Archive for November, 2012

Wonderful Poisons

When one of the visiting ‘jarnalises’ who come to do their annual ‘Khaufpur story’ leaves Animal with a voice recorder and asks him to record his story, the first thing Animal does is to sell the recorder. Nonetheless, Animal has to find another ‘recorder’ when later on he finds out that he does indeed have something to say about his life, the people he knows, and the aftermath of the Bhopal catastrophe.

It would be fair to say that the population of Khaufpur have so little and have had so much taken away, that they are instinctively skeptical of anything offered for free. Even a clinic, opened up by someone who “left a big job in Amrika out of pity for the people of Khafpour” – so when Elli Barber comes to Khaufpur and opens a free clinic in the poorest part of the town, suspicions are raised whether she is actually working in some sort of a secret enterprise with the bosses of the ‘Kampani‘ who are on trial.

While the author’s severely anti-industrialistic, anti-American and to some extent, anti-neoimperialist tone is heard as a continuous echo throughout the whole book, his using of fiercely humorously coarse and risqué stylistical language, putting it rather mildly, is perchance very much aimed at the reader, making him/her understand not the politically flamboyant long-term manifestations of Sinha, but rather immediate sufferings as well as down-to-earth basic needs of affected Bhopalis to this very day. As a matter of fact, Sinha is painstakingly straightforward with his sublimated-into-a-book cause; one, for instance, may easily spot the political message within the difference between the initial American (on the left) and European (correspondingly on the right) book cover versions:

What led the narrator to Zafar and the political issues around “Kampani,” however, was not his cause for justice, but his lust and sexual desires. While the center of the plot is fixed around what happened “that day,” a big part of the text is filled with the narrator’s fantasizing about sex and Nisha, showing us not only his natural desire for sex, but also his desire to be human. Sinha touches the issue through the eyes of a 19-year-old boy named Animal who walks on arms and legs, which could at once be sad because he is the victim of the incident, and revealing, for the issue is seen at a totally different perspective. It is an interesting parallel between the progress of Kampani case in the court, and the narrator’s realization of his own identity as human. While he still endorses his name Animal, there are things he strongly desire as human.

Communication is also an interesting theme Sinha touches on. Because of his posture and his inability to read or write, the narrator initially has a serious problem communicating with people, nor did he want to interact with others. The narrator’s only companion was his dog, until Nisha approaches him and for the first time in his life, actually treats him as an equal and teaches him the ways of communicating. A lot of the characters throughout the novel, in addition to Animal, have their own problems in communication. The narrator’s careperson, Ma Franci, does not have anyone to talk to, since she lost her language skills “that day,” and the only language she speaks is French. The exchange between the American doctor, Ma Franci, and the narrator makes the readers wonder if language is the only issue in communication in this novel. The lack of language skills as well as disinterest in others lead to serious misunderstanding in communication.

What makes this story so fascinating is that Khaufpur doesn’t even exist in reality. So intricately explained and mapped out with such familiarity, this realisation elucidates the reason that no name is given to the Kampani. This extrication thus means that this is NOT a story about Bhopalis, but about Khaufpuris, and in particular, one Khaufpuri who goes by the name Animal. In this way, it is similar to Dream of Ding Village and different from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but more than that, he uses the disaster that happened ‘that night’ to contextualise his story of human ambition, love, animosity, trust and lack thereof in a society of abysmal poverty – one that could exist anywhere yet nowhere else. While knowledge and understanding about the Bhopali Disaster can help provide some context that could provide some of the visual imagery Animal is saddened he can’t provide, Sinha’s creation of an alternate yet extremely realistic reality allows it such that this is a story that can be fully appreciated for its full worth even without such knowledge. As such, the focus is placed upon the life of Animal and his fascinating adventures, lusts, struggles, and fascinatingly creative and brutally honest narrative voice. Hence the author’s intent isn’t to tackle the ‘big picture’ questions of imperialism and industrialisation, but rather to let a story be heard; a story of calamity and sadness and a society wrenched at the core, one of powerplay, bureaucracy, and corruption, but also one of unity, love, respect, justice, and altruism. And horny lust in copious quantities.

It is also a story about good intentions coming at cross purposes with each other, and how chronic physical contamination can plague ones mind, perception, and belief in others. The widespread chemical catastrophe ‘erased thousands’ of lives and continues to make living impossible for so many, but its effect is more than polluting the water, but also their trust, their belief in humanity, and eradicates all semblance of hope.

 – Suel, Kefa, Kee

Review of Dream of Ding Village

The following article was published in the Guardian and it somehow reminded me of another possible convener’s post. It is definitely a good idea to have a look at it, Personally I really liked it.

“…Yet the warmth from these ordinary people does not change the cold reality. The story is narrated by the dead poisoned young boy, which, to my mind, slightly undermines the novel. A storyteller as masterful as Yan Lianke does not need the assistance of a boy’s ghost. To be fair, the boy does offer an excuse for his father to return to Ding Village so the narrator’s grandfather has the opportunity to repay his villagers by killing his own son. Yet is that enough of a tragedy, or is that – like every death in the novel – a small offering? In the fictional world, the evil one is punished; yet in the real world, the truly chilling tale is that hundreds and thousands of bloodheads live on and prosper.”

Ghost Marriage

The following has been taken from an article posted in The Economist:

“IN RURAL China, the afterlife is a serious matter. After more than 60 years of Communist Party rule, the festival of Qingming or “tomb-sweeping day”, celebrated on the fifteenth day after spring equinox (April 4th this year), is enjoying a revival. Though suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, the festival was reinstated as a public holiday in 2008. An important part of traditional filial duty is to honour the souls of the departed, and Qingming is the day to tend to a deceased relative’s grave. It is also peak season for “ghost marriages”, and the time of year when bodysnatching proves most lucrative.”

(On the right is a picture I extracted from this article) If you look closely at some of the tombs, there are pictures of couples that were wedded after their death.

“Ghost marriage (minghun) is a 3,000 year-old custom practiced especially in northern China. Huang Jichun, a scholar at Shanghai University who studies Chinese folk traditions, says the majority of rural families in the north, whose relatives die unbetrothed , seek “ghost spouses” for the departed. According to custom, the bodies are buried together in a ceremony that is a cross between a wedding and a funeral. Their ghosts, it is believed, will then no longer be lonely, and the family’s fortunes will be restored.

In Guangping county of Hebei province in February of this year, an 18-year-old man surnamed Liu, who died of heart disease, was joined in a ghost marriage with a 17-year-old woman named Wu, who died of a brain tumour. The Liu clan paid 35,000 yuan ($5,600) for the body of Ms Wu, a hefty sum for a farming family in Hebei where the average income per person is around 5,000 yuan per year. Having never met in life, the two were buried together in death, and dumplings were scattered on their grave. Their honeymoon was cut short soon after, however, when grave robbers snatched Ms Wu’s body, reselling her into another ghost marriage in a neighbouring province.

“I hope the robbers get the death sentence or 20 years in prison,” says Ms Liu, the mother of the deceased young man, standing on her mud doorstep in a grey padded jacket and red slippers. Four generations of the Liu clan live in the squat redbrick building behind her. Stagnant rainwater sits in the mud streets outside. Old people push bicycles laden with empty beer bottles for recycling.

Trade in female corpses is flourishing in these poor rural areas. Bodies are typically procured through brokers, with the typical quoted price of a fresh corpse rising at least 25% in the past five years to 50,000 yuan. A Chinese newspaper last year blamed rich coal mine bosses for driving the cost of a female corpse as high as 130,000 yuan. In 2010, a bodysnatching ring was broken up in Hebei province. Its members had robbed dozens of graves in the region, earning hundreds of thousands of yuan.

Ghost marriages have long been shrouded in controversy. A record in the Zhouli, an ancient Confucian text dated from the 2nd century BC, forbids the custom, but there are records of the imperial family conducting ghost marriages in the Tang (618-907AD) and Song (960-1279AD) dynasties. Under Chairman Mao the custom was labelled superstitious and banned outright.

But Mr Huang, the scholar, believes the recent upswing in ghost marriages is in part due to China’s economic boom. Rural families are now better able to afford the steep price of a corpse bride and, says Mr Huang, the resurgent trade in bodysnatching has brought a reliable supply of fresh corpses that has spurred consumer demand.

The Liu family is hoping to lay its ghosts to rest. After arresting four of the five grave robbers, police finally returned Ms Wu’s body to their son, her original ghost husband. Not trusting the geomancy, or fengshui, of the couple’s original tomb, the Lius built a new one reinforced with concrete. Alongside the food offerings, they carefully planted a traditional baifan–a rod wrapped in white crepe to help guide the ghost couple to paradise. This year, at Qingming, they will visit the couple’s tomb, burn incense and place dumplings. Tragedy struck them in this life. Perhaps, finally, it will leave their loved ones alone in the next.”

I also found in another article that when bodies ran short, some created corpses for ghost marriages.

Gao Yaojie

A New York Times article about AIDS activist Gao Yaojie; she has been advocating for Chinese authorities to address China’s AIDS crisis, and as a result had been put under house arrest multiple times between 2003 and 2007 to prevent her from receiving international awards for her work.


“But for a Communist Party intolerant of public dissent, embracing grass-roots AIDS activists is a different matter. They often complain loudest about inadequate care and official corruption. And few people have complained louder, or with more influence, than Dr. Gao, who gained fame for helping expose the tainted blood-selling operations that spread H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, in central China in the 1990s.”

‘“Luckily I am still clear in the mind, or I could have been fooled by the government into speaking for them, telling untrue tales,” she said. “It does not matter to me at all whether I can go pick up the award.

“I think my absence at the ceremony will be more influential than me being there.”’

Why selling blood is wrong…

You say that selling blood is quite alright,

That blood is just another good.

But if your blood, your very life,

Can be sold so cheaply; nay, have a price,

Then what is it that you value dear,

Where are your values,

Are you so severe?

That you are willing to sell yourself,

Like a common harlot, you’re the lowest low,

If you believe, if you do know,

That you are profiting from God’s gift,

The gift of life, the essence of it –

Have you no morals, how can you say,

That it’ll regenerate anyway!

You have no heart, it is forsaken;

When all the crimson fluid is taken,

Maybe then, then shall you know,

That no amount of cash can flow,

Like blood within your very veins,

Money only binds you in further chains,

Could you just please, use your brains!


Forget the morals, ethics and norms,

Your sacred economics gathers storms,

To show you how wrong you really are,

That your words are so very bizzare;

Can you even fathom the desperation,

The poverty, dearth, and consternation,

Can you hope to imagine the exploitation,

The terror, pressure, and desolation,

That leads someone to give away,

To siphon blood, to go astray?

You can not truly understand,

The true supply, the true demand,

That people weaken day by day,

That they’re abused, and cannot say,

Please, just go away – I’d rather starve than hear you say,

That my blood has no meaning true,

It’s just an income source to you.

So don’t act like you know it all,

Like you hold some secret crystal ball,

The world is not so simple thus,

And that is why I make a fuss.


You say that selling blood is quite alright,

That blood is just another good.

Truth is, there’s more to it than that,

It’s life incarnate, remain so, it should.



Filming Ding Village

Hi, all. I hope I’m not stealing anyone’s thunder (esp. augmenters, who have yet to post) but given that we’ve got a shorter week than usual I want to direct your attention to a couple films quite relevant to Dream of Ding Village. The first is an upload (shh!) of the full feature film Love for Life (2011), alternately titled Til Death Do Us Part and Life Is a Miracle, an adaptation of Yan’s novel directed by Gu Changwei. (Yan Laoshi, listed as its first screenwriter, is apparently a pseudonym of Yan Lianke himself, according to this reviewer.)

If you’re pressed for time and would just like a taste, here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this interview with director Zhao Liang. And this one.) Together is available on YouTube in six parts. Here’s the first:

Live The Life Together

On the spine and back cover of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, there are Chinese characters meaning “Live the life together.” Interestingly, these characters are not translated into English. This hidden message of sorts, for readers who cannot read Chinese characters, is not lost, as its message becomes evident through the text.

As AIDS sweeps through Ding Village, leaving the once-prosperous streets barren as a winter field, a makeshift quarantine is imposed on the village. Ironically, while quarantine is used as an isolation method for the infected, two characters find solace in the village’s tragedy. Lingling and the narrator’s uncle, both ostracized by their spouses, find comfort in each other’s dying arms, creating warmth in a place that had none. This response to the AIDS contagion is strikingly similar to Welcome to Our Hillbrow, where Refilwe and her Nigerian lover die together with AIDS, meeting in heaven after their mortal days had expired. In the midst of tragedy, it seems there is often a uniting force that sadness has upon a people. Lingling and the narrator’s uncle, choose to live their last moments together instead of succumbing to the loneliness of death.

Another parallel one can draw between Dream of Ding Village and Welcome to Our Hillbrow, is the use of atypical narration. In both texts, the story unfolds like a eulogy, filled with languor and melancholy. Refentse is already dead in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, and the dead, unnamed 12-year-old can only watch from beneath the schoolyard as his family and his village wither away.

Dreams are an element evident in both Angels in America and this text. Grandfather’s dream in Volume 3 contains as much allegorical and sociopolitical significance as those in Angels in America. While AIDS is crippling Ding Village and the winter wind howls against the schoolyard quarantine, Grandfather dreams that springtime has come, and with it, blossoming fields of rainbow flowers seductively perfume the air. Underneath the soil, gold is discovered in the form of coins and bullion. However, Grandfather awakes, realizing that the only thing beneath Ding Village’s barren soil is a pool of blood. Like Angels in America, this dream suggests a dream gone astray and replaced only with pain and despair. For all the labor the Mayor and the Communist Party have put into modernizing Ding Village, the only real returns are disease and destruction.

The biblical epigraph highlights the theme in Dream of Ding Village of the dichotomy between desolation and prosperity. In the Old Testament, Joseph predicts that Egypt will experience several years of unprecedented fertility and harvest, followed by a terrible famine. Similarly, the villagers experienced years of prosperity from selling their blood, even adding a new street with large houses. However, after the “fever,” as they call it, falls upon the village, the prosperous period comes to an immediate end and those infected with AIDS can only wait to die “like falling leaves” as others before them. The selling of blood was at first taboo until the villagers saw another prosperous village that made its fortune off of blood. The drive to sell one’s blood to elevate one’s material status is a motive for many of the villagers. This materialistic view drives the village’s ascent to prosperity, and yet the blood boom fostered neglect for health practices such as using sterilized needles or fresh cotton swabs.

As our third text about AIDS, Dream of Ding Village has opened up a new view of the disease from the perspective that it is not strictly sexually transmitted. The attitudes and connotations of AIDS are different in this book versus the previous two. In our class discussion this may be a good thought to keep in the back of our minds.

– Allen, Diana & Adam

Hillbrow and Phaswane. Life goes on, right?

..making a little bit of a background research, you might find out that the author died in 2004 (i.e. three years later, after publishing his only book) at the age of 34. Considering the young age and officially ‘unknown’ cause of death, Mpe Phaswane himself most likely died of HIV-related disease.

..and if you wanna take a look on the modern-day Hillbrow (to be precise, ten-years-later Hillbrow), you might consider going through this lovely photostory.

But the times, they are a-changin’  (c)

A deeper look at Mpe’s South Africa

During the reading of Welcome to Our Hillbrow, I was particularly struck by the use of seemingly anachronistic and brutal traditions in post-apartheid South Africa. Attached below are two links which very much illuminate two cultural phenomena in late 20th-century South Africa.

1. An explanation about South African “sangomas”, or traditional witch doctors.

2. An essay analyzing South Africa’s necklacing tradition. Long but definitely worth reading.