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Baba Yaga on the Ganges - on reading Soviet books in socialist India | Palash Krishna Mehrotra

17 October 2017

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The New York Times, October 14, 2017


Allahabad, INDIA — I grew up in Allahabad, a city in northern India on the banks of the Ganges, in the 1980s. Not much happened there, apart from the two seasonal festivals — Holi, which marks the end of winter, and Diwali, the greeter at winter’s doorstep.

The rest of the world was far away. There was little world history taught to us in school; the curriculum was insularly devoted to India’s freedom struggle. We were faintly aware of the Cold War, that India was friendly with the Soviet Union, that an Indian astronaut had gone into space with a couple of Russians.

Two cultural events made Allahabad come alive — the release of a new Bollywood movie, and the arrival of a Soviet Book Exhibition.

It was the age of benign propaganda and the Soviets were winning. Though India was proclaimed to be non-aligned throughout the Cold War, it leaned heavily toward the Soviet Union. India followed the socialist economic model and the Soviets invested significantly in India — from defense to infrastructure.

My father grew up in Bhilai, a town in central India where the Russians were helping set up a steel plant. One afternoon some Russian officials arrived, chairs were hurriedly pulled together and photographs taken. No words were exchanged but everyone smiled for the camera. A photograph appeared in the next issue of Sovietland magazine, underlining the bonhomie between Russian and Indian families.

Indians were paranoid about Americans meddling in our internal political affairs. In Allahabad, the rumor was that the Americans sucked out the vitamins from the rice before sending it as aid to India.

The Soviets we loved. When printing technology in India was restricted to black and white, Russia bamboozled us with colorful comics and magazines. Russian ballets and circuses performed in Indian cities and were broadcast frequently on Indian state television.

Soviet cultural centers were active social hubs in Indian cities, offering lessons in music, dance and chess. Russians loved Bollywood. Raj Kapoor, who made and starred in musicals about simple-hearted characters smiling in the face of adversity, would be greeted with rousing receptions in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Book Exhibition would cram a vast ground in the center of town with stalls selling books and magazines, for all ages, in English and various Indian languages. Sovietland magazine was published in 13 Indian languages. It carried pictures of Soviet life, of collective farming, and Indo-Soviet collaborations on projects like the Bhilai steel plant.

Soviet books were inexpensive and beautifully produced on glossy art paper. Their low cost and great production value matched the preferred phrase of socialist India: “cheap and best.”

The comparatively meek American cultural effort was largely restricted to sending complimentary copies of Span magazine to university professors. My father, a poet who taught English literature at Allahabad University, received a copy of Span. It had pictures of cheeseburgers studded with sesame seeds and of geometry-box corn fields.

A typical issue would have Ronald Reagan on the cover, a short story by John Gardner, photographs by Ansel Adams, a debate on America’s nuclear strategy, and a long piece on America’s search for natural gas.

“The Russians are way ahead of the Americans in their hide-and-seek game... They strike at the grass roots,” an essay in The Christian Science Monitor noted in 1982. “They are in touch with the masses, not with the elite.”

After the book exhibitions, a traveling van stocked with Russian classics would snake its way through the lanes of Allahabad and other small towns across India.

Russian children’s literature is believed to have blurred the lines between propaganda and art, perhaps like no other children’s literature. I don’t remember any disreputable titles that glorified electrification and agriculture. I read numerous folk tales and children’s books printed by Moscow publishers — Raduga and Progress.

I had begun to read The Hardy Boys series, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton by the time the Soviet books arrived. Even as a kid, one could make out that the American and English books were written to a formula. After a while one wasn’t reading these for the story but for the salivating descriptions of food — the exotic buttered scones and ginger beer in Blyton’s family-farm dramas; the ice cream sodas in Archie comics.

Food and propaganda were curiously missing from the Russian books. Alexander Raskin’s “When Daddy Was a Little Boy” was first published in 1966. It is a quietly funny, comically grotesque memoir of growing up: a boy gets bitten by a dog on both cheeks.

I found some echoes of my Indian childhood in the Russian tales. Reading obsessively, even under the blanket; disliking and not eating bread; going for piano or sitar lessons, even when you had no talent; the emphasis on good handwriting; making silly verses and reciting them unbidden to every visitor. Arrogance was to be avoided at all costs.

The couples in the folk tales were either childless, or aging with beautiful unmarried daughters. Some stories centered on grandmothers living with granddaughters. There was a touch of the macabre: two sisters kill their third sister out of malice before the redemptive power of magic revives her. I came across words I didn’t understand: sarafans, kavach. It didn’t matter.

In those throbbing, feral stories, I encountered Baba Yaga, the quintessential Russian witch. At times, she lived in the middle of the forest in a rotating cabin; at others, in “a great house of white stone with forty-one pillars at the gate.”

Not all folk tales ended with a neat moral. Many were about the constantly varying kaleidoscope of human nature. The miser borrows a kopeck from a peasant to give to a beggar. The dogged peasant keeps after the miser; he wants his kopeck back. Both keep outwitting the other. By the end of the tale, both men are richer due to the peasant’s cleverness. The naïve and yet not-so-naïve peasant still worries about the kopeck he lent the miser.

The Russians came to India and distributed their stories virtually for free. If this was propaganda, no one has bad memories of imbibing it.

My favorite part of the evening, after having shopped for twenty hard-bound books for ten rupees at the Soviet Book Exhibition, was to go to Hotstuff, the only American-style joint in town. I would leaf through the illustrations by Igor Yershov, listen to Wham, drink a strawberry shake and eat a Big Boy burger.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of “Eunuch Park,” a collection of short stories, and “The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth.”


The above article from The New York Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use