Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 43

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

June 4 early morning we took a taxi from Friendship Hotel to the Beijing airport, oblivious of the dreadful happenings in Tiananmen Square the previous night. I remember the taxi driver in his almost non-existent English tried to tell us that ‘something’ (he was not sure what) had happened in the night in the Square, traffic was not allowed to go in that direction. By the time we reached Shanghai, our hosts who came to receive us knew. Of course, they could not know it from radio or TV, as there was a news blackout. These were days before internet, but cross-country fax messages were still active. Beijing to Shanghai messages were blocked, but people in Beijing were sending fax messages to their friends and relatives in Los Angeles, and the latter were sending messages to Shanghai.

We were put up in the faculty guest house of Fudan University. It turned out that our living room in the guest house had the only short-wave radio in the whole campus. So for the next few days endless streams of students and young faculty came to our room to listen to the news on BBC or Voice of America. Even though we had to listen to the same grim news again and again, this gave me an opportunity to talk to many young people in the campus. Along with discussing the news, I also asked them about their life, their studies, their family backgrounds and so on. In response to my question about what they’d like to do after university, in general the ones who were more forthcoming or whose English was better would usually say that they’d like to work for a ‘joint venture’ (joint between a Chinese company and a foreign multi-national company). I noticed that these students had often adopted English first names like Max or Susan to introduce themselves, I presume just to make things easier for the foreigners–I think the same was probably true for Justin Lin in Beijing. (In recent years I have noticed a big change in the reverse direction: my friends in China who used to send me email earlier with their Chinese names in Romanized letters, now almost always use only Chinese characters. So when I receive an email from China it takes a bit of time for me to know who the email is from, without reading the text of the message which is mercifully still in English).

Other students talked about their goal to work for the government. To some of the latter, I asked if they trust the government (after all, they were coming to my room to find out what had happened in their capital city, whereas on Government TV also in my room you saw continuous cultural programs with vigorous song and dance going on, as if nothing had happened, with occasional breaks of martial music). They’d often remain silent to this question. One student who came from a peasant family in a remote province told me that when he was small his parents and the Government were saying that the Cultural Revolution was a very good thing; now they’d tell him it was a very bad thing; he said, with a sigh, that now he did not know what or whom to believe. (As they used to say, in other countries the future is uncertain, but in communist countries the past is uncertain).

At the University I managed to give only the first lecture. That afternoon the news came that somewhere near Shanghai students in protest of what had happened in Beijing lay down on the train tracks to stop trains; but the first train did not stop in time and went over and killed a couple of protesters. The whole city of Shanghai burst out in protest. I saw that the bus drivers in sympathy with the protesters parked their long buses diagonally at the street crossings, and left, thereby completely paralyzing the traffic. My subsequent lectures were, of course, cancelled. But because of the traffic paralysis we could not go anywhere. For the next week or so we were trapped. I talked to many more students, some of them took me to see their dorms (which were no less dingy or crowded than some of the shabby college dorms in Kolkata). We walked around every day but there was not much to see in the campus except for massive statues of Mao here and there.

We were once invited to a gathering of a few faculty members at someone’s home. At that gathering I came to know from one professor that the pay scale of professors at that time was not any better than that of bus drivers. None of them, of course, could afford cars. At one time the discussion turned to the killings in Tiananmen Square. Some professors spoke out against student protests; they said throughout Chinese history people put a great value on stability, they were put off by signs of chaos and disorder. I told them that I was from India where disorder and protests were part of daily life.  I remember then asking why the Chinese Government needed tanks to crush these unarmed students, already weak from weeks of hunger strike. I said international TV in the previous weeks had been full of scenes of water cannons used to quell protests going on in East European cities. The room fell silent at my question, until one elderly gentleman said slowly, dragging his words, “You see, the water pressure around the Square is not good enough for water cannons to be used”. (Hence, armored tanks, he implied). To this day I am not sure if he was joking or not.

The University was closed down, and students slowly left the campus (probably on their bikes). The campus became a rather desolate place. One day some of my host professors came and told us that we had to be moved from the guest house, as the staff there were going to leave soon, and there’d be no one to serve us food. So they had decided to move us to a big hotel at the airport, but as roads were blocked for vehicular traffic, they had arranged for a pedalled cycle van which would carry us and our luggage but it’d obviously take many hours to reach the airport. At the airport the flights were still cancelled, but when they’d resume it’d be easier to book flights from the airport hotel. We then were asked to get ready for our long journey.

But at the appointed hour instead of a cycle van a car appeared. Our hosts explained that at the final moment they had found a driver who knew the Shanghai backstreets well and he had promised to evade the street blocks by protesters and somehow reach us to the airport. The next hours were quite breath-taking for us, with a stout daredevil driving recklessly through the narrow lanes and bye-lanes of old Shanghai, taking abrupt U-turns whenever he saw people blocking a street, sometimes going fast on reverse through extremely narrow lanes where the walls were scraping the car on both sides. We felt like we were in the midst of a thrilling car chase scene through a slum in a Bombay film. After a couple of hours we reached the airport hotel, the less said about the condition of the car exterior the better.

I found the big hotel full of Taiwanese businessmen, also waiting like us for the flights to resume. When after a few days they did, there was a mad scramble for tickets at the airport. After a lot of hassle we managed to get a flight to Hong Kong, and from there we went to Kolkata. The communists who ruled the city (and the state) then were in full sympathy with their Beijing counterpart. I remember the first day we arrived in Kolkata I checked the leading communist party Bengali newspaper Ganashakti about what they said on the Tiananmen killings. Not surprisingly, I found the quote from Deng Xiaoping prominent in their headline news: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”; and, of course, you have to swat those flies.

While at the guest house at Fudan University, I had quickly written out two articles on Tiananmen Square, one in English for EPW and the other in Bengali for the Kolkata literary magazine, Desh, for which I occasionally wrote, and had faxed them. Soon after my arrival in Kolkata those two articles came out. One day a friend of mine, who was a student leader during my college days (though at a different college) and who was now an important member in the central committee of the ruling communist party, came to see me, to discuss Tiananmen. I told him I had nothing to discuss with him, given the asinine position their party had taken. He said my articles had been read and discussed in the party, and that I should not take their party’s public statements to indicate that there was no critical internal debate within the party. I said “You guys have long lost the habit of independent thinking. I have no patience with your mumbo-jumbo about ‘democratic centralism’ inside the party, and in any case whatever I have to say about Tiananmen, I have said it in those two articles”.

I was also reminded of a conversation I once had with an old college friend of mine, who later as an academic had learnt Mandarin and visited China during the Cultural Revolution. He was invited to the party headquarters in Kolkata on a weekend to give a talk on the Cultural Revolution to a small group of the higher-ups in the party. At the end of his talk the big party boss asked him, “Could you give us a real clue about what Mao essentially is trying to achieve through this Cultural Revolution”? My friend, annoyed by the big boss clearly not having paid much attention to what he had said in the previous hour, said, “Ok, I’d explain it with just one example: it’s late in the day, and while we are discussing large issues in this meeting room, I see your janitor is smoking beedi (a cheap thin local cigarette) after beedi outside, waiting when the babus (the gentry folk) will be done with their meeting and then he could close up the rooms and go home. Mao through his Cultural Revolution is telling us to wipe out our distance from that janitor, to bring him in and involve him in the discussion, as the issues are about his life too.” Needless to say, after this my friend never again heard back from the party members.