Earlier this summer, I read a book so funny, it almost made me cry. Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa (translated flavourfully, riotously, even noisomely into English by Nicky Harman) follows a provincial who comes to the city — Xi’an, in this case — in search of a better life. “Happy” is the name he gives himself when he begins his new life.

Happy isn’t quite a bumpkin, though the friend that accompanies him to the city certainly is. The two of them make a living gathering trash and selling what they salvage. The action locates them firmly in the city, but their thoughts are of the home they’ve left behind. Hardly anyone they meet is from Xi’an, even though it is an ancient city, once the capital of Imperial China. Practically everyone is a migrant in this gigantic sea of strangers where you must fight for connections that will keep you afloat when the tide inevitably turns against you.

It is a story set in a city, but it is at its heart about the countryside. Or rather, a world, an idyll, a profane hard-scrabble almost-Dorset that nobody in the story can now return to. In other words, the city, warts and all, is now home.

Where have we in India seen this movie before? Where did movies like it go?

Pingwa is a well-known author over here. He enjoys a measure of notoriety for his robust prose style, which occasionally sees his work banned. It does nothing to alter his popularity; his sales are healthy, and he’s a literary insider, very much part of the academy.

**Partly this is due to the way he writes. (A toilet is never a “toilet” when “shithouse” will do.) He is an exponent of “native place” fiction, rich in detail and texture of places-left-behind, his words the loam in which the memories of a generation of newly-urban Chinese can take root and find their way to new fruition. Authors like Pingwa are at once chroniclers of a country changing from rural to urban at a dizzying rate, and archivists of the marginal lives it is leaving behind.

There is a long tradition in China of social realism in the arts. To situate oneself in a particular vernacular was seen as being good for society. (It also led to official patronage, which was the only sort of patronage on offer for decades.) Of course, nothing is that simple here. Trailblazers like Shen Congwen suffered complete eclipses before being rehabilitated when regimes changed.

Still, imagine clinging to old places and modes of speaking, creating and even remembering. And make a living doing it.

If only it were so in India.

** There’s a line of thinking in India that our current hewing to a certain sort of religious and cultural essentialism across traditions is in itself a reaction, or even a masking, of how rapidly we’re shedding our old skins. To argue that this is an urban phenomenon is to ignore the obvious, that the biggest change in India of our lifetimes will be that it will cease to be a rural nation. (Besides, do we know our rural brethren well enough to assume that they think, umm, differently there?)

Imagine, for a moment, if you could hit pause on the great homogenisation. Put to one side what us Anglophones are reminded of at every step, and with very good reason — that our roots in the soil of what-was-before are increasingly aerial.

What would you choose to remember? And how would you put it down?

** In 2017, an essay by a Beijing-based migrant worker called Fan Yusu broke across social media. Translated into English as ‘I am Fan Yusu’, it was about the problems she faced in her life. It obviously struck a chord: It was read and passed on from device to device, even after the original post was taken down. That the sheen of the biggest cities is tended to by people whose own lives are much less shiny is known and acknowledged, but seldom had it been so openly referred to here. That it was disseminated so quickly, and in a way that made it almost impossible to monitor, even behind the great firewall; indeed, on a platform that people would have dismissed as a toy for privileged kids with smartphones a scant few years ago, made it all the more intriguing.

I think one of the most interesting ways in which the digital space can affect our lives is this — that things we wouldn’t expect to see in the real world (indeed, wouldn’t get made, published, shot or recorded in that “other” place), can happen along and find us while we’re on the pot, in a train, wherever.

They can be edited, but often aren’t. They don’t have to be clever, or fashionable, or topical. They aren’t hostage to commercial considerations in a way that products using more conventional distribution systems are. They can just happen, from the chance conjunction of boredom, a data plan, and a bit of a spark.

Bits of that spark must literally be everywhere. Voices from the margins, speaking in tongues, telling tales you know we want to hear. Standing against the tide, reminding us of who we all were.

We’re all plugged into the biggest conduit marginal voices have ever had to be heard in the public square. I don’t know about you, but I could use some non-homogenous spark in my life.


Avtar Singh


Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing