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Queries in India : Gorbachev's Wife Eager for Answers

November 29, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — She breezed through museums and historic sites here in the Indian capital like an excited schoolgirl, full of questions on just about everything.

"Why is the Ganges River sacred?" asked Raisa Gorbachev, wife of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. "Why do the gods have so many hands?" "Was Buddha born in India?"

At the National Museum, she studied an ancient sculpture showing a drunken courtesan in the grasp of a leering youth. "Where is her husband?" she wondered. And, "Does alcoholism have its roots in India?"

Peering intently at the 237-foot stone minaret, the Qutab Minar, which muezzins in the 13th Century climbed to call faithful to prayers, she pondered, "Who would be able to hear them from so high?"

As she did in Paris and Geneva and Reykjavik, Iceland, Mrs. Gorbachev, 52, accompanied her husband, the Soviet Communist Party general secretary on his four-day good-will visit to India. Already she is the most traveled Soviet First Lady since Nina Khrushchev, who went with her husband, Nikita S. Khrushchev, on his famous visits to the United States in the 1950s.

Learned Indian Greeting

Raisa Gorbachev, who quickly learned the Indian namaste greeting of hands clasped together accompanied by a slight bow, is a different bowl of borscht.

She had already won the West with style and panache so uncharacteristic of past Soviet first ladies. In New Delhi, she engaged the East with her charming curiosity.

Wearing an olive-gray suit, two-tone black and gray shoes, large black earrings and a matching necklace during the visit to the minaret, she asked, "Why are there so many snakes (carved) on the base of that idol? Are they poisonous?"

Often her questions were very sophisticated, perhaps reflecting her academic background as a lecturer at Moscow State University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on village life in the Caucasus Mountains.

At the beautifully carved Qutab Minar monument, she was curious about the "animal and vegetable motifs" of the stone carvings and if the art of intricate stone carving still existed.

'Searching Questions'

"She asked searching questions," commented her impressed guide at the monument, Naga Raja Rao. "Questions about the ancient motif are not the normal questions we are used to." At other times her impressions were more like those of a child. "He has a very big tummy," she said of a sculpture of Kubera, the rotund god of prosperity.

If Mrs. Gorbachev was curious about India, Indians were equally curious about her. Substantial crowds gathered outside each place she visited although, for security reasons, locations were not announced in advance.

Her large contingent of security guards pushed and jostled photographers who were forced to remain behind hand-held ropes. Mrs. Gorbachev appeared to find the scene amusing.

At first, Indians appeared quizzical about the several thousand posters depicting Raisa that were scattered about the capital, equal in number seemingly to those showing her husband and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since there were no posters of Gandhi's Italian wife Sonia, there was a certain lack of billboard symmetry.

Then there was a little confusion about the name "Gorbachev" which in the Indian language Hindi sounds very much like karva chauth --a Hindu ritual performed by women aimed at prolonging their husbands' lives.

But by Thursday, an appreciative crowd gathered outside the handicrafts store where Mrs. Gorbachev bought a $30 Benares silk sari for her daughter, Irina. She bought nothing for herself or husband, the store's employees said.

They quoted her as saying, "Our visit to India is souvenir enough."

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