The year was 1991. Few had ventured to far off Russian cities. Those who did would not talk much about it. The only people I could consult were Russians. My destination was Kazan, capital of the republic of Tatarstan, less than an hour's flying time away.
It's a city of bandits, I was told. They will look you in the eye and then rob you. Don't trust a soul. Better still, don't talk to anyone. And few Russians, like my secretary, would admit that they had Tatar cousins.
It was meant to be a three-day trip. Our host was a local boss, responsible for the "foreign commercial relations" of his republic. A nice enough fellow I had met a couple of times in Moscow. We were going to take a look at the Kazan helicopter plant, the makers of the famous MI series of helicopters. There was a tender coming up for air ambulances.
With hosts like these, I would be well taken care of, I thought.
I took a taxi to the distant Domodyedovo Airport. The road was built by Germans, I was told. The quality of the road was even better than Kutuzovsky - the road leading to politburo dachas in Moscow.
But the airport resembled North African train stations. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people slept all around with hardly any place to sit or even stand. Russia had not yet seen Western baggage. The way to pack was to roll things into a sheet and then wrap them in paper. There was even a service at the airport charging 3 rubles to " pack the bags."
Amid this chaos, I as a foreigner was entitled to the relative comfort of the Intourist lounge. But I decided, to much regret in hindsight, to be comrades with the Russians. I decided to take a stroll and spend time in the main terminal.
The upper level of the airport building even housed some Russian video games. Two cars raced against each other at a snail's pace, trying not to collide with an oncoming truck. A player could spot the truck, go brush his teeth and come back to avoid the accident. I tried hard but could not get my car to collide with any oncoming vehicle. I gave up frustrated, winning every race.
With almost three hours to kill before my delayed flight, I started looking for something to eat. I joined a queue for the buffet (which until 1991, was not called a "Swedish stool" for some reason) and as luck would have it, found a packet of Russian-made potato chips on sale. It has been the stuff of my nightmares ever since.
Potato chips were a rare luxury in Russia, and only a privileged joint like an airport lounge could get some. So everyone, ahead and behind me, scooped up all his cash and ignored other things like cold chicken and red caviar "buterbrody" in favor of those chips. I took my packet along with a glass of Fanta and looked for a table.
Luckily, a table became free, and I and another Tatar-looking fellow, in a smelly sports suit, sweaty and unshaven, lunged at it to take the opposing chairs. It was time to eat the chips.
"Kuda?" he asked.
"Kazan," I said.
"Ya tozhe" - me too, he announced as he pounced at my chips. No "please, mozhno, pozhaluista," no exchange of names, no handshake, no nothing! Kuda, Kazan and my chips. I was startled. The warnings of all my friends flashed in front of my eyes like an 8mm movie.
With a careful and unthreatening motion, I moved the packet toward my territory on the table and took a chip out. I did not want to get stabbed in the eye by this hungry Tatar, but I would not give up my chips so easily, either. Moreover, I had read Sun Tzu's "Art of War" recently.
"Otkuda?" he asked. "India," I said, and he grabbed the pack back toward himself to take a handful while giving a sympathetic nod at my being an Indian. Oh yeah! Hungry and poor we might be, I thought, but we do not take other people's chips with such impunity. We are a civilized people, you moron!
"Musulmanin?" - Moslem, he asked. And this time he even offered me the chips. What nerve, I thought. What bandits!
"No! Hindu," I said, taking a handful and this time keeping the pack in my hands.
"Aha! Business?" he asked, and with unashamed force took the packet out of my fingers.
"Yes!" I said, as he firmly moved the packet close to his chest.
All the while, we stared into each other's eyes. He cannot murder me over a pack of chips inside an airport terminal, I thought. Moreover, he had eaten all my chips anyway.
"Udacha" - good luck, he said and gave me the packet back with a few crumbs remaining inside. And with that, and a faint patronizing smile, he got up and moved away. No "thank you," "see you," "spasibo" - no nothing.
I wanted to hand my boarding pass back and run back to Moscow. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hit him - no, kill him. What a nation. What people, I thought. I missed the beggars on the streets of Delhi who shower blessings for every coin given. Here they grab and eat all your chips and do not have the decency to say a mere thanks.
But this was not to be the end of my miseries. The flight turned out to be one of the worst in my life. The small Yak-42 refused to lift above the clouds. It bumped dozens of meters while the man who had eaten my chips sat relaxing like Ghengis Khan, a row ahead of me. Every few seconds, he would turn back and give me a reassuring smile. "You won't die before you reach Kazan," must have been his meaning, I thought. I did not smile back. I did not want to show my anger, just as Sun Tzu had said. I was exercising self-control while my hands were in a cold sweat.
But I was also beginning to get meaningful glances from some other Tatars in his company. They all know, I thought. They all know you can rob an Indian and get away with it. I toyed seriously with the idea of jumping out of the plane before it crashed along with my shame at having lost the battle of the chips. But Sun Tzu had said nothing about suicide.
Ten minutes into the flight, his co-passenger, who could have been his brother, got up, walked up to me and offered me - some chips. As he did that, people stared at me smiling. They all encouraged me to take the chips. Now they were sprinkling salt on my wounds, I thought. But I wanted to set some standards in etiquette. The more he insisted, the more firmly I refused. Now it was the turn of the gangster, the Ghengis Khan himself to get involved. He got up, walked over to me and said, "Vozmi" - take it. It was an offer I could not refuse. He left a half pack of chips for me and went back to doze off. I left the chips in the seat pocket as a protest. You Tatars, I thought, should know that I, a proud Indian, do not need your bloody chips. As if the cleaning crew was going to put an ad in the local papers, "Potato chips found in seat pocket in front of seat where an Indian was sitting!" But I had to do it.
I was met at the airport and driven to the hotel. I checked in and decided to change my sweaty clothes before going out with my hosts.
In my room, as I unzipped my shoulder bag, my legs gave all their strength away. I almost fell to the ground with shock. An unopened pack of chips, the one I had bought at the airport, was lying on top of my bag.
(The author, an Indian, founded a multinational trading house that he managed until his retirement three years ago. He has traveled widely across the former Soviet Union. RJ is publishing excerpts from his memoirs under the column "Mowgli Tales." E-mail your own tales to firstname.lastname@example.org.)