Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 2:00 AM
Award-winning journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar spent six years living in a hutong and reported from across China for the Hindu and Indian Express. Her debut book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China won the Vodafone-Crossword Reader’s Choice Award for 2008.
Her first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Previously on Danwei: An excerpt from Smoke and Mirrors.
Chapter One: Soyabean
The buzzing of the dragonfly was deliciously exciting. I moved an inch closer and then another inch, until it was hovering directly above me, darting in and out of a bamboo thicket, totally unaware that I was so close. It was a perfect setup. I wanted to leap high, higher than I ever had before, up into the white sky and pluck it out of the air.
But just at the moment I was readying to launch Ma’s penetrating meow calling me back for a lunchtime feed sent the dragonfly gliding away from my outstretched claws and in a flash it had disappeared over the grey brick walls of the courtyard.
I had been trying to catch a dragonfly from the time my eyes had opened. It was much harder than it sounded and no matter how silently I stalked or how quickly I jumped, I had always failed.
Ma told me to be patient. I was still too young she said.
I was golden, like a tiger and full of energy and strength. I never felt tired and Ma had given up trying to get me to take an afternoon nap. There was so much to do and see and explore. I simply couldn’t understand why anyone would waste their time sleeping.
I was the lone kitten in Ma’s litter. I knew this was very unusual for us cats because we tended to have large families.
‘Maomi! Little kitten!’ Nai Nai would croon as she tickled me into wiggly delight. ‘You are a model cat for the new China and your Ma a model citizen. Look at how she has obeyed the one child policy and produced you; you Little Emperor cat; you very pretty maomi.’
Nai Nai was the oldest Ren, in the Xu household, the human family who owned the siheyuan we lived in. I worshipped her as did all the cats. In the evening when the rest of the family was busy gulping beer, cracking sunflower seeds and playing long, loud games of cards, Nai Nai would sneak away to be with us.
She would steal scraps of food from the kitchen to feed us, crunchy morsels of chicken feet and still-hot bits of fish skin. We would mill around her legs, rubbing our heads against her knobbly knees. I would then roll on my back, purring, cajoling her into tickling my tummy. Nai Nai’s hands were dry and wrinkled but her touch was soft and her voice gentle.
She would spend hours talking to us, almost as if we were Ren. Ma explained to me that the real Ren in her life had disappointed her so often that she had come to prefer us cats.
Life was really quite good for a Little Emperor like me. I had Ma all to myself unlike some of my cousins who had to share their mothers with six or seven siblings. And even though I was an only kitten I never lacked for company. The courtyard we lived in was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. There were black cats and white cats and golden, caramel
Ba was a superb hunter. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.
‘Hmmm,’ Ma would growl pursing her lips when I told her my feelings but I knew that deep down in her heart she admired Ba too. He was so handsome and dashing, it was impossible not to.
Our siheyuan was located in a hutong alleyway just off East Drum Tower Avenue. Although the paint was peeling from its walls, and the roof leaked when it rained, the yard was large and spacious and Nai Nai had filled it with pots and plants.
Outside the courtyard was the World. ‘The Worrrrld!’ Just the sound of the word was electrifying. It rolled roundly in the mouth, tasting of adventure. The older cats of the courtyard spent hours every day wandering the World, making friends, besting foes and stalking prey. They would return with tales of long-whiskered rats and snub-nosed, Pekinese dogs that filled me with an almost unbearable curiosity.
‘Patience, little one’ Ma would say. The problem of course was that I didn’t have any. Nai Nai was also big on patience. ‘Patience is a bitter plant, but it has sweet fruit,’ she often told Xiao Xu, the grandson of the Xu family, but the young man would only laugh at her and call her old fashioned. Then Nai Nai’s face would crumple up and she would suddenly look very old and very alone and would come to find us cats for company.
One evening the Xu family had friends over for dinner. From my little corner in the covered corridor I could hear much noisy laughter wafting out of the kitchen. The fizz of beer bottles being opened and the clink of glasses followed by shouts of, ‘Gan bei!
I was bursting with curiosity but when I tried to make my way to the kitchen window to peek in, Ma extended her long paw and yanked me back. ‘But why can’t I look?’ I whined.
I sulked, flattening my ears and hanging my head low. I hated being told what to do. Ma was always preventing me from doing anything remotely exciting. She was so very dull.
But I cheered up a few minutes later when I made out Nai Nai’s bent figure emerging from the shadows of the main building. She walked slowly towards us. Too impatient to wait for her to reach me, I went leaping out to her, nipping her ankles in delight.
‘Hello little maomi,’ Nai Nai smiled as she scooped me up. But there was a flatness in her voice that even I knew meant she was unhappy, and that usually meant that she had argued with the family.
She carried me to the side of the yard opposite the kitchen and sat down resting her back against a pillar. The dinner party was still on in full swing although the voices of the Xus and their guests were increasingly slurred.
‘Maomi, they dare to call themselves Chinese, this family of mine,’ said Nai Nai with a sharpness that I wasn’t used to in her. I wiggled around in her arms trying to make her smile but she was too distracted.
‘All that is good in China and noble about being Chinese, they reject,’ she continued. ‘They laugh at the classics. The Dream of the Red Chamber is foolish they say and they call the great poet Du Fu boring! Peking Opera is too noisy for my grandson and even
‘Chinese need to be more practical Ma,’ my son says all puffed up with importance. He has the guts to condescend to me! His mother! ‘Calligraphy doesn’t make money Ma; Poetry doesn’t buy cars.’ But I ask you maomi, what is the use of money without poetry?
‘They don’t read, they watch TV. They don’t go to the theatre but to the disco. What with all this sms and computers I wouldn’t be surprised if Xiao Xu has forgotten how to write Chinese characters altogether!’ Nai Nai raged on.
By this time I had stopped wiggling and was paying attention to what she was saying.
‘But for me life’s held different cards. How I have suffered from men and their endless wars and revolutions. Sometimes I feel I’ve been left with nothing: my youth, my hopes, they’ve all gone. It’s not been easy maomi, not for any of us Chinese.’
Nai Nai held me up in front of her and looked straight into my eyes. I was fascinated, if confused by her words.
‘So here I am little one, nearly eighty years old. A dead husband; my many children scattered to the wind. Except for Lao Xu, of course; my one surviving son. And then there’s Xiao Xu . . .’
Nai Nai’s voice trailed off in despair. It was already very late and the party in the kitchen appeared finally to be winding down. She gave me a last scratch under the chin and then rose to return to her bedroom for the night.
I knew why Nai Nai had been lost for words when it came to Xiao Xu. I was only a few days old when Ma had first warned me of this Ren.
‘You be careful of that one,’ she had meowed, indicating the podgy, spoilt, grandson of the family.
‘That one has a knife in his belly.’
It was just as well that Ma had warned me off Xiao Xu. I knew to steer well clear of him but several of my cousins had had their tails yanked when they blundered too close to his hard, pinching hands .
There was even a rumour that as a boy the Xu grandson had set fire to the whiskers of a little kitten.
I was so frightened when I heard this that I went running to Ma to hide in the comfort of her fur. She had nuzzled me lightly and told me not to worry. Nai Nai would never let anything bad happen to us, she had said.
I wasn’t very clear what exactly he did. Lao Xu, his father, was an official at the Public Security Bureau, which I knew was a grand and important job. Every day many Ren came to the house to ask Lao Xu for favours of different kinds.
He was obviously very helpful because the Ren usually brought along briefcases full of presents for him. I was always excited when these presents arrived because sometimes they included gifts of fine food, scraps of which could, were I lucky, end up in my tummy.
But, Nai Nai greeted these visitors and their briefcases with a stony face.
‘Maomi,’ she once said to me. ‘Don’t you think its better to like what you have than have what you like?’ This was quite a complicated thought and it made my head spin, but I had the feeling it was a good thought nonetheless.
Xiao Xu sat with his father when the visitors came but when Lao Xu was away at work, the young man spent most of the day lounging around the house, eating peanuts and talking on his mobile phone. I didn’t understand much of his endless phone conversations.
I knew ‘money’ was something that was very important to Ren or at least to most Ren. Nai Nai was the only one who didn’t seem to care that much about it.
‘Learning can never be used up. Wisdom is never depleted. Fill your head rather than your pocket and you can never be robbed.’
Xiao Xu merely sneered at her, smiling that unkind smile I found so chilling.
The dusty, warm spring days slipped by so quickly that the scorching summer had arrived before I knew it. I grew bigger and stronger although I still hadn’t caught a dragonfly and I still couldn’t leap over the courtyard walls and I still didn’t have the patience Ma kept urging me to get.
Then one day I saw Nai Nai coming out of the main pavilion and from the way she was walking immediately knew that something was wrong. Tears floated in her eyes although she was smiling in a funny, determined way.
Ma must have noticed too because she began to stiffen and arch her back as though preparing to scare something bad away.
Nai Nai knelt in front of Ma and me and began to scratch me under the chin in just the way she knew I liked best.
‘Maomi,’ she said after a few minutes, ‘you must be brave now, agreed?’
I felt filled with importance. Nai Nai had come to the right kitten if she was looking for bravery. I was without doubt the bravest kitten in the yard. I would be willing to take on a rat double my size if needs be, especially if Nai Nai wanted me to.
I meowed impatiently wanting Nai Nai to explain what she needed from me. Although I didn’t want to admit it, I hoped it wasn’t a dragonfly because I still wasn’t very good at stalking them.
‘I have some good news,’ she continued, her smile so fixed it looked like it was glued on to her face. ‘I just got a call from a friend who lives in a nearby hutong and she says she knows two waiguo Ren, foreigners, who are looking to take in a kitten.’
I didn’t quite understand what any of this had to do with me but I could hear Ma’s breathing becoming faster and more uneven. I began to feel a little nervous. Both Nai Nai and Ma were looking at me very peculiarly.
It slowly began to dawn on me that Nai Nai was planning to send me away to go and live with these two, strange, waiguo Ren; far away from home, far away from my cousins and aunts and uncles and worst of all, far away from Ma.
I began to struggle against Nai Nai in panic. I wanted to run and hide where no waiguo Ren could find me, but she held on to me firmly.
‘Now listen maomi,’ she commanded. ‘The foreigners may look peculiar but they will feed you well and pamper you. I’ve heard that they buy their pets very expensive, special food that comes in tins and even make special homes and clothes and toys for them.
‘You’ll be better off with them, trust me, little kitten. They will treat you like the Little Emperor you are.’
‘Who was that on the phone, just now?’ demanded Xiao Xu roughly, interrupting Nai Nai.
‘Is it true that some foreigners actually want this . . .’ he paused to look at me before going on, ‘useless creature?’
I was quaking in his hands from fright and pain. His grip was too tight. Ma began to pace up and down, between his legs restlessly, meowing up at him in distress. Xiao Xu kicked her hard in the ribs.
‘Shut up you stupid cat,’ he snapped before turning to Nai Nai.
‘Are they going to pay? Did you ask them how much they would be willing to give?’ he said excitedly. Nai Nai’s eyes flashed angrily and she pulled herself up tall. Suddenly she didn’t look old or wrinkled but strong and fierce.
‘Give the kitten back to me, now’ she growled and in one, smooth motion freed me from Xiao Xu’s clutch. ‘Yes, the foreigners will pay,’ she continued. ‘They will pay with their time and love and willingness to look after this maomi. And that is more than we can ask from anyone young man. Can you understand that?’
Xiao Xu seemed a little taken aback by Nai Nai’s ferocity.
‘They come to our country and make good business here. Why shouldn’t we Chinese profit from them too? Do they want an apartment, these foreign friends of yours, Nai Nai? Perhaps a grand courtyard house? I can help them, you know. I have friends in high places. Foreigners need local Chinese assistance, after all. It’s easy for them to get ripped off otherwise.’
Xiao Xu chuckled nastily as if he had made a very funny joke. ‘Come on Nai Nai,’ he said. ‘Let’s deliver this little maomi of yours to the waiguo Ren. I’ll drive you.’
‘Man zou,’ Ma meowed softly, ‘go slowly little one,’ and then she turned her face away.
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Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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