Head down, nose in a book, I didn’t see the impact as the window shattered and the shards of glass sprayed over the carriage. I was on a late night suburban train from Zvezdny Gorodok to Bolshevo and the local youths were spicing things up by chucking stuff at us. We were in the thick of a Russian winter and I was dressed accordingly, which was fortunate; later that evening we would discover that my rabbit fur hat was embedded with hundreds of needle thin splinters that made it sparkle in the light. If I had been looking out the window it would have been my face that glittered. The fellow across the carriage wasn’t so lucky. The projectile, a glass container of dubious contents, had hit him on the temple and he was bleeding profusely. He was a sticky mess – quite apart from the blood and glass, the contents of the jar, which turned out to be chutney, had covered him in a thick pungent gloop.

There just so happened to be a pair of Militia on the next carriage. They came through to investigate and asked us what had occurred. At this point of their inquiries they discovered that I was a foreigner, which was way more exciting than bored kids causing havoc, and they demanded my papers. Heart sinking (I wasn’t really supposed to be there, nor did I have the necessary permissions – the usual way out of this kind of situation was a bribe, which I also didn’t have) I began rummaging through my bag for the documents when my unhappy travelling companion exploded in a rage of gunky frustration;

“He didn’t break the window! You should be out there chasing the hooligans, not harassing my friend!”.

No more than kids themselves, chastised and shamefaced, they left me alone and began to help with mopping up the gore.

I found myself thinking about this a few weeks back as I stood on the long platform at Cambridge, looking to see if the lights of my train would ever appear, far off to the south. It was one of the November strike days, and the element of doubt over whether the train would come at all was adding a frisson of uncertainty to the daily grind. But it was the peering into the dark that was so evocative, reminding me as it did of bitter cold nights on the platform at Zvezdny after long evenings in the classroom teaching English, so cold that I would light a cigarette, hopeful that the tiny glowing stub would trick me into feeling some vestige of heat. Because, somewhere to the east, the train rolling out of Monino would come round a bend and I would see the light shining on the track, moments before I would see the beam of the actual headlamp itself, four miles and eight long minutes away; I knew then that warmth, of sorts, was approaching and that I would soon be on my way home.

I have always liked it, gazing off down a railway line. I have a distinct memory of a station in the south France one summer, Grenoble or Lyon, a vast open complex of concrete platforms, overhead wires and tracks curving away alluringly into the shimmering heat – it was a world of endless possibility and I was fizzing in anticipation at the thought of boarding a train that would soon take me through the Alps into Italy. It was a moment of pure magic, and I was aware even at the time that there was something special about it.

There was much confusion that evening in Russia, when I arrived at the house of some friends and told them the story of my train journey home. Nobody was in the least bit surprised that it had happened (let’s face it, delinquent youths have always been lobbing things at passing trains – I remember, years ago, bricks bouncing off the windows of the Intercity I was travelling on, somewhere near Doncaster) but they were baffled as I tried to describe what chutney was. A kind of jam made from pickled vegetables and fruit? What’s he on about? Eventually, defeated, we turned to the dictionary; the Russian for chutney is, of course, chutney. It’s a Hindi word, and has been transliterated into both Russian and English the same. My pals were none the wiser. They were certainly no strangers to pickled veg in that part of the world, but they had no concept of what chutney could possibly be. And so, as I headed off to my own flat later that night, it wasn’t the drama that bothered me, or the fragments of glass still lodged in my hat, or even the fate of the man with the bloodied head, but the as yet unsolved puzzle of why and how the ne’er-do-wells’ missile of choice was a jar of chutney.

6 thoughts on “Chutney

    1. Another tremendous fragment from Wark. And the perfect explanation of how books can save your life. … It’d be great to see all these published!

      Liked by 1 person

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