It was the summer of 1987 when we met. I was on an exchange programme at Tallinn University, Estonia. Located right in the heart of the city, flanked by the Kadriorg Park and the Tallinn bay, the University was everything that I had imagined it to be when I left India. The sprawling campus was spread over a seamless stretch of land, and housed several academic blocks, a huge library and a sports complex.
Andero was pursuing his doctorate degree in archaeology. We met quite by chance at a mutual friend’s birthday celebration and instantly hit it off. He was tall and lean and not exactly handsome in the conventional sense. His eyes had a spark though, which was attractive enough to draw attention towards them.
We started spending a lot of time together. We took long walks down the concrete pathways curving around the university buildings, discussing the evolution of runic songs or the developments in Estonia in the post Stalin Era. I learnt a lot from him – much more than I was learning in the classroom. Before I knew it, I was in love with him.
I wasn’t sure about his feelings though. For a person who was so expressive, he was strangely reticent when it came to expressing his feelings.
One afternoon, we decided to visit Pelgurand Beach. It was a pleasant drive and for once we played some Indian music. He had of late, developed a fondness for Hindi film songs and though he understood very little of the lyrics he enjoyed humming along.
“What does this song mean?” he asked.
I was suddenly tongue tied. How could I explain the lyrics of a song that expressed wonder at how love had suddenly developed between two lovers?
“Ah well, it’s a love song,” I said evasively.
“That’s nice,” he said and hummed along.
“I kind of like you,” I said hesitantly, staring ahead.
“You do?” he asked, sounding a little surprised.
I didn’t reply.
“Well, so do I,” he continued.
“You do?” I looked at him wide eyed.
“Oh yes,” he chuckled. “A lot. You are enchanting.”
I grinned. “Well, I too like you tremendously.”
We both laughed. It was the most unconventional expression of love.
The rest of the evening passed in a haze but I do remember going back to my room that night, elated and on a high.
The months that followed were by far the most wonderful months of my life. We took long walks along Tallinn’s greenest street – Kloostrimetsa, attended shows at the Alexela Concert Hall and and after every outing, we invariably landed up at his apartment. Much of our conversation revolved around music, theatre and the books we had read. He was curious to know about Indian mythology and I would regale him with the stories that I had heard from my grandmother as a kid or read as a student of Comparative Literature.
There were times when we spoke about ourselves and our dreams. We were yet to talk about a future together, though. I really don’t know why we didn’t. Perhaps we were too much in love with the present to think of the future.
I often wondered how two people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds could fall in love so quickly. I spoke to my mother about him and as expected she had expressed her reservations about it. She wasn’t orthodox but she believed that things were happening too fast. “Go easy,” she said. “Besides, if you are thinking of a future together, remember, the journey isn’t going to be easy. I married your father – a Muslim and it took us years to be accepted by our families and communities.”
I assured her that I wouldn’t do anything in haste. Besides, Andero and I were keen to finish our course of studies.
It was during a trip to Pirita that he first spoke to me about the political situation in Estonia. “I feel restless,” he said. “This cultural Russification of our language and national identity – it angers me. Russian is being taught in the first grade of our schools where Estonian should be taught.”
I had never seen him speak in this way before. We spent the rest of the trip talking about nationalist movements the world over and finally headed to his apartment.
Estonia was being rocked by turmoil. The Soviet government had plans to excavate phosphorite in the Lääne-Viru county. This spelt disaster. On one hand, it would have had a catastrophic impact on the environment. On the other hand it indicated the mass immigration of workers from other parts of the Soviet Union to work in the new mines. The student population in particular was up in arms.
Andero spoke to me about it one evening in February, a day after the news was made public. We were driving down St. Catherine’s Passage.
“It will affect around 40% of our waters,” he said gravely. “They have selected the Pandivere region where most of our rivers originate. It is a matter of great worry.”
I listened intently.
“Besides, our own resources are at stake – with migrant labourers coming in and taking over, where will we go? Imagine the pressure on the economy.”
“Will there be some kind of a public protest?” I asked.
He did not answer. He was lost in thought.
I switched on some music and turned to look out at the quaint handicrafts shops that stood huddled together in the narrow alley. We didn’t speak much that evening and returned home after a quick dinner at a small Thai restaurant close to the University.
Over the next few weeks, our relationship underwent a subtle change. He was preoccupied and I could sense it each time we met. It bothered me. Not that I was not concerned about the affairs in the state. As a global citizen I was, but I was also bothered about the fact that we no longer conversed the way we did. We weren’t meeting or talking the way we were earlier.
We had our first fight when he called up one day, to cancel a visit to the museum. “A few friends from Tartu are coming over,” he said. “I will be spending the day with them.”
“Do I know them?” I asked.
“No, you don’t,” he replied.
An argument ensued. It was bitter and I slammed the phone down in tears. Never before had he been so harsh. For that matter, neither had I.
That night was one of the worst nights of my life. As I paced up and down the balcony, my mind was assailed by a million doubts. Was my mother correct in asking me to exercise caution in my relationship with a foreigner? Had I fallen in love with the wrong man? Did he really care ?
For the first time, I grew conscious of myself, not as a woman in love, but as an Indian. His words kept echoing in my mind, “You are never going to understand – you are not an Estonian. You have no idea what it means to be subjugated.”
“We Indians were subjugated for almost two centuries,” I shouted back.
“You Indians were,” he retorted,”but not now. You were born free and still are.”
“That doesn’t make me insensitive,” I hit back. “We too have our issues – I am fully capable of understanding your angst. But why does it have to come between us?”
“You are imagining things,” he said curtly and disconnected the phone.
We did not speak to each other for the next week. They were dark days. I tried to bury myself in work and reading but my mind kept straying. Was he thinking of me? Why did we fight? Should I have been a little more patient?
He called me one evening just as I was settling down to complete an assignment.
My heart leapt as soon as I heard his voice.
“Busy?” he asked.
“No, not really,” I said, pushing away my books.
There was a pause. “I am sorry.”
I did not answer. There was a lump in my throat.
“I really should not have lashed out at you like that, the other day. It’s just that I have been so disturbed.”
“I understand,” I whispered. “I am sorry too.”
He was silent.
“I will be leaving for Tartu on the 28th,” he said. “A major demonstration is going to be held on the 1st of May by the University students there. I will be joining them.”
“Oh,” was all I could manage to say.
“I will be there for a while,” he continued.
I did not reply.
“I love you – a lot. But I see things happening – some major developments that could change the course of history. With Gorbachev taking over the USSR, there are winds of change blowing our way. I need to be a part of the process of bringing in the change.”
He paused again and waited for me to reply. I couldn’t speak. If I did, I would break down.
“Could you give me some time? I won’t be able to be with you but I promise to get back.”
“And when will you return?”
“I have no idea. But I will be in touch, I promise.”
I do not know how I lived through the next few days. How does one deal with something like this? I loved him. He said he did. I had always felt it. There were things he did – looking up on me when I was unwell, waiting to drop me home each time I was held up at the University, preparing dinner for me while I was working on my assignments, comforting me when I felt homesick – the list was endless. The days crawled by. I had a month left for my course to end. He called me twice during that time to give brief updates about what he was doing. The Singing Revolution was in full swing and he was evidently exulted at being a part of it.
One day I joined one of the demonstrations, just to see him. He was standing on a podium making a passionate address to the gathering. I watched him from where I stood – at the periphery of the crowd. He saw me but he did not seem to recognise me. It hurt, but how could I blame him? He was living in a space way beyond the one we had created together.
There was a loud applause to something he said and I looked at him. Memories came rushing back of cold evenings spent together on the couch, sipping a drink and listening to “Eesti rahvalaule viisidega“. I swallowed the lump that had welled up in my throat and brushed away my tears.
I headed back to India a month later. We did not meet. I toyed with the idea of leaving my contact number and address with a mutual friend, but then decided against it. Months passed by and soon a couple of years. On the 20th of August,1991, Estonia became an independent state. I was happy for the Estonians and allowed a sliver of hope to gain roots. But he never called. Neither did he write and I will never know why.
Have I moved on? Perhaps I have, in a sense. I have moved into a space where I do not judge him. He helped me grow and become stronger. I loved and perhaps lost but I guess it was meant to be that way. There are times when I wonder if he remembers me. I really don’t know. So I continue to preserve the memories I have of the good times and write poetry – the kind that speaks of love that has crystallized into little specks of stardust to dot the landscape of our lives. I have loved – and it was beautiful.
Eesti rahvalaule viisidega – Estonian folk songs with melodies.