Sunday, January 16, 2011

I went to Riga, Latvia

Unknown to me, Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed between India and the Soviet Union on 9th August 1971. The Indian Navy immediately thereafter embarked on an expansion drive which continued till mid eighties. In the mean time the navy decided to send me to Riga the capital of Latvia to commission a Nanuchka class - Missile Corvette, an armed naval escort vessel, smaller than a destroyer. Maybe, the navy selected me because I was one of the school children who went to cheer Mr Khrushchev - Leader of the Communist Party of Soviet Union and Mr Bulganin, during their visit to Bangalore on 26th November 1955 near Lalbagh East gate.

Figure 1 - Nanuchka class Missile corvette - Net
I got married on 22 May 1977 and very reluctantly returned to Mumbai in early June to commence my Russian language course. Mr Jadeja was our Russian language instructor, who paid more importance to grammar than vocabulary and as a result, I could conjugate verbs easily but did not know what potato in Russian was.17th October was my wife’s birthday and after a hectic bout of partying we reached the airport. Our team consisted of eight officers and forty sailors. The airport was full of relatives bidding good bye and dolling out advice. Someone said ‘distance makes heart go wander’ and yet another said ‘there is always safety in numbers’ and so on. I felt terrible leaving Jai behind, who was by then five months pregnant. We left Mumbai in a chartered Air India flight to Moscow via Tehran.

Travelling is fun, especially in a big group, where in you know each other. My colleague KB knew one of the airhostess and we were looked after like Maharajas the rest of the trip. After a short halt at Moscow, we reached Riga and directly went to our Stalavaya (guest house) in Bulderaya Bulli in the outskirts of the city. The Stalavaya was located very close to Daugava River. We were in Riga for three months taking over the ship from the Soviet navy, which meant going to the naval jetty every morning and accepting the ship from Soviet naval officers.

Only the essential sailors had come for the acceptance and the cooks and stewards were to join later. The Stalavaya was run by a posse of female Russian cooks and the one attached to us was ‘Katia’ an elderly lady who used to go out of the way to make us feel comfortable. In addition to the normal fare of bread, butter, eggs, milk, chicken and rice they had a variety of cheese, ice cream and curd to go along. We used to drink lots of Borscht (soup) and Sok (boiled fruit juice) for all meals. Kartoffel (potato) was a part of their daily diet. With my limited Russian vocabulary I once ordered a plate of ‘Portphel’ salad meaning - Briefcase. There were many more blunders – In a restaurant, I once asked the waiter if I could Chicken - ‘Kuritsa’ instead of smoke - ‘kurit’. It was big task for Katia to feed three pure vegetarians amongst us - NL Sharma, Atutosh Anand and Sashi Khera. She finally invented a lovely sauce made of red chilies, onions, garlic and sugar. Katia’s sauce went very well with hot steamed rice and butter. Finally our cooks arrived in end November and took over the kitchen. Dal, Sambhar, puri bhaji, biryani, pakoda and the rest adorned the table. Petty Officer Cook Chennakalai became a hit in the galley and many Russian officers shifted their culinary loyalty.

Wiki says “Riga is experiencing a new Renaissance as the capital of Latvia , and many large-scale restoration projects on old buildings have made Riga one of the most attractive cities in Europe. Most famously, Riga is home to the largest concentration of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) architecture in the world. Riga has become an increasingly popular destination for Europeans drawn by its old town image, its historical importance, and its reputation as having the best nightlife in Europe ”. Riga was greatly influenced by Germany and Russia through the two world wars and it finally became independent On September 6, 1991.

Riga is a very pretty city especially in winter. When we arrived in October the temperature was around 8*C and it fell rapidly and reached - 4*C by January. I was experiencing snowfall for the first time and all of us went berserk playing in the snow like children.

Figure 2 – Town hall square – Riga - Net

Finally the Daugava River froze completely, resembling a never ending white bed spread thrown across the river. What an extraordinary sight. Within days the frozen river was full of children practicing ice skating and playing hokey, while the elders were fishing. We also tried our leg at ice skating – an extremely difficult sport – contrary to what one sees on the TV. 54% of the area of the city is made up of so-called "blue zones" (rivers, lakes and canals) and "green zones" (woodland, parks and urban squares), which makes Riga special.

Figure 3 - Posing in the snow

It takes time to get used to Russian winter – ask Napoleon and Hitler – they would have had a lot to say. My experience was limited, but comic. Gopalachari and I decided to visit Moscow and in December. Having finished viewing the change of guard at the Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square, I proceeded to stand in a pre designated place and wait for my shipmate. The temperature was –12* C. The ears became red and looked like frozen red meat. I was unable to stand, as the cold was seeping through the heel, in spite of wearing snow shoes, with inner fur lining, with two layers of woolen socks, each one being separated by a sheet of news paper cut to size to act as insulators. All this was of no help; it was Kadam Tal for 15 unbearable moments of my life.

Figure 4 - Maybe I waited for Chari on the left side - Net

Another incident of interest was an evening out in Riga. All the ships officers were invited to Hotel Riga for dinner by our Russian team leader Mr Savitsky, which meant a very simple operation of getting into a bus in our Stalavaya and alighting at the hotel. Never in confrontation with the elements. So Prem and I decided to dress, as if we were going out for a stroll in Mumbai. I had never been so totally wrong. During the journey the bus driver stopped at a petrol station and asked all of us to get down before filling in fuel. Well, the rules in USSR required that there should be no passengers in the bus when it fuels. The rest is cold history. Two of us being slowly frozen at -5 deg C.

On our sea voyage from Riga to Klaipeda in Lithuania was yet another extraordinary feat. Ahead of us was an ‘Ice breaker’ – breaking through layers of frozen sea and making a passage for our ship. Suddenly you would see the breaker stop and sailors coming out of the ship, to take a walk and a puff. The entire mast and the super structure were totally frozen by the time we reached Klaipeda.

In our short stay of three months in Riga, we were able to visit the city many times. I still remember having excellent decoction coffee near the railway station. We used to visit Hotel Riga often on weekends and have Vodka and Balzam (Refined vodka) Russians truly believe that ‘Vodka is a drink that accompanies humans in sorrow, joy, and simple relaxation’. Stolichnaya chetyre (Four) Star Vodka was most preferred. You drink Vodka neat and say - Prost – Davai and it goes down the hatch. Thereafter you chase the vodka with Sok and then stuff it with – cheese, chicken, gherkins, kielbasa (smoked sausages), bread and layers of butter. One always imbibes vodka to celebrate something or the other. To start with, it’s always ‘Indo- Soviet Druzhba’ (friendship), then a drink for the health of the two great navies, one for the ship, yet another for the good people of the two countries and so on; this entire process is repeated several times before you pass out. I am yet to come across anyone who can match a seasoned Russian in vodka drinking. I still remember getting caught with my friend and shipmate Anatoly Zotov – drinking vodka to celebrate ‘Artillery Day’. In Russia you order your drinks in milliliters and not in pegs. Russians love Indian rum and a bottle of Hercules XXX rum would fetch 3 bottles of vodka in the Stalavaya. I think it’s time; khodays took over the Indian embassy in Moscow – hic hic hooray.

Figure 5 - Self and Prem out in the snow

On a sober note -we also visited Riga Cathedral for a musical concert – watched an Ice Hokey match between Spartak and a local team. However the most poignant visit was to Salaspils concentration camp ‘Stalag-350-S’ established by the Nazis at the end of 1941 at a point 18 km southeast of Riga. We were taken around the camp by one of the survivors. She was a young girl of three, when her parents were executed. As she explains the atrocities which were heaped on them, you stand in shock wondering how; anyone from the same specie could have committed such carnage on a fellow human being.

Figure 6- Salaspils Concentration Camp - Net

Girls in Riga are extremely pretty. The only bachelor in our midst was Prem, who had a whale of time in Riga. I came back with a lovely Latvian doll in a glass case.

Figure 7- Latvian doll image - Net

The people we came across in our day to dealings in kiosk, super markets, restaurants, hospital and so on were very nice, unassuming, simple and friendly. They had a great affinity towards Indians in general. They loved Raj Kapoor and used to throng our weekly movie evenings in the Stalavaya. On 3rd January 1978, I was on my way to the ship in a naval bus, which unfortunately skidded on a heavily iced road and rolled over several times before it came to a stop. By god’s grace and extremely prompt help by the Riga Military Hospital, five of us lived to see another day. The hospital staffs were extremely kind and helpful. Under the Soviet regime the Latvians were not best of friends with the Russians. I still remember my Russian friend asking me to stand in the queue in the local ‘Detsky Mir’ (departmental store) to buy Champagne, the lady at the counter would have certainly said ‘no stock’ if he had stood there instead. Another shortcoming which I found in the Soviet Union was their distribution system. Suddenly onions would disappear and find tomatoes flooding the market. For that matter, one had to stand in a queue to buy anything. The joke those days was that, the people would stand in a queue not knowing what was being sold at the end of the queue. People always carried lot of cash, as they did not know where and when a luxury item would become available.

Children were the most prized possession of Soviet Union. Toys, books, schools, playgrounds, sporting equipment and anything to do with children were subsidized by the state. It was a great pleasure to watch well dressed children playing in the snow.

Figure 8 - Sashi,Tiwari,Prem,self and Hukku

In the Stalavaya I shared a cabin with Huku and Prem. Huku was a great snorer and at times it was impossible to sleep with him playing, a one man nasal band. KB who had been to Russia earlier was of great all round help to us. His Russian was very good and it came very handy to have him around. Unlike in India, the dinner was at 6PM and invariably we used to feel hungry around 10PM. KB had converted the double door window into a refrigerator and would store assorted food items in the gap, for any emergency.

Text Color

Figure 9 - Self and Prem having a snow fight

Russians were crazy for any item which had a ‘made in USA’ tag attached to it. I remember one Russian officer who wanted my Wrangler shirt and insisted, I take something in return. Seeing this golden opportunity I decided to ask for a jerry can full of ‘Potentiometer oil’, (an item in short supply but in great demand) which was nectar to my technical officer. Similarly we bartered Nescafe tins for lot of important spare parts.

Figure 10 - May be after effects of Vodka

In the late seventies shopping was a mania with every Indian. Going abroad meant unlimited shopping. The whole family would sit together and make a long list of items to be purchased. I did my share of purchases - KM 8 mixer (a copy of Braun), Zenith SLR camera, (Incidentally, after WW II all the German optical factories went to the Russians and their cameras had excellent lenses) and a large number of excellent toys. I was able to pick up a number of 78 RPM records of Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky at throw away prices for my wife. Similarly, you could get complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes for a very paltry amount. I read TOI of 07 Jan 2011 and it said “Indians shed shopper tag, soak in experience”. We have come a long way indeed.

We visited Moscow in December and stayed with a friend in the diplomatic enclave - Leninsky Prospect. Moscow is breathtaking and by any standard, one of the very best cities in the world. Watching their broad roads, majestic buildings, parks, exhibitions – left us amazed and truly impressed. Their metro is simply outstanding. We experienced the much dreaded Russian winter at -12*C, visited the Red Square, saw a Russian ballet ‘Swan Lake’ in the famous Bolshoy theatre and their circus. Travelling in their train from Riga to Moscow and back in soft class was another experience to cherish.

We took nearly 90 days to accept the ship. Each evening we used to hold a ‘sabranie’ (meeting) with the Soviet navy to discuss day’s activities. They would report all the items which were handed over to the Indian navy and end up with ‘I tak dalee’. Prem wanted to be one up and impress our Commanding Officer Cdr BN Kavina and with all seriousness said, sir I regret to report that the Russians have not handed over ‘I tak dalee’. Even the stern looking Russians could not but laugh their guts out. ‘I tak dalee’ meant etc.

The ship was commissioned on 15 Jan 1978. The formal and solemn ceremony commenced with the Inspection of a Guard of Honour by the Soviet admiral.

Figure 11- Self reporting the Guard of Honour to the Soviet admiral

The Commissioning Warrant signed by the Chief of Naval Staff was read out by the Commanding Officer. The Naval Ensign and the National Flag was hoisted onboard the Ship for the first time along with the traditional breaking of the Commissioning Pennant. This ceremony was carried out with the Parading of the Colour Guard to the accompaniment of the National Anthem. The ship was named ‘INS Hosdurg’ (meaning ‘New fort’ in Kannada) after a historic fort in Kerala, built during the Ikkeri Dynasty by Somashekara Nayak. Later on, the wife of the ambassador broke a coconut on the missile container and performed a puja to bless the ship. Earlier on, Moscow had sent feelers that the lady was not used to breaking coconuts even at home; leave alone on a missile container. We had carried the coconuts all the way from India for this occasion and did not want anything to go wrong, so we sawed the outer shell very carefully to prevent any misfire and made it easier to break.

We sailed from Riga to Klaipeda for sea training and stayed there for three weeks. Klaipeda once again is a very pretty place.

Figure 12 - Our ship was berthed very close to the boat restaurant - Net

Thereafter we sailed to Gdansk in Poland and then to La Harve in France – spending 3 days in each port. Whilst in La Harve, I got the news that my dear wife had delivered a baby boy and both were doing fine. I had become a father – a special feeling. I along with my shipmates went along with a Hindi speaking French Naval Intelligence officer, Lt Mark Faber to celebrate the occasion with champagne. We were severely hit by a storm in the dreaded ‘Bay of Biscay’ and had to take shelter in Dourarnenez – South of France – an extraordinarily beautiful fishing port. The whole town came to see our warship and some went on record to say “Nothing as exciting as our ships unannounced visit had happened since WW II”. Cook Chennakalai became an instant celebrity dishing out ‘Kheema with onions rolled in Parathas (Minced meat rolled in Indian flat-bread)’.
Figure 13- Port of Dourarnenez - Net

After short stops in Algiers in Algeria,Benghazi in Libya, Bizerte in Tunisia we reached Port Said in Egypt. The Indian ambassador in Algiers, Mr Rana made our stay extremely pleasant. Prem, Huku and NL went and played bridge with the ambassador during our stay there. The Captain of the ship was little chary of the bridge game, as Huku was an excellent player with a very sharp tongue. If you made any mistake as his partner, the ensuing verbal volley could be very harsh. I suppose all was well and the ambassador hosted an excellent dinner, thereafter at his residence. We had a great time in Algiers eating mediterranean oranges and French chocolates.

During my off watch I was busy reading ‘Oh Jerusalem’ by Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre, when I was called to the bridge by my captain to tell me that my father had, had a heart attack and was serious. He decided to repatriate me to Bangalore ASAP. After a day and night wait in Cairo (usefully spent in updating the Military Attach├ęs records and watching Son et Lummaire show of Giza Pyramids), I arrived in Mumbai – very briefly saw my son and wife and went to Bangalore to be with my father.

That was the end of a fabulous voyage, in which I covered more than 10,000 nautical miles by sea, saw nine cities and met scores of people and more importantly was exposed to different cultures, traditions and way of life.

Epilogue: The ship we lovingly commissioned as ‘Hosdurg’, after serving the navy for 21 years, was finally decommissioned on 05 June 1999. In June 2000, Indian Navy used the decommissioned ship as a target and fired a long-range Sea Eagle Anti Ship Missile from an aircraft and sank it.

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