Bally, our fluffy little dog, led me down the concrete path that ran along the softly swaying waves of the bay . The view was fantastic, the air smelt sweet from raat-kI-rani flowers that blossomed as soon as the bitter chill turned into a nip in the air. Stark-naked frangipani trees were trying to put out green twigs and fresh shoots.
On our left side, among the proudly erect palm trees, the grass had turned patchy brown in the bitter cold. It would take a couple of months before the new shoots will get back their lush, almost sexy look. The authority had laid cemented clearings, some forty-foot squares, evidently for the citizens to do physicals. On one with a roof, a number of men and women did Tao-chi to slow music. In the next, some did brisk leg-and-hand movements to faster Chinese Rock. As we walked along, Bally barked at an elderly man who kept banging his back against a palm tree. Another old man, his torso bare and sweating in the cold air, his clenched hands held high, ran past us on flat shoes.
A lone woman in black leggings and T-shirt with a sweater tied around her waist, had one leg raised all the way up above her head-level, pressing the toe on the trunk of a tree. When she noticed the dog and me, she put the raised leg down. I felt embarrassed. Perhaps she had noticed that I stared, just for a moment, the 175-degree figure of geometry drawn by her parted legs.
She smiled while I made a quick appraisal. She had larger than what you would consider Oriental eyes. Light, smooth skin without a trace of hair. Pretty, though not beautiful, her face let me put her at late-thirties or early forties. She smiled, showing even, faded teeth. I was yet to see a set of pearly-white teeth or buxom butts hereabouts in China where women maintain their figure like Hollywood film stars.
She bent down and patted Bally, and murmured “cute”. Always a Casanova, the fluffy Pomeranian responded by unsheathing his pink tool and trying to mount her plump muscular leg. The Son-of-a-bitch always embarrassed the family with his way of displaying affection. She stood up.
I thought I read her mind: Master stares, the dog takes the next step.
“Where you come from?” she asked.
“India,” I said, hoping that the query held no accusation.
A single stare shouldn’t taint my Motherland’s reputation. The Prime Minister had come here a few months ago and assured the diaspora that we were all ashamed to call ourselves Indians before, but now we could be proud because he was in the chair. We had clapped our hands dutifully, but later asked each other: when were we ever ashamed?
She paused, thinking. Then, “Oh, Indu, same, Asia,”
“Yes, same as this Country, in Asia”, I said, rejoicing in the discovery that she had not connected my one-second stare with Bally’s attempt at seduction.
“Where are you from?
“Oh,” She pointed a finger to the ground. “Here, this same place.”
She picked up what looked like a blunt sword, evidently another exercising apparatus, from the ground and fell in step. She took Bally’s leash from me. Bally seemed to like the gesture and trundled alongside her.
“We are both Asia,” she said, “But you Indu, I Zonguo – China.”
“Yes, both ancient cultures. Very similar.”
”No, no, no, you got class. We got no class.” She emphasized the word, class.
What appeared to be an abject confession amazed and embarrassed me.
“No, no. you got class too. You are second in Asian economy, we are third.”
“Mayo, mayo. You got High class, low class, touch-class, no-touch class. Very backward.”
My crest and all the feathers crashed.
“You mean caste. High caste, low caste, untouchable. That was so long ago. No such a thing anymore.”
“Now. I show you news. Shanghai Daily. You got no freedom talk also. If you talk class, danger. Very danger, very backward.” She flung her hands in a gesture of sympathetic despair. The sword-like exercising apparatus rose in the air along with her fist.
I gulped, considering the risk in making a strong retaliation. A Chinese in China, lecturing me on freedom of speech?
“India has freedom of speech. I can say anything I want. I also write anything I want.”
We had to take a turn to enter the way home through a garden. A real garden with tall trees and exotic plants, also with exercise equipment showing up at unexpected places. An old woman laboured on a static bike. Further up, a man did the twist on a contraption that turned in half-circles left and right as he stood turning his body, holding on to a handle to keep balance. His small radio that sat atop a stone pillar blared an ancient Chinese tune. A man, older than the one I had seen doing it before, kept banging his back against the knuckled trunk of a tree. Further ahead, a young teenager frantically worked her legs on a wooden contraption designed to serve as an elliptical machine. As she moved, her ponytail flew high and sideways. Some five hundred metres ahead, a middle-aged woman came walking backward towards us, rarely taking a glance in our direction. Perhaps she sensed our presence, swerved to one side, and kept steady steps, still steadily backward.
These Zongwen are funny. Strangely, they all look slim and well-formed – whatever their age or gender, I said to myself.
A couple of white children with hay-coloured hair cycled past us on the narrow garden path. Their parents followed them on bicycles, calling out to be careful in what could have been Spanish or French, I wasn’t sure. The children looked at each other, giggled and cycled on. This place swarmed with Europeans, Koreans, Taiwanese and Japanese, many of them married to local women. And a few vice-versa. It looked as if the mixed pair had more than a single child each. Perhaps the mixed families came under a different family law – or maybe they take care to take the citizenship of the expat spouse. The Arabs brought their own well-packed wives.
“No Indu freedom of tahk-speech. I will show you Shanghai Daily. A black boy told it is no good no-touch, we will fight don’t touch, and everybody beat him. Judge, lawyer, Party-member, Jingcha. Everybody. Poor Boy dead.”
I laughed weakly, guessing that Jingcha meant police and that the poor boy’ was the newly famous Kanhaiya Kumar.
“No, not really. Judge did not beat him. The judge was not there. He was inside the court. This happened outside the court. The ‘boy’ did not die. He is free, and still talking.”
It occurred to me that I had picked up her style of speaking English. Pausing between words to transcribe the next thought in mind to the right spoken phrase.
“The boy dead, I tell you” she insisted.
“No, He did not die. He is free.” I paused, once again the feeling of shame overcoming my conscience. “The judge put him in jail for two weeks. Maybe to stop the lawyer and party-member from beating him to death. He’s back in University.”
We stopped at the community gate. I pulled out my card-like digital key and swiped it on a metallic box on the wall. The massive iron gate clicked open. When we entered the common hall, the security man looked up and said knee-how. I returned the knee-how with a bow. Once in the hall, there was Internet. .
I drew out my iPhone, which automatically picked up the signal and locked on.
“Here, let me show you,” I said, lowering the screen to her eye level.
It took a few seconds to get through the mandatory Chinese commercial on YouTube. Social media is officially banned, but the authority closed eyes on foreigners using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to sneak out through a hole in the official ban.
Kanhaiya, the 29-year old ‘boy’, was cheerfully speaking to his crowd of followers, occasionally pausing to raise his hand, like a possessed revolutionary, to scream a slogan or two, which the followers echoed with equal gusto.
The woman wasn’t convinced.
“Old video,” she said.
I showed her the date marked on the screen.
“OK, then next time they kill him. The party-man said – I will show you Shanghai Daily – that he will get the gun and kill him,” She said, shaking her head while handing Bally’s leash to me. I didn’t tell her that the party-man who promised to kill Kanhaiya for his speech was a member of Parliament, elected in our democratic Nation.
“Íf we had class – ok, caste – in China, I would want to be like that boy,” she said, waving me goodbye.
As she turned left and walked away, Bally stared after her wistfully. There goes another chance to screw a fleshy human leg, moaned his face.