Written by Deepali Pant Joshi
This is an incredibly beautiful book, a story of the triumph of the human spirit which transcends time and space. Reading it is an immersive experience. A stark tale of migrant life in an inhuman city, the book is set against the backdrop of the new China focussed on industry and production. It is a tale so simply and poignantly told that as you share the struggles, the joys and sorrows of the protagonist Happy Liu and his friend Wu Fu, you empathetically feel the pangs of poverty, low status, loneliness and discrimination — “we were more like dung beetles than humans”.
The book opens with Happy trying to negotiate the price of a rooster that will enable his friend’s spirit to fly back to the village. This attracts the attention of a police officer who discovers that unable to afford a proper funeral, Happy has been attempting to smuggle his friend’s body onto a train back to his native village. What follows is a freewheeling, often hilarious, and yet consistently poignant account of how Hawa Liu from ‘Freshwind Township’ in the agricultural Shangzhou district of China comes to be ‘Happy’ Liu of Xi’an, a self-proclaimed city man. Wu Fu, his devoted friend, is rustic and refuses to change. “They jeered at my showers,” says Happy. “Go on, see if you can wash off your peasant skin.” Happy Liu decides, “There is always one whale in a shoal of fish and one phoenix in a flock of birds.” For him, the streets become rivers and life what you make of it. He explains his philosophy of life: “Change what you can change, adapt to what you can’t change, put up with what you can’t adapt to and let go of what you can’t adapt to.”
The book is a fine account of the migrant experience written in a colloquial style that suits the universally expedient language of the streets. Translating is always a tricky task, with the non-native reader often missing out on the finer nuances of wordplay and language-specific puns, but Nicky Harman manages to preserve Pingwa’s natural style and frequent mixing of the rustic idiom, by juxtaposing American slang with formalised British English. It is a technique that may have jarred in other hands, but Harman pulls it off with the practised ease of the experienced translator. The result is as close as the English reader can get to the author’s original presentation and intent.
Migrants lured by the magic of the dazzling city leave with no funds, no skills, and no one with power and influence to smooth their way when they arrive. They eke out a living taking on the hardest, dirtiest and most exhausting work that requires the least skill. They find jobs as trash pickers. “I was astonished by the hordes of people at the dump. They chased after the dump trucks like a pack of dogs, and some of them even got buried as the garbage was tipped out. But they simply jumped up again, wiped their faces, and rummaged madly through the trash with their rakes and hooks. Dust flew everywhere, and the air was filled with plastic bags red white blue and black and the shouts of the pickers.”
Wu Fu says, “The city spends a billion on a park, millions on a concert in a stadium and even more on this or that exhibition. But if they’ve got money to burn, why do they only spend on the city? The villages get poorer and poorer, and we don’t have two cents to rub together.” Will the gap between the rich and the poor keep widening? “Its true that those who earn don’t labour, and those who labour don’t earn… We would always be left behind.” The parallels with rural India are quite striking. The experience of the rural poor when confronted with rapid and uncompromising urbanisation seem to be universal, and universally heartbreaking. Beautifully translated, this is a story which is both gritty and touching.