Jimmy Jimmy… on a tram ride in Ukraine

It was cold when I first stepped out of Boryspil International Airport in Kyiv, Ukraine on August 12, 2019, but the adrenaline rush that came with landing in a new country kept me warm. I was one of 75 Indian students who landed that day. We were quickly taken on a bus organized by our university and embarked on a 300 km journey through Kyiv to reach the Vinnitsa National Medical University in the city of Vinnitsa, where I was to study for the next five years to achieve my dream of becoming a cardiologist.

After two attempts at NEET, I had taken a BDS course in India, but as the year progressed, it became more apparent to me that it was MBBS that I wanted to study. I decided to apply to medical colleges in Ukraine, which offered affordable education for someone like me, who comes from a middle-class family (my father is a civil servant). During the first year, I stayed in a hostel where the first floor was occupied by Indian students, the second by Moroccan nationals and the third and fourth by Nigerians and Ukrainians respectively. Our shared kitchen and bathroom felt like a carnival with people speaking different dialects.

With my college about two miles from my hostel, we had the option of walking to college or taking a bus or tram. While on days when I woke up early, I preferred to walk to university enjoying the nice weather, the tram rides offered a perfect opportunity to strike up conversations about Raj Kapoor and the Taj Mahal with complete strangers.

During one of these tram rides, I met a 60-year-old Ukrainian gentleman who was traveling with his granddaughter. He asked me if I was Indian and when I answered yes, his next statement was if I knew the song Jimmy Jimmy aaja aaja. I said yes and her face lit up with a smile.

It was then that I realized that the popularity of the song, which was known to be a hit among Russians, also extended to most people aged 40 and over in Ukraine. We then talked about Amitabh Bachchan, whom he greatly admired, and finally the Taj Mahal which he wanted to visit. The gentleman then told me that now that I was in Ukraine, I should marry a Ukrainian and settle here. I blushed while my friends laughed.

It was this desire to make more friends that prompted me to join a local club called ‘The English Club’, where I volunteered to teach English. I went there twice a week and often visited various restaurants and cafes for lunch. It was during one of these visits that my friends and I went to Biblioteka Café, which literally means library. While my friends relished pork and brosch, a dish made with chicken broth, I, as a vegetarian, settled for a pastry. I remember the bread melting in my mouth – it was nothing like what I had tasted in my hometown of Bhopal.

We were just getting to know the city, its people and their culture when the pandemic acted as a spoiler. While we had the option of returning to India, I was one of the few Indian students who decided to stay. We moved into an apartment outside the hostel. It was one of the best decisions I had made. Unlike India, Ukraine did not go into full lockdown – shops and public spaces remained open.

It was then summer and daylight lasted until 10 p.m. We used to go to Central Park near our apartment to jog and use the park’s open gym. It was during one of these visits, while I was running with my friend, that we were approached by a gentleman called Sergii who challenged us to an arm wrestle. We lost miserably, but we learned that the Ukrainians are considered one of the best in the world at arm wrestling.

The summers also provided us with a window to travel and explore the city.

Having obtained an international driving permit, I planned to buy a car in Ukraine and travel around the country. But before that, things turned sour, with Russia turning aggressive. I wanted to stay, but my parents insisted that I come back. So I came back on the first Air India flight which left Ukraine on February 22. I am relieved to be back in the safety of my homeland, but I feel helpless that I cannot do anything for my teachers, my classmates and the Indian students who are stuck there. Last night at 2am my friends were asked to move into bunkers. They could only go out in the morning and had to rush after the sirens went off. A chemical plant near our college was attacked and my friends are asked to wear a mask at all times.

I am now volunteering with the government of Madhya Pradesh, helping them identify and contact stranded students in Ukraine.

Even as we do our best to bring all Indian students back to safety, I shudder when I think of the 60-year-old gentleman I met on the tram and his granddaughter. I wonder if Sergii, with whom I arm wrestled, is safe.

(The author is a third-year MBBS student at Vinnitsa National Medical University, Ukraine)

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