Zero Percentile - Excerpts

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IT WAS SPRING IN 1997, BUT IN MOSCOW IT HAD ARRIVED only as a date of the month. Though the chilly winter was gone, the temperature hovered around minus two degrees. Still, this was much warmer than the minus thirty-two degrees that Moscow had to bear a month back. And, the Muscovites said that the entire winter was not as severe as it had been the previous year.

My taxi arrived at the Shermetyeva Airport. It was not really a taxi – Russia had developed a unique culture where you could flag down any passing car and strike a deal at a mutually convenient price to be dropped off at your destination. The system worked well in those uncertain times when many car owners converted to drivers-for-hire to supplement their income. I had even been fortunate enough to travel in a huge Mercedes 600 once. The owner-turned-driver said he was an opportunist and never missed the chance to make a quick buck.

My taxi driver, on that fateful day, was an amicable fiftyyear- old—a doctor by profession—working in a government- run hospital in Moscow. His full name was Dmitri Yevgenewich Petrov – Dmitri being his own name, Yevgeni his father’s and Petrov the last name. A garrulous type, he asked me to call him Dima, the nickname for Dmitri. Unlike India, all names in Russia had a predefined nickname. I chose to stick to the more formal Dmitri Yevgenewich, not because of my inbuilt urge to respect elders, but because I was not in a mood to talk. He still managed to tell me that he was struggling to make ends meet and he used his LADA—a Russian indigenous car—to somehow stay abreast of the burgeoning expenses that Moscow—one of the fastest emerging costliest cities of the world—threw at him.

I managed to shut him up with an irritated question on why he did not clean his car often even though I knew the answer—Russia because of its harsh winters, did not allow car owners the luxury of a daily cleanup. With the temperature playing games, the snow on the roads would melt when it reached around zero degrees, creating mud and resulting in unspeakably dirty cars.

It never failed to surprise me that even the cars sporting the most luxurious interiors looked absolutely dirty from the outside. Washing the muck away daily was a herculean task unless you had the courage to bring your car all the way from the parking lot (usually more than two hundred metres away from the residential blocks). Unless, of course, you were lucky and owned a garage!

Any other time and I would have loved to have played agony aunt for Dmitri Yevgenewich, but that day was different. I needed time to reflect on all the things that had happened in the past few days. I needed time to reflect on why everything that had seemed so promising a few months earlier was not so anymore. I needed time because I had been expecting a call. In fact, I had been expecting it for three hours. Kapil had arranged a cellphone for me in Moscow – at the time, cellphone was a relatively new and hugely expensive device which had revolutionised communication. I planned to return it to him after my short, hurriedly planned trip to India. I had needed this phone because I did not want to take any chances. I wanted to stay connected until I boarded the plane. I paid Dmitri the promised fifty dollars for dropping me off at the airport and got out. Dollar was an equally accepted currency in Russia then as the Rouble. After the warm ride, the chill in the air hit me hard. I tightened my overcoat’s strap around my waist, pulled my cap down to cover my ears and began to hurriedly walk towards the entrance of the airport. In my haste, I tripped and realised that the string of my left fur shoe had opened up. Cursing the Moscow winter, I took my gloves off and tied it. Then, I took a trolley, put my only suitcase on it and pushed it hard into the airport.

It was a good two hours before my Aeroflot flight to New Delhi took off . I showed my passport and ticket to the policeman at the entry to the airport. After satisfying himself that everything was in order, he let me enter. The Aeroflot counter had a thin attendance and only a couple of people were ahead of me. When my turn came, I approached the counter, showed my ticket and checked my entire luggage in. I did not need anything except the cellphone.

The airline attendant at the counter wished me a good journey though her facial expression did not match her words. I went through to immigration where a hard-nosed policeman looked at my passport photograph, my visa photograph and then at me, perhaps not willing to accept that all three were actually the same, but finally let me through.

I heaved a sigh of relief and made myself comfortable in the farthest, loneliest corner to delve upon the incidents of the last week. I was expecting a call from Sveta, my Russian girlfriend, whom I loved more than life, and that was the reason for my anxiety. I so desperately wanted this departure from Shermetyeva Airport to be different from the painful arrival here as a student in September 1990.

It was still an hour to go before the scheduled departure time when the first announcement for boarding the plane was made. I checked the signal on the cellphone. It showed full strength.

Before leaving for the airport, I had called India to tell Motu that I was coming. I thought having him by my side when I talked to Mama would be good. His presence would give me the courage that I so desperately needed. The phone was picked up by Priya. She was as lively as ever. It was a huge surprise hearing her voice after almost seven years. We spoke for about twenty minutes before she handed the phone to Motu.

I did not move from my seat even when the second call for boarding the plane came. It was forty-five minutes before departure. The last and final announcement came with my name called in Russian, and then in heavily accented English. At the same time the cellphone rang. I looked at it a good ten seconds, making sure to press the right button so as to not cut the call and put it to my ear.

‘Aallo . . .’ it was her. My heart skipped a million beats. We spoke for five minutes before she said ‘Dosvidaniya’. I put the cellphone in my pocket and proceeded to board the plane.