The Soviet Union was falling apart, but Gorbachev’s Glasnost had opened its doors to the Fulbright program, and my friend Geoffrey Goshgarian became the first Fulbright Lecturer to Soviet Armenia, followed by our mutual friends Levon Chorbajian and Dickran Kouymjian, and after Dickran returned to the States he told me I should apply next.
I didn’t have a PH.D, I said, and he said I had published three books and had enough teaching experience, so he and Levon and Geoffrey would get me requested by Henrik Edoyan, who was in charge of the lecturers at Yerevan University.
And so in the fall of 1988 I flew to Moscow via London, since there weren’t any flights from the States to Yerevan in those days.
Then on the bus from the Moscow airport to the center of the city, the old driver looked like Santa Claus and shut his headlights to save his battery, and on the government station of his radio a deep Slavic voice recited a poem by Alexander Bloc like a bass violin as if chewing the delicious syllables in the food of poesy itself, and outside in the quiet darkness a forest passed with trees and more trees, so many trees that my lasting image of Russia would be of all its trees and delicious syllables.
I was finally in the land of my beloved Tolstoi and Shostakovitch, thanks to my being Armenian and the survival of my parents from the death march.
Yet traveling in the Soviet Union in those days was even harder than in India.
“I lived in a mud hut in Sudan for a year without plumbing or electricity,” said Rita, one of the young Teachers of English as a Foreign Language who had come with me on the plane, “and it was easier than living in the Soviet Union.”
Yet she had liked it here so much she was returning for a second year in Tashkent. “It’s like backpacking in a wilderness,” she said. “You have to bring everything with you, including toilet paper.”
There was however toilet paper in our hotel, the Universitetskaya, since as foreign guests we were treated like gentry, and it was not until I met young Igor that I learned how the natives lived from hand to mouth when so much had to come from under the table in the black market.
I had made the mistake of strolling alone without the TEFL gang who spoke Russian, and I almost panicked when I was suddenly lost and realized no one on the streets spoke English, until along came a tall young lanky young man named Igor Konrashin who was learning it,
And he was so excited to meet an American he gave me a tour of St. Basil and the Arbhat and then brought me to his home at Michurinkski Prospekt, House 14, Flat 24, in one of the apartment complexes near the hotel.
And I was shocked to see how tiny were the rooms where his sister and her husband and baby slept in one and his parents in the other while Igor, who was studying at the university, slept on the couch in the tiny living room.
Yet they were the lucky ones, he said, since they at least had an apartment, and soon his sister’s turn would come on the waiting list and she’d have an apartment of her own.
And so I would learn how hard life could be in the Soviet Union that was supposed to have been our enemy and how beautiful were its people who endured it with the same perseverance as in the third world.
Then Ivanov, the young official in charge of us teachers, mismanaged my ticket to Yerevan, so I hung out with my new TEFL friends and saw the great collection at the Pushkin Museum, until Ivanov finally said to come to his office at one o’clock for my new ticket.
But when I got there at twelve forty-five he said the plane was to leave at one and it was an hour’s ride to the airport.
“You’re too late,” said his dour face that would be all too familiar in the coming months with one official after another.
Yet already familiar with this kind of bureaucratic absurdity from my travels through India, I shrugged it off, and the next day I was ready again to be picked up at the hotel with my six boxes of books and my roll of maps that were supposed to be for my course in American literature but were actually gifts to my hosts at Yerevan University.
Finally the van arrived, but it was already twelve o’clock, and since the plane was to leave at one I worried about missing it as I helped my driver load the boxes, and sitting next to him I pointed to my watch and waved my arms as if I were flying, since he didn’t know any English.
He was a roly-poly young man with a happy face like Igor’s, and like Igor he nodded his head and smiled in that Asian way as if to say not to worry and be happy we’re at least alive, which so many Russians were so good at after sixty million of them were killed in the war and the purges.
And so I settled back in my seat enjoying the passing landscape of trees and more trees, when about a half hour later there came a putt-putt from the engine in the rear, and then more putts until the final putt, and suddenly we had stopped in the middle of nowhere in the rolling hills full of trees.
And so my roly-poly opened the hood and looked at me as if I could be of some help, not knowing I was a mechanical idiot, and once again I pointed to my watch and waved my arms as if I were flying, and once again he nodded with a smile as if to say not to worry and be happy we were still alive.
Oh well, I thought, at least the September weather was warm and it wasn’t raining and I had been in many places much worse; and so I stood gazing at the hills that Tolstoi described in War and Peace about the Battle of Borodino that was somewhere nearby when Napoleon made his fatal mistake.
I was in the land of history now, and maybe I had made a mistake when I didn’t accept the video camera Lowell Bergman wanted me to bring so I could film what was happening as the Soviet Union was falling apart.
He was a producer for Sixty Minutes, and though he had yet to become famous when Al Pacino would portray him in The Insider, he could have easily got me a camera that in those days would have been quite expensive.
Yet I had neither his dauntless character nor his talent for what I felt would be such a daunting task, especially since I worried about how I would even survive.
And so I lost my chance as a journalist when the events I was to witness would become big news.
In the meantime, back on the road with the ghosts of those who died in the battle of Borodino, the driver and I stood looking at the engine like characters in a Beckett play as if our staring could fix it.
Then out of nowhere a black car was coming over the horizon, and my roly-poly was suddenly running into the middle of the road waving his arms for it to stop, since it was not just any car but the black car of the KGB that once came in the middle of the night to carry the condemned to Siberia during Stalin’s purges.
But its driver was yet another smile face roly-poly, and suddenly the three of us were handing each other the six boxes and the roll of maps from the van to the car, and after hugging my first driver goodbye and riding away, I turned to look at him through the rear window standing alone in the middle of nowhere like a Beckett character nodding his head as if he were happy he was at least still alive.
I never did learn how he got back to Moscow, but I was sure his perseverance would see him through, and in the meantime there I was with the KGB driver who was not taking me to Siberia but was actually rescuing me!
And once again I pointed to my watch and waved my arms to say my plane was to leave at one o’clock, and once again he too nodded his head not to worry, I was in Asia now and he would take care of me.
And this would be the story of my next nine months in the crumbling Soviet Union where I would survive one way or another with the help of kindred folk of the kind I had loved since I was a child.
And when we got to the airport where the other passengers of my plane were about to walk to the ladder, my driver and I hurried to carry the boxes to the check-in window where the clerk gave me six receipts for my boxes but none for my roll of maps, and I stupidly believed him when he nodded that I didn’t need one for it.
Then rushing to join the line that was now climbing into the plane, I hugged my driver with a deep gratitude, and in return he gave me his hearty Russian bear hug as if we had just saved the little girl in Norman Jewison’s masterpiece, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
And so off I flew to Soviet Armenia where the sweet young Armenian clerk in the airport in Yerevan gave me only five of my boxes and my roll of maps.
I had six boxes, I said in Armenian to her sweetness behind her window.
No, she said, I had given her six receipts and she gave me six items.
The clerk back in Russia had stolen the missing one. The Soviet Union was falling apart and its people would steal whatever they could even when they didn’t know what it was.
And the box that the Russian clerk had stolen turned out to be the fifty copies of my first novel Voyagesthat had been reprinted by a small press that I was to give to my students and my new friends but which would be worthless to anyone else except as toilet paper.
Yet who knows, maybe they survived, and somewhere in Russia now they would be my gifts of gratitude to the country of the deep voice like a bass violin and most especially to Tolstoi and Shostakovitch and all my other Russian heroes.
The garbanzo beans were soaked overnight, and she would mash them the next morning with garlic, pepper and cumin: their fermented broth saved for a soup with spinach.
Then patting the mash into balls, she sliced and fried them in oil and parboiled the spinach while she sautéed the onions she would add in the serving.
It was an ancient recipe she learned from her husband’s tribe that came from Tigranakert, an ancient city on a mesa above the Tigris in the caravan route from India to Rome, and the tang of the soup would taste of the millennia while the toasted garbanzo was called falafil that was an Arabic word for crunchy.
It had no meat and was for Lent, and though she never went to church she was born in its culture and served it to her sons and her husband who would slurp and crunch the spicy chunks of her love for them.
She is gone now and only the taste remains.
Xmas Eve, 1976
And it was in Khajuraho of the papaya and bougainvillea where I met young Geta from Japan and Johnny from Florida, and Geta led us to a courtyard of old tenements to meet who he called a “priest” wearing a common shirt and pants.
Then Geta sprinkled into the tobacco shreds of a beedi the marajuana he called ganja and thumbed it into a pipe he called a chillum, and before smoking and passing it on, he raised the chillum above his head and chanted:
Boum Shankar! Siva Shankar!
Then very stoned we followed the priest to a ground-floor room of a tenement where we were joined by four musicians who played a flute and a little drum and a stringed instrument and little bells, and we sat and swayed and chanted hari-rama-rama-hari over and over again.
And when the music paused young Johnny asked for the bells and jingled them softly as he chanted very slowly his stoned whisper of Jingle Bells because it was Christmas Eve and I joined him and Geta also mimed the syllables as if it were a religious chant from the west.
Oh what fun it is to ride, we chanted, when suddenly through the open door of our little make-believe temple there entered with his trident and pail a naked sadhu dusted with ash and wearing only mala beads and a loin cloth, his forehead smeared with vermillion and his hair matted like a homeless wino.
And curling his knees in full-lotus beside me, he also began swaying and miming the syllables as if they were a new mantra from the west:
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells….
Louder and faster as our shadows swayed in the flicker of the candle on the plaster wall like giant figures in a prehistoric cave until it climaxed like a great symphony untiI I lay spent and utterly gone.
And the sadhu uncurled his legs and left as quietly as he came.
Who was he? What was his address? Didn’t he want a wife and child? Wasn’t he worried about health insurance and how to pay the rent?
And who was I, always worried about bedbugs and dropping iodine in my water bottle on what Hesse called The Journey to the East in search of the ultimate truth?