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Home page > English > Short Story > Letter From Sofia

Hi friends,

I am writing this single newsletter sort of e-mail to a number of friends who have either withdrawn themselves into inexplicable caccoons of silence or are wondering why I am not bombarding them with e-mails as I have been doing now for years...

The fact of the matter is, I had to leave for Sofia, Bulgaria via Zurich, Switzerland during mid-Oct., rather suddenly. There were visa problems due to the new requirements in the EU, and we [I and a business associate Mr. Murty] suddenly heard from them that the visa had come thru’. Though I couldn’t really access the internet while in Sofia, as often as I do here, mainly due to the sub-zero temperatures prior to snowing, something I didn’t really enjoy to be frank -it curtailed my long walks, and that’s something I look forward to in any city unfamiliar to me. One of the greatest pleasures.

This friend of mine down South wanted to import an advanced ’surface treatment’ system with computerized controls, and I had suggested a small company in Bulgaria, so we both visited the place to see the equipment, take trials and negotiate with the Russian-speaking scientists and engineers who are running the company.

My broken Russian and ability to read, came in handy : something I had indulged in when in my teens, at school, and I now wish I had practised speaking the language with some neighbours there... those were the heydeys of communism and these guys were

scared to death about the possibility of someone from their own group betraying them to the KGB -that they were socializing with the natives... weird but true. I still recall with a shudder that a Russian engineer, on learning that his briefcase had been pilfered from the car parked outside his flat, and it carried his passport and identity papers,

coolly shot himself in the head rather than face the prospects of living a life of anonymity and face unceasing, dehumanised torture in Siberia.

Sofia, surprised me in many ways. It is rather like Pune, surrounded on all sides with low-slung hills, and a tallish mountain on the West. It is windy, and rather cold at this time of the year, with whimsical clouds drizzling down now and then in short spurts. My friend is a morning walk freak like me, and we were mildy scared after our first walk itself that the temperature outside had been zero degree C, which makes you feel as if you are negotiating your way around in the cold room of an icecream manufacturing plant, the deep freeze section, and not through a real city. Later it became warmer but then

it started to rain.

The city has a sturdy, neatly developed infrastructure -good roads, broad sidewalks, huge subways, modern Mercedez Benz trams, good buses, and a fairly impressive collection of newly developing commercial plazas and office complexes. The apartments look run-down like in the erstwhile East Germany, with paint peeling off and plaster cracking and the obvious lack of maintenance. The same may be true of the hundreds and thousands of abandoned cars that the authorities have neither towed away nor destroyed. Some Ladas

and Fiats of the communist era, stand parked in streets with deflated tyres and corroded bodies as if they have been parked ther for five years, or more.Yes, the hosts explained, the owners have died or migrated suddenly, leaving cars parked like that.

There are no children in Bulgaria!

This fact hit me after a few days when I noticed that neither in my ten km walks twice a day, nor during our leisurely the walks sometimes in the afternoon in the heart of the city, I saw hardly two or three kids in the teeming thousands everywhere. I saw not a kid in the play park, none at bus stops, none at Cinema Halls, none at all in the neighbourhood -I also noticed that most of these were ’imported’ kids, speaking either in English or Turkish or Arabic -definitely not the local crowd. When you are aware, this fact makes the whole place very spooky. Just imagine, no one younger than fifteen or sixteen, and by that age the average boy or girl is an adult in Europe, either working

or studying or both -having lost innocence long time back. It’s a stifling realization.

There were thus lonesome boulevards and deserted bylanes where an occasional car would zoom past at breakneck speed, making the simple act of crossing the street an uncertain and risky ordeal. There were these lonely lanes where the odd doddering couple or some

bearded professor lost in his reverie, and the occasional huge dog [too many of them] or the ubiquitous fat cat trying to stalk a pigeon or dove, obviously unsuccessfully. There were too many of cafes and pizza joints everywhere, too many bars and beauty

parlours but hardly any bookstores or music shops. A lot of metallic sheet cabins are there, selling everything from biscuits and pastries to fruits and vegetables, or newspapers and magazines [everything in Russian] -the occasional English paper is too expensive costing almost 3.0 Lev which is about a hundred rupees per copy.

The typical Bulgarian food is rather European in nature with a huge bowl of soup about three times bigger than what I or my friend could consume, tasting eerily like our moong daal or masoor daal, rather well-cooked, and lots of green leafy salad, potato chips and

a burger or chicken steak or fish, toasted bread, with a pot of beer which is really bitter. The coffee at the end is a must, and without milk it tastes as bitter as pure karela juice. The milk turns the jetblack brew to a tolerable chocolatey brown, but does nothing to mitigate the taste -that lingers on for hours. Bulgarian brandy is a clear and softly flavoured drink that quickly asserts its presence within a peg, and has a rather lovely taste without a brutal kick. Tea is called Chai, but nothing could be further from our earthy and brawny drink which carries the flavour of tea in every molecule. There it is some tepid watery brew with a light greenish golden hue, which has been flavoured with some Italian flowers, thus taking the brew as far as a few galaxies from the concept of tea we have. It doesn’t even tickle, leave alone ’kick’.

People are a friendly lot, and most speak English well. Those who cannot, will catch the nearest one who can, and thus help you out. A lady named Violet was our guide on the first day, to show us around, with the warning that she speaks no English at all. It turned out that she did speak English, but according to her own judgement, ’bad’ English. I assured her not to worry as I could speak bad Russian too, and made her eyes pop out by reading a few signboards and saying a few phrases in the language too. Almost ninety percent people know and speak Russian she told me. The rest speak Turkish, as their neighbours in south and east are Greece and Turkey. Almost no one speaks Greek, something I forgot to enquire why...

Violet took us to the heart of the town and showed us a 200 year old campus of a university. The building looked like a converted palace, which she said it was not.

The whole sprawling campus was designed and built to function as a university, with truly colossal buildings and huge but homely courtyards : reminiscent of Roman architecture with stained glass windows and panels, spacious wooden furniture, exhibition halls and classrooms. About the origin, she could not explain, so she caught hold of a young male student in a tearing hurry, and forced him to explain to us in English, which he did with clarity and convinction.

She took us on a walk through the centre of the town, where a couple of huge churches loom up at you with their imposing stature -at least eight to ten storeys high, stone structures, with interesting looking domes and bowl-like structures in some, which show a strong Russian influence in architecture. She asked us if we wanted to go and see the insides -yes yes we echoed, for we knew those places could be interesting. Inside, it was like being transported to an era about four to five centuries back... absolute unbroken silence, huge murals on the walls, mammoth chandeliers, candles lit here and there in clusters, but no pews nor seats which meant these were more like mausoleums for saints dead and gone by long time ago, and were not being used as a church at all. One got that special mind-slowing sort of peaceful feeling one gets at ’power places’ in terms of the ESP folks. It was of course a group of Russian scientists in the Sixties and Seventies who had measured and isolated, some places on the face of the earth where the ’geomagnetic forces’ were extra-powerful. Interestingly, each such place has been converted into either a religious place, a mausoleum, an ashram whatever... what it implies is really mind-blowing. That the saints and the holymen in India, did possess the ESP faculties to find out exactly where the criss-crossing geomagnetic force lines intersect -without using any fancy electronic gadgets! I have personally felt this extra-ordinary peace, in scores of such places around the world. If anyone of you has had such an experience, do let me know. This is a subject I like to discuss.

She took us next to the ministerial assembly hall and showed from outside the presidential palace, and the reseve bank. We crossed over to the other side on this busy road, to get to the bazaar [that’s what they call it] side. There was this underground church there, which the plaque said was 1100 years old... entirely built with stones, and wholly underground. Imagine, the modern cars whizzing past at high speeds on top of your heads, whilst there is this unbroken peace in a cave like structure, with narrow passages and ancient stones flashing off their centuries old greyness at you...

It was closing time already, and we were late by half an hour or so. She pleaded with the caretaker who was not forthcoming at all. We had to drop it and go to the bazaar.

That was like in any European city with the electronic goods taking up the lion’s share in the flashy shops all around. We went to an Expo site where there is an exhibition going on at any point of time. Only we were a few days too early, she explained, as an international event was being staged soon. So we walked around, clicking photoes. Till the old feeling of tea-craving caught us... we said so. Violet took us to a fancy sidewalk cafe and we had some tepid water with a touch of tea and those Italian flowers -which give you no kick, and no satisfaction. She tried to converse with us in her broken English, trying to find out what Yoga was all about. It was great fun listening to her fundamental questions in that unadorned stringy language, and the bombastic answers provided by my good friend from South, who like all good southies, has a natural weakness for using naturally the more difficult turn of phrase, or an mystifyingly complex expression.

The little cozy hotel we stayed at was named Hotel Ganesha, with the artist having gone over his or her head with the prospect of painting the head of Ganesh between the two words i.e ’Hotel’ and ’Ganesha’. To my great surprise, the painting of the head gave no feeling of Ganesha, the reassuring and familiar Lord Ganesha but looked like the copy of some wild elephant straight out of an old National Geographic issue...

The cute but happily plump young lady at the reception who spoke very crisp and clear English for a change, told us the owner of the hotel has great belief in Indian religion [how they lump things together, these foreigners, like my pen friend during childhood, wrote to me saying he wanted to learn ’Indian’ as a second language -I had

to write back he would have to select from 22 official languages or from 1600 dialects... of course, he gave up the idea.]

Somewhat the same scene occurred when we chose to have coffee with the owner who used to man the counter past eight o’clock when the plump young lady would leave. He turned out to be a tough looking leanish fellow, very fit for his years -he could have been anywhere from fifty to seventy. He turned out to be a follower of the Sankaracharya of Kancheepeetham, and gave us detailed accounts of his visits to India in the past -probably during the heyday of the hippie movement, I suspect, when people used to descend on India in teeming hordes. Why did you go to India, we asked him. For health

reasons, he said rather cryptically. Mental health, I told myself, because in those ’heady’ years, people went around in search of mental peace more than anything else.

There were three Russians, from Ukraine, traveling with us to the same factory and dealing with the same people, who knew a bit about India. They were metallurgists working with some military establishment, manufacturing aircraft engines. Two guys had their birthdays on consecutive days, by a strange coincidence, and my friend Murty had left for his visit to Belgium and Switzerland. Being alone, I found it convenient to befriend them, as they were thrilled to hear Russian phrases from me, these guys hardly knew English and used that little bit in very mysterious manner. This caused some amazingly comic interludes in my daily life, but I guess I would write about that

later.

Well, the next three days were fun too. Visited some good places, had some good food, and went for real long walks, took photographs, and then suffered a bit from the wet weather when it rained for two days with a bit greater consistency.

The return journey wasn’t very exciting due to a fifteen hour wait at Zurich for my connecting flight.

Well I hope you enjoyed this longish e-mail message. I had fun writing it.

Signing off,

Max

Home page > English > Short Story > Letter From Sofia


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