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The Babushkas of Almaty

Two people always attract the attention of everyone - the very young and the very old. The magic is in the innocence and love that sparkle in their eyes. They are ever loving we feel. They are indeed very special people in any society. But, Almaty has its own set of people.

The babushkas of Almaty are a different clan altogether. They are the people who live today in an independent Kazakhstan and have lived in the communist USSR. Most of them today are waiting for that one bright day that could change their entire life. Some of them are full of hope and undying energy, eager to sell you flowers, toothpicks, or face towels. While some of them are just hopeless sitting in the corners of streets and waiting for some heart to move and give them money while there are others who go to Dubai and shop! These are the Babushkas or the grand old women of Almaty!!

Any city is characteristic of its city center. The city center is a place bustling with activity with people from all walks of life. On my visit to the city center in Almaty, I happened to see an amazing number of babushkas 'on the streets'. Babushka in Russian means 'old woman'. The babushkas of Almaty have this magical plea in their eyes when they put out their hands for money. The first time I saw, I was moved. Our reflexes were so quick, that before even I realized, we were giving money to them. Such was the effect. It was very disturbing to see that babushkas lived in such moving conditions. They wore tattered clothes and worn out shoes and were homeless when Almaty's temperature read -20 degrees! Almaty's economic conditions only worsened and the babushkas' hope died every day.

After just about a few days in Almaty, we settled in an apartment that belonged to Mila - a 53-year-old woman. Mila at first looked very rigid. When I looked at Mila, it was quite disturbing because till then, I had found women her age on the streets. Mila was plump and not very good-looking. I wanted to befriend Mila only because I wanted to speak Russian. Mila always brought her daughter along who could speak a bit of English. As our meetings grew, Mila and I became friends. She was constantly worried about me. She told me almost everyday that I should not open the door for anyone except her and my husband (thank god for that!!). This used to be her refrain. No visit of hers would be complete without that statement. With Mila next door, I felt protected. Mila always told me that I looked beautiful like Nargis. At first I was flattered but later realized that she thought so about every other Indian woman - a la Nargis.

What Mila did for a living surprised me. She bought houses, made them up and sold them!! Mila was always worked hard. She never hesitated to do any work. She would clean up whenever she dropped in our place. She would do the dishes or clean the bath or vacuum the carpets. A lot of persuasion only would stop her from doing them. Mila - though a rich lady was down to earth. I guess Mila's attitude was because her roots were from communism. Sometimes I saw her cleaning the courtyard. I appreciated her and her ways. She never thought working around would belittle her stature.

After several months, we moved to another apartment. Here we met Irinia Ivanovna and Dana - two entirely different people. Irina, a 74-year-old woman, reminded me of the Indian grand mom who is all loving and eager to talk to neighbours and befriend anyone immediately. The very first day, Irina said 'hello' and spoke at length. She would not give up even if we did not understand the language. She articulated in many ways to drive home her point. An old lady of 74, her spirits were still young. She lived alone in her 1 bedroom flat and would invite me often for lunch. With such language barriers, I did not want to risk because she did not understand vegetarianism. She was surprised how we could live on vegetables alone though she claimed she ate only potatoes for lunch (as she could not afford meat!) She took me to her house one day and she showed me pictures of her family. She explained that her husband died many years ago and her son lives in Moscow. She also explained how she lived on a meager income of 3000 Tenge p.m. which roughly works out to 1000 rupees a month.

One day Irina made cabbage pie and tried very hard to talk me into eating it. But alas, I never understood if she understood that I am a vegetarian and in Almaty almost everything has meat especially horse meat!

Irina's next door lived a young couple. Dana, a 60-year-old woman came everyday to take care of their only daughter. Dana loved taking care of children. She walked the child in the pram everyday - even in cold winter. I always wondered at her stamina as she would first carry the pram downstairs and walk up again to the 3rd floor. Carry the child down and walk slowly and steadily two times in a day - morning and evening. In between these walks, she found time to make pickles, jams and even wash and cook and clean for the working couple! She spoke in Russian and asked me numerous questions and she somehow understood what ever I said in English. She would offer me her pickled apples!! I somehow could never bring myself to eat those because for me apples were fruits to be eaten raw and not to be pickled. She was also a fitness fanatic and was particular about what to eat when she had the perfect diet for every season. If ever I thought she would rest during the weekend, I was completely wrong for she worked as a nurse in a hospital. She thought walking a baby in the winter of -20 degrees was good for the child and similarly she thought it was good to let the child play in the summer of 32 degrees. She was indeed a godmother to the child. She would often sing songs to the child "ladhushki, ladhushki, gje bile o babushki" translating to "clap, clap, where has grandma gone" I practiced and played with the child and often sang the one liner "ladhushki, ladhushki, gje bile o babushki".

During my stay of 9 months in Almaty, I had seen them all - the entire spectrum of old women living in Almaty. These women struggled to make a living. Most of these women have never traveled outside CIS as it was forbidden to travel during the soviet period and today most of them are too old to travel. These women struggle to make a living and they smile and laugh and often say the 'communism was different'. They remember the communist regime and have fond remembrances of the past. They struggle now to adapt themselves to their new freedom. One thing that I found common in these women is that they are hardworking. I think this is basically because they used to live under communism and have learnt some hard lessons. In fact, even today, Lenin's birthday is celebrated by cleaning the city! On that day, one person from each house cleans the common area like garden, sidewalks, streets etc. Well, the babushkas smile and believe that some work is done today so that tomorrow is a better world.

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