All of a sudden, it’s Russia season.
I’m reading my first ever Russian novel (translated into English, of course); I bought this copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago on an impulse three years ago. When I took it out last week, my mother glanced through it. She knew the name immediately- her elder brother had read it all those years ago when it was probably on everyone’s to-read list, a revolutionary story which didn’t go down well in the country of its publication for going against the establishment. Why don’t we have anything as impressive today? If a book is banned in India, it is not because it has mooted a radical idea, but generally because of our propensity for taking offence on the slightest pretext.
And while I read Doctor Zhivago, I usually listen to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. Before I began this book, I was reading William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, and I have a new-found curiosity for the working of the Orthodox branches of Christianity. I have always associated it with a certain kind of mysticism, mainly because I have never met a Christian who wasn’t either Catholic or Protestant. The continuation of certain rituals of Orthodox Christianity several hundred years old and the interaction the followers of these faiths must have had with the believers of other old religions in the land of its birth present interesting possibilities. Historically, the Levant was a very exciting place indeed.
Taking a break from Russia (or so I thought), I rummaged in a carton containing old copies of Reader’s Digest; a hardbound book with a slightly faded brown cover turned up. I remembered it from my childhood. It was a book of stories for children by Byelorussian writers, The white Stork in the Sky, published in 1985. I can’t say how it ended up with our books, but there were quite a few Russians working in the steel plant towns I grew up in during the late 80s and early 90s, and it could have been meant as a present for someone. Whenever I opened the book as a child, it seemed rather distant and extremely cold. The illustrations featured snowscapes, forests of leafless tall trees, bearded men in thick coats. They told me of bitter winters I wasn’t aware of. The names were unfamiliar, sometimes hard to pronounce. They were far removed from the English names I knew- no Jane or Peter, but consonant-laden puzzles like Vladimir and Olya, which sounded all the more beautiful for their unfamiliarity.
But it wasn’t all bleak. The illustration I recollect most clearly from childhood is that of a lanky, blond boy, all arms and legs, running atop a high hill with a feather in his hand. His pink shirt trails away in the strong wind that rushes through his hair and seems to breathe life into the sunshiny countryside. This was in another book of Russian short stories I was given as a child. The first story (or the second?) was about a young boy who watched clouds floating across a very blue sky, and saw a wolf in one of them because he was in a bad temper. One day in faraway England, on a bus from Falmer to Oxford on a lovely, clear day, these were the stories and pictures that came into my head.
Ought I to associate Russia with war, privations and communism, like a well-informed adult? But my mind automatically snaps to the richly optimistic writing of the Byelorussian book and of the carefree stories where children live a pure, innocent life, irrespective of continent or weather or political environment. I care more for these than for spy novels and ideologically biased stereotypical portrayals. The White Stork in the Sky talks of blue skies, blue lakes and forget-me-nots. The hardships of war or the implications of the revolution shouldn’t be forgotten, but I prefer Russian lyricism of the kind where simple pleasures continue to matter. The introduction strongly expresses a “desire for peace”, and wouldn’t it be lovely if it wasn’t in such short supply?
Here’s my favourite part of the Vespers: