Through the unfortunate city of Tbilisi, guided by Parajanaov, Raj Kapoor and the Disco Dancer

9 min read

Tbilisi is a city where everywhere you go, you find free Wi-Fi named Tbilisi Loves U. It was, however, impossible to log in.

Tbilisi is a city of clichés—here, East meets West, traditional meets modern; it is an enigmatic contradiction of gigantic proportions, with bustling markets and verdant hills, and finally, wonderful people. To escape such guide book jargon, we stayed at a hotel in Didube, far from the touristy heart of the city.

Didube, the vortex of Georgia, was the city’s and the nation’s transport hub. Residents as well as fresh arrivals walked about its narrow alleys like ants, passing through forests of cheap wares for daily use—vegetables, cookies, hardware, second hand clothes, kitchenware. Buskers sucked in their abdomens to make space for their violins; boots walked past frenetically. In these alleys that never saw sunlight, beggars struggled to make visible their placards that pleaded for kindness.

We always passed by the same scene in Didube. At a small barbershop, time stopped flowing; there was always a man doing up pink afro-braids for a young lady while another middle-aged woman kept looking at them lovingly. One evening, we barged into this universal constant, just to stir the pond. I asked for a haircut and Lobo asked if she could replace the man doing Tago’s braids. Nina, the barber, was the nicest that humankind had to offer, but her machines were sheer brutes. The rusty trimmers plucked hair instead of cutting, and the blower—hot as a tandoor—nearly melted my head. I bit my tongue and swallowed my scream so as to not hurt Nina’s feelings. As tears rolled down my eyes, I heard Tago and Lobo exchange a sea of pleasantries with each other. Tago’s boyfriend had been working on her afro for a month. They remarked that Lobo was too slow, and left to her, the braids would probably take a lifetime.

“Please come again,” said Nina as we left.

“Only if you will allow me to come with my own scissors and blower.”

The highlight of Tbilisi is its Old City. This was an Old City that was really old. Here, Tbilisi was peeling off, flaking off, rusting, breaking at its joints, creaking at its elbows, dropping into a heap of rubble, with spider webs hanging from its walls as curtains. Yet, these buildings exuded a certain sense of pride and honour, with their potted flower plants sitting pretty on window sills and in balconies.

A statue of Parajanov at Tbilisi

From the fading pastel coloured walls of the Old City, Sergei Parajanov broke free, his jacket and arms morphed into wings, his bulging belly challenging the principles of aerodynamics. Parajanov was one of the most beautiful minds of cinema, who, with films like The Colour of Pomegranates and Ashik Kerib, introduced me to a world of colours and frames that made all human senses other than sight seem redundant and superfluous, a world—as the critic Alexei Korotyukov said—that proved Parajanov as a creator had better visual aesthetics than those of God.

Parajanov’s colours were on full display at Deserter Bazaari. We entered this enormous market by sliding through the curtain strings of colourful churchkhelas—Georgian candies that hung like long limp penises with a pinched tip. Inside, it was a stage set for the original sin: stacks of red apples and green apples, leafy vegetables, aromatic heaps of spices and nuts. The market’s name came from those who deserted the Tsar’s army, and came to sell their weapons and uniforms, to buy a normal life. Today, the only arms on display were shaving razors, used by meat-sellers to clean the hair off severed pig heads.

In the basement of Deserter Bazaari, we found a sizeable crowd, loud and ecstatic. We were instantly pushed to the front.

“Help us,” said a middle-aged man wearing a prisoner stripe tee, his arms raised skywards. “It’s a Chinese machine. Tell us what it says, please.”

It was a slot machine that gave out cigarette packs, its labels all in Chinese. Without luck, the group had been playing for months, like monkeys with a typewriter. To make the most from their misery, an unkempt elderly woman stood next to the machine, selling cigarettes on a small tray hanging from her neck.

Lobo, my partner, explained the buttons and the rules. The enlightened men suddenly started winning. One box, two boxes, ten boxes, the crowd was euphoric. The winner kept one box, gave his friends two, and donated the rest to the woman selling cigarettes.

At kuda [From where]?,” they asked me.

“At India!”

They began to dance and sing Disco Dancer, that perennial favourite in CIS countries. And suddenly we were on the sets of an 80s Bollywood film, those over-the-top blots on world cinema. Lobo and I, the romantic couple, were surrounded by a phalanx of background dancers, the vegetable sellers of Deserter Bazaari.

In his film The Legend of Suram Fortress, Parajanov depicts a charming snapshot of Georgian history with dolls of St Nino, Tamar, Parnavaz (inventor of Georgian script) and Prometheus, swinging in an arched line. In the legend of Prometheus (Amiran in Georgian), the Greek Gods punish him for defying their world order, first by creating men out of clay, and then stealing fire for them. Prometheus is chained in a cave in Kutaisi, Georgia, and an eagle feasts on his helpless heart, but the heart heals by the morning, and the eagle comes back. The cycle of Prometheus’s suffering continues till today. In The Legend of Suram Fortress, Osman Agha, the wise old man, predicts that when Prometheus breaks free of his chains, Georgia will become free. Alas, Zeus has ensured that the chains remained unbreakable.

The crumbling Old City of Tbilisi

Georgia’s chains were defined by its much larger neighbour Russia, and their testy relationship was on full display at the Museum of Soviet Occupation. Similar museums are found in ex-Soviet countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine. We were welcomed by a giant screen at the entrance of the museum playing footage from the Russian invasion of 2008. In that video, Saakashvili thundered speeches of defiance. Inside the museum were documents, photographs, and items attesting to Soviet repression of Georgians. We saw letters from Georgian churches asking the godless atheists to return their property. We looked at letters from Georgian villages in South Ossetia asking the Soviet authorities to exclude them from South Ossetia. There was, however, little mention of the role of Georgia’s own sons, Stalin and Beria. At the museum, we were walking behind a group of elderly American tourists guided by a local.

“The Russians know when to mess things up,” said the guide. “They will always do something before elections when the government is distracted. Same in Georgia, same in your country. Like they stole Crimea when you were having your house elections.”

“The problem is your President is a weak man and Putin knows it. He knows he can just do small things here and there and your President will say he is angry in a calm way and then nothing will happen but after ten years you will notice what has happened.”

“And Putin knows to get his way. Like in Georgia now, I would say every party is pro-Russian. In Syria, Ukraine, everywhere he gets his way. So whether you have Trump or Bernie, it will be the same.”

Elections were to happen soon in Georgia and the Old City was all dressed up for the upcoming party. Every railing, fence and unclaimed wall in the city wore unending necklaces of A3 size election posters. They were all portraits of people smiling, beaming, promising a better future. Many of them had been enhanced by supporters and detractors. The ladies were given moustaches. The men were given devil’s horns. Some were given Dracula teeth, while others had phalluses thrust upon their smiling teeth, ears, nostrils and eyes. Upon seeing our interest in these mutilated posters, a young passer-by commented in fluent American:

“Aren’t these hilarious? The supporters of their own party scribble over these posters. Only then they get more attention. Smart, right?”

The election posters in Tbilisi

We met up with Reza and Mariam to discuss. They were both university students.

“Young people in Georgia are disillusioned,” Reza said. “It is hard to get a job now, even if you are highly educated. Even if you get a job, you get only 300 lari a month. And they don’t treat you well.”

And what about politics? Hadn’t Georgia produced so many young politicians? In his book The Caucasus: An Introduction, Thomas de Waal points out that Georgia went to war with Russia in 2008 with a 40 year old president, a 36 year old prime minister, a 30 year old foreign minister and a 29 year old defence minister.

“Yes, there are many,” said Reza. “And it’s good to have young people in politics. They bring in new ideas. But in Georgia, the problem is that even the younger politicians here have been around for too long. They have messed up no less. So again, the young are disillusioned with them. Today, every party is for Russia. So some young people like me just hate politics. We don’t even want to discuss it. We are looking for a new inspiration, not God, not politics, something else.”

And what about the good old Soviet Union? Did the young hope for its return like the old?

“Not us,” said Mariam. “Only the older people miss the Soviet Union, for the pension. Also, those days, they could travel freely, and the men could enjoy women from all around that vast empire.”

Political matters in Georgia were often settled on a street named Rustaveli Avenue. On any atypical day, Rustaveli Avenue could seem like a clone of Singapore’s Orchard Road or Beijing’s Wangfujing Street, with Gucci and Prada labels peeking at window shoppers from comfortable shelves. But on a typical day, it would be overrun by protesters, sometimes demanding the release of rappers held for drug abuse, sometimes against poor working conditions in factories. But Rustaveli Avenue shook Georgia and metamorphosed it twice: first during the Rose Revolution in 2003 that overthrew Shevardnadze, and Saakashvili walked up this very street with fellow protestors, roses in hand, on their way to gate-crash the parliament; and second during the protests against Saakashvili himself in 2011, following the Gldani Prison Scandal (Georgia’s Abu Ghraib), – that eventually led to his demise. Perhaps because of this inconvenient location on such a hot-headed avenue, Georgia’s Parliament building was eventually moved to a place two hundred kilometres away from Rustaveli Avenue, in the city of Kutaisi.

On the feeder roads along Rustaveli Avenue, we found a graffiti showing a bottle floating lost in the seas, a message inside it: the solution for bringing in world peace.

On our last evening in Tbilisi, as we walked out of a well-urinated tunnel in Freedom Square, under a sky-high statue of St. George, we met two buskers, Nico and Carlo, who had shaped their bodies in imitation of Laurel and Hardy. Carlo played the saxophone and Nico the drum. Carlo was a musician, Nico just a pretender. Nico was heavily drunk, Carlo yet to drink that evening. Nico ranted, Carlo stammered. They said a loud hello, and on hearing that I was from India, Nico went into a frenzy. He hugged me and kissed my cheeks. He looked at me with those eyes, those moist big black Georgian eyes that I had read about in Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino, mirroring fear, joy, curiosity and sudden tearing pain, all at once.

“India, India,” said Nico. “Raj Kapoor, India films, play that Indian song Carlo, Mai shayaar to nahi, magar ai haseen, jab se dekha, maine tujhko, mujhko shayaari aa gayi, [I am not a poet, but when I saw your beauty, poetry came to me]. Play it Carlo, here hold the drum, Shivaji, my brother, play the drum, see Carlo, he plays.”

A crowd gathered around and I beat the drum in between Carlo and Nico. The crowd was swinging and the crowd was dancing.

Nico was delirious, “Shivaji, Shivaji, where were you. Shivaji? You have come, Shivaji.

“Old Days, good days, play a Georgian song Carlo, play Dari Duri Dari Duri.”

And Carlo played. Nico took back the drum and beat it like a maniac, missing all the beats. The crowd sang along and danced. Nico was crying and laughing. We were swinging at Freedom Square. And the gilded statue of St George was about to slay the evil dragon.

“India, Old Days, Good Days. Where were you Shivaji. Shivaji?”

Nico hugged me, kissed me on my cheeks again. Lobo clapped. The crowd clapped and gave us a thumbs up.

“Old days, Good Days, Shivaji, India, Play another song, Carlo. Play Goro ki na kalo ki, Duniya hai dilwalo ki [Neither black, nor white, the world belongs to those with a heart].”

Further Reading

[1] This article/podcast by 99% Invisible about the popularity enjoyed by Hindi cinema in Russia.

All images belong to the author. They may not be reproduced without permission.


About the author

Shivaji Das is the author of three travel memoirs and photography books. His latest book is Sacred Love: Erotic Arts in the temples of Nepal. Shivaji’s work has been featured in TIME, Economist, BBC, Asian Geographic, among others. He is the conceptualizer of Global Migrant Festival and Migrant and Refugee Poetry Contests. He is the head of APAC for Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting company.

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