An Indian in a far away land
If Rajinder K Chaudhary were to ever write his autobiography he might not have to think too hard for a title; a clichéd one like “From India to Lithuania via Moscow” might just fit perfectly. He could even throw in a slug: A Journey from Fighter Planes to Ladles of Curry.” The protagonist, of course, would be the sprightly young man who hopped between Indian cities for his education and then donned the uniform to become an officer in the Indian Air Force. The man would soon slip into pinstriped suits as CEO of a private firm, but when the entrepreneurial bug stung him, he packed his bags and moved to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The man who once knew all about fighter planes, took to the cleaver and the cardamom to rustle up sumptuous dishes for his restaurant. You might think the story has hit its denouement but wait. Not yet. That man would one day become the honorary consul general of India in Lithuania and meet the Queen of England.
Between the pages one would find the melancholy of a Partition when the family moved from Mianwali in Pakistan to the then sleepy village called Gurgaon, the pathos of death snatching away a loved one, betrayal and deceit in business, meeting love again at the crossroads, a pat on the back from Conde Nast Traveller for his restaurant…
Sitting under the bright umbrella outside his restaurant, Sue’s Indian Raja, in Vilnius and digging his fork into succulent kebabs and tikkas, Chaudhary begins with Suwvarna (Sue), the 18-year old Maharastrian girl that he had brought home as his wife. Chaudhary himself was then serving in the Indian Air Force, his best stints being those in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and as Chief PRO of the Ministry of Defence for the Eastern Sector. Much before he took to the chair, Chaudhary had been to the battlefront in the 1965 and 1971 wars and is immensely proud of the Vishist Seva Medal (VSM) that the President of India pinned as an epaulette in 1983.
But destiny was to change tracks. On a visit to Moscow Chaudhary met representatives of UK-based firm and soon joined as their CEO for Russia and CIS countries. As the man at the helm, Chaudhary would often visit the Baltic countries on business but little did he then know that someday he would pitch his tents in Vilnius. Another job fell on his path, but Chaudhary and Sue were already contemplating a business of their own.
That dream began with recee in the Baltic states; Riga seemed a more appropriate choice but both Sue and Chaudhary loved Vilnius, their business acumen suggesting that the Baltics would be ready for Indian cuisine sooner or later. As luck would have it, it was later than sooner. Setting up business in an alien country was fraught with failure and the Chaudharys had their platefuls of business disasters. Perhaps the time had not yet come, they thought. Sue was not keeping good health and the doctors suggested that the Chaudharys head back to India. Not just dreams, even the smallest of trinkets that they had collected over 32 years of togetherness were packed. The containers had sailed for India and the Chaudharys were in Moscow to take the connecting flight to India. But Sue would never see India again; she died in her sleep midair.
Death could not have knocked at a more vile moment but Chaudhary knew he had to pick up the threads of his life and start weaving the dreams again, at least one that Sue was so passionate about – of setting up a hospitality business in the Baltics. Chaudhary had not forgotten his business losses and was wary of stepping out on his own. He found a Lithuanian partner – Lina, a gynaecologist who incidentally happened to his landlady too. After the first tentative steps, the business spread to eight restaurants in the Baltics, all bearing Sue’s Indian Raja neon sign. Money poured in, so did praise. The Sue’s Indian Raja in Riga (Latvia) was voted by Conde Nast Traveller as one the Top 100 Restaurants in the World.
As business flourished, so did love. Lina would change her status from a business partner to Chaudhary’s life partner. Soon the two would sell their business in other countries and concentrate on their Indian restaurant in Vilnius, the only one in Lithunia. On the menu are the best that Indian cuisine offers. When you walk into the 55-cover restaurant not only would you be greeted by a marble nandi and a brass Ganesha but also waitresses in Indian outfits.
Interestingly, most of his clients are tourists and locals; he cannot bank on Indian expats, there are barely 100 Indians living in all of Lithuania. To keep alive his Indian connection Chaudhary has also started his own travel company that organizes tours to India. What has been a god-sent is the Finnair connection between Vilnius and Helsinki and the direct Finnair flight between Helsinki and Delhi/Mumbai. “The Finnair connection has opened floodgates for us; it is so convenient that hordes are travelling to India and there has been a definite increase in inbound tourism.”
It has been a long journey for Chaudhary, the most glorious moment being his appointment as the Honorary Consul General of India in Lithuania. Touching 70, Chaudhary is still sprightly and still in love with India, a place he heads back often to, what he says, “recharge his batteries”. He has not forgotten Sue and he owes a lot to Lina, who has taken to all things Indian as if “she had known them for ages” and “shares my vision.”
When his 16-hour day ends, Chaudhary broods over ways to forge better relationships between India and Lithuania, the countries that have given Chaudhary more than what one can pack in a lifetime.
I am not sure if Rajinder Chaudhary is even musing over an autobiography, but if he did, the Indian Consul General in Lithuania sure has a bestseller in the making.
in India Post, 2008