The Telegraph
Monday , April 21 , 2014
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Bond over Bong connection

- Easter brunch brings together girl gang from the CIS

Olga Saha, Anastasia Sinha Roy, Irina Dey and Aigul Saha might sound like a new trend in naming Bengali girls, especially when you hear one of them say in chaste Bangla: “Shara shondhe aami ar aamar nonod TV dekhi!”

The four of them were in a group of 15 from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States who had trooped into Flurys on Sunday, hubbies and kids in tow, to celebrate Easter over brunch and the common factor of being married to Calcuttans.

Their backgrounds vary, as do their love stories. But the women are bound by their fondness for all things Calcutta, from shorshe ilish to sandesh, Chander Pahar to Rashi on Zee Bangla.

“We were born in the erstwhile USSR and so our common language is Russian, but we don’t get to properly speak our tongue with our husbands. These get-togethers are a great way of meeting up and speaking our hearts out in Russian,” said Gulsina Ahunova, married to Calcuttan Raja Prasad for eight years.

Gulsina, from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and most of the women in the group didn’t know each other until they connected on Facebook and formed a closed group called “Russians in Kolkata”.

Members of the group had met before, but not as many of them as on Sunday. The venue chose itself because of its status as a Calcutta icon and the presence of chef Vikas Kumar, who is married to Russian Ksenia from Saint Petersburg.

The women have picked up more than a smattering of Bengali — some like Olga Vakhtina have been in Calcutta for a decade — and know their sandesh from their rosogolla.

“When she first came here, we would communicate through sign language. Now she speaks better Bangla than Russian!” said Srijani Dey, sister-in-law of Irina Dey, a Calcuttan for four years.

Amar sathe Bangla tei katha bolun. Ami shob bolte are bujhte pari (Converse with me in Bengali. I can speak and understand everything),” Irina Dey told Metro in crisp Bengali. “Shudhu tai noy, aami Bangla serial o dekhi. Amar khub bhalo laage (Not only that, I also watch Bengali serials. I love them).”

Olga Vakhtina, who met husband Sourav Banerjee in Bangalore at a dance festival in the Nineties and “fell in love at first sight”, believes it is a big advantage for someone like her to know Bengali.

Anek din hoye galo toh. Bangla shikhe gechhi (It’s been a long time. So I have picked up Bengali),” she said. “You can appreciate Tagore and shock autorickshaw drivers with your Bengali just when they try to cheat you thinking you are a foreigner,” Olga laughed.

If it weren’t for online social networking, many in the group wouldn’t have known that Calcutta had so many women from the CIS married to residents of the city. “When I came to Calcutta for the first time, I didn’t have any Russian friend here. Then we moved to London and came back to Calcutta four years later to find many Russians around! It was a pleasant surprise,” Gulsina said.

All of them have developed an emotional connection with Calcutta for various reasons, ranging from the place where they got married to the birth of a child. The city’s inclusive culture has helped too.

If Anastasia misses her hometown in Russia, it’s when her adopted city shows its warts. “Ours is a love-hate relationship, mine and the city’s. When I stand under a lashing monsoon shower and 10 taxis tell me ‘jabo na (I won’t go)’, I can’t help but think about my city (Krasnodar) with its plentiful trams and trolleybuses, and I start to miss a lot of other things. I miss my family and the change of seasons,” said Anastasia, whose husband Novonil Sinha Roy captains a ship.

But over time, she has discovered the joys of being here. “I don’t speak Bengali well, although I understand and can scold a taxi driver or bargain in the market. I wait for monsoon to come, when the whole city is hidden behind the grey curtain, and hot cha and maach bhaja taste out of this world. And talking about monsoon — HILSA!!! Oh! My goodness! Even now it makes my mouth water. No one makes it better than ma (her mom-in-law), doi ilish,” Anastasia said.

Irina Malysheva Kol, wife of Arunava Kol of Pernod Ricard India, loves the “beautiful old buildings” and the “fantastic festivals”. She loved watching Barfi!, especially because it was shot in “my city”, and is currently researching the similarities between Russian and Sanskrit.

If Olga Vakhtina listens to Tagore, her four-year-old daughter Alita is a Tollywood loyalist. “She loves Dev and Jeet more than Bollywood heroes. She keeps watching Sangeet Bangla and hence I am also aware of films like 100% Love (Jeet and Koel) and The Royal Bengal Tiger (Abir). Recently I watched Chander Pahar and loved it. My daughter is a big fan of Dev while I love Abir.”

Food is, of course, the common favourite and the Russian palate apparently loves everything Bengali. “Tomader mishti polao is actually similar to the Ukranian dish named plov. The momo reminds me of Russian dumplings called pelmeni,” Olga Vakhtina said.

At Flurys, chef Vikas Kumar served up a platter of Russian and European delicacies. “The medovik (Russian honey cake) is so delicious. It tastes just like the ones you get in Russia!” said Irina Manna.

Her friend Anna Saha loved the kulich as well as the borscht, a classic Russian soup.

“This year, the Orthodox Easter coincides with the Catholic Easter. I am very happy that our community got to celebrate Easter together. This is like a joint family and a great symbol of friendship between our countries,” said Arthur Gerbst, third secretary (consular and protocol) at the consulate general of Russia.

What makes Calcutta such a melting pot of cultures? Tell