Invitation to a Sunset

When I was fifteen, I went to a concert at Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium on Mahatma Gandhi Road. This might have been just another incident in the annals of my blameless youth if not for a few details. It was my first rock concert ever — the culmination of years of covert pop music fandom — and the artist rocking the cricket stadium that night was a gap-toothed Soviet songstress named Alla Pugacheva. If I close my eyes, I can still feel that cool Bangalore evening. The year is 1988: my sweater is several sizes too big, my blue jeans neatly ironed, my best black shoes gleam fresh with polish. As usual, I am ridiculously dressed. Surrounding me are thousands and thousands of fans, including my companions, the baddest bad boys at my Jesuit high school, all of them smoking More menthols — a long, thin, brown cigarette favored by middle-aged American housewives half a world away. I abhor them, but none of us actually know any better. Alla sings, and who knows what she’s saying, but she has fluorescent purple hair, giant cascading waves of it, and my heart is in my mouth. We are delirious. I am delirious. I am losing my mind at the Festival of the USSR in India — the last one, though we don’t know it yet. In the twilight years of import substitution, this is my sunniest memory.

Nostalgia is everywhere these days. It’s something of an epidemic. In fact, nostalgia got its start as a disease. As Svetlana Boym recounts in The Future of Nostalgia, Johannes Hofer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688, considered it a physical ailment, its telltale symptom a pronounced disinterest in the present. Over time, of course, the word has come to mean a longing for an idealized past. Personally, I prefer to think of it as a chronic illness: there was nothing ideal about my past. My nostalgia is for an era when there was no past at all and no irony — a time when the future was always bright, and usually somewhere else.

In the India of my growing up, Red Russians were our white people. They booked up our five-star hotels (both of them), they sold us their boxy little imitation Leica cameras and stale Zodiak cigarettes, and they gave us the Premier 118NE, a knockoff of that triumph of Soviet design, the Lada — impossibly recast as a luxury good in India, and my parents’ automobile for the better part of the 1990s. They lent us their circus, their books, and their Bolshoi Ballet; we sent them our classical dancers, our traditional handicrafts, and one Sharon Prabhakar, a disoriented Bombay chanteuse who opened the matching Festival of India in the USSR in black lingerie, chained to a rotating bed, belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Or so we heard.

But my Russophilia was more personal than all that. It started the day I discovered my father’s Russian lessons, impelled by his love of Dostoevsky, carefully preserved in his notebooks: exotic characters that spelled coffee and economy in an alphabet at once inscrutable and yet somehow rigorous. I remember P.D. Ouspensky’s Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, the first of several Great Russian Books my parents pressed on me — a kind of pre-Bolshevik oriental-existential version of Groundhog Day, in which poor Osokin tries to escape the eternal recurrence of his completely misspent life, and fails. (Incredibly depressing, naturally, but heady stuff for a ten year old.) I devoured every page of the official tourist guide to Vilnius that my father brought back, and I watched with unmitigated joy as Rakesh Sharma launched into space aboard the Soyuz T-11. Now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t stop to wonder why.

Mind you, we were following the plot in this regard — in never asking why. It didn’t occur to me until much later, after it had all fallen apart. In 1993, in a remote mountain town in New England, I befriended a fellow international student, fresh from newly minted Georgia. It’s hard to describe the kind of communion I felt then with ex-Soviet émigrés, Eastern European escapees and the like with their ill-fitting clothes and their aching hunger for supermarkets, malls, and dining halls. I knew the feeling; it took me a year or more before I could walk into a well-stocked shop and not look around in wonder. I told my new friend about my big night with Alla Pugacheva. That hair! Those moves! That voice — so yearning! — her words all the more powerful for meaning nothing to me.

The Georgian blushed and mumbled evasively. I’m not sure if he was ashamed or embarrassed. Probably he had no desire to revisit what he had only just escaped. It’s easy for me to miss the Soviet Union, having never endured it at all. And my fondness for the years of my childhood doesn’t make the realities of Soviet socialism any less wretched or ridiculous or wrong. I wish I’d thought to question it when I was kid. And I wish my Georgian friend had tried to give me an answer.

One day, back in Bangalore, a friend led me to a bookstore called Navakarnataka. It was like entering a time warp. Everywhere around me were the books of my youth, and then some. Progress Publishers, Moscow’s finest party press, used to flood our shores with books for all ages, Folk Tales of the Ukraine for the tots and Das Kapital for the tottering. There were the classic books by Y.I. Perelman, Arithmetic for Entertainment and Physics for Entertainment and Figures for Fun. (My own childhood trysts with Perelman rarely involved entertainment or fun.) As a state-run institution, Navakarnataka never had to clean out its backstock. That day, elated at finding the bookstore that time forgot, I bought every Progress publication they had, along with titles by other Soviet publishers, including Mir and Novosti.

Ever since, I’ve had Soviet flashbacks. There is Aeroflot, the erstwhile USSR’s airline — now a major Russian corporation — still an incredible bargain, if you are willing to abide the abominable food and the militaristic stewardesses. And there is South Africa, where communists and their satellites pepper their casual conversation with Marxisms, denouncing ultra-leftism and opportunism and entryism, nervously considering autonomism, while still smarting from the assault launched by the Marxist Worker’s Tendency in 1979 on their “two-stage theory” (democracy first, then socialism). There is even Alla Pugacheva, alive and well and extensively documented on the Internet. In the years since her Indian touchdown, she seems to have diversified — starting a radio station, a magazine (called Alla), a perfume (also Alla) and her own line of sensible shoes, called (naturally) Alla Pugacheva. She has accumulated a distinguished roster of ex-husbands, including a Lithuanian circus performer, a film director, and a Russian pop star of Bulgarian-Armenian descent. Last year she quit touring after releasing her first solo record in many years, Priglasheniye na zakat. Invitation to a Sunset.

But I can’t bring myself to watch her videos on YouTube. Seeing her sing just makes me unreasonably sad. It makes me miss her, or me, I guess. I miss us, the people we were then, reservists in a funny kind of war to which we didn’t matter anyway.