Strangers in the night exchanging glances
One of the most beautiful sunsets I have witnessed recently was in the city of Tbilisi . The breeze wafted across us as we watched the sun set on a warm balmy evening whilst we were dining in a restaurant situated on a cliff . Below we could see the Mtkvari river as it passed us having meandered through the city. We were in the heart of Tbilissi – the capital of Georgia, a country famous for vineyards, folk dancing, banquets and sulfur baths. Infact the name Tbilisi is derived from the ancient Georgian word ‘Tbili’ meaning warm. Numerous sulphuric hot springs that dot the city give it its name!
Through the centuries Georgias famous hospitality and warmth has withstood attacks from numerous invaders – from the Mongols and Persians to the Ottoman Turks. The Georgians maintained their culture and identity even though their country was incorporated into both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Say the word “Russia” today and the Georgians do not smile, they have fought for their independence valiantly. We were told by our hosts that ‘after various attempts (some of them violent) Georgia got independence as recently as 1990’. Inspite of its violent history, Georgia as a nation has held on to its unique cultural traditions. Today Tbilisi its capital is a beautiful city bustling with restaurants, clubs, shops and galleries.
From our table we had a breathtaking view of several churches built in the Greek orthodox style and the mountains of Georgia. It was a little dark inside the restaurant but the stage at the end was brightly lit up and we soon witnessed several Georgian traditional folk dances. Beautifully dressed dancers in their traditional Georgian regional dress swayed to the accompaniment of live folk music , each dance lasting eight to ten minutes.
This was our first trip to Georgia and our group of 12 were seated on a long table which was almost groaning with the food laden on it . Large bowls of beautiful fresh fruit were surrounded by an assortment of atleast 10 different salads. If I remember correctly there must have been Assorted pickles (cherries, green tomatoes, pickles, peppers), Marinated mushrooms, Black Olives,Georgian salad, Greek Salad (with cheese and olives), Eggplant with walnut, Green Beans with walnut, Spinach with walnut, Cabbage rolls with walnut, a large variety of cheeses and delicious red caviar.
We were served Georgian wine and soon after whilst we were feasting on the several salads, the host of the evening got up to give a toast. He thanked us for being there that evening and hoped that we would enjoy their hospitality and we all raised our glasses ! My husband the leader of our group also offered an appropriate toast on our behalf. Having arrived that day, hungry and new to the Georgian banquet traditions we immediately wolfed down our salad with the local bread . We tasted everything, thinking that this was a remarkable meal where everything was laid upfront. This was our first day in the country and we soon realised that what we were witnessing was no normal meal. We had not known that we were to witness the Georgian ceremonial dinner known as the ‘supra’ – a highly ritualized event where rounds of standardized and improvised toasts alternated with the serving of warm dishes well into the early morning !
The first warm course was the traditional Khachapuri, which was like a pizza made out of dough, cheese and butter. This was accompanied by Red Beans in pots, similar to an Indian curry Rajma made out of kidney beans. Dolma (stuffed grape leaves), Chakhokhbili (chicken in tomato sauce) , Chanakhi (lamb with vegetables, eggplant, potato, tomato) and roast chicken. Our Indian palates relished the delicate sauces and sharp spices of the Georgian cuisine. We were also entertained by our local friends who willingly furnished us with snippets of information such as – “ The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia but he gave no support to Georgias attempts to win national independence from the USSR ” or “ George Bush visited Georgia and had a sulphur bath and the nearby restaurant he visited is now named after him !”
This was followed by another toast. By this time our host and toast master Mr Baker, knew all our names and had something nice to say about each of us . The lovely wine and grape brandy that we were toasting with and all delicious food in our stomachs put us in great spirits ! We all swore total allegiance to Georgia and promised to foster close ties with the country. Luckily we had amongst us a fellow guest who was familiar with the customs and rituals of the ‘supra’ feast. He told us tactfully that it was not necessary that we eat all the food presented in front of us. To the contrary it was considered a mark of dishonour if the table appeared empty after a guest had eaten , as that signified there was not enough food on the table! That was an important snippet of information – what a relief !
Another dance, more toasting this time on the popularity of Indian (Hindi) cinema and a special mention that all the pretty young Indian girls present in our group looked like Hindi cinestars and those not so young ( such as me ) vaguely resembled the Bollywood ( Bombay equivalent of Hollywood) heroines of yesteryear! It was interesting to observe that many of the senior Georgians loved Hindi cinema and the Indian culture. “We all love Raj Kapoor” they said. Raj Kapoor our beloved fair complexioned, blue eyed doyen of hindi cinema, who had made several movies featuring Russian heroines in the 70’s .
More wine, more food , this time mushrooms with sour cream and mozzarella, Fried Trout, Fried potatoes with mushroom, Chicken shish-kebab and Lamb shish-kebab.
Finally our host rose up to give his final toast. He said ‘This time, this toast was going to be a toast with a difference” , he was going to “sing” the toast to us. So the very charming and charismatic Mr Baker rose , walked up to the stage , took the mike and started singing Frank Sinatras
“Strangers in the night, exchanging glances, strangers in the night wondering what their chances ……doo be doo be doo….” . An old favourite with my husband, the song lured him on the stage as he joined our host Mr Baker. Their voices blended beautifully with each other. Everyone clapped and this was followed by much embracing and back slapping. To our relief no more food was served to us.
Finally our host sat down and informed us that as a special surprise for us the DJ for the evening was going to play an Indian song that we would all enjoy. We waited expectantly , confident that he would play a contemporary movie song . We waited in pin drop silence waiting whilst the DJ searched on his laptop. In the mean while another round of food – this time our dessert was served to us, ice cream and a special custard . Finally the DJ found the song he was searching for. The lights were dimmed, and we waited.
To our utter surprise we heard the sounds of our Indian national anthem being played! The DJ was not aware that the song he was playing was the Indian national anthem! “ Jana gana mana…..” He had only read the name of the artist “ A R Rehman” , the famous Indian music composer and artist who had recently shot to international fame when he won an Oscar for the music he composed in the film ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’. Once the beautiful stylised version of the Indian national anthem started all the Indians in the restaurant stood to attention. Gradually other diners followed suite and everyone stood up in respect. The DJ was totally bewildered , what he thought would be lively music to finish the party had actually turned out to be the Indian National anthem! It was a joyous occasion and another reason for more vodka – the final toast! This time our generous host Mr Baker thanked us for our patience , acceptance of their hospitality, and understanding !
It was a special and wonderful evening in Tbilisi, a cherished memory we brought back to India with us !