Wednesday, 1 October 2014

China Flash: ABS Crew: graffiti artists on legal, semi-legal and illegal street art

This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing, where I am currently doing a stint as Deputy Editor. All images by and (c) ABS Crew

Deep in the corporate heart of the Central Business District, under the approving eye of a strangely young government representative, a gang of guys in white jumpsuits, industrial respiratory masks and black rubber gloves is painting fierce designs onto ten of the city’s free shuttle buses while an increasing crowd of workers on their lunch break take photos and film their work.

The gang is Beijing’s ABS Crew, who since 2007 have been bringing graffiti culture, hip-hop, film-making and breakdancing together in a successful and classically Chinese combination of countercultural styling underscored by mainstream business acumen. ABS Crew - who go by the names ANDC, Scar, Noise and Seven- own a shop, host cultural events, work with major companies on corporate branding and graphic design, consult with big business and undertake public art commissions. They even sell ABS Crew merchandise. In the next few months alone they’ll be painting at a major music festival and working on a commission in Sanlitun.

Crew member ANDC explains, “Graffiti is very new in China, maybe only ten years old. Young people had to research and seek out the work by studying other countries’ graffiti culture online. When we started, we had no spray cans, just factory grade stuff you couldn’t paint with. We started off in different cities and found each other by uploading our work on the Internet.

But now, young guys are into it, more people are joining in. When we started out, we were studying at university and spent half our time working [in unrelated jobs] for big companies and the other half of our time doing graffiti. Now we do it full time. But we need more money for the culture, because more people want to learn how to do it, but don’t know how. We use business money to create a real culture and we make it available for everyone. We have a lot of plans. In China, if you know a lot of people, you get a lot of business.”

ANDC points out that graffiti occupies a rare position in China: “It’s harder and more illegal in other countries – graffiti-ing buses is illegal in Europe. But in China graffiti is half legal, half-illegal. There are certain areas where it’s okay to do it. This bus project is for the Central Business District’s art festival. We know the government leader for the festival and he’s very young, he’s not an old man, so we were talking with him about how to do fresher projects [and he agreed].”

This appearance of cultural openness is somewhat misleading. I’m talking to ANDC less than 2 hours after the police raided a major Japanese company’s annual sushi-and-cocktails party in epicentre-of-Beijing-cool Sanlitun, saying it was too noisy (but possibly just seeking a kickback) and a week after they raided a music venue, forced gig-goers to undergo mandatory urine tests for drugs and deported any foreigners who tested positive. Two nights ago, groups of silent, uniformed guards appeared at each corner of the intersection closest to my house, armed with machine guns.

While ABS Crew may be pursuing a lucrative corporate strategy these days, ANDC still makes sly reference to their shadier work, done “on a real street, in the night. It’s about wanting to tell people something. We do artwork that’s a social commentary and we add our crew’s name.”

Esha Ex: Chapter Seven

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

The woman reached under her desk, pulled out a plastic stool and indicated that I should sit down.
“I didn’t steal the box,” I began.
“Save it.”
            She reached for my hand and began putting my fingerprints into her book.
“If you can’t write, just make a mark,” she said when I had to validate the fingerprints.
“I can write.”
            She looked surprised. She gave me her pencil and I wrote down “Esha”, pressing hard to make the right shapes.
“What’s your family name?”
“There isn’t one.”
“You have to put one down. That box can’t be empty. In every information box on a form, you put information. Who brought you up?”
“I’m from a village home. And I’m not carrying its name with me for the rest of my life.”
“Then it’s going to be Ex. For ex class. That’s common enough.”
            I assented.
“And the punishment is a fine,” I said.
“Not any more. If someone excused you or stood up for you, you’d pay fifty tokens and be free to go. But you can’t pay your fine and nobody vouched for you. Your bosses must have agreed on local justice or you wouldn’t be here. So we go to the next level.”
She knocked on the wall again, the adjoining door opened and two skinny young men with dirty bandanas tied around their necks came in, cocking their thumbs at me. I stood up, confused.
“Never been here before?” asked one of them, looking at my body in a way I didn’t like. I felt a tremor of fear. 
            I shook my head.
“Through there,” said the woman, forcing me.
I passed between the boys, the men, and they didn’t make any room for me. As my shoulders brushed them they grinned and I shuddered. The back room was divided in two by a barred and locked partition. One end was a cage with a bucket in it. For the first time ever I thanked the Gods that I was hungry and thirsty and not likely to need to use the bucket in front of those boys. Leaning in the corner on the other side were some wooden poles like broom handles broken in half.
I wouldn’t get out of the cage alive – or, if alive, I wouldn’t get out untouched – if I tried to escape. There might be a gap on the way to the trial, or immediately after it, that I must worm out of.
            The boys didn’t have to touch me or push me for me to be obedient. They simply looked at me, their eyes touching and licking everywhere, across my back, across my front, at the flanks, to make me shrink. I went inside the cage and sat with my back to them. I heard them whispering. The cage door closed and the key turned.
            I realised I was sitting on water. Only it wasn’t water, it was piss, from a rip in the bottom of the bucket. All I had to do was stay awake until the trial. I wished there was a TV on in the room. It was the one thing that could calm me, make me numb to time. It had been my comfort at the home, even the repetitive State TV propaganda films.
            I heard a radio go on in the front office. I heard the doorbell ring a few times, but no-one came to join me. It got darker and darker in the room, then harshly buzzing white lights snapped on and that helped me keep awake. I was counting to a hundred for the thousandth time.
            They woke me up by kicking me in the shoulder. They had got into the cage without me waking up. I didn’t remember falling asleep, or even feeling drowsy. It was dawn and I was sprawled on the floor. When I realised where I was I shot to the corner of the cage while they swaggered, swinging those halved broom handles from their hands.
            The woman from yesterday came in holding a clipboard. My head was spinning with tiredness, guts squeezed tight and sour with fear.
“Ready?” said the woman. Did these people never sleep? On her clipboard was a photocopied sheet with my fingerprints on it. She looked at her watch, wrote down the time at the bottom of the sheet and got me to sign  it. I did so, having to remind myself that my name was Esha Ex. How humiliating it was to sign myself out, as if I was giving approval for whatever was to come.
She led me out, the two men tight on either side. The woman turned back as soon as the door to the outside was open, as though she belonged entirely to the building and couldn’t go beyond.
The streets were full of people. They were workers, like me, shop class and servant class, workshop apprentice class, some clerk class. But they hadn’t  spent the night lying in someone else’s urine. They were baying. Officer Diljun was nowhere to be seen, probably ‘busy’ catching ‘thieves’ elsewhere in the neighbourhood. The two men pushed me, yet again, to where I had been before. The parade was obviously the place where everything, anything, happened. No wonder the ladies were so covetous of its reputation.
The crowd followed me closely. It was the perfect daytime enjoyment: a dawn start, a cup of spiced tea, a stranger’s humiliation, then a day’s work as a good citizen of Miriadh. Even the stray cats and dogs had come out and were slithering in between people’s legs, being kicked away, always slinking back. Shashi and Razia were at the far end of the street. I saw them, not in detail, but I felt their eyes fixed on me.
The crowd separated. In front of me were three older men on canvas chairs behind a rickety table covered in an orange plastic tablecloth. They were wearing T-shirts and shorts and dusty plastic sandals. The men all had reading glasses and thick moustaches. They looked like every corrupt local official I had ever seen on every cop show. This was no trial, it was a sentencing.
I named the men One, Two and Three.
“Okay, okay, be quiet,” said One, crossly. “We are here to discuss the case of  Khadra Dayani, widow, fifty-three, market vendor: cutting washing powder with talcum powder.” He pointed at me and was about to launch into a speech when Two elbowed him and shifted a piece of paper over to him, murmuring, “Tomorrow. This one today.”
“Esha Ecksa,” mispronounced Two now, “theft of jewellery.” He blinked and looked again. “Theft of jewellery box from the main parade, while in the employment of Madam Shashi Rumari.”
The crowd shifted and tutted.
“Plead? Not guilty?” said Three without giving me the chance to say anything.
A dog stepped forward, yawning, in front of the men’s table. It turned around two and a half times, curled tail to nose-tip and went to sleep.
“Sentence,” began One.
“Wait!” I cried.
            A thud to the back of my head from one of the man-boys beside me. My teeth rattled, ears rang.
“You were caught… with the box in your hands… by Officer Diljun…in the old government quarters, which have been sealed for redevelopment,” read Two, his index finger trailing down the page.
“Trespassing too. Crime. All crimes,” cried One.
Something in the crowd quickened and thickened.
“Sentence!” cried Three. 
            One, Two and Three turned their full attention onto me.

“Theft is the  most serious crime in a commercial district, and the most serious crime merits the most serious punishment.” Number One hit the table with the flat of his hand. “So it is set. Stoning.” 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Six

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

I looked down at the thing in my hands. It was a jewellery box with plastic gems pasted onto it. Inside was a plastic mirror. It was from the gift shop on the parade, a shop that belonged to one of the ladies.
The guard snatched the box from my hands, gripped me tight across the upper arm and pulled me. Both of us were shouting. I made myself as resistant and heavy as possible.
“Look here! Look here!” he was wailing like the village message-man.
“I didn’t do it!”
“Thief! Oh, come out and see, look at what she’s got. Madames, tell me what to do with her! I am your servant.”
            Their servant, no doubt, would take any bribe going, and if I’d had anything to offer I was sure it all would have gone away quietly. But I didn’t. We wound up at the same spot the tiffin man had been standing not twenty minutes before. The guard hauled me up and down and I hung from his grip like a bag of oranges, heart growing heavy as I saw the shop ladies recognise me.
            The guard held the box high.
“This is what she stole!”
“I didn’t steal it!”
“Who will identify this? Whose is it?”
“Someone else stole it! I saw them playing with it – ”
“It’s from my shop,” said one of the women, who I recognised from last night.
The guard gave her the box and she inspected it and nodded.
“Please… I didn’t do it,” I said to her. “I saw some kids playing with it, in the government quarters.”
            The guard sensed the attention drifting away from himself.
“Who is responsible for the thief?” He swivelled me around and showed me to the crowd. “And an ex class at that. Sometimes, Madames, what the newspapers say is right: they come here and crime goes up, they go away and crime goes down.”
He let go of me suddenly and I fell onto the ground. Two pairs of hands helped me up: it was Shashi and Razia. I looked at Shashi but she wouldn’t look at me. 
“Madames, please,” I said, holding my hands out to all of them, palms bare. “I didn’t take the box. Those kids who were playing out here at lunchtime did it. The football game was a distraction – one of them ducked inside and stole the thing.”
“Then how did it get into your hands?” asked Razia.
“I caught them out and they left me with it.”
            Each face looked back at me, quizzical, uncertain, untrusting. The more I said I didn’t do it, the more I could feel them hardening against me.
“Esha, I’m sorry,” said Shashi. I shrank under her sweet-scented breath. “This isn’t going to work.”
“I didn’t do it!” I blurted one last time.
“You see how it looks. Word spreads quickly on this side of the street. If you worked at the estate you’d be just another worker out of hundreds. You’d be disciplined, and kept on watch, and there’d be a probation period. But around here…”
“We trusted you,” said Razia, clearly wishing she hadn’t given me her daughter’s clothes to soil with my thieving ex class sweat.
“Please don’t call the police,” I said.
            They all recoiled.
“Of course not!” said Shashi.
“The Miriadh state police are army men,” said the woman who owned the gift shop,
 “you call them for riots, state emergencies, revolts in the prison complexes.”
“You don’t go to head office if you’ve lost a paperclip,” said Razia.
“We will go through local justice,” Shashi said to the guard.
“Local justice,” announced the guard, with satisfaction. Once again I was being dragged, this time by the wrist, to see ‘local justice’ up close. The crowd followed us a little way as we went back towards the government quarters, away from the main road.
“Shashi Auntie, I’m so sorry – I disappointed you,” I said.
            One of the other women said,
“We’re not your aunts.”
The ladies fell away, turning their backs, not nastily but with last dismissal.
The guard and I passed the enclosure where I’d been caught and went one block further, into a district of wooden-sided stalls. I saw a stall for wills and death certificates, another for births and marriages. There was an astrologer’s office with a large sign showing a painted palm, with all the lines and their meanings. Then an office dealing with property deeds and contested land.
            The guard hauled me into a modest-looking building with a wooden slat front. “COURTHOUSE and JAI”, said the red letters on the glass of the door. The L of the JAIL had peeled away.
            The guard knocked hard on the door. Nothing happened. Through the glass we could see a woman in a khaki uniform sitting behind a desk with a beige box computer on it. The guard knocked on the door again.
“Ring the bell,” said the woman, without looking up, pointing with her pencil at a doorbell fixed to the side of the door frame.
            The scowling guard did as he was told and the door opened. We stood in front of the desk while the woman stapled some papers. She glanced me over and then did the same to the guard. I reckoned the courthouse people had seen plenty of this guy and weren’t impressed.
“Crime?” she enquired.
“Theft,” he said.
“A luxury item from the parade.”
“A jewellery box from the gift shop, but it wasn’t me,” I said, before a shake from the guard shut me up.
The woman leant back with a deep sigh, crossing her arms.
“Oh, Officer Diljun, why are you bothering us with this? It’s very small-division matters.”
“Bothering? I do my duty, I do it every day. Now you do your duty. You break the law, you pay the price.”
“The price is a fine,” said the woman flatly.
“She can’t pay the fine! She’s got no people. And no papers. Look at her.”
“I looked.”
“Having no papers is a crime in itself!”
“What d’you want us to do, Diljun? If we rounded up everyone who had no papers round here the jail would be full, the streets would be empty, homes would be empty, kitchens would be empty and society would collapse.”
“She’s a thief,” said the guard, returning to safer territory. “We have to make an example. Or do you want the place overrun with x class vagabonds who’d steal the pin out of your hair the moment you turned your back?”
            Heavily, resentfully, the woman opened a large book that was almost completely filled in already. She found a clear space, wrote in the date, the crime, a short description of me – “F, 18-22 approx, ex class, no address, no employ,” she said aloud as she wrote the words – got a rubber stamp from the drawer, spat on an ink pad, mashed the stamp around the pad and stamped the book with her full strength.
“That satisfy you?” she said to the guard. “Trial’s tomorrow. I take it you’ll be there.”
“I’m very busy,” sniffed the guard.
The woman rapped on the wall behind her.
“What?” came a man’s voice, echoing from the other side.
“I got Diljun here. He says he’s very busy.”
“Oh, very busy! What’ll we all do next year when he’s put out to retirement and crime just rockets?”
            The woman didn’t even dismiss Diljun in words, just clicked her tongue and jerked her chin towards the door. He let go of me and stamped out, followed by their laughter.  

Monday, 29 September 2014

From Jane Eyre to Clarissa Dalloway, beware your classic heroines

This article was originally commissioned by The Guardian, pegged to The Secret Life of Books: Jane Eyre, which will be broadcast on BBC4 on Tuesday 30th September at 8.30pm. Watch some clips here.

A clip from The Secret Life of Books: Jane Eyre
(c) BBC and Open University
Jane Eyre, sex maniac. This was one disturbing conclusion I came to when rereading Charlotte Bronte’s classic Victorian novel for the BBC4 series The Secret Life of Books. Briefly: Jane Eyre is an unwitty, unpretty orphan who teaches at a country house and gets a social leg-up and a much needed leg-over when she marries her master, the Byronic Mr Rochester, but not before the plot disposes of his mad Creole first wife Bertha and gives Jane financial independence through a last-minute inheritance.

I first read the book as a teenager, adoring it as a thoroughly satisfying story about a disadvantaged nonentity who gets everything she wants by relying on brains, willpower and integrity. Plain Jane doesn’t use sexual wiles to grease her way through the Victorian class system, nor does she flutter and dissemble, pretending to be weaker than she is. She is a lone force who neither bends nor breaks, despite occupying a world in which the best she can hope for is to be mocked, marginalised and exploited. Her outward self-control, contrasted with the searing perceptiveness and passion that the novel’s first person narrative reveals to the reader, make Jane both complex and compelling.

When I reread the book, however, I was shocked by its violence, amorality, bigotry and perversity. Jane/Rochester is not a romance, it’s a sado-masochistic freakfest. When Jane clocks her new master’s brooding glare, two decades of tamped-down sexual frustration explode onto the page. Rochester’s a boorish, sadistic, patronising sexual predator and Jane is an abused child who has been neglected all her life and grown into an enraged masochist fuelled by raw survivalism. She looks down on the uneducated servants in the house, vilifies Bertha as dark and monstrous and sneers basely at the women who flirt openly with Rochester while herself reacting to his every growl with a shudder of naked lust.

Bertha rages in the attic, Rochester thunders up and down the stairs and Jane masturbates in her room. At one of the novel’s crisis points Bertha rips Jane Eyre’s wedding veil, out of all the things she could have laid her hands on, and I begin to suspect that she’s only mad in the American sense of being very angry. These alternative readings of the novel have been explored by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells Bertha’s story, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which creates a Rochester-like figure in the character of Maxim de Winter and teases out his malevolence and untrustworthiness.

I emerged from the pages of Jane Eyre with my early, simplistic admiration for Jane shattered and my esteem for her radical creator Charlotte Bronte massively enhanced. Wondering how my two readings of the same classic could yield such different interpretations, I turned to Samantha Ellis’s How To Be A Heroine, a recent tribute to the great canonical women characters. Ellis’s sensitive and witty analyses reflect the power classic fictional heroines have not only to inspire but also – as in Jane’s Eyre’s case – to endlessly surprise, even horrify.

Some characters have so much influence that they bleed from writers’ pages onto babies’ birth certificates. Katniss, the hero of Suzanne Collins’ rugged and beautifully written Hunger Games trilogy, has inspired girls’ names in the past year. I’m looking forward to lots of little Maleficents being born nine months from now, prompted by Angelina Jolie’s brilliant, stylish, feminist, Bechdel-test-passing, rape-metaphor-having noir fairytale. And what about some Medeas in the maternity ward, after The National Theatre’s recent, brilliant adaptation?

Still, I am wary of unquestioning heroine-worship, particularly when it’s tinged with nostalgia for our formative reading years. We might admire Scarlett O’Hara’s strength but Gone With the Wind is deeply troubling on slavery, race and class. Austen’s Elizabeth Benet has qualities in abundance but her potential is squandered tragically by the boredom and nothingness of her life. Clarissa Dalloway is a terrifying warning about what happens to an intelligent, amenable woman if she doesn’t produce anything for herself but merely goes from place to place being fabulous. The real Woolfian heroine is the yearning shapeshifter of Orlando, Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Wilting Woolf sadly wasn’t a heroine for voracious Vita, but that’s non-novelistic, messy reality for you.

Ultimately, characters cannot be divorced from their fictional context or the real social context of their creation, nor can they be rinsed of their bigotry (or their creators’) and held up facilely as mythic survivor-paragons. For this reason I find the ‘perfect’, cataclysmic ending to Jane Eyre disturbing: the ‘mad’ foreign first wife violently dead, the house burnt down, its patriarch reduced by injury and Jane rejoicing grotesquely to be his grovelling nurse and domestic dominatrix for the rest of her days. 

Esha Ex: Chapter Five

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

I fell asleep and had a quick, jagged nightmare replaying my escape from Matriya Malhotra. I was launching myself out of the window, knowing I wouldn’t make it. I woke up and the room around me was freezing. The walls were breathing out wetness and the cold from the floor ate through me. The basement was shaking slightly as goods lorries went back and forth from the industrial estate.
My throat felt scratchy and my cheek, where it had been pressed up against the wall, had come out in a rash that sizzled with pain. It was something to do with the yellow paint, which shimmered with metal particles.
            I washed again, watched by a lickety-split skinny lizard on the wall. By the time I came out, dressed, I heard Shashi’s keys in the front door. I went upstairs.
“I’m sorry, Esha, I have some bad news.” Instantly I thought Shashi’s social experiment was over and the ladies had decided, after assessing various risks, to throw me onto the street and try a different novelty. “Anita’s still ill so I’ll have to show you the ropes.”
“Is she home resting?”
“Oh, no, she’s not one to rest. Such a sweet girl. She’d feel guilty. She’s much better off in my house where it’s warm. I gave her some light work, and my sister’s there, so…”
            So there was someone to check Anita wasn’t stealing Shashi’s earrings out of the vanity cabinet to sell for medicine.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“Terrible cough, and a skin rash, gritty eyes and watery breath. The ayurvedic doctor says it’s a fungal condition. She needs to eat cold food for the next while. And no oranges or limes.”
            Shashi looked under the counter and took out a papery brown apron, unfolding it and putting it on with wonder as though she’d never held it before.
“You can teach me anything,” I said.
            She showed me where the extra stock was kept on shelves far above head height. I’d have to go up a ladder and slide the boxes out onto yoke balanced on my shoulders.
“The buttons of the till stick,” she said, “but most of the customers prefer the old way: write down the figures on the pad and keep the carbon copy. When Anita’s back she’ll do the selling, stock-taking and book-keeping. You’ll do the fetching and light sweeping and tidying. She’ll handle the money – although I do trust you,” said Shashi quickly. “I can see you’re a good girl.”
Out on the street I could see shopkeepers opening their fronts and putting out crates. Coffee vendors loped along, their percolators on their backs, the little funnel within reaching distance and a big Nestlé logo on their T-shirts, holding long tubes of stacked paper cups.
“Adal will be coming soon to wash the floors so you don’t need to worry about that,” said Shashi, “you’ll call her Auntie. We need more…. powdered milk, Maggi noodles, Nutri-mix. All from the long-life section.”
I brought the ladder forward, braced against my shoulder. Shashi pointed me to a particularly cobwebby corner. I went up, then left the ladder completely and climbed up the bottom two shelves, sixteen feet above the ground. I would have to get strong, fast, or I’d wind up on the shop floor with my neck broken and my corpse covered in bright yellow packets of noodles and pink prenatal vitamin mix sachets.
            Shashi showed me the glass-fronted cabinets which held white boxes of generic medicines and homeopathic pills.
“For bleeding while coughing… for bleeding while urinating… for bleeding from the same area but not while urinating… for bleeding too much from a skin wound… for bleeding from the gums… for a wound that refuses to bleed,” she said, pointing, while I tried to memorise the names.
            Next, I went to the rag basket and dusted everything down, shaking the rag onto the street. Then I changed a fuse in the buzzing green metal fuse box, its cables running from it up the wall like train tracks from a terminal. Then I arranged jasmine joss-sticks in strategic places. Then I weighed and poured four different types of beans into the correct jars. Then I cranked the handle that extended the canopy over the street in front of the shop. Then I set up some trestle tables and put the day’s special offer out: a pyramid of Dragonfire lime pickle jars.
            A short, straight backed woman approached the shop, a long wallet in her hand and a straw shopping bag hanging from her wrist. She was wearing a padded wool waistcoat to keep off the dawn chill. Her bunned hair had long, ashy threads that made her look like a professor. I was about to greet her as a customer when Shashi said,
“Adal. There you are. Come in.”
            Only after receiving this permission did Adal take off her sandals and step over the threshold. I wondered at it. Did she have to wait to be asked in, every single morning?
“There was a traffic officers’ strike, Madam,” Adal announced. “Two more boys killed this week after falling off the sides of those college buses. Straight under the wheels. Then the families of the boys held a vigil. Then the students at the boys’ college held a protest. Then the local drivers rioted, for being held up. Then it all began again.”
Shashi received this with a flat-eyed silence which made me think she’d heard the same, or similar, from Adal many times before.  
“Adal, this is Esha.”
“What happened to the other one? Run away? Not pregnant is she? And who did it, Madam? We’ll have to ask the husbands.”
Shashi laughed extremely nervously.
“As you see, Esha, Adal has a wonderful sense of humour. Adal, Esha’s just helping out today. She’s from – ”
“The ex class. Displaced people,” said Adal, sucking her teeth.
I nodded. Somehow, I didn’t mind when she said it. That was what the TV documentaries called us: the ex class. Below low caste, below untouchable, an ex, a used-to-be people, shortly to be extinct, spending our dying days causing trouble for all the nice big businesses wanting to dig up the countryside and build resorts on it or put up factories or get out whatever valuable stuff was in the earth.
Adal took off her waistcoat, plopped her wallet into her bag and gave everything to me.
“We put these in the kitchen, out the back,” she said. “Under the counter, under the sheet, next to the gas cylinder.”
            I did what she told me. Servants’ things must be hidden away. The basement, the back room, I didn’t need anyone to teach me that. Adal joined me, showed me where the red bucket for the clean water was, the blue bucket with the drainage top for the dirty water, the tin bucket of damp floor-rags. I filled the red bucket for her and carried it out.  
Adal brushed the dry dust into a pile and swept it onto a folded paper which, I noticed, she kept. Was even dust sellable? Then she wetted a large cloth and swept that over the floor, moving up and in and around us, rump high, head low, bangles jangling.
            At 8am Adal straightened up, threw the last rag into the blue bucket and, while Shashi shuddered, loudly cracked all the joints in her spine, from her tailbone up to the top of her neck. She went to the kitchen and re-emerged exactly as she had first appeared, wallet in hand, bag by her side, waistcoat on, hair smoothed back. Only the chapped skin of her hands showed that she’d been working.
“Madam,” she said, and stepped out, giving me a captain’s salute as she went.
“Where’s she going now?” I asked Shashi.
“To wash all the other shops on the row. We all share Adal. She’s the best. She’s rich from all this work.”
            I gaped. If Adal had to collect dust, she was no more rich than I was the queen of Miriadh. I was prevented from saying anything by our first true customer, a household caretaker who wanted,
“Rapeseed oil, one litre. Puffed rice, quarter bag. Roasted peanuts, quarter bag. Cumin seeds, small packet.”
I found everything and Shashi was happy with me. All morning I was addressed by everyone from gentlemen breaking up their day to buy some tobacco, schoolboys buying Tic-Tacs and elegant women choosing spices as “Eh” or “Eh you.” It wasn’t meant in an unfriendly way. I was simply an unperson, a same-as-any-other Shop Girl.
            Halfway through, Shashi let me out to be fed.
“You’ve done very well,” she said. “Since it’s your first day, go early and get your tiffin and eat.” She took a red plastic coin from a compartment in the till and gave it to me. “This is not money,” she said, even though that was obvious. “It buys one tiffin set from the man. He knows what to give you. At the end of the week he comes round, gives us back the tokens, and we pay him.”  
            In the street was the tiffin man, his tiffin box out-sizing the rusting moped it was balanced on. A long line of workers from the shops stood in front of him. At first I thought they all looked like me: same build, and nearly all ex-class. Nowhere people. Labour class. The easiest to underpay and overlook.
But there was one difference: they were ill. They were a strange colour, a grey filter over dark skin. Even the young ones were stooped and some of them shivered and put their hands to their backs or stomachs. There were some other kids out, not shop workers but groups of boys kicking a half-deflated football and making a lot of innocent noise. I saw Razia, Shashi’s friend who’d given me her daughter's clothes, hastening to the convenience store to get an update on my progress.  
            I was noticed as new and greeted by the other workers in the line. When I got to the front the man took my token and gave me my tiffin.
“Working for?”
“Madam Shashi.”
“Madam Auntie Shashi.”
“Madam Auntie Shashi.”
“Very nice lady. Respectable lady. Top-class. …Eat it, wash it out, bring it back tomorrow. Tomorrow, I give you a new tiffin, you give me back the old one and a token. And on and on, same time, same place.”
            I went around the corner to have my lunch. I thought the ladies would prefer that, rather than having us muck up their nice parade. I saw all the others sidling off too. I found a space between a motorcycle repair shack and a stall that sold different sizes and types of light bulb. Then I heard,
            It was Adal, straw bag hanging, eating from a bag of toffee-charred cashews.
“Adal Auntie. Have you finished for the day?”
“Yup. Back home now. My grand-niece has a doctor’s appointment.”
“How old is she?”
“Fourteen.” She joined me, offered me some cashews. “So. You’re the new Anita.”
I nodded and haltingly told her a little bit about what happened with Father Frances and Matriya. She listened, didn’t say anything, didn’t look surprised.
“But Anita’s coming back soon,” I said.
“No she’s not. They never come back. In your unit there was Anita, Gita, Putul, Lena. In Madam Razia’s unit there were Kamila and Hanna – two sisters, half the work, half the speed, double the attitude – then Sonia. You got a cough?”
“I did last night.”
“No, but –”
My hand went up to the rash on my cheek.
“Sleep in the cellar? The paint down there’s not good for you. And the cellars are damp. All the units on the parade are built the same way, to the same plans. I’ve been inside every one. All the workers sleep in the same room, with the same paint, with the same damp, with the same cement. You see what they’ve turned into.”
“Are you saying the workers die?”
“Of course they don’t die. But they don’t get better either. That paint they use down there’s got a name, and it’s been banned.  My grand-niece told me. There are better conditions for employees at the industrial estate.”
“Shashi and the others don’t like the estate.”
“Can’t stand in the way of progress or you’ll get run over.” She pointed to the sky and jabbed it:
“Always look after yourself. Go up, up, up.” She pointed to the ground. “Don’t go down, down, down. Because we’ve been down. And we know what’s there.”
She asked in at the motorcycle shack for the time, told me she had a long walk to get to the bus stop in the next neighbourhood, so she could pay a lower fair.
“You have a little time before you need to be back. Take a walk around,” she suggested. “This is your neighbourhood now. Try to make a map in your head. Tata till tomorrow.”
            When she was gone I walked around the block. There were one or two private homes, modest flats with long stairs going up and a sign outside: English tuition, high quality, twenty tokens/hour. I would make two tokens today. Two tokens was a short bus ride. Eight tokens was an egg roll and a Fanta.
            I had walked parallel to the parade of shops, but two blocks back form it, when the atmosphere changed. The buildings more beautiful than those closer to the main road, with curved edges and thick window ledges. But it was densely silent. A blue and white sign up on two poles read Government Quarters but the date on it was a decade past. The buildings were empty and dark. The occupants must have been bought off by a property company: new wire mesh had been rigged up to mark out a large building plot. Piles of grey bricks and spools of cables were stacked by the side of the street, mountains of white building chalk and red clay dust next to them. They had originally been under tarpaulin and pegged into the ground; one of the pegs remained but the others, and most of the tarpaulin, had long been stolen.
Someone had slit the mesh. Inside was the group of ragged boys and girls who’d been playing football by the parade. They were running and laughing, throwing a gold object between them, passing it to each other. They were so excited they didn’t notice me. I was going to call out, to ask what the thing was, when a shrill whistle blow cut across my words. The children’s eyes flashed. In a split second they straightened, whirled around. Whoever had the golden thing threw it straight at me and I caught it on reflex. They scattered, disappeared.
I turned to face an enraged, triumphant street officer, his whistle still between his lips, the echo of its noise cracking off the buildings.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

China Flash: My friend writes me a delicate poem to explain the intense Beijing seasons

In the summer
Every time it rains
The heat comes down.

In the spring
Every time it snows
It gets warmer.

In the winter
The heaven’s getting rid of all its coldness.

Autumn lasts a week.

Further reading in my China Flash series:

Esha Ex: Chapter Four

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

The gang was made up of women in dainty-hanging, expensive clothes. I turned my head slowly, feeling as if I’d been asleep for years.
“She’s awake!” said one to the others.
Their expressions confused me. They were mistrustful, concerned, wondering – and most of all they looked disappointed.
“You broke the trust,” said one woman reproachfully.
“I’ll pay for it. I mean, I’ll work for it. Please don’t hurt me,” I said.
             The women all flinched.
Hurt you? Why would we ever do that?” said the woman who’d spoken first.
            She helped me up and I stood swaying and ashamed.
“Is it your shop?” I asked.
“Yes, this is mine. Each owner’s name is above her shop. This is Shashi Convenience. I’m Shashi Rumari.”
“I’m Esha,” I said.
“That’s a pretty name – yes it’s lovely,” went around the crowd.
“Give her some space, Shash,” said one of the other women.
            Someone brought me a chair, I sat down and they all stared at me.
“What’s the trust?” I asked.
            The women looked proud of themselves.
“The Trust,” said Shashi. “We do it every year. It marks the anniversary of that industrial estate. They tried to bully us out of here.” The women all sniffed and looked steely. “They wanted to build on both sides of the road, with flyovers crossing between the two halves. This half was to be a food court and entertainment complex with a twenty-screen cinema, and we all said no to that.”
            Murmurs of fierce but quiet agreement.
“We organised a petition and a fete,” said someone, “and we went to the site just as the diggers were coming up to our side of the road. We had our picnic blankets and we sat down on them. And we had a picnic. Then we got our daughters and sons who’re in the choir to sing for us. And they did.”
“They’re not going to dig up a load of women having a picnic, enjoying some choir music,” said Shashi, who was standing next to me with her hand draped on my shoulder.  
“We started a blog about it, and it got some attention. The industrial estate people might not care about us, but they’re terrified of the newspapers,” said another woman.
“They backed off and we promised ourselves that we'd maintain this parade of shops in a way that’s faithful to our values. Because this is a nice neighbourhood,” agreed Shashi.
“It’s very nice, and the people are nice,” said a few people.
“Every year since then we’ve made a statement that commerce and greed aren’t the only things that matter. In an area like this, people already have enough of everything. So for two weeks we stage The Trust. We leave our shops open, unlocked and fully stocked. Today’s the last day. We’ve been doing it for three years,” said Shashi.
“And let me guess,” I said, “in all that time, no-one's taken even a stick of cinnamon. Until now.”
            The women’s silence said enough.
“I was just so hungry.” I got up. “Please don’t tell on me.”
“Have you run away?”
            I said nothing, began edging out of the door, shrugging my shoulders. Somehow the women’s kindness and interest were harder to deal with than Father Francis or Matriya Malhotra. I didn’t know how to face it.
“She hasn’t got any shoes!” cried a voice at the back.
A wave of terrible sympathy broke over me as I was pulled back into the group, having my cheek pinched softly or the hair smoothed from my face. A collective decision was forming, comments and agreements passing between them.
“We don’t blame a child for acting out of need,” said Shashi, “and we don’t turn people away when they’re in trouble. How would you like to work here, with me, until you feel better?”
            I nodded, eyes on the ground.
“My Firyal’s about the same size as Esha,” said one of the women. “She has bags of clothes she doesn’t wear.”
“Wouldn’t she mind?” I asked.
“She won’t even notice!” was the laughing reply.
“There’s a room in the basement,” said Shashi. 
The basement was reached by a set of plain brick stairs with buckets and mops stacked alongside it. One of the walls of this room had been painted a bright, metallic-skinned yellow, “to make it look jolly,” said Shashi.
There was a toilet-going area and a tap-and-bucket room. The floor was coloured blood red from the iron in the water. Each room was lit with a bare yellow bulb like an eyeball. It was a thousand times better than the home, a million times better than whatever hell Father Francis and Matriya had planned for me and ten million times better than the streets.
There were two bedrolls in the sleeping room.
“Who does the other roll belong to?” I asked Shashi.
“Anita. She’s our main help. She’s a lovely girl. Hard working, intelligent, bright. We’re putting her through school and we paid for her mother’s cataract operation this spring.”
“Does she go on holiday when you do the Trust?”
“No she’s working at-home this fortnight.”
I stared, not understanding the phrase. Then I realised the ladies were using her as a domestic maid for the Trust weeks.
“At home,” I repeated. I would never be invited to see the insides of these women’s houses, but then I never expected to. We could talk across social divisions, smiling as if with mutual understanding, but we couldn’t actually step across them.
“There’s always something to help out with,” said Shashi. “Although I do wish she’d stop coughing over everything. Please – make yourself comfortable. Razia’ll be by on her moped with some of her daughter’s clothes. Sleep as long as you want, and tomorrow I’ll show you everything. You ….might want to wash?”
            I realised that if I took her charity I also had to take her orders and that these were couched as gentle suggestions.
Upstairs, the women put the store back to rights. Downstairs, I washed under the tap using the sachet of liquid soap Shashi gave me. By the time I was done – with Shashi standing by the door with her eyes averted, advising me to “really scrub your scalp with your fingertips”, not much differently from how Matriya had said it – Razia-mother-of-Firyal had ridden up with a laundry bag of clothes. They were soft, well-made things, buttoned shirts, printed long trousers, American style clothes.
“How can these be spare? Doesn’t she want them?” I asked. “They’re not worn out.”
“She has too much anyway,” said Razia easily.
The ladies all came down the stairs to look me over once I’d washed and changed. I received their approval. Then all their mobile phones began ringing because it was lunchtime and their daughters and sons, husbands and in-laws were asking what was on the menu and when they’d be home and when the guests would be coming, and I was forgotten.
I lay down along the bright yellow wall, my eyes gummy with tiredness.
“You start with sun-up, and in the mid-morning a man comes with tea and tiffin,” Shashi told me, her hand on a lump at her hip, covered by her blouse: the shop keys. “You’ll see, all the other workers on the street will come out at that time. Don’t talk to the men. I’ll give you one token for tiffin, enough for potato curry and something to eat it with. And your wage will be two tokens a day.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” I said. It would be the first time I had ever held money of my own – but I didn’t tell her that. I already saw the pity in her face, and heard it in her voice, whenever she talked to me.
“You can call me Madam.”
            I nodded. Then she reached out, keeping the rest of herself at a distance, and patted me on the head. I wondered if she’d clean her hand with hand sanitiser later, just like Matriya. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Three

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

Matriya opened the far door and there were guards standing behind it. Not the weaponised military guards like the knuckleheads who hung around the outer villages on training missions, spending their free time shaking down shack owners for payoffs, gambling and eating and drinking the place bare. These were just tall, wide, heavy, silent males in suits. They didn’t look at me, only at Matriya.
“You must be hungry,” she said to me.
            She opened the mini fridge and inside in clear plastic bowls covered with plastic saucers were cooked lentils, charred corn on the cob, fish and potato cakes, dates and fat little thumblike bananas. I lunged towards the fridge which Matriya shut before I could get there.
“Later. That’s your payment.”
            My inner voice told me not to eat or drink anything she gave me, and I swallowed dryly and balled up my fists, it was that much of a temptation.
“Won’t you pay me in money?” I said.
“Not until you pay us back. There’s Father Francis’s time and trouble. There’s petrol money. There’s room and board to pay for. Nobody gives a bed and towel for nothing.”
            The noise of the unseen people had intensified to a thick buzz. The bouncers entered the room, surrounded me and pushed me out of the far door through a sweaty velvet curtain and onto a tiny, dirty stage with white lights shining into my eyes.
I stood there, blinded, trying to work out where I was. I saw the edge of a stage in a dingy function room, with a makeshift bar at the back. The room was full of people. They were hunched around round tables covered  with red paper tablecloths. They were holding tumblers of drink. They seemed half riled, half bored.
            Matriya strode onto the stage holding a microphone:
“Sorry for the wait, my friends, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, hostesses and guests, patrons and companions. We have something very special for you. Let’s call her Toya – or shall we call her Dolly?” The crowd laughed with a sudden rough sound. “Look her over and tell us what you think. There are request slips on your table. If you need a pen just ask one of our lovely waitresses – do ask her name, too, there’s no rule against being friendly. Just pick up a pen and put in your bid. And remember, if you don’t get your chance to make friends tonight there’ll be many many many many other nights.”
            I felt the crowd’s eyes on me as strongly as physical touches. At the side of the stage the bouncers were crammed hugely into the shadows, blocking my way. There was a squeal of feedback and tinny, rhythmic music played over the speakers. Matriya turned towards me and in the stage lights her eyes were enormous, yellow, dry, and her smile seemed like that of a clown, stretching all the way across her face.
“Now dance,” hissed Matriya to me, just me.
            The music grew louder and the crowd clapped in time. They roared, too, until I couldn’t hear anything at all. I felt Matriya’s fingers in my back once more. I shuffled in time to the music, barely lifting my feet off the floor. The crowd jeered, but there was a strange keenness in it, it was almost encouraging, as if they were geeing on an animal. I began counting in my head, one hundred, two hundred. Finally the music stopped and all I could hear when the curtains closed was the thick, exultant laughter of the people.
I put my arms around myself, it was so horrible, while Matriya pushed me back to the changing room, where the fridge was open and on the make-up table was a garish yellow plastic mat. Everything was laid out, with plastic knives and forks and children’s plastic cups. The guards and Matriya stood and watched me. I knew the food would taste like ashes whether it was drugged or not.
“No, thank you,” I said weakly.        
            Matriya’s eyes turned hard.
“Not even a bite? It won’t be there tomorrow, or the next day.”
“No. Thank you.”
“Not one sip?”
            I shook my head, and the bouncers shifted their weight and looked at each other.
“Well that’s just more expense you’ll have to make up for,” scowled Matriya.
            I yawned hugely, falsely. If I could get even five minutes to myself, I would know how to escape. Matriya and the guards exchanged smirks.
“It’s not time for bedtime yet! There’s the party we told you about. You need to get changed. Here.” She rummaged in the playpen of girls’ dresses, grabbed one and threw it at me. I snatched it and held it in my fist. I didn’t even look at it.
“Where’s the party going to be?” I asked.
“In your room.”
“You eat the meal or you go to your room.”
“That’s no choice.”
“Fine. You don’t want to eat, you don’t have to eat. Let’s go.”
The bouncers swept forward and picked up me up, their large hands pinching under my underarms. They dragged me, heels kicking, still holding the dress, down the stairs and back to the tiny room.
“Don’t watch me change,” I pled.
“Five minutes,” shouted Matriya, a last minute mercy.
The guards threw me in and slammed the door, standing so close against it on the other side that their feet blocked out the light between the floor and the bottom of the door. I stalked the room, trembling, staring. I opened my hand to reveal the tweezers I’d stolen within the first twenty seconds of being in the dressing room.
I went to the window and tried prying the wire mesh away from the glass. It was too stiff to move. Studded along the edge were tiny screws fastening it to the frame.
            I broke the tweezers apart and used a slanted end to work into the rusted grooves. A guard thumped on the door and shouted something at me. I broke out in a sweat. The mesh was beginning to come away. It was weak stuff, thin metal. Once the corner was away I tore the rest off. Metal splinters scored my skin, but it didn’t matter. Behind it the frosted glass was thick but old.
            More hammering on the door. The handle began to turn. I grabbed at one of the cot beds, pulling it away from the wall – I was lucky they weren’t fastened to the floor, as at the orphanage – and dragging it to block the door. The room wasn’t wide enough and the bed got stuck halfway across, cutting the room into triangles with me on the window side. I lifted it up so that two legs were on top of the mattress of the other bed, creating a high but rickety barricade.
The sight of a handprint on the wall, hidden by one of the beds, made me freeze. The hand was smaller than mine – a child’s hand. I unfroze when the door opened and all the men tried to squeeze in at once. When they saw what I’d done to the beds they reeled back and a sizzle of outrage, of gall, passed from each man to the next, and the atmosphere in the room grew charged.
            I leapt back to the window, tore the last part of the mesh off and butted the window pane with my shoulder. It wouldn’t move. I tried punching through the glass, using the dress to cushion my knuckles, but it was too thick even to crack. There were five men in the room. They didn’t bother to push the beds aside, they just moved forwards against them. The beds began to scrape towards me, then jammed. The men climbed over the beds, throwing the two bedside tables at me. One of them struck me hard in the shoulder as I cowered against the far wall. The other hit the window and broke it.
            I pushed out the rest of the glass with the heel of my hand and threw myself headfirst through the tiny gap, making myself like a spear. I could hear the men roaring after me, pushing each other to get to the window. There was a shock of grimy, hot air and I fell out onto a thin metal balcony. I was halfway up a black brick building whose outside was criss-crossed with ventilation chutes and fire stairs. The back of the building looked onto an alleyway, with the back of another, taller building facing us. The alley was a tunnel of filthy, hot, rotten air carrying shreds of litter.
A head thrust through the window, screaming, and I reeled away. The head was Matriya’s:
“Go then! There’s thousands of trash like you in Miriadh - hundreds of thousands! Good luck trying to survive on the street! You don’t even know where you are! What’re you good for? Nothing! Life’s going to gobble you up and shit you out like a tramp. They’ll find you dead in pieces in twenty four hours! They’ll put you out in a rubbish bag, in an old suitcase!”
I was immobilised by the look in her eyes, which fixed me like two lasers, and the abuse that was coming out of her mouth. I couldn’t move until she finished talking. She spat at me and missed. She withdrew and there was arguing inside the room, but I was already picking my way down and away, stomach churning.
I didn’t believe that I was in the city of Binar. That was just what they told me, to get me to go with them. It was too silent – not even a siren. Not even traffic. The building I’d escaped was an ordinary apartment block. Those people didn’t work for the Family. The Family didn’t know I existed.
I got to the bottom, feet splashing into the street grime. I needed to get to the main square, a street, a junction, a station, a temple. Anywhere there were people. I ran out and found myself between four apartment blocks. Most of the windows were dark but I still felt watched. I skirted the shadows and came to a car park, its booth unmanned and its barrier up. On the other side was a main road, leading off a roundabout. Large, brightly coloured signs and hoardings around me advertised furniture warehouses and clothing manufacturers.
It was an industrial estate, built so recently that it still smelled of setting cement, tar and asphalt. I wandered onto the empty main road. In the distance there was traffic on a flyover, but it didn’t turn in towards the estate.
            I couldn’t stop thinking about food. All the warehouses would be triple-triggered with alarms. I needed to find a neighbourhood. I walked by the side of  the road until I reached a bus shelter. The map behind the glass gave a list of local stops I had never heard of. I waited for a while, hoping to beg the driver into giving me a ride, but no bus came. Thick trees blocked the industrial estate from sight on one side, but on the other I spotted the low, brown-roofed houses of a suburban development. I went towards it but there, too, there was a weird sense of emptiness and abandonment. Nobody stopped me or drove me away.
There was a short parade of shops – a lady’s salon, a men’s barber, a meat shop, a grocery place, a cobbler, a key-maker and convenience shop, a tea shop, a spice and pickles shop, a dairy, an electronic shop, a bakery, a tailor. The shop doors were all unlocked and hanging open, but nothing inside had been stolen. It was all still there, the shelves fully loaded. I drew close to the meat shop, where long joints squirmed with white maggots and black flies. The fruits and vegetables were all rotten. I could smell the dairy’s cheese from twenty paces away.
            I went into the American-style convenience store. It was a tiny place with only four aisles. I opened as many tins as I could, raking things off the shelves, taking cartons of sugary juice and drinking one after the other. When I was done, I sat on the floor, leaning against the shelves. I would take as much food as I could. I’d take what lasted the longest, and remember to get water, too. I felt my eyes grow heavy. The strength drained out of my body and I couldn’t move, even if I wanted to. I was bone tired, tired as a dog. I nodded off. 
            I woke up surrounded by a gang.