Mommy Travels: Central Asia – So Near Yet So Far

Last year I got a wonderful opportunity to work on a Central Asian project covering the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Needless to say, the wanderer in me was extremely excited at this opportunity – I had heard a lot about Central Asia but only through books or stories or maybe some history. The mum in me was a bit doubtful though, about leaving the kids for long stretches at a time. The family deliberated and we all decided to jump into this new adventure called Central Asia!

Central Asia held a special meaning for me being part of the erstwhile Soviet Union. I was in my primary years when the Soviet Union still existed and there was a lot of cultural exchange between our countries. I remember mobile vans stationed at schools or other places that sold children’s books from the USSR. My favourites were Russian folk tales. A large part of my early years was spent reading about Baba Yaga, Buddhimati (wise) Vasilisa and Prince Ivan. To me it felt like an opportunity to go to a land which had fascinated me most of my childhood! But a land that was too far from me.

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However, when I started booking my tickets I realized with shock how close some of these countries are! Almaty is a 3.5 hour flight from Delhi and direct flights to Bishkek and Dushanbe would be under 3 hours. Going to Tashkent from Delhi is probably just a little longer than going to Bombay! Each of these cities is beautiful and yet undiscovered by the Indian traveler. Though a very interesting subset of South Asians are very familiar with these countries. These are our medical students! On my first flight to Bishkek (via Almaty), I was surprised to notice a large no. of young Indian people. I was even more surprised when I realized that they were all also transiting to Bishkek! Upon enquiry, I found out that there are approximately 5,000 Indian students studying medicine in Bishkek alone! And they are such a high percentage of the total student population, that they get Diwali holidays as well! Anyway, I digress.

Central Asia remains unknown to most of the world even after more than 25 years of independence. Being part of the Soviet Union, Central Asia along with the other countries behind the iron curtain was hidden from the rest of the world. Even after the break up of the USSR, Central Asia remained under the shadow of Russia and being land locked and away from the Western Economic powers, did not receive much economic attention from the globalized world. Each of the five countries have followed their own path of economic and political transformation. Moving from centrally planned economies to being led by the market has not been easy and some countries are ahead of the others in this transformation.

Till date I have been to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tashkent and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Almaty – only for a few hours (Kazakhstan). Each of these cities is beautiful in its own way and deserves a blog of its own. There is a lingering flavor of the USSR – in the buildings, in the city plans, in the systems that have survived through these years. But there is also a lot of newness as these countries strive to come out of their old identity. A lot of old buildings have been pulled down and beautiful new ones erected. (I simply loved the ones in Dushanbe) Many countries are resurrecting their old heroes – the statue of Ismoil Somoni was erected in 1999 in Dushanbe. Similarly a statue of Manas, another local hero was erected in Bishkek in 2011. These have come up in places that used to have statues of Lenin earlier.

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I have had some of the most fascinating and educating conversations with various people during my visits. I was keen to to understand what they feel about the break up of the USSR. The new generation seems to have embraced the new world order while many from the older generation are nostalgic about the Soviet era. They remember the ease of jobs and services and how the basic needs of the citizens were taken care of. For example, the education system or provision of other public services. The state provided free education, day care and a job upon turning into an adult. The state’s role has now contracted and it is no more the main employer or provider of other services such as health care etc. These jobs have been turned over to the private sector. However, markets are not necessarily fully evolved in all the countries and many individuals also talk about increasing corruption or lack of quality of public services.

Most young people clearly prefer the merit based system and the opportunity to work hard and rise high. When a colleague said that it was very hard for anyone to be poor during the Soviet reign – I immediately became dreamy eyed till she went on and said that there was very little incentive for people to work hard and a disincentive for the brighter people. It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and how well it brings out the fallacies of the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”.

On the one hand, there was no need to work hard, on the other, there was hardly any incentive to either. There was no encouragement to enterprise – in fact it was illegal! (I feel like laughing since all we talk now is  about promoting entrepreneurship). You couldn’t run even the smallest shop – whatever one produced was for the state. Everything was centrally planned – down to what clothes people would wear! There used to be pattern makers at the national level who would decide about 30-40 patterns of shirts/ dresses/ pants etc., the kind of fabric and colour – and all Govt. factories would manufacture a certain number of each type of clothing! (Anyone from the fashion industry reading this!) Imagine every fifteenth person wearing identical clothes!

I found a slide online which elaborates on what I am saying (not sure of source so can’t give credit):

command+economy+(central+planning)

It was even more surprising when during an official discussion, my colleagues mentioned that people traditionally do not have the habit to save. It sounded odd to me (since in India – everyone is busy saving – either in their bank accounts or under their pillow or inside tin boxes!). The reason was even more baffling. Since the state was supposed to provide for everyone, savings were actually frowned upon. You were probably a bourgeoisie if you decided to save some money!

Another interesting aspect was the attitude towards religion. The Soviet Union followed a policy of state atheism which basically discourages all religion. It is different from secularism where the state is officially neutral in religious matters. In simpler terms, the Soviet Government told its people to practice religion within the confines of their houses and that nothing of religious nature was to be done publicly. There were of course mosques and churches, but fewer and far between. Coming from India, where we celebrate everything together, on the streets, this seemed to me fascinating, bizarre, peaceful and bland all at the same time! Central Asia is a traditionally Islamic region and twenty eight years later, the attitude of people towards religion continues to be muted, though some countries are more religious than others. However, most of the Governments continue to discourage overt religious activity.

OK, I have just realised that it is pretty late at night (1.53 a.m.) and this is becoming a very long piece. I still haven’t got a chance to talk about the people, their food or culture, but if I start doing that now, this blog will become interminably long and probably not end. So however abrupt this end may seem, I must publish it and sleep. I hope you have enjoyed peeking into Central Asia. I will definitely be back with more. And do think about taking your next holiday in one of the Central Asian countries. I promise you will not be disappointed.

So for now dobroy nochi. That’s good night in Russian.

 

 

 

 

The Days Go Slowly, The Years Fly By – yes, 2019 is already here

A very close friend used to say this. The days go slowly and the years fly by. So true. It is amazing how every single year, as we approach December, we start to wonder how quickly that year passed, exactly like the ones before this one. Even my eight year old seems to have now become mindful of the passage of time – this time he exclaimed how short 2018 seemed to be. It is one of the blessings of very early childhood when we have no sense of time. After that, life just seems to rush by.

A new year is a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. To be honest though – I wasn’t really into much reflecting, till a year or so ago. Either it is old age catching up or just that these last few years have been so densely packed with incidents and emotions that reflection comes naturally.

I had welcomed 2018 with a hope. Having had two difficult years, I was hoping 2018 would be better. But if only wishes were horses…. No sooner had we stepped into 2018, I lost my dad. My being succumbed to the depth of its emotions, and even I was taken by surprise at the extent of my grief. However, I am slowly healing, we all are.

This year can perhaps best be described as my painstaking journey from the depths of despondency to tentative optimism. While I am yet to fully emerge in the sunlight, I can see the first specks of light beyond the dark tunnel I found myself in. A huge help in finding the way has been my writing. I started to blog at the beginning of 2018.

This was a huge step since I am a very private person – and sometimes even find it difficult to acknowledge my own feelings. The decision to blog, and to continue doing that was a significant U turn. So I wasn’t surprised when my sister said somewhat complainingly that I was more comfortable sharing my feelings with the world than her! (But sweetheart you know how much I love you!) Or when a new colleague told me that she didn’t know much about me, except of course my deepest feelings! I guess I have always been better at writing my feelings instead of saying them!

Blogging helped me in more ways than I had imagined. I had started my blog to share our experiences raising Anvay – to give hope and strength to some and in turn hear back from others in a similar situation. However, I soon realized I had much more to share, and how much I loved writing. In a way writing grounded me, provided me with an anchor that I held in the darkest of my moments.

It also introduced me to a different world – of writers. I met new people, attended some writing workshops, made new friends. I am a novice in this field – and it really made a refreshing difference to meet such talented people from a world very different from my own.

Along this road I also discovered Momspresso – a platform that allowed me to share my blogs with many more people. I was able to reach lakhs of readers and the momspresso editorial team was very kind in choosing me as one of their top bloggers of the year and giving me an opportunity to read my blog live to their members. The love and encouragement I received was truly motivating.

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And all of you, every single one of you have been important for this journey. There are so many of you who have read each of my blogs, took the time to comment or share. This encouragement matters the world to me. I have been humbled when some of what I felt rang true for you too – several people responded to my blogs about my father – how they shared my pain of losing a parent. A lot of you responded to my blogs on Anvay – some of you shared similar stories – stories of hope, many of you sent prayers. Just knowing that so many of you are with us and care for us was more than enough to give me the energy to continue moving.

While in writing I found an anchor, my work has always been my mainstay, my foundation. Towards the second half of this year, I got the opportunity to work in Central Asian countries. While it was an exciting opportunity, it also meant significant amount of travel. We thought over it and decided that we will manage. Armed with extra support from my mum and spouse and 2 full time helps, the family took the significant decision to take up this challenge. And before I could realise, I was travelling 10-12 days a month. The experience was exhilarating and very very enriching. (more about it in future blogs) It also meant that I did not have much time to dwell on anything besides managing work and family and played a huge role in stabilizing my emotions.

On the whole, 2018 has been a harbinger of change. There have been big shifts and small changes; a big loss and a certain level of triumph over emotions. My blogs perhaps tell the story of the entire year very well and it is only fitting to try and summarise the year through them. The twins are two now and Abeer has reached the next level of brattiness (don’t think that’s a real word – but fits)! Anvay is progressing well and his naughty little personality has started to shine through! His smile makes our day and now we are hoping that he starts to at least stand by the end of 2019! I am more or less at peace with his condition and understanding life much better through this lens. We continue our experiments with our first born – and this year Arnav seems to have become more mature and quite a geek – likes to read anything to do with geography or science – including biology and quantum physics! (he has informed us that the male body’s main purpose is fertilization – though he is still not sure how fertilization actually occurs.). Time to plan his 9th birthday – likely theme is science, no surprises there.

My pregnant tummy hasn’t gone anywhere (obviously, since I have done absolutely nothing about it) – and I am wondering maybe tummy tuck is my redemption? My soulmate however happily lives through the THICK and thin – and maybe secretly happier that I am more like his shape now!! Well that aside, the maid situation has improved and just before I started to travel, I managed to get two good domestic helps – and the sense of peace that brings is more than perhaps meditation could!

 

2018 has been a kaleidoscope of events and my biggest take away probably is that when you have your family and friends rooting for you, supporting you, you can overcome anything. I have an immensely supportive family starting with my husband and mum (and dad), always standing rock solid behind me. As also are my mother and father in law – ready to step in whenever required and a very loving extended family – both from Kapil’s and my sides. A supportive workplace and colleagues are my added blessings. And with all of you added to my family now – world is a happier place! Love and hugs to all of you. So a happy me welcomes 2019 and looks forward to it! 

befunky collage