Ajay Kamalakaran's A Week in the Life of Svitlana documents the story of a single mother in modern-day Moscow
Ajay Kamalakaran's latest work captures a week-long journey of the protagonist, Svitlana Khristenko, a single mother, in modern-day Moscow as she juggles multiple roles while retaining her acute political sensibilities amid the growing tension between Russia and her native Ukraine
Despite the fact that several decades of socialism helped make the country a much better place for women, Russia is still largely a patriarchal society
Russians and Ukrainians are closely linked, but the latter have been trying hard to assert their own unique identity as Eastern Europeans distinct from Russians
The fact that she has conflicting loyalties surrounding the geopolitical fallout between Russia and Ukraine doesn’t reduce the stress in Svitlana’s life
Russophile journalist-turned-author Ajay Kamalakaran is a quintessential global Indian – with no fixed address. He traces his roots to Palakkad, Kerala, is a Mumbaikar by birth and heart, and did most of his schooling in New York since his father worked as a banker in the Big Apple.
Kamalakaran found fame in Sakhalin as the editor of the weekly Sakhalin Times in the remote eastern Russian island’s capital Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from 2003 to 2007 amid the oil and gas boom. His stint in Sakhalin led to his debut work of fiction, Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island, in 2017, which uncovered a part of Russia that was unknown to many Russians.
On 5 November 2019, his second work of fiction, A Week in the Life of Svitlana, was released in Colombo by renowned Sri Lankan author and artist Sybil Wettasinghe.
His latest work captures a week-long journey of the protagonist, Svitlana Khristenko, a single mother, in modern-day Moscow as she juggles multiple roles while retaining her acute political sensibilities amid the growing tension between Russia and her native Ukraine.
Kamalakaran spoke with Firstpost about his book. Edited excerpts:
How difficult is it for a single mother like your protagonist Svitlana Khristenko to battle the odds in Moscow and Russia at large?
Imagine a similar situation in Mumbai and add the freezing cold weather… Jokes aside, despite the fact that several decades of socialism helped make the country a much better place for women, Russia is still largely a patriarchal society. Women bear the lion’s share of responsibilities when it comes to parenting. Being a single mother is all the more difficult, if there is little support from the father. It is also a bit more difficult for a single mother to find a life partner. On top of that, a problem unique to Russia is that there are more women than men, making the dating and relationship game a lot more difficult for the fairer sex.
Are Svitlana’s struggles aggravated because of her innate disagreements with the politics of her life and times?
The fact that she has conflicting loyalties surrounding the geopolitical fallout between Russia and Ukraine doesn’t reduce the stress in Svitlana’s life. It isn’t easy to oppose the popular rhetoric whether in Moscow, Kyiv or even Delhi.
Svitlana’s life revolves around three women – her four-year-old daughter, her friend, and her mother living in her native Ukraine. Why this trinity of women across age groups?
She hasn’t been too lucky, when it comes to romantic relationships. So, Svitlana really values the women in her life. And each of the women in her life represents a thought process unique to their own generation. Even, Nelle is highly opinionated for a four-year old.
Was it a conscious choice to portray Svitlana as a Ukrainian? For the uninitiated, what are the fundamental differences between a Russian and Ukrainian in a Balkanised and post-Cold War era USSR?
Russians and Ukrainians are closely linked, but the latter have been trying hard to assert their own unique identity as Eastern Europeans distinct from Russians. While ethnic Ukrainians living in distant Russian regions in Asia choose to identify as Russians now, there is this grey area for those who have dual citizenship or those who have lived in Ukraine for a long time.
You chronicle Svitlana’s travails over a week, as the title of your book suggests. Why seven days?
The idea was to give the reader a glimpse of contemporary Moscow. Life in Russia’s biggest city is fast-paced, exciting and dynamic. Too many visitors to Moscow don’t go beyond the tourist circuit, and have little idea of the vibrancy and diversity of the city.
Is Svitlana an epitome of many non-Muscovites, who fail to cope with the trials and tribulations of the city and throw in the towel in despair?
Quite the opposite actually! She’s a brave woman who fights back and stays strong despite all the challenges she faces in life. Muscovites are tough, resilient and forward-looking. There’s an old saying, ‘Moscow does not believe in tears.’
Can Svitlana be loyal to both Russia and her native Ukraine amid the growing tension between two neighbours with a shared culture and history?
This is a dilemma that any person faces when their native country is at odds with the country they live in, even if there is no shared culture and history. Let’s look at Indian-Americans. How did they feel in the days after the 1998 nuclear tests when the then US President Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on India? Closer home, we have an entire religious community that is forced to prove its patriotism even 72 years after independence.
A Week in the life of Svitlana is marked departure from your earlier work, Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island. What next?
I would love to try my hand at non-fiction. I definitely need to spend more time in India and have a deep and dispassionate look at what’s going on in my own backyard. I would also like to write more about the Russian Far East, given how people took a great interest in Sakhalin after my first work of fiction was out.
Read an excerpt from A Week in the life of Svitlana —
As the clouds turned crimson and helped form a blue, white and red collage in the twilight sky, the music on the boat became even more romantic. He gently held her hand and took her to the open area. As they looked at the Kremlin, he told her that he loved Moscow as it symbolized hope… Hope for a better life. “This is why everyone comes here to Moscow. To have a fair chance at pursuing their dreams,” he said.
Marat gently looked at her green eyes and they kissed. Svitlana was elated but kept her composure. Not wanting to look like she was an ‘easy’ woman, she gently pulled herself away from him.
“Marat, you’re a wonderful man, but you live in Chechnya and I am sure that there isn’t a shortage of lovely women waiting for a man like you there,” she said. He laughed and insisted that he remained single and lonely in a place where he was almost like a fish out of water.
“Chechnya is becoming increasingly radicalised every day,” he said. “Until very recently, we were never a conservative Islamic society, and now you can see so many women covering their hair and even wearing a full veil. They even have shops selling burkinis in Grozny. This is all part of a political agreement that bought peace! And the women are the losers.”
He said he wanted to permanently move to the Russian capital. “If I play my cards right, I could end up right here in Moscow in the not so distant future.”
Marat’s words on women’s rights and his denunciation of radical Islam were music to Svitlana’s ears.
The cruise had ended and the chilly autumn breeze made Svitlana put on an Orenburg shawl. They kissed once again before she said it was time to go. “Let me drop you home. I have a car and chauffeur here,” Marat said. She politely turned him down and said she’d call him the next day.
The Chechen official was due to stay in Moscow till Monday. They could definitely meet at least one more time, she thought.
Svitlana would not let a man kiss her unless she was dead serious about him.
Like many teenagers in the 1990s, Svitlana broke many hearts. In the summer of 1997, she took up an internship with the police. She looked totally irresistible in a navy blue police uniform, getting plenty of second looks from men. This was the summer before the major rouble crash and financial crisis. Moscow was buzzing with expats and a new breed of Russian men, for whom communism was a thing of the past. She believed that she could change casual boyfriends like gloves and that there would no repercussions. In fact, Svitlana considered herself a classic Slavic beauty until she became pregnant. “Nelle spoiled my beauty,” she’d repeatedly tell her friends. Even with her beauty supposedly spoiled, she was cautious about how far she would go with men.
On the metro ride back home, Svitlana noticed an old woman in her 70s. She had aged gracefully, but for some reason looked morose. There was a visible sadness in those cold blue eyes, which kept her beautiful despite the large wrinkles on her face. Dressed well, she was reading Altai-Himalaya, a book written by Russian artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, who travelled from India into Central Asia through the Himalayas.
Svitlana was sure that the woman had an interesting story to tell, but something that ended in some sort of longing and unfulfilled desires. She actually wanted to talk to her and find out more about her, but it clearly went against the etiquette of the Moscow metro. “Why did those eyes look so sad,” Svitlana wondered.
She wasn’t the only one observing the beautiful old woman. Sitting close to her, was a man in his early 50s, who decided to draw a portrait of this woman. He walked up to her and gifted the pencil sketch that almost did justice to the woman’s beauty. Those sad blue eyes suddenly lit up and she smiled, making her look even more stunning. “That’s the kindest thing anyone has done for me in many years,” she told the artist. “Retired life can be a mixed blessing if you have no one to share it with,” she told him and he gently hugged her before he disembarked at the next stop.
Was this the fate that awaited Svitlana after a few decades? Loneliness? Nelle, even at the age of four, had already displayed a basically selfish personality. Russian society was continuing to undergo a wave of changes with Moscow in some ways becoming more European and western. The strong family values that existed in the Soviet days were all but gone, and no one struggled more than pensioners.
Earlier in the summer, she saw one of her neighbours desperately trying to sell roses from the dacha. The woman was virtually begging and in tears. “What’s the matter?” Svitlana asked her. The woman replied that almost her entire pension was being used to pay the rising utility bills, and that she hardly had any money to buy food. That day, Svitlana bought all her flowers and tried to help her as much as she could, but wondered what the oil rich Russian state was doing to help its most vulnerable citizens.
There were reports about senior citizens in smaller towns buying one potato from a shop or market, as that was all they could afford. She felt it was so unfair that people in places like Alaska and Norway got so much support from the state, while Russia had adopted an extreme form of capitalism. Moscow is the city of billionaires, fancy cars and lunches that can cost hundreds of dollars, but it is also a place where rising costs are leading to new urban poverty. Svitlana understood that those in small towns and villages had it much worse. It was indeed a terrible thing to be old and poor in Russia.
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