TALLINN - Not very long ago, to the common Indian, Estonia was a place about which one read only a fleeting reference in school geography books. Yet today, nearly a decade after Estonia has regained its independence, there are quite a few Indian families rubbing shoulders happily with their Estonian counterparts.
Indian cuisine: varied, spicy and hot is an Epicurean's delight. So, the first Indian to come to Estonia was Sanjay Alhuwalia, who started the restaurant Maharaja in collaboration with the Gaylord group in 1990. Sanjay was not only the first Indian but also the first Asian to set foot in Estonia for business, according to Madhu Sikand, Alhuwalia's's sister.
Sikand assists her husband, Ashwini, in hotel management consultancy. Ashwini Sikand also runs the very popular Tandoor restaurant.
It was not a cakewalk for Alhuwalia. He came in 1989 when Estonia was going through its last phase of political uncertainties, said Madhu Sikand. Moreover, she said that he had to bring everything including the special Indian oven known as tandoor and spices from India by ship. Apprehensive of how the Estonians would react to Indian food, Sanjay called testers to taste the food and give their comments. Sanjay's efforts bore fruit and Maharaja became an instant hit. He later sold Maharaja, and it is now under new management.
Tandoor started in 1996.
"It was smooth sailing for us," said Madhu Sikand. "Many Estonians now relish spicy food. Although we serve the food under three categories: spicy, mild and medium spicy, I am surprised when Estonians ask for even extra hot food."
According to Madhu Sikand, Estonians are generally quiet and withdrawn people.
"They are basically non aggressive. To date we have never encountered any unpleasant incidents in the restaurant," she said "It is nice to work amid people who neither create nor like trouble. Once you get the legal permission to work, thereafter there is no harassment from any quarter."
Manish Kumar of Ganga restaurant is happy to be amidst Estonians. He offers only vegetarian food and alcohol is prohibited inside the restaurant.
"I wanted to give a glimpse of true India where most people still keep away from meat and alcohol," he said.
The Estonians have appreciated this sentiment so much that many have asked him to make the restaurant a non-smoking area too. The other Indian restaurants also run at packed capacity every day of the week. Certainly the tongue tingling taste of Indian cuisine has caught on with Estonians.
Other Indian families here are those which have come to Estonia by virtue of their work. Anju Gupta, who came with her husband in 1995, initially felt very out of place.
"Neither I nor the Estonians knew anything about each other's culture, so a typical Indian woman attired in Indian clothes like me immediately became the center of attraction everywhere I went," Gupta said. "During those days there were few markets and the means of transport and communication were not as developed as it is now. It goes to the credit of the Estonians to shake off the old Soviet influence and get on to the path of progress so quickly."
Agreeing with Gupta is Raji Iyer who joined her accountant husband in 1998.
"Estonia is now well on its path of progress albeit at a slower pace than other European countries," said Iyer. "In fact I was very disappointed when I came in 1998. The Soviet-style buildings were in sharp contrast to my visualization of a European country. Technologically too, I found it lagging way behind."
Deepti Divekar, an Indian by birth but brought up in the United Kingdom, also shared Iyer's views.
"Estonia is certainly not as developed as the UK but it is catching up," she said.
Geeta Taneja, who teaches social studies and history at the International Elementary School of Estonia has a master's degree in sociology. Analyzing the people and society of Estonia she said "years of subjugation have made Estonians very reticent. That is why we find them a little unfriendly and shy. But once they start trusting you they can be your friends for life. Perhaps it will take some more time for them to open up."
Taneja feels that by and large the society is crime free. But minor pilferings are not uncommon. To curb this she suggested that more job opportunities should be created.
"Culturally India and Estonia differ a lot although Estonians have a fine dress sense yet some old Indian heads might shake in disapproval due to cultural differences," Taneja said. She said that the other day her Estonian friend asked her the equivalent Indian word for cheers.
"'There is none,' I said, because raising a toast is not an Indian custom."
Beena Unnithan summed up the entire discussion by narrating an experience.
"Once my 4-year-old son asked me to buy him a lollypop. On firm refusal he started crying. Just then an Estonian gentleman who was watching us from a distance bought a lollypop and gave it to my son."
Such gestures make the journey from India to a so far away country like Estonia worthwhile indeed.