It was a day like no other in Moscow. The day was blessed with the ideal temperature, not too cold, not too hot. Nazim royally got up around 9.30 am and watched his favorite program ‘Click’ about the latest developments in the cyber world on BBC. It was a day planned for an evening party but his guests got busy and it had to be postponed. Only Hafez had nothing to do for the day and expressed his willingness to roam in the streets of Moscow with him. Not the ordinary streets of Moscow but its historical center which has stayed despite being burned by Mongols, Tatars and Napoleon since the city was founded in 1147 A.D.
Since long Nazim had been planning to visit the gallery of Lumiere Brothers at the Central House of Artists near the Gorky Park and freed from the worry of entertaining guests and preparing for it the whole day he had found the opportunity to visit the Gallery. He called up Hafez once again and they decided to meet at the Okhtyabrskaya Metro Station and walk from there to the Central House of Artists where the gallery of Lumiere Brothers was located. Hafez had his Moscow State University Student Identity Card while Nazim had saved his old Student Identity Card from the Moscow State University, that had long expired. There was 50% discount for the students and Hafez showed his identity card which was thoroughly checked at the counter while Nazim showed his identity card from a distance. The old lady at the counter was satisfied with his infectious smile and did not bother to verify his identity card. So they got inside cheap with 100 roubles put together.
Central House of Artists is a huge complex on the bank of the river ‘Moskba’ that houses many interesting galleries, Museums and exhibition halls. The new Tretyakov Gallery is also located in that complex along with the Doll Museum.
It took them some time to locate the Lumiere brother’s gallery because it was too small a gallery compared to other galleries. When they got inside the gallery they found only a few photographs in black & white hanging on the walls and nothing impressive that they had expected earlier. These black and white artistic creations belonged to just one Russian photographer. They had to got it completely wrong. It had got nothing to do with ‘Lumiere brothers’ who are credited with the screening of the first moving pictures. A girl who sat there and was loudly talking on phone said that the gallery had taken that name just because they liked it. Nazim and Hafez were thoroughly disappointed and so they left the gallery to wonder around the hall and see the rest of the central hall. There they found some very interesting pieces of art hanging on the walls. They found a book there that had 537 blank pages, closed and it proclaimed to have secret drawings inside.
After a while finding not much of great interest they moved out in the huge central courtyard inside the Central House of Artists where a book festival was going on. All titles placed there were in Russian and books were being sold at discounted prices. The place was full of men and women and small kids. It seemed that parents had brought their kids there as a day out. The kids were playing with their parents in the courtyard.
Nazim bought espresso for two of them from a nearby Swedish café and sat outside in the shadow of a tree watching kids play with the wooden toys and sipping espresso.
Hafez had made a profound statement while he met Nazim in the morning at Okhtyabarskaya metro station-“Love is death!” Nazim could not understand Hafez and what he meant when he said “Love is death.” Hafez then at length had explained to Nazim how had he come to that conclusion while they walked from the metro station to the Gorky Park. According to him he was in love with one Russian girl called ‘Elena’ whom he had met in the University canteen at Moscow State University last year. She was a very beautiful girl as Hafez described her. He told Nazim –“she was initially interested in me but later she started playing games with me. She told me that she had a boyfriend. She gave me her e-mail address and I wrote to her several times and she responded too at times and I wrote to her how much I loved her. That girl is killing me. I can’t stop thinking of her. What should I do? How will I pass my exam? Tell me some solution of this issue.”
Nazim had told Hafez while they were walking from the metro to the park– “You should find an alternative, I mean a different girl and then you’ll slowly forget her. You like her because she is not accessible to you. The time she will become accessible you’ll start moving away from her. So forget her and find an alternative.” Hafez had said that time that he understood what Nazim was saying and would try to solve his 'issue'.
For some time the discussion on ‘Love is death’ was stopped while they were busy looking at the pictures and paintings inside the Central House of Artists but when Nazim bought Hafez a cup of coffee, Hafez could not resist to bring back the issue that had been troubling him that day since the morning.
Hafez said sipping his espresso- “I have another Russian girl who is rich but not so beautiful, by the way her name is also Elena, and she is willing to be my partner but I can’t forget the first Elena. She is killing me. She is playing games with me.”
In the meanwhile they were enjoying their coffee under the gentle sun a girl was watching them with curiosity. She approached them speaking a bit of Russian accented English. She introduced herself as Nastya. Nastya was a slim girl of the medium built. Her hair was brown- reddish and she had brown eyes. Her attitude was friendly and she easily talked and laughed with them. She said that she worked as a manager in a printing press that printed journals like Esquire and was also defending her diploma from the Institute of Printing in Moscow. After introducing herself she asked them many questions viz. from where were they, what did they do in Moscow and how long they had been there and then subsequently how old were they? She told them that she has been to India, Turkey and Egypt. In Goa she said she had spent two weeks. Hafez first introduced himself- ‘I am from Iran and a student at the Moscow State University and I am 26.’ Then Nazim followed- ‘I am Nazim from Turkey and I am a businessman here and I am 29.’After they told her their ages she immediately asked them to guess her age and Hafez like a master age-teller of women hit right on the nail. Nastya then informed her within 15 minute of their meeting that she was going to turn 23 in just a few days. They could not help themselves asking “what are doing on your birthday?” And she was as quick as lightening in her response-“I am going to spend my time with my mother at the Dacha (countryside home).” Then she automatically went on to tell them how her mother and father had met in the Soviet times. She said that her mother was from Belarus and father from Siberia and they met in Moscow one day somehow, that she did not care to explain, and decided to settle down here in Moscow. Then the conversation moved on –“Did they like Moscow?” and Hafez as always was ready with his oft-repeated phrase- “I hate Moscow”. This was certainly shocking for Nastya who was born in this beautiful city but Nazim’s great love for this city was helpful in doing some damage control. Then the discussion moved in the traditional territory of making comparison between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Hafez asked her – “Which city do you like more, Moscow or St. Petersburg?” She said-“I love Moscow as I was born here but I love St. Petersburg more because that is a more romantic city.”
Hafez was carrying a new book on Persian poetry and when Nastya saw it she immediately took it from Hafez and wanted to gift that book to her friend. Hafez offered her that may be the next week he would be able to give her that book but right now he would be very happy if she returned it to Hafez. It was a bit awkward but what to do…
Then she told them that she had bought some books at the book festival but she was feeling a bit shy to show them as she termed them as “women’s stuff”. Then eventually she showed those books she had bought at discounted prices. She had bought two books. One was the life and works of the famous Mexican painter Frida Cahlo and the other a biography of Audrey Hepburn. Nazim looked with great interest at the paintings by Frida. He had seen the Hollywood movie in which the famous Mexican actress Salma Hayek had played Frida and thus was aware of the life and works of Frida Cahlo.
They were planning to leave that place and Nazim and Hafez were interested in knowing about the interesting cafes in Moscow from Nastya. She told them that she loved the café “Propaganda” located near the metro station “Kitaigorod” as she worked nearby and it had a great business lunch at affordable 160 roubles and a set of cafes called “Piragis”. Behrouz was interested in going to Kitaigorod so they said goodbye to Nastya thanking her for her interesting chat with them, the complete strangers and enriching them with such useful and interesting knowledge about the city.
They exchanged phone numbers to keep in touch. Hafez explained to her that at times he feels extremely lonely in this huge city and would like to give her a call sometimes. She readily agreed to show him around the city whenever he calls her. They were ready to say goodbye to Nastya but she had forgotten to ask it seems a very important question and here she was-“Oh! I forgot to ask you guys, how did you meet?” Nazim immediately thought that his orientation was under threat and said-“we were both students of Russian language at the Moscow State University a year ago and we are meeting today after a very long time.” Then they parted.
They moved from the Central House of Artists towards the metro Okhtyabarskaya and then by metro they reached Kitaigorod. Hafez in the middle updated Nazim’s knowledge about the city informing him –“You know Kitai Gorod does not mean China City but Wooden City.” Nazim knew that it did not mean “China City” but “Walled City” but this “Wooden City” was news to his ears. They came out of the metro and asked people in the street about the café “Propaganda.” Hafez preferred to ask women than men and he told Nazim that he thought that women were more responsible than men. A woman told them the address of ‘Propaganda café’ and they moved on in the told direction. When they reached that street where they were told to go and were looking for Propaganda, an old man could not control himself helping them and approached them with his knowledge of the area and finally told them to go back in the same direction from which they had come. Hafez was more than happy to find a man ready to help in this big city and declared him immediately the first gentleman in Moscow who had offered them help looking at their confused faces. They wandered around half an hour in Kitaigorod looking for ‘Propaganda’ and came back to the same place where they had met the spirited old man ready to help and then they found Propaganda just two meters away from that place.
Well, fuming and furious at the first gentleman of Moscow whose able guidance had cost them half an hour of their precious time; they went inside the Cafe and enjoyed its economically priced meal. Nazim had his favorite Greek Salad and Hafez his Casear Salad. They were told by the manager before being given the table in the café that it was up to 7 pm only and Nazim was quick to tell the Manager –“We won’t be here long”! But Hafez was furious. He told Nazim-‘How can they say that kind of thing. I’ll be here as long as I want.’ Nazim had just discovered that it was in fact a night club and in day time functioned as a café and Nastya might have worked here. Hafez was hard to convince and he came up again with his ‘Love is death’ issue.
Around 6 pm they left Propaganda. The sun was still high in the Moscow sky and both of them decided to walk in the streets of the center of the city. From Kitaigorod they moved towards the Lubyanka where the Headquarters of notorious KGB were located in Soviet times. On the way they took a sneak into the beautiful Globus book shop. It was even bigger that the “Dom Kniggi”on the Arbat and had a number of books in English language. Then they moved towards Kuznetsky Most and from there towards the Tverskaya Street through the Kamergichisky side street where a large number of eateries and summer cafes were located including the famous Café De Artiste. There they met a Gypsy woman who was begging right in front of the Café de Artiste. She asked them for money and asked if they were Moslems. Hafez was interested in giving her a few roubles but as soon as she mentioned religion his hands that were searching for a few rouble coins froze inside his pockets. Hafez was opposed to giving h money in the name of religion but not opposed to begging as such. Nazim asked the Gypsy woman if he might photograph her. She readily agreed and even posed begging for Nazim’s satisfaction and Hafez was pleased too. He now had found a new reason to give her money and he gave her two coins of five roubles to her and thanking her for posing for the photograph.
Soon they were on Tverskaya Street and they walked from one end to another (from Metro Okhotni Ryad to Metro Myakobskaya) and even further in search of a bookshop called “Respublica”. Hafez had visited almost all the bookshops in the city and somehow he has not been to this bookshop yet. He did not want to miss this bookshop that had a café as well and worked twenty four hours. They visited a number of bookshops in their search of Respublica and met a few interesting people on the way. Finally they found it at the end of Tverskaya Street and went in.
At Respublica they had found some very interesting books and sat there in the café where all furniture was pink. They had espressos and talked about book, poems, some philosophical questions about individuality, freedom, war & peace and the unity of everything in the Universe. In the bookshop Hafez liked the quotation on a card so much that he wrote it down in his cell phone, wait…initially he wanted to buy it but it was priced 150 roubles so Hafez decided to write it down but there was no pen so finally mobile phone came handy. The quotation was- “Cats and women will do as they like to do and dogs and man should get used to this idea.”
They came back on the same street till Pushkinskaya metro station where a large greenish statute of Pushkin looks over and where the young lovers of the city gather in the evenings. That evening a band was playing some cool R&B music and a number of young people including a few homeless drunkards were dancing with great spirit. A young lady dancing in the center of the circular crowd was leading all the men. They asked many people including some policemen who were standing there if they knew where was the famous Café Pushkin located? They had no clue surprisingly. They had to wait for half an hour to get to the right man who knew the location but even he told them only the rough direction of Café Pushkin.
They moved in that direction and walked through the park in Tverskoy Bulevar looking for Café Pushkin but they had no luck. On the way they saw a statue of the poet Ecenin standing tall in the park. Hafez proposed a new idea by the evening that “one should marry a simple woman as the beautiful women do not stay for long with one man.” They discussed it till they reached the other end of the park. Reaching the other end of the park they asked a policeman standing there about Café Pushkin and he told them to go towards the other end of the park from where they had come. They decided to return to the Red Square walking through street Bolshaya Nikitskaya. On the way Hafez saw a church and expressed his immediate anger over Christianity. He said- “I do not understand Christianity at all as I find this idea of extending your other cheek while somebody slaps you on one cheek. Christianity is very funny.” They walked to the Metro Bibliateka Imena Lenina and took different metros to their homes.
-Copyright 2007 Abhay K.
Labels: short story