Vaihayasi P Daniel


Across the water from Finland, in tiny Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic state of Estonia, the main square which dates back to the 1500s has three -- yes, three -- Indian restaurants! And they are reasonably full. Russians, Estonians, British, Swedish and American tourists are all wolfing down channa pindi and mutton biryani.

The Marks and Spencer food section in London sells not less than 30 Indian canned and frozen foods specially prepared by the company. Bombay aloo, pappadam, chicken tikka, prawn masala, mutton korma -- they all come neatly, antiseptically packed in tins and foil containers with glossy, sophisticated labels. I mean, a tin of Bombay aloo looks as exotic as a container of caviar!

I was going back to Estonia after three years.

If you know your geography, Estonia is basically a Scandinavian country, located a few kilometres across the Gulf of Bothnia from Helsinki. I have special affection for this land. My mother is Estonian. She fled it ahead of the advancing Red army during World War II.

Estonia declared its independence in the spring of 1991, when all the little countries that the Great Russian Bear had swallowed whole in 1945 declared their freedom. I always have mixed feelings when I arrive in Tallinn. I feel some strange pride that it is doing so well. At the same time I am shocked at the Russianness of the place. In some odd way, Estonia remains more backward than India.

We took a boat to Tallinn from Stockholm. The ship, an Estonian one, had now become quite a posh liner equipped with discos, night-clubs, shopping arcades, fancy restaurants, saunas, pools and even can-can girls (my daughter was thrilled to bits with their act!).

Estonians are quite a bit more fancily dressed and had money to throw around. They are becoming steadily more European and less Third Worldish and throwing off the Slavic influences. However, many of them cannot hold their liquor.

The ship was bursting with unruly Swedes too, who were inebriated from 0600 hours (rather unlike the regular Swedes who are very polite, civilised people). We were informed that Swedes race across the gulf every weekend to have a vodka holiday and return often with drugs in their pockets. The authorities are aware of these runs and the returning M S Baltic Christina is sealed off and surrounded with sniffer dogs on each trip.

A variety of illegal activities flourish in Estonia. I am told that uranium is one of the largest exported items although the mineral does not naturally occur in Estonia. It comes smuggled through from Russia.

Estonia is slowly becoming ultra modern. Operating systems have all been borrowed and copied from Finland and Sweden. Scandinavian supermarket and department chains are flourishing. However, Estonia still has a strange communist hangover. Commercialism and capitalism usually lend a kind of brisk, happy, colourful bazaar-like buoyancy to a place -- the tony malls, the fancy stores, the countless yellow arches of McDonald's. That Estonia lacks. There are plenty of shops and commerce but it still has a Russian gloom of peeling paint, grim homogenous looking buildings, non-European disorder and 'beery'-eyed, sad people.

The saddest of the lot are the Russians. One-third of Estonia is still ethnic Russia and although many of them have done very well for themselves in free Estonia, quite a few are shunned. Estonia is their home yet not their home. Their lack of inclination to learn Estonian puts Estonian citizenship off limits. They live in little islands of Slavdom, listening to Russian pop and reading the Pravda as if yesterday never came.

Landing in Bombay's Chhatrapati Shivaji international airport delivers one back right into the mad Indian bazaar.

As I disembark from the aircraft two porters offer their services insistently. Others cut large circles around my trolley wondering whether they could make a small fee getting me through customs. Unfortunately but happily, there are no whooshing lifts and convenient machines to spit out baggage trolleys and the like. My daughter is unimpressed. Even though 10 different people have pinched her cheek and attempted to engage her in dialogue since we landed.

Travel Editor Vaihayasi P Daniel swears there is no place better than Bombay.