Consistently corny slices of China

Consistently corny slices of China

Shankar Sharma’s book made enjoyable reading, and its negatives, mostly contrived for effect, merely added to the light-heartedness.

The cover has a catchy design which proclaims the theme of the book literally and visually. It would have caught my eye if I had seen it in a bookstore display.

Sharma’s writing style is unique in that it is consistently corny but able to hold the reader’s attention by its readability. He has excellent descriptive skill as this introduction to his “little Taizhou” shows. “It has all the amenities one would expect from a city,” he says, “but one is still able to see the clear skies, breathe clean air, spot fish in the river and seek quiet seclusion in the parks.” The subsequent chapters deal with the various aspects of Chinese life — their language, customs and traditions, aspirations  — in Sharma’s inimitable style, light-hearted, often hilarious but always informative.

His training period and the final tests for qualifying as a trainer in China are so well narrated. The candidate is not given a chance to fail. No mistake can be made without the examiner seeing some merit in it which qualifies for marks.

This reminds me of the language tests that the old British ICS trainees went through. The Tamil Nadu cadre trainees had to go through Tamil tests which went somewhat like this: “What is Tamil for cat?” “Yaanai,” which means elephant. “Well done,” said the examiner, “50 per cent marks.” This was because half his answer was right. Tamil for cat is poonai.
His effort to master Mandarin which, like all Chinese dialects, is highly tonal and dependent on varied inflexions did cause him problems. One can understand this from an example he gives to illustrate the incredible change in the meaning caused by a tonal variation. The same sentence with a different emphasis converts the meaning from “I’d like to buy a radio, please” to “I wish to pay you to stroke my genitals.”

I recall a story about one of my old British bosses who had been in Malabar for so long that he tended to over-rate his skill in the spoken Malayalam. He was in a coir yarn processing yard which was “manned” entirely by women. He once summoned his staid old Brahmin Head Clerk and asked him to produce a ‘penn kuthy’. What he wanted was a pen-knife (‘pena kathi’), with which to sharpen a pencil but the utterly bewildered Head Clerk cursed his fate and escorted one of the young, topless women workers to the Presence. The head clerk had brought a ‘penn kutty’, which means a girl!

The book progresses through the Chinese New Year and the efforts of his colleagues and students to help him celebrate Christmas. The alphabet of words and their significance in Chinese life are enjoyable and educative. The tempo of the humour is sustained in every chapter and I am tempted to pick highly quotable quotes. However, I desist as that would be unfair to the writer and the reader. I am hoping that I have whetted reading appetites and that the readers will find the book as enjoyable as I have.

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