Thursday, November 3, 2011


It had been a long day. Grey and near freezing, there were a million needles flying with every gust of the cold old winds that whistle their way through thousand-year-old ramparts and shiny new towers jostling for space in this ancient city that has flourished and floundered and flourished again in the shadow of the Great Wall. This was day one in Beijing. Dusk was settling in and darkness fell with a sudden eagerness that surprised me as I wandered around the hotel. Cloudy and windy, and ensconced in a bluegrey smog since I had landed, Beijing hadn’t really opened her doors and pulled me in. It was more like she kept me waiting at the door, cold and lonely, out on the threshold, to see how much I wanted her. I wasn’t in the mood for trials of love though and I just slumped down on my seat, comfortable, but homesick, wishing I was somewhere else, where the sun didn’t need ‘the people’s permission’ to shine. The bus drove past the proud yet scarred heart of the city – Tiananmen Square. The vista dwarfs our own Rajpath the way Yao Ming would dwarf Tendulkar. And the place makes you feel differently too. While an India Gate tries to look good and impress like a handsome and hopeful kid on prom night, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is like a dominating patriarch, grand and powerful, generous when so disposed, yet forbidding when not. ‘I have a lot to give’, the square seems to say, with the massive monuments to ‘the people’ all around the square and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, glittering in the corner of my eye, smaller, but far more distinct than the massive sprawling structures around it, with a golden star anointing its crown, but ‘you better behave yourself ’ it says, with a deep soft rumble, ‘or you might not like what I give’, it warns. I was impressed, but it didn’t feel any less lonely. I wandered some more and saw the cold streets and pavements empty themselves of shoppers and drifters. The roads were still busy though with people rushing home from work. I wondered as I wandered, what might be a good way to spend an evening in a city where no one knows me, where few can understand me; and where I have a lot of time, a little money and the unfamiliar feeling of having nowhere to be... And then I saw it, a building with a bright red grid facade and a bold neon sign, ‘The Red Theatre’. And across the top half of the facade was the towering cut out of a bald man looking like he wanted to sit down, but someone had taken his chair away. He didn’t seem too happy about it either. It was the cut out of a Shaolin monk doing tie ma bu or horse stance – a signature Shaolin Kung Fu, hard yet meditative, stance that denotes power, endurance, calmness and balance. I’m a sucker for macho moves. In that sense, I haven’t yet grown out of my teens and so in the warm glow of the lights from the Red Theatre, my mood brightened up and I rushed to the ticket counter. It was a full house. I would have to wait for the next show. That would take another 90 minutes, but with some time to burn, I hopped onto a bus and thought of taking in more of the sights of Beijing before returning for the show. The bus, like the rest of the city, was as slick and modern. Except for the people to remind me, this could have been any first world capital city. Actually that’s being unfair. Very few first world cities, Berlin is the only one from the list of great cities that comes to mind, that compares with the scale, history and stately grandeur mixed with modern development and opulence. Most other first world capitals would struggle to encompass the range of extremes that is Beijing.

We drove past the diplomatic enclave of the capital and the brilliantly lit golden facade of the Beijing Hotel, perhaps the city’s oldest and definitely one of the world’s grandest, at least on the face of it, just took one’s breath away. I must have been looking at the hotel with a lot of longing for I stood up from my seat for a better view when I heard a voice under my armpit ‘vewee nice but vewee vewee expensive!’ I followed the sound under my armpit to its owner and saw a young lad in his mid 20s, or could have 7-8 years either way and I might not have known any better, shaking his head at me. I smiled and nodded. And then I went back to looking at the hotel as it floated past my window. ‘You ken see Tiananmen Square and even little Forbidden City from hotel’, the boy volunteered. So I asked the lad if anybody could get rooms in the Beijing Hotel or did one have to be a diplomat to be allowed access? ‘Why not? Ken have...If money, ken have room...’ My thoughts wandered to the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi, which would qualify as The Beijing’s Indian counterpart and that’s where I realised that while both India and China have had similar beginnings, the Chinese leadership has always sought one thing with dogged determination that Indians at the helm can never be accused of having too much of, and that is a fist full of pride. The difference between these two states, if you ask me, and my teachers would tell you that you really shouldn’t, but if you still had this manic urge to go ahead and ask, I’d say that beyond the complications of a functional democracy and the virtues of a planned economy, beyond the distractions of a free society and the constrictions of focused growth, the primary difference between these two nations lies in the value these nations and generations of their leaders have attached to pride, in their national identity and in their legacy. I am not saying that one is better or worse, just saying it like I see it. So that’s my two-bit insight as far as our comparative economic cultures are concerned.

I was lost in one of the toilets of the Ashoka when I heard the self-appointed guide under my armpit exclaim ‘tha iss the Forbiiiiden Ciiiityyy’. And in the evening light I saw the hulking silhouette of the once forbidden city rise above the traditional slanting roofs of the old quarters of Beijing. In the darkening gloom, the Forbidden City wasn’t little by any means but did look very forbidding indeed. Home to China’s emperors for more than 500 years, these palace grounds were off limits for most commoners and death was sure to follow anyone who wandered uninvited within its walls. Today, thousands flock within these long dead walls, hoping to snatch a glimpse of what it must have been like to walk within these hallowed walls as a designated god, with a world beyond that is all mine for as far as the eye can spy, with queens in the palaces and concubines in the pleasure chambers, life must have been rather busy indeed for China’s rulers. But more forbidden tales for later. For now, I had a show to catch... And a show that would remind me of home, for reasons both good and bad.

I had reached the Red Theatre in time to catch my show, and while I waited for the curtains to rise, there was a polite announcement in accent-free English.... ‘Wait a while, please be nice!’


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