At half past 11, three silhouettes left a hotel and walked on to the dark pavement outside. The trio was the most unlikely to be caught together on a lazy night in a small city like Goris: a middle-aged tourist guide, a 60-somethingformer rock musician, and an Indian traveller in her late 20s. The winter was long gone, its remnants had lingered in the air like the after effects of deep slumber. The dark, desolate neighbourhood had spilled on to the sidewalk. A few low beam tubelights made incongruous puddles to illuminate the ground, and the only movement on the long empty stretch ahead were the flickering human shadows.
I’d regretted the moment we stepped out; it had been a long day already and we had just arrived from Yerevan, the country’s capital. My guide Sirarpi Baghdasaryan had taken up the task of finding me the city centre (my travel fetish in every European city), and for bridging the language barrier between Vasgen Manukyan and me. Vasgen, a former guitarist and astronomy enthusiast had stood with me at Zorats Karer (the Armenian Stonehenge) earlier and admired the work of ancient stargazers who had planted 233 rocks on a large barren land to plot time.
We had only met in the morning, and there was still that awkwardness we had to get rid of. For Vasgen, discussing the origin of language was seemingly the only way to bring the barrier down. “The root of some Sanskrit words,” he began, “is in Armenian.” I listened intently, partly unsatisfied with the proposal, just like anyone who’d been taught to pride the superiority of Sanskrit over other languages, would. But who was I to contest.
I was travelling through one of the oldest civilisations of the world; the city of Yerevan was built 2,796 years ago, long before Armenia accepted Christianity in AD 204. I registered some of the 10 words with same meanings—das for ten, hazar for thousand, and so on. Half past midnight, it took more than Sanskrit to perk our minds, and the conversation wielded off to Mahabharata. Even on the snoozy sleep-deprived walk, I realised how much he knew about Indian epics and how much I didn’t. Somewhere down, as the road turned, we lost our focus to some bizarre conical shaped mountain tops that were peeking in shades of grey from behind the tall buildings in the vicinity.
Maybe the world had conspired to help us, as Paulo Coelho would say: Two men in sturdy black leather jackets appeared at the comer of a block, sitting nonchalantly, as if it were not the dead of the night. Back in Delhi, this is when I would sprint in the opposite direction, but Sirarpi walked straight up to ask what it was that we were seeing—“Zangezur!” they stood up and offered to show the way. Wait, were you not supposed to refuse help from two strangers? My building anxiety was palpable, but shortly after, one of them broke into an Armenian poem he penned. It was too dark to fathom his expressions, but not dark enough to deny the emotion in his voice. About 20 lines down, when he finished, Sirarpi explained, “It’s a poem about how his mother has raised him against all odds and how greatful to God he is.” I was astonished at how easily a man could reveal his vulnerable side to people he had just met; Armenia, on the other hand was only beginning to unfold.
Travel is always a quest to personal discovery and on your way back, if you haven’t found that one hook that gives meaning to the journey. Every effort that you’ve made to get there, has been in vain. Armenia, I learned, is reflected by its people. Next morning, I met Kolya Torosyan, a famous, 89-year-old traditional duduk-maker. Duduks are the national musical instrument in Armenia—they look roughly like flutes and sound like what can be called the hybrid of a shehnai and a bagpiper. Kolyalives in Byurakan and his life is a city dweller’s enviable retirement plan. He grows tomatoes, beetroot, and walnut in his backyard, nurtures bee hives for honey, and has a loving wife of 91 whom he still considers most beautiful.
With an extraordinary’ family of four children, 12 grandchildren, and 11 great grandchildren, he has something to look forward to everyday. Upright in his brown jacket, he put long steps to navigate the long grass growing in his tiny farm to bring me to his workshop. “I’ve been in the business for 37 years,” he stated, “And we make 20 different kinds of instruments.” Like music, lifestyle, and everything else, his instruments have undergone a major transformation in the five generations that the art inhabited in the family. I asked him to play a duduk, and immediately, he plunged into his collection to bring out a very old one, saying, “People come to me and ask if I can play.
I say, ‘yes, but not well enough to make a bride get up and dance!’” While we fidgeted with his instruments down at the workshop, his wife had taken to the kitchen upstairs to ornament the table with lavaash (Armenian bread), homemade cheese and honey, and herbs plucked from the garden. It reminded me of home and how things weren’t any different when guests arrived—you’d always send them back with a full stomach. Kolya was the last in his generation to make duduks. The modern world had claimed his children for an urban profession.
If anything, Yerevan is a city wrapped in layers. On the surface, you’d compare it to any modern European counterpart: a young demographic, cosmopolitan, and if you’ve arrived late in May when the summer holidays have hit the schools, you’d find the streets booming with teenagers, happy that their three-month vacation has begun. The Mayor of the city had only recently revised the holiday schedule. He is known to have said, “What’s the point in a holiday when kids can’t enjoy summer?” The deeper you travel though, the more complex it gets in character. I met Armine Tshagharyan over coffee, a news anchor with a local TV channel who had come to give me a young perspective of Yerevan. “In Armenia, people do not worship movie stars,” she said. “Yon could be someone famous and walking the street and no one would be bothered. But things can be quite different if you are a war hero.”
Armenia is a Catholic country and had experienced the great Genocide along with the rest of Soviet Union between 1915 and 1917. Over two million Christian Armenians were exterminated by the Ottoman Empire, or modern-day Turkey. Surrounded still by hostile Islamic neighbours— Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan—who have nibbled into the former Kingdom of Armenia to expand borders over time, Armenia has held its own through the intense nationalism among citizens. There is still constant friction with the Azerbaijani border, and a few days before I arrived, soldiers had returned from war.
As we strolled down Say at- Nova Avenue, Armine froze temporarily, her eyes followed the gaze of a young man’s and she blushed. She stopped for a conversation and hugged him. After he left, she turned and with abroad smile and explained, “You know who that is? He is our hero. He went into the Azerbaijan bunker and single-handedly destroyed it. He’s only 22!” At night, we had gone for the Aurora Prize ceremony—the annual event organised by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative on behalf of the descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors. The initiative collects US$1 million to help one individual engaged in humanitarian efforts to further their work. This year, the prize went to Marguerite Barankitse from Maison Shalom and REMA Hospital, who cared for orphans and refugees during the civil war in Burundi.
In Armenia, all men must serve the army for two years after high school. Andranik Ugujyan, a 23-year-old student pursuing botanical archeology, remembers his intense training. I first saw him with his fingers dug into the soil at the Areni-1 Cave Complex, the excavated archeological site that reported the oldest winery in the world (the Early Bronze Age). Andranik had later met me in Yerevan. “Everybody in Armenia has a history of Genocide,” he said. It’s a reality one must live with. Andranik had to live with his dark past, one where his grandparents were tortured and had to flee Armenia for survival. “But the truth is, that although we will never forget what happened, we want to move forward.” We were sitting on the roof of a dark, abandoned, half-constructed building at 3 am when life had penetrated darkness with profundity. “This maybe it,” I thought, “the hook”… The promise of summer, the promise of light, and man’s innate ability to look beyond adversities.