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"BEHIND A CULTURAL CAGE"

- A NOVEL BY - 

PRANAV S. JOSHI 

 

"The basis of our culture is what we inherited from our original countries, our original cultures."

 

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

Minister Mentor and Founding Father of the Nation, Singapore

 

The Straits Times (6 September 2006)

 

 

 

Chapter one

  

 

 On  a  Friday  morning  in  February  2006,   the  gods   gazed   at  the  city  of Beijing,  while  celestial messages smiled and vanished into  their  orb of imagination  without revealing the order of the day.

 

The city was breathing  with cold, unaware of  the warmth that it  would  bring  to  a  Chinese man living in India  who held tearful conversations in his mind with his land of ancestors.

 

The horizon was apologetic for being unable to show up in the lingering mist, which was negotiating its adult existence with the juvenile sun. The sky was largely naked, dressed in rags of thin clouds that looked like crippled creatures, shifting shapes, longing for the fluffy flesh that they deserved. The wind whispered to the surroundings in fragmented pattern, preferring not to shout, hug or play with its strength of insanity. Birds shrieked from the foliage of scholar, oriental cypress and other native trees; their delicate wings caressing the moist leaves; their minds calling out memories of their flight paths, dotted with parks, landmarks, sounds and culinary attractions. The Yongding River was calm, repairing its sanctuary of sediments and tales. Stone lions beckoned from their lofty thrones to counter the conspiracies of corrosive spirits. History paddled anxiously around the Forbidden City, trying to decipher the voice of China from the hums, echoes, thuds, roars and dreams emanating from the soul of the orderly, powerful civilization.

 

Celebrations for the Lunar New Year had declined in intensity, yet their presence could be felt in the colourful hutongs (alleys) and urban enclaves packed with the locals and the waidiren (Chinese tourists) battling toxicity of the cold weather with antidotes of hot noodle soups. The waiguoren (foreign tourists) chattered in warm clothes, holding maps and cameras, their valleys of minds efflorescing with enthusiasm, their curiosity clamouring to visit the conundrums of Asian wisdom.

 

On the busy roads, bicycles scurried like horizontal sticks, pregnant with the weight of their fearless riders, determined to defend their kingdom of space against the might of the cars and taxis — the necessary evil diapsids of the motorized world.

 

The life was gathering pace, gradually, calmly, holding on to the buffered grandeur of Beijing that was donning new attire in its ancient landscape, learning and sharing secrets with the rest of the world.

 

The China World Trade Centre was no exception. An international education fair had just begun in its Exhibition Hall. Booths were flooding with flyers, decals, promotional offers and the must-have corporate gifts. Voices tainted with sales pitch drifted like waves within the hall, rising over their domain of decibels, and then subsiding, bruised and catalyzed by the ingredients of the academic world.

 

A strange booth in a corner intrigued the visitors.

 

A tanned, pint-sized, young Chinese man stood on a bridge-like structure in a steel cage carrying a poster:

 

Hey, you!

Show me your life cage, cultural cage and love cage.

I will show you how to add a whole HUMAN inside them.  

PS: I'm not an artist. I'm not culturally a guinea pig. Please don't murder me with your imagination.

 

The man's face displayed ugliness, unnatural ugliness. By Western standards, it was a weathered face. By Asian standards, it was a face that had escaped narrowly from the demonic and clownish territories, and was striving for a thread of grace. Drawer-like mouth, riotous hair, cauliflower ears, ill-fitting nose, sunken eyes and pitted cheeks — he was simply a man having a less-than-perfect face, saved by a shapely chin and an impressive forehead. A beige-coloured Indian dress, complete with a stylish silk kurta and a five-yard dhuti, adorned his less-than-perfect body. A Mandarin jacket hung like a hunted animal on his shoulder.

 

At one end of the bridge, there was a statue of a dragon; while at the other end, there was a statue of an elephant. In the middle of the bridge, a Merlion statue marked its presence with a little boilerplate: Bridge of Civilizations.

 

Behind the man, a cloth banner displayed a sane, education-specific message in Mandarin and English:

 

Dear visitors,

Destiny is calling you.

Win business empires. Win success. Win love. Win gold medals during the 2008 Olympics.

Sign up for a course at our LifeCage International in Singapore. Hurry. Seats are limited!

 

To complement the message, two cheery, young women stood in front of the cage, carrying a stack of glossy brochures and bookmarks shaped like dollar signs. One was a Chinese woman; the other was Caucasian. Both were beautiful; both were wearing cheongsams; both were greeting the visitors in Mandarin — Zao an, Ni hao, Nimen hao...

 

             Visitors would scan the booth, collect the brochures and talk to the two women to find out what courses the LifeCage International was offering. Thinking that the Caucasian woman was bilingual, the visitors would talk to her in Mandarin with enthusiasm, and then realizing that she could not go beyond the usual greetings, they would abandon her or continue in broken English, albeit without enthusiasm.

 

Some visitors would stare and smile at the man in the cage, guessing what animal thing he was doing. The man would spot such curious visitors and raise his poster high up in the air. Those who could not read English would slaughter their smiles and shake their heads, thinking that the man had written something wild or unwholesome inside the poster. 

 

Feng le (Crazy)!

 

The weirdness of the booth soon earned publicity across the education fair. Clever marketing stunt, huh! Nope, it's a popcorn trick. Doesn't work! Judgements jogged on the tracks of commercial emotions.

 

Amongst the crowd of the regular visitors, a group of government officials entered the hall. After a little commotion to ensure that the things were in order, the organizers brought the officials for a quick tour of the exhibition. A man with a missing front tooth became a guide who laughed, coughed and issued details about the various universities and institutes that had occupied the exhibition booths.

 

The group arrived at the booth of the LifeCage International.

 

Sensing an opportunity to fulfil his wish, the man in the cage quickly put aside his poster and strolled out of the cage. His heart pounded with excitement. "Hello, I'm Kenneth Lai. We offer a special course in Singapore..."

 

"Ah, Singapore? Nice city," the leader of the group interjected. "How's Mr. Goh?"

 

"Mr. Goh? Umm..." Kenneth stepped back, trying to recall all Mr. Gohs he knew.

 

The crowd watched him, scrutinizing, tearing his excitement.

 

"Your ex-prime minister," after a brief silence, the leader revealed the identity of Mr. Goh. "We met last year, during the Olympic meeting."

 

"Oh, Senior Minister! He's fine, should be fine," Kenneth said, feeling small in front of the Chinese officer who had clicked high-level connections in Singapore.

 

"Hmm. Thank you for supporting us," the leader said, and posed for a picture with Kenneth. The missing-tooth man tried to squeeze between them, but an old woman pushed him aside. She threw a hostile, watch-your-steps gaze at him, that carried knives and axes. The man scurried away.

 

The photographer bent from his knees, and snapped two quick pictures. His eyes flashed satisfaction; his raised thumb signalled great photos! (In the past, this habit had earned him more than just the photos during a funeral. Mourners had smelled a decline in the moral standards of the Beijing society and assaulted him with acidic words and angry palms. In the exhibition hall, however, he was safe. Funerals were taking place only in the hearts of some students to mark the death of dreams occasioned by the unaffordable courses.) 

 

The leader glanced at his watch. "I'm sorry. Running out of time. Let me know if you need any help in Beijing," he said to Kenneth out of courtesy. 

 

"I want a thank-you note." Urgency dripped from Kenneth's voice.

 

"Thank-you note! You mean political letter?" The leader's eyes drew thinner. His loud voice stunned the crowd.

 

"No, no." Kenneth shrugged. "I just want a note. Personal, official, anything will do." He reached for a blank paper and offered it. "You can write it now, if you want."

 

The leader gazed at Kenneth, confused and a little irritated. Then he whispered to the old woman who whispered back to him in response. The leader nodded at Kenneth and headed for the next booth. The crowd followed him.

 

"I'll arrange for it," the woman said to Kenneth and hurried to the leader.

 

"Xie xie ni," Kenneth shouted gleefully and slipped the paper in his pocket. The woman waved at him with a humourless smile.

 

Kenneth returned to his cage and held the poster in his hands. He was again a man on the exhibit.

 

The Caucasian woman neared to him. "Honey, why do you want a thank-you note?"

 

"Something personal. Can't tell you."

 

"Whaat!"

 

"It's a family secret."

 

"Then I must know. Yeah."

 

"Sorry." A smile lit across Kenneth's face.

 

"Hey, we've agreed that there won't be any secrets between us."

 

"Cook your curiosity until dinner." Kenneth pointed at a group of new visitors and waved his palm. "Now, back to work, please." 

 

The woman smiled, punched in air, and turned to the visitors. "Nimen hao...."

 

 

That evening, in his hotel room, Kenneth received a hand-delivered letter from the Government official.

 

"Wow, I got it, finally!" Kenneth danced like a kid and kissed the letter, which contained two ungarnished statements: "Thank you for your support. We wish you a good time in Beijing."

 

Kenneth placed the letter in an envelope, wrote an address onto it, and rushed out of the room. A long queue at the reception counter prompted him to seek the help of a concierge who was shuffling through some papers. His face was announcing that he was not busy.

 

"Hi, could you help me?" Kenneth placed the envelope on his desk. "I want to mail this to my father in India."

 

The man looked at the envelope, and then looked at Kenneth. His eyebrows undulated, clearly amused by Kenneth's Indian dress. "Your room number, sir?"

 

"Five-o-three. I'm Kenneth Lai."

 

"Thank you, sir. I'll mail the letter."

 

"It's very important. So, please handle with care." Kenneth's hand shook as he pushed the envelope further towards the concierge.

 

The concierge nodded, and as he glanced at the address, he smiled. "Mr. Lai, you are from India? But hey, you look Chinese!" His tone was artificially cheery, as though he had discovered an error in a Maths problem.

 

"How much?"

 

The concierge hesitated. A farm hand in his country town looked like Kenneth. His tanned complexion distinguished him from the others. But it was not appropriate to mention. The man did not look like a farm hand. "Umm...I don't know. I'm no good in answering." He grinned.

 

"Do you have any relative in India?"

 

"No." 

 

Kenneth stepped closer. "I'm a Chindia man," he whispered.

 

"Chindia man!" 

 

            Kenneth smiled. "Ya, the one and only one here." He looked around with pride. "See you. Good night."

 

"Good night sir." The concierge held the very important envelope in his hand, watching the Chindia man disappearing in the foyer. A thought crawled in the concierge's mind. When was the last time he had written a letter to his peasant father? Last year, a year befoe it? He froze, unable to remember, unwilling to answer. "Ba ba and ma ma, after going to Beijing, I'll write letters to you every month" — his promise rose from a hibernation state in his mind and ran over him. 

~

 

Kenneth walked back to his hotel room. He had planned a romantic, candlelight dinner with the Caucasian woman.

 

As he stepped into his room, he saw a paper that was slipped through underneath the door. "Wow, another thank-you letter!" he murmured and picked up the paper. It was a fax re-directed from his Singapore office, which contained two ungarnished statements: "Dr. Deep's sister, Kavitha, has died. She wanted to thank you for sending her the family photo."

 

Kenneth stared at the letter. An odd grief enveloped him. The family cage of his mentor, Dr. Deep, was now closed. The last surviving member had departed on the journey of death.

 

Ding-dong.

 

A chime of the bell announced that a candle was waiting to be lighted.

 

To mark the dinnertime or the death? He did not know.