It was a cold, windy night. Typical of the region. I was shocked to hear the clock strike one, engrossed all this while in some heart-to-heart conversation with a couple of office colleagues in the cosy confines of their home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was to leave by 11 but lost track of time in the course of our small talk on big things.
Suddenly, the thought of making it back to my den sent a chill down my spine. The distance was truly overwhelming and reaching back was mandatory. My workplace was a stone's throw from my abode and I had an early morning meeting the next day.
These are the times you miss home the most. The sultry weather,chaotic pavements,crowded suburban trains,the filth and the garbage...just about everything is fine..for you know you can reach home in good old Mumbai at any hour,from any corner...without worrying about issues like safety and accessibility of public transport.
After a dazed goodbye, thanks to the Vodka consumed in generous sips, I went down the stairs to find a cab. Taxis in Kazakhstan are a difficult proposition at night - you are at the mercy of some private car owners who're driven by the lure and influence of alcohol, in the same breath! And there's something more that hits you...An all-pervading gloom blossoms here after dark that makes the pathos of the place come alive with the lights.
Kazakhstan is facing an identity crisis of sorts - the sharp contrast of the Soviet era control and the post break-up fission has taken its toll .. The economy is confused, if not chaotic. The rich, famous, intelligent and the educated have taken to banking - the grand, old flourishing business worldwide. In fact, my very presence in Almaty was in the capacity of an IT consultant for a leading bank.
The R & D, OR and analytical heads, the once "prized possessions" of the Soviet Union, have either fled to the US (where else) or turned to software (where else again) in the hope of material prospects. But life is hell for the working class.
The disillusionment is the worst for the elderly. Disowned by their sons and daughters, they are invariably at the mercy of inadequate pensions. The young among the homeless have taken to begging. Gambling, prostitution and mugging are rampant. Night travel is extremely risky.
As I waited on the pavement, a huge Soviet Lada - the most popular working class car in Kazakhstan - slowed down near me and casually parked to the side. I felt like a suspect KGB spy - a marked man, being tracked by his own men. To my relief, this was only a resident posing as a cabbie. He offered help - paid help, but help all right.
I began with whatever Russian that my tongue could manage:
Dvyesti...I murmured! Tristaa! He retorted...
This was the fare negotiation in tenge - the Kz currency. I offered two hundred , he demanded three hundred and nothing less..this came to about 100 rupees spelt in Indian currency. His wish was obviously my command on that dark, windy night.
Even as I was happy at the economy of the bargain, pat came the condition in broken English - He would drop me at the nearest block and from there, I would have to walk down to my apartment. Coz he had no time.
The proposition was scary on two counts - one, the hour was unearthly and two, my lane was infested with some suited booted beggars who favoured this time for some great begging sessions....
In broad daylight, you could ignore them, but certainly not now...but I had no choice anyway.
I hopped in, and, soon realized, we had another passenger seated next to him..a fair, skinny girl... perhaps in her early twenties. Like most Russian women, she was exceptionally beautiful. My heart skipped a beat - not at the prospect of meeting a damsel at midnight, but in anticipation of some big time distress...
But the impending nuisance had a different flavour. The couple was busy enjoying their moments of togetherness and the affection was crossing all socially acceptable limits of public display. He looked back now and then - his eyes half-seeking my approval for the strip tease and half showing an "I-don't-care" emotion...She giggled endlessly.
"You from country?" he asked, all of a sudden.
"India" I replied back - happy at the seemingly harmless question.."How much money" was the one that I was fearing (although like me, even he would not have approved of my legendary deputation allowance, had he asked)
"Indiaaaaa", his eyes lit up. Even the lady seemed interested now, her giggles uninterrupted.
"Ah, aiswaryaaaa rae",he smiled to glory...I nodded - feeling like the recipient of a Padmashree.
"amitbh bachaaaan" came the next query followed by the same gesture from me,
"mitun chkraberty" this time, I had a broad smile, like an interviewee during the final rounds when he knows he's in...
My poise seemed to signify as if the prolific lady and the distinguished gentlemen in question were my next-door neighbors.
I roped in Raj Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor for more effect but the effort boomeranged. The names did not raise any eyebrows - probably that would have delighted the guy's father of a generation earlier...
Nevertheless, the scene now changed dramatically... He exchanged sweet nothings with her while she giggled even more (probably, she was paid more for the giggles) but now the affinity was reassuring. And their public display appeared decent now - hand in hand - like two lovers dating before marriage. The new-found warmth cocooned a huge reward for me too. Contrary to the deal, I was dropped right at my gate and the fare was renegotiated back to Dvyesti - the discount on account of Aishwarya, Amitabh and Mithun - my close friends from India.
As I got out of the rusty car, they shook hands with me, she giggled even as I bade Dasvidaniya, and they waited till I disappeared in the stair case of my building...as a mark of respect for the guy who came from the land of tinsel town stars.
And all this while I thought Bollywood was a big waste of money...I never knew my passion for this industry would win me friends in a foreign country at an odd hour, against all odds.
The next morning, as I passed the bustling traffic square, on my way to office, I could not help offering my humble salutations in the direction of the giant hoarding that showed a smiling Aishwarya Rai recommending a wrist watch of Swiss make to the world at large...
...For some non-entities of Indian make, this advertisement was as emotional as it was commercial.