best in Georgia; fresh and lively; and no hangovers.” Zurab said wanting to impress his boss.
They were having a lovely evening. Nina had prepared nice snacks to go with the wine.
“Zurab, I must thank you for finding such a nice help. She is very punctual, meticulous and understands my needs. I am surprised why she didn’t marry. She is beautiful and an excellent cook,” Harry said picking a piece of fried fish fillet.
By then, Zurab had been softened by the wine. He asked Harry, “Do you know Nani was a middle distance runner. Represented undivided USSR and was an Olympian silver medalist.
Harry was surprised. Zurab continued.
“She didn’t marry because those days, women athletes were discouraged to marry. They were indoctrinated by the coaches and the DPO - ‘District Pogrom Officer’ to concentrate on their career. The athletes had no choice because defiance meant severe punishment, sentencing to hard labor.”
Zurab continued after refilling his glass.
“Nani was a promising star. They hoped she would bring a gold medal in the 800 metres. She was subjected to intense training schedule with trainers closely monitoring her performance. No smoking and no partying four years prior to next Olympics. That was the directive for the budding athletes.”
“No wonder those days Russians were topping the medal list. Perhaps Chinese are doing the same now.” Harry said zestfully.
Harry’s comment didn’t go well with Zurab.
“Unfortunately, Nina suffered because of the State policy. She was expelled from the Olympic probables even though she was a silver medalist in the previous Olympics.”
“That is sad, in fact ridiculous. Tell me more about her,” Harry was eager to know about Nina, who has been working for him quietly, incognito.
Zurab unfolded Nina’s story.
Her official name is Natia Gigiasvili. She was born in Rustavi district in a family of factory workers. I was her neighbor. Both her parents worked in an Iron and Steel Mill in Rustavi. Her father, Alexi Gigiasvili was a mild natured man. He cared more for his wife and children than for himself. Yet his wife was always unhappy and dissatisfied and finally left him after eleven years of marriage.
“I want to work for the party. They are sending me to Armenia to work on a State project,” she told Alexi.
The reason given by Alexi’s wife to leave him was sacrosanct. The Party work came first and foremost. It was over and above the family. Alexi’s pleading were in vain. A couple of months later he came to know that his wife had left with one of her distant cousins. Alexi was left with his young daughter Natia and little son Taimuri to fend for himself.
Natia was tall and slim and showed good promise in track events. The DPO thus recommended to the Politbureau Sports Member to enroll her in the list of Olympic probables. Natia was not keen to leave her father alone. She wanted to take care of the family in the absence of her mother.
Alexi was an accomplished flute player. He obtained permission to join the community club and pursue his hobby after day’s work in the factory. Soon he was a member of a cultural troupe, which staged shows all over the country. Natia at times accompanied her father. It was during one of these shows that she met Georgi Peradze, a ballet artist.
Georgi Peradze was a young, handsome ballet dancer who had earned a niche for himself. He was admired and invited by the cultural councils of several republics. In spite of his celebrity status, he was soft spoken, amiable and modest. Natia was awestruck whenever he appeared on the stage. And she applauded him enthusiastically even after the rest of the audience had settled in their seats.
Though Natia’s father was a member of the orchestra, she was diffident to go near Georgi and talk to him. Georgi often noticed her looking at him incessantly. One evening he came over and asked her,
“You seem to like ballet dance.”
Natia was overwhelmed. “Yes, it’s amazing and I like to see you performing.”
“I am just a learner. There are many artists better than me. I am still a novice.”
“You may say so but for me, you are the best,” Natia replied.
“You flatter me.” Georgi said. He was blushing.
Georgi was several years senior to Natia. Thirteen years to be exact. That didn’t stop Natia falling in love with him. She loved him and loved his skilful dancing. In fact, she was captivated by his performance and wanted to switch over to ballet dancing. For her, Georgi was simply irresistible.
Natia’s coach reported that her interest in athletics was waning and that there was deterioration in her performance. The DPO investigated and found out the cause of her distraction. He called her and advised her to give her fullest attention to athletics.
“No deviation, no distraction. I have drawn your career profile and I will not accept a ‘no’ from you. I am answerable to the Sports Member of the Politbureau.” And then staring at her he added, “How can I face him having promised him a gold medal in your event?”
Natia remained quiet. She was madly in love. Staying away from Georgi was unthinkable for her.
The shrewd DPO read her mind. He called Alexi and Georgi and warned them.
“Hereafter you will not take her to your club nor will she accompany you to any of your silly shows. I am not happy the way you two are distracting a young athlete from her promising career. This is clear defiance of State policy. If you don’t mend your ways, I will report against you to the higher authorities.”
The two artists had nervous breakdown. They understood the intent of DPO’s words. A week later a party member came to Natia’s place and asked her to pack her suitcase.
“A truck will come in thirty minutes to pick her,” he told Alexi.
“Where are you taking her,” the distressed parent wanted to know.
“I don’t know. I am told to put her on the truck. I don’t know anything beyond that.”
Natia cried. “Please give me at least one day. Only one day please,” she begged.
“Shut up,” The messenger shouted.
Natia was desperate to see Georgi before leaving. She knew she may not meet him in near future, may be never for she didn’t know where she was being taken.
A truck came within thirty minutes. The party member gave a searching look at Taimuri and Alexi, standing with a suitcase. No one amongst us came out to bid good bye to Natia. We watched her being taken to the truck from behind the curtains of our windows. As Natia was about to get into the waiting truck, she saw Georgi standing on the other side of the road looking at her intently. She ran towards him and went in to his waiting arms.
Georgi was heartbroken to see Natia being taken away. He had dared the authority to come and see her off. And when Natia embraced him and cried, Georgi too could not hold his tears.
Natia was dispatched to Borjomi Sports Center. The incident was reported to the DPO who made an appropriate entry in the citizens’ dossier. It was a case of open defiance. Next day, orders were issued cancelling Georgi’s all cultural programmes and he was asked to report to the farm manager of his commune in Gori.
“Take care of the mules. They dance whenever they feel horny. You can join them.” the farm manager told him.
“The Borjomi Sports Center was a highly protected premise. More appropriately, it was a fortified garrison. Twelve feet high wall ran all around the thousand hectare campus with concertina coil on top and watch tower at every hundred metres. The sentries manning the watch towers round the clock had orders to shoot at sight anyone moving suspiciously near the boundary wall.
In a communist regime, everyone was a suspect in the eyes of the State.
Three years. Natia was in the Sports Center. Alexi was allowed to see her after one year and thereafter after every six months. Natia was being groomed to be ace runner of the country. Finally, she ran for the country.
Natia ran with all her physical strength and mental energy for she had been promised that she could stay with Georgi after the Olympics were over. With that hope in her heart, she ran with all her might but could win a silver medal only.
There were accolades, appreciation and public receptions but the DPO and Politbureau Sports Member were not happy.
“You could do better because you have the potential. We want you to have a break of four weeks and return to the Sports Center and start preparing for the next Olympics,” the Sports Member said gruffly.
Natia’s success didn’t bring her any happiness. Nothing mattered to her now for the thought of going away from Georgi and her family was quite depressing.
Zurab refilled his glass and continued.
Natia was received by all of us. The DPO was there. Natia could see fear and apprehension in every eye. She saw her brother Taimuri who had been employed in the same factory where his father Alexi worked. Taimuri and Alexi were standing away from the rest of the crowd that had gathered to welcome the Olympian. Natia could see the pain in their eyes. She knew something was amiss. And she noticed that Georgi was not present there. She waited until the reception was over.
Inside the house, they closed the doors and wept uncontrollably. Natia didn’t know what made Alexi and Taimuri cry. After a while, Alexi told her that Georgi cannot perform as a ballet dancer any more. He has been ordered to work in the commune at Gori.
“The State has banned his programmes. The DPO accused Georgi of misguiding a young national athlete blaming him for distracting you.”
Natia couldn’t sleep that night. She had labored hard with the hope of meeting Georgi, to be with him.
She decided to go to Gori. Next morning she told Taimuri, “I will be back by tomorrow evening. Tell father that I have gone to see our ailing aunt at Tbilisi.”
Natia waited until her brother and father left for the factory. Thereafter she took a bus to Gori and reached there late in the afternoon. She enquired from the man in a grocery store about Georgi’s house. The man looked at her curiously, smiled and indicated the house.
Natia went and knocked. An old woman came out and looked at her suspiciously.
“I am Natia Gigiasvili from Rustavi. I have come to see Georgi,” Natia whispered. The old woman recollected. Georgi often talked of her. She whisked her inside.
“Child, why have you taken the risk of coming here? If any one sees you here, more trouble will come to you and Georgi.”
“I couldn’t hold back. I am guilty for ruining his promising career. I feel sad that such a bright career has been nipped in the bud.”
The old parent sighed.
“Wait I will get you something to eat. You must be tired after a long journey. Stretch on the bed in the meantime.”
A little later, she gave her a piece of kachapuri (a Georgian variety of baked bread) and a cup of hot soup.
Georgi came home late in the evening. He looked tired and fatigued. As he entered his house, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Natia stood before him.
They ran in to each other’s arms. No words were spoken. The old mother cried to see them in an embrace. There were two forms with inseparable souls.
“You should not have come here. The DPO here is a strict and ruthless fellow,” Georgi told her.
“Georgi, I just couldn’t help. I had to come and see you at least once. I wanted to say sorry to you,” she whispered resting her head on his chest.
The old mother went out to bring some bread and eggs.
“You have a guest?” The store keeper asked her.
“No, no. Georgi is very hungry these days after day’s hard work.”
The store keeper smiled. The old lady knew it was ominous.
The two didn’t sleep that night. They just couldn’t. They talked of the happy old days, their miseries and their shattered dreams.
“I missed you Georgi and I am sad for you. Your career has been ruined because of me.”
Georgi took her in his arms and kissed her.
“It’s my luck. Please don’t blame yourself. I admire your courage to take so much risk and come to see me.”
“Georgi, I had to see you once even if it were at the cost of my life.”
They were locked in each other’s arms. They were oblivious to the icy cold wrath of the world outside. They were warm and cozy in their small world. It was a meeting of two lovers with maddening intensity. Their pent up emotions erupted like a dormant volcano.
Next morning, they got out of bed before the daybreak. Natia wanted to take the first bus to Rustavi. Georgi said he will escort her up to the bus stand. Natia told him not to.
“Don’t be foolish. I shouldn’t be seen with you.”
“Natia, if you were courageous enough to travel hundred kilometers to see me; how can I stay back? I am coming to see you off. Let the worse happen.” Georgi was determined.
Natia hugged Georgi’s mother and the two walked to the bus stand.
As Natia was about to board the bus; tears rolled down her eyes. She couldn’t help crying. Georgi kissed her.
“Good luck my love,” he whispered.
Georgi stood still, watching the bus go taking away his beloved away from him. He ambled back to his quarter, full of anxiety and apprehension. He wished Natia reached home safely.
The State intelligence in former USSR was a well-knit, efficient machinery. The storekeeper reported Natia’s visit to the GPO who took no time to open Georgi’s dossier.
It read. Georgi Peradze: a suspect. Has been acting against State policy.
The GPO rang up his counterpart in Rustavi and exchanged notes. Defiance of State by the two lovers was established. Georgi was sentenced to labor camp for ten years and Natia was asked to report back to the Sports Center immediately. She was put on tougher schedule but she could not concentrate. Every time she put on her spikes, she remembered her moments with Georgi. And she was remorseful that he had been punished because of her love for him.
Her physical sinews were getting stronger but her mental energy enervated each day. Her coaches were disappointed with her.
“She doesn’t put her heart in the training,” the head coach sent the feedback to the Sports Member.
Her timings worsened. Finally, the coach threw the towel and recommended her removal from the Sports Center.
Nadia was thrown out. This time her father was not informed. The truck waiting at the gate of the Center took her to the hill district of Casbegi where the government was making a tunnel through the snowy hills.
Natia was then a mere number. She was called by it for morning tea, afternoon bread and evening soup. Over a period, she had forgotten the count of days, months and years. She was a numbered robot working mechanically. She had forgotten her father and her brother. But she could not forget Georgi and the last moments with him. She remembered him, seeing her off at the bus stand. She could not forget the agony, distress and fury in his eyes.
It was most distressing for her to know after couple of months that Georgi had been sentenced to ten years of labor camp. She couldn’t know which camp he was deported to. There was no way of knowing it and any attempt to find out would have attracted penal action. She had a vague hunch that he was sent to Kazakhstan, where a huge dam was under construction.
December 1991. The mighty Soviet Union was disintegrated. The Republics became sovereign countries. General amnesty was granted to men and women working in the labor camps subject to review by tribunals. Nadia was lucky; she didn’t have any political offence against her name. The persons falling under ‘crime against the State’ were put on probation for another six months.
Natia reached Rustavi unannounced. She entered her street and slumped outside her house. All of us rushed out to see her. Natia once a healthy athlete was an emaciated human skeleton. You could count the bones in her frail frame from a mile.
Zurab continued after a long pause. Harry could see tears rolling down his cheeks.
Alexi had suffered a stroke of paralysis. Taimuri who was till sometime back working in the Rustavi Steel Mill had been retrenched since there was no demand and the factory was running in loss. They were living on doles.
There were two things in Natia’s mind. First and foremost, she wanted to find out about Georgi and secondly, she had to take care of her family. She started both zealously. She went to Gori and was greatly relieved to know that Georgi was still alive. The State had informed his mother that he would be released after his case was reviewed by the tribunal, which may take six months.
Six months is too long. Natia mused over and over. She was restless, marking each day on the calendar. She started working in a kachapuri outlet. It assured her of two kachapuris at the close of day as wage substitute.
Natia rushed to Gori on the day Georgi was expected to reach home. He was brought home in an ambulance. The lithe dancer who once twirled on his toes for hours together could not even stand on his feet.
The two lovers stood in front of each other. They could not speak. They stood there, still and frozen. The unstoppable tears running down their crumpled cheeks spoke volumes of the agony of their separation.
“I never cried when they used to kick me for work not completed. But I cried every night in my bunker remembering you.” Georgi whispered in her ears.
Natia smiled feebly. She found no words to describe her days. She was happy that Georgi during his incarceration didn’t know that she too was sentenced to a labor camp. She knew it would have killed him.
Natia brought Georgi to Rustavi. The two lovers are now living together. Natia takes care of him as if he were a distressed child.
Zurab was in tears as he came to the close the story. Harry was virtually moved. They looked at each other; still and silent.
After a long pause Zurab continued. “It was during that period that you came to Tbilisi and I put her with you as a part time help.”
“But you never told me anything of her past, not even her real name,” Harry asked.
“Natia doesn’t want to remember her past. She wants to forget her name and has taken the new name, ‘Nani’. She has asked all her friends and folks to call her by that name.
Next day when Nani came to work at Harry’s place, he told her, “Zurab has told me your story. I salute you for your grit and determination and for your unfailing love for Georgi.”
Natia stood quiet.
Harry continued. “I don’t want you do the petty work anymore. You are a gem not to be wasted on menial work.”
Harry talked to the American Ambassador and got her appointed as a ‘Track Coach’ in the American International School. Harry was happy that he could do something for Natia. Next day, he told her of her new assignment.
“I am sure, now you don’t mind being called Miss Natia Gigiasvili, the Olympian Silver Medalist.” Harry said taking her hands.
Natia smiled as tears streamed from her eyes. She had smiled after ages. Words were not coming to her.
“Thank you Mr. Royston for rediscovering the dead Natia,” she managed to say shaking hands with him.