Not-so-happy picture

Not-so-happy picture

Spectacular Chinese economic growth has had enormous social consequences. Rapid industrialisation has triggered massive migration from the impoverished countryside to the city. Swarms of unskilled, uneducated and poor peasants in search of a better life in teeming cities find themselves in unfamiliar territory amidst crowds of unrecognisable and unfamiliar faces. They soon realise that they are at the bottom of the heap. As in India, migrant workers are ill-paid and exploited. They are blamed for all the woes of the metropolis like pollution and rising crime. They are condemned to a life on the fringes with little chance of integration.

Most of the migrants from the countryside are forced to take up jobs as trash collectors. It is a back-breaking job. They are forced to roam the streets with their carts for the whole day and take the load to the depots but struggle to make both ends meet. Living in unhygienic and unsafe settlements, they are up early and late in bed. On rainy days, many are forced to starve as they can’t go out. It is a corrupt system where some take a cut for the trash collected. A regular practice in our cities.

This is the backdrop of Jia Pingwa’s Chinese novel Happy Dreams that explores the lives of trash pickers, and the widening social inequality in the dazzling metropolis of X’ian. The engrossing story is woven around Hawa ‘Happy’ Liu and his bosom friend Wufu who leave their village of Freshwind for the bustling city X’ian. They join the hordes of migrants and find work as trash collectors. Happy is better educated and takes his new life in his stride. An incorrigible optimist, Happy believes that through hard work he will one day become a respected businessman like the well-heeled men he sees on the streets of Xi’an. In the city, he cherishes the dream of finding a wife to fill the pair of high heels that he carries with him, and the recipient of his donated kidney with whom he feels a special bond. “Our life in the city, it’s like this shop window. If you’re angry, it’s angry too. If you smile, it smiles with you!” he says.

Happy sincerely believes that he has found the wife of his dreams in Yichun, who turns out to be a sex worker. That doesn’t diminish his adoration for her. After listening to her tale of struggle in the city as a migrant worker, he is drawn closer to her. When she gets arrested, he tries to bail her out using all his savings.

Happy and Wufu live and work together sharing sorrows and happiness amidst the city’s ‘low-end population.’ Rustic Wufu is a reluctant migrant who misses rural life. He pines for his wife and three sons he has left behind in his village. He promptly sends home whatever meagre earnings he has. He extracts a promise from his pal Happy to send him home when he is dead. The novel begins and ends with Wufu’s death. Happy’s futile struggle to transport his friend’s body is poignant. For once his unrelenting optimism is shaken.

Happy Dreams is about the soft underbelly of a burgeoning city. Jia Pingwa writes: ‘‘Perhaps by writing about trash pickers’ lives and their thoughts and feelings, I could put my finger on the pulse of otherwise hard-to-reach aspect of city life today.’’ ‘‘Country folk flock to the city to earn money doing jobs that the city folk don’t want to do any more, the dirty, heavy work, like demolition, excavation, road building, carrying sand and bricks, plastering walls, washing pots in restaurants, caring for the sick…’’

But they are all thankless jobs. In a way, it is a critique of the present Chinese development model that has left many behind. It has created a class of permanently disaffected people.

Migrant workers’ sense of alienation is unmistakable. A migrant laments; ‘’I just can’t get my head around it. The city spends a billion on a park, millions on a concert in a stadium, and even more on this or that exhibition. But if they’ve got money to burn, why do they only spend it in the city? The villages get poorer and poorer, and we don’t have a cent to rub together!’’

Happy Dreams is episodic in nature sans a clearly-defined plot. Various plans the two friends devise, the many people they encounter, and the places they visit, complete the plot. The experiences of rural poor in China are not different from what the Indian countryside is experiencing. The pain of relentless urbanisation is universal.

Through this well-translated novel, Pingwa introduces the reader to a China still grappling with modernisation and counting its cost. Intertwined with references to Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao and rich artistic tradition, Happy Dreams lays bare the new class divisions.