Disclaimer: Proceed with caution. Intense nostalgia ahead.
Many many years ago, before the shiny global village descended in our backyard, our only connection to the rest of the world was via the country that was most sympathetic to us in the global political arena – the USSR or Soviet Union. We called ourselves a democracy but were semi socialist in approach. So quite a bit of my childhood was spent reading Russian books in English. Today, we can hardly see any of them around.
I only have about two books left from those days. A book of fairy tales, which was a gift to my brother but I appropriated it. And a young adult novel called “Summer Holidays” by Sergei Grebennikov. I love the watercolor illustrations on and inside this book. The author was unknown but that didn’t stop me from buying it. I remember I was in the third standard and the book exhibition was at school. I had a princely sum of 10 rupees in my hand with which was – as luck would have it – exactly the price of the book. The reason I still remember it was because I was very scared that I had spent the entire money mom gave me on one book. I didn’t know how she would react. But I was very surprised when she just nodded her head when I told her!
The other Russian books were the masters like Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. They don’t count because I read them when I was older and they are still available today. Of course, nothing could replace Raduga publishers from Moscow who published some of the most innocent, beautiful, and timeless children’s books.
Raduga did one thing which have placed them firmly in young Indian minds of the 80’s. They brought out an illustrated children’s magazine called Misha. My first brush with Misha was when my Dad brought a bunch of them for me. I was utterly fascinated. You must remember that at that time, there weren’t any Indian publishers bringing out illustrated magazines, which focused on non-Indian mythological stories for children. So Misha was a novelty both in terms of content and presentation.
It was also such a revelation! That there was a world out there which was strange and familiar at the same time. That women wore scarves on their head and flouncy skirts, and the men loved to dance the cossack dance. That there was firebirds as well as fairies in these far away cold lands. The magic of storytelling was the same but the grammar, different.
Misha, the English version, was priced at rupee 1. And I managed to collect quite a few. But I feel so sad that I don’t even one of them anymore. (I must start haunting second hand book stores soon.)
When the shiny global village did descend in our backyard, the time was the 90’s and the USSR began to be referred to as the erst-while Soviet Union. The man with the scar on his pate started an era with two words – glasnost and perestroika. The words meant nothing to me. All I knew was that Misha wasn’t available anymore. Many publishing houses – like Mir and Raduga – perished in the transition. Thankfully, my memories of those colorful childhood days didn’t.