The Vladivostok bus turned a corner. It was one of the sleek new ones, no doubt bought with money funneled into the Pacific port city for an APEC summit a few years earlier. I fumbled with my puffer coat, searching for a pocket in which to deposit my spare rubles as I found a seat in the back. Someone’s phone rang out. It took me a few minutes to place the melody: a Hindi film tune from the 1951 movie Awaara (The Vagabond) starring Raj Kapoor, a suave Chaplinesque figure. Growing up, Mom often played a cassette tape containing this song: in the Camry as we ran errands around the Hudson Valley, or while I jumped on a mini-trampoline in the basement. The soundtrack was ambient company, as comforting as it was uninspiring. Kids outside the diaspora had NPR; I had Raj Kapoor’s Golden Collection, Vol. 3. Needless to say, I didn’t expect to hear a jaunty Bollywood track about being far from home while I was living in the Russian Far East. My eyes lingered on the rows of seats, scanning for the other Indian on my route. In my months in Vladivostok, I’d heard of exactly one in a city a bit smaller than Boston: he owned a restaurant and had “business dealings” in Bombay, according to Dima. I didn’t go out of my way to meet him. As I searched the bus, I noticed a man pressed up against the glass, his off-color military fatigues visible from where I sat. He was screaming “LYOSHA, PRIVET!” into his cellphone, and I realized the song was his ringtone. The man gestured to his phone and flashed an eyebrow at me.
Russia was in the news often that year: the months I spent in Vladivostok coincided with the Sochi Winter Olympics and the invasion of Crimea. I’d felt ambivalent about the political situation. Defensive when people I knew in New York invoked Cold War rhetoric to criticize Russia, defensive too when Russians I met argued that deploying troops was a justified means of protecting Soviet brothers and sisters in the Ukraine. Mostly, though, I’d felt a huge gap between my day-to-day life and what my friends elsewhere saw on the news or read about what was happening in Russia: My bus rides to a shopping center called Clover House in search of peanut butter, an afternoon at an abandoned naval base, conversations in Russian about a coworker’s love of the same Hindi dramas I’d grown up ignoring.
It’s that gap I’m reminded of these days, sheltering in place in Harlem. There’s a huge disconnect between how people envision New York and what it’s been like for me. I stay in bed, Amsterdam Avenue outside my window gone quiet, no longer abuzz with the “please walk” noises from the corner crosswalk. Friends call from Berlin and Bombay to check in. They wonder about how crazy things are on the ground, and I tell them I’ve read the same news stories they have. We reference identical snapshots of near-empty subways, of canvas tents outside hospitals. I see little of this firsthand. I trek midday to the grocery store, sometimes to a park in Inwood if I’m feeling pent-up. Someone texts to tell me he’s relocated to another city in the night, maybe for good. I keep time by these messages.
I’d been looking for a soundtrack to these experiential gaps between living in a place and seeing it represented. Haruomi Hosono’s electro-exotica album Cochin Moon does the trick: a Japanese comedown record that debuted a year before Yellow Magic Orchestra changed Japanese synth pop forever. One second you’re awash in analog insects and stirrings of distant oceans; the next, the cosmic chill breaks into the pulse and feverish sweat of sickness. It throbs with cheek, the soundscape for a nonexistent Bollywood film, a psychedelic and spacy jab at Western ideas of the exotic. Even at its filmiest and most hypnotic, Cochin Moon reminds you that the place you’re visiting is illusory.
New York these days can feel hard for me to grasp too. Last week, Lara called during my regular pilgrimage to a flowering pear tree. She put me on headset, and I felt like I had stepped into Cochin Moon. We spoke, but I kept interrupting, inquiring about her dreamy soundscape. Hearing water recede only to gather again, I’d made out the rhythms of the ocean, some birds chirping, even the fluttering hum of tiny wings. “Where are you?” I asked. Last I checked, the answer had been Queens. It was still Queens. As it happens, I’d mistaken the refrigerated murmur of an emergency morgue truck for the shore. The sun thinned out as we spoke, and I peeled off for my apartment. When I got home and turned on the computer, Cochin Moon leaked from my laptop speakers, my kitchen filled with vocoder chants and swarming mosquitos.
— Shivani Radhakrishnan
New York, day 56