How delightful or painful can the wait of snow-covered lives, in a far eastern corner of majestic Russia be, to melt its way into a spring morning?
Ajay Kamalakaran's collection of 11 short stories, titled 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island', is a story of snow and spring, and of many different people, set against the aqua-blue mountains of Sakhalin Island.
The island, the largest in Russia, is Europe's gateway to Asia with Japan lying very close to it. It is located so close to the international date line that one could actually trip over to yesterday.
Kamalakaran's collection is a bunch of curiosities, something his keen sense of journalistic observation and deep understanding of a far corner and its beautiful blue-eyed people, seem to have made possible.
A keen Russia enthusiast from his early twenties, Kamalakaran is a Malayali, born in Bombay and raised in New York. His passion for the Russian language engulfed him in his early twenties leading to an all consuming affair that took him all the way to one of the most unexplored, inhabited lands on the globe.
Still living with the ghosts of the early political prisoners, the Tsarist regime, and imperialism, Sakhalin is rich both in history and oil. Through the eleven stories, Kamalakaran takes a tour through the inhabitants of the island, a mystique natural bounty in itself.
His characters navigate the different lives that Sakhalin lived, the ebbs and tides of an oil boom, the white enclosures that colonized the development dreams of the islanders, the expats and fortune seekers who loved and lost, and the longing for some sun from the solitary monologues situated in the prolonged gloom of the Russian winter.
Kamalakaran gives us the passionate and enterprising 'Darya', the real globetrotter for love, who dared to tread the volatile boundaries of morality and success, unashamed and irreverent of the vagaries of the host island and its turbulent human-scape. In April, an unknown voice is treading the hostile snow, longing for the Russian spring that has already bloomed on the mainland.
The story of Galina Vasilevna, the middle-aged Russian, now living on the margins that Perestroika pushed her to, takes the reader to her proud sense of entitlement and ownership of her land set against the expat influx that continued in the early years of the millennium.
“There are many places in Russia, cold and forlorn, but Sakhalin Island held a different charm. It was totally mysterious and unexplored. For me, going from very crowded Bombay to a landmass almost the size of India (the Russian Far East), but with just a few million inhabitants, was totally irresistible,” Kamalakaran said.
The Sakhalin shelf, with its millions of barrels of oil, saw a flurry of activity in the early millenium and English became the ladder for social mobility for the people of the island. Ajay Kamalakaran was editing the Sakhalin Times, an English newspaper, between 2003-07 and lived among the locals for many years exploring deeper into the life on the island. Since 2011, he has been an editor and columnist with Russia Beyond the Headlines, a Moscow based multimedia publication.