No ordinary woes

Almost all educated Indians who knew no Chinese but could read English, were hooked for ever to their neighbouring country when Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was published in 1931, and bagged the Pulitzer a year later.

The Chinese literary scene has been a problematic area for the Indian who has preferred a wobbly democratic structure after independence. Mercifully, freedom of speech has never been denied in India, except for those 21 months in 1975-77 when Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was the president of India. Strangely enough, that was also the time when the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was on in China. On one hand we heard that China was producing steel in the backyard, while our government was unnecessarily pouring money into building huge steel plants. Small is beautiful. On the other hand, we heard that life was very difficult in China for the common man, and that all traditions and beliefs were wiped out forcibly so that the government of Mao Zedong could write history on a clean slate.

How much of it was truth and what

percentage was propaganda in a land where censorship is a way of life? China, like India, has a vast countryside. It has taken Tiananmen Square and much water to flow through Chaobai River to get at the lives of the ordinary people, thanks to a few Chinese works in translation. Gao Xingjian receiving the Nobel Prize in 2000 has also kindled our interest in Chinese writing. Bi Feiyu’s Three Sisters is thus most welcome to the Indian reader. The novel won the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2010.

Three Sisters is a harsh legend of struggling womanhood. In a land forced to abandon its history, religion and other traditional supports, the woman suffers most. Now, she is just an object of reproduction. The woman is expendable. She can be raped, harassed as a wife and thrown on the wayside to die. Political power alone counts and that power is controlled by man. What would be the fate of seven sisters in a poor household? Bi Feiyu writes with dispassion and that is terrible enough. Sexual indulgence is the one red video in action throughout the novel, as girl after girl gets victimised. Whether it is the eldest Yumi who seeks safety in marrying a powerful old man, or Yuxiu, who is traumatised by multiple rapes, the horror lies like a pall over the countryside and the town.

Amidst all this loss of everything past, the psychological attachment to female chastity makes life pathetic. And the male telling his female who has given him seven girl children: “Who do you think you are? Not a single boy has popped out of you, and yet you expect two bowls of rice at every meal?” The male is Wang Lianfang, the party secretary, the uncrowned king of the village. So, he gets to have all the wives of the village by turns: A party secretary, how can he be denied?

Three of the seven sisters are the main players in three parts. It is not surprising that the title, as well as the characters, remind one of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1900). Like Chekhov’s Olga, Yumi is the mother-figure who, curiously enough, comes to the same conclusion as Olga to marry “any man, even an old man if he had asked.” Yumi marries the elderly Guo Jiaxing, deputy director of the Revolutionary Committee, a ranking official in charge of the people’s militia. Look at the luck of the village girl. There is then Yuxiu, who reminds one of Chekhov’s Maria, flighty, wronged, born to suffer. Yuyang is the youngest of the seven girls, whose presence in a teacher’s training school gives us an idea of the degrading times. A child who becomes an expert spy.

It is not easy to remain unaffected by all this where innocence is destroyed with impunity. It should be kept in mind that most of the happenings in this novel take place when political instability was at its height with the Gang of Four running riot. But, Bi Feiyu does not allow politics to percolate directly into the novel. Therein lies his iron control over the chosen subject. After all, what is the point in analysing politics? The revolution had herded millions of students and graduates into peasant life to break the backbone of the educated elite. The dislocation and suffering is the reality. The emphasis on a variety of sexual intercourse symbolises the style of unexciting officialese that marked those days.

Fortunately, the humanism of women like Little Tang saves us from becoming misanthropes. Three Sisters may certainly make the reader a bit sadder than before, but definitely wiser than ever.

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