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Does It Catch Mice, a story by Omair Ahmad

Fishing at the India-China border. Photo by elephanta via flickr.
Fishing at the India-China border. Photo by elephanta via flickr.

Everybody knows that Deng Xiaoping was from Gorakhpur, in eastern UP, that huge monster of a state in India. Well, everybody that knows these things knows, and everybody else would too, if they paid any attention. But this generation is a new one, fascinated by TV and the internet, with news that lasts for a minute, and is all about the bared breast of some woman perilously poised between alcoholism and a drug overdose. Here, in the villages, where we still tune into the radio, and have long moments to think between the news and other programmes, while the smoke rests lazily over the fields at sunset, we have time to think, to talk.

It was a long time ago that we understood that Deng, this so-called Chinese leader, bore an uncanny resemblance to Prakash Mishra, who some of us studied with in school. In fact I studied with him in at least three classes, although I don’t recall whether it was me failing fourth grade or his not completing fifth that meant we overlapped in pursuit of our education.

When the newspapers showed their grainy pictures, we all sat around and discussed the similarities. Arun, who still carries around an old photograph from the forties took it out, and comparing it, we were assured that this was the same fellow, especially when we saw that familiar daft grin of his. It was Prakash, all right, or Pintu as we always called him.

Pintu’s story is an odd one. He wasn’t even from Gorakhpur, or at least not from Gorakhpur proper. None of us were. We’re all village people, and came from the smattering of houses scattered around the area to attend the school near the chowk at Jungle Sub’haan Ali. That’s how we knew each other. That and all the stories that would make their way around the evening fires where everybody gathered between dinner and slipping off to sleep.

Pintu’s family was already rather strange. His father had worked in the house of some old zamindar, an aged landowner who had inherited a large estate and no common sense. This had allowed Pintu’s father to assiduously steal land for decades while mixing increasingly large quantities of opium in his master’s food and drink. By the time that the zamindar died, his sons found that Pintu’s father had acquired almost as much land as they had, and what little they had was in debt. Too feeble and genteel to deal with the consequences, they retreated to the city, and Pintu’s family was suddenly very rich indeed.

You would have thought that this would make for a good and well-settled issue, but you see all the zamindars weren’t like the evil lecherous stereotypes in Bollywood movies, and this one, lost in a narcotic haze, was far from an exploitative tyrant. And everybody knew that Pintu’s father had managed to amass money and a new position by thievery alone. Many people whispered about what had been done, and although nobody really loved the zamindars, they loved Pintu’s father even less. The family went into paroxysms justifying themselves, and from these Pintu was gifted that subtle disease called ambition. He was infected with dreams of even greater wealth, and legitimate wealth at that. He thought of cars, and fawning drivers; I tell you he was a weird one.

It isn’t as if people in the village don’t dream of big things. They do. All of them will have gone to see the movies about the small town boy that makes it big in the city, many of them will sing the songs to themselves and a few of them will even try out the dance moves. But dreams are dreams, ambition is something else altogether. It is an urban disease, full of constantly changing standards, and violent imaginings.

We used to listen to the local storyteller talk about land disputes, and for days you’d find Pintu pretending to be a zamindar. What can I tell you, Pintu was mad. But all the madness in the world can’t make you become something you’re not, and all the posturing in the world can’t help you pass your exams. When Pintu continued to fail in his studies, his father finally paid off a car shop owner to employ his overambitious son.

This might not have been the best thing for Pintu. Every day he would have to see the rich with their wealth, while he had to be servile, to bow and scrape. But he learned, he was a quick mimic, and despite all his madness and failure in school, he was intelligent. We, who had known him all his life, knew that he would do something big. Something foolish most likely, but big nevertheless. When he showed up to the chowk at Jungle Subh’aan Ali in a new car, we all thought it was his. He had us completely fooled. It was only later that we learned that Pintu had just managed to steal it away for a night, having begged his father for petrol so that he could have a car to show off to us.

The important thing was that he didn’t get caught, and his daring lie was remembered more for the daring than for the lie. Or maybe by that time we’d become used to his oddities and everybody sort of knew that he’d push things too far sometime and soon receive his comeuppance.

Pintu was young and was surrounded by people he wanted to copy but couldn’t afford to. All the ingredients were there; all that was needed was a spark. Her name was Neetu. Neetu Singh, the daughter of one of the old families, fabulously rich in their moldering house within which even Pintu’s father wouldn’t have dreamed of entering. I tell you I saw her many years later, and although I still think that Pintu was mad to do what he did, I can understand why he did it. She was something special, a dream from the world of movies.

Why she encouraged him, nobody knows. It might be just one of those cruel games that the rich play. Or it might have been because she saw something in him, a drive that was missing among the children she knew. Even now, after so many decades, none of us know exactly what happened, just that somehow Pintu got inside the house, and that he met her there. Maybe she had thought it would be nothing, something to laugh about. She didn’t bear in mind Pintu’s ambition, and he inevitably reached for more than he was offered.

It took only one yell from her to summon the guards. And they came swiftly, to mete out a form of justice that employed wooden sticks, bamboo poles and plain old-fashioned knuckles. Actually it is a miracle that he was allowed to live, but his bones were broken, and his features rendered indescribable.

Pintu survived because his father sold much of the stolen land and paid for a doctor and hospital far beyond the means of anybody in the village. But there was nothing like plastic surgery in those days, and what the best the doctor could do wasn’t very good.

The nose was shortened, and became oddly rounded at the end. The whole face was shoved in, and the eyes became slits receding into his head. When we went to see him a month later, we couldn’t recognise him. It was so funny, because he was completely changed, and in the hospital there was this Chinese nurse, the descendant of this old Chinese family that has lived in Gorakhpur for generations, and he almost looked like her brother. Or at least to us. We’d never seen any Orientals and they all look alike. So there was Pintu with his new face, and we started to call him “Chinky baba”.

We didn’t realise that Pintu’s association with the nurse would lead to anything more, but it did. Maybe it was the violent beating that softened his brains, or maybe it was his old disease, his ambition. He knew he had failed in Gorakhpur, that he would never overcome these failures here. He had to leave for somewhere, and God had delivered him into the hands of a Chinese nurse.

By the time he recovered, which took a few months, Pintu had learned enough Chinese to get the Chinese community to open up to him. He convinced the nurse’s father to employ him in their little restaurant, the Ming it’s called. They still make good noodles, but don’t mention Pintu there. He betrayed them, you see. After winning their trust he did more and more work with them. He proposed marriage to the nurse (and was refused) and brought business to the restaurant from all over the place, including from the villagers who were in town just for a few hours. He bullied and wheedled everybody he knew, and soon the restaurant was a booming enterprise.

In the meanwhile he spent hours convincing the Chinese to take him along on a trip back to their country. I tell you he was smart. He had learnt Chinese by then, and heard them speaking on how the initial practices of the Chinese Communists had passed, and business was finding its feet again. He figured he had a chance somewhere else, somewhere new. They trusted him by now, and when three of the Chinese set off to Canton two years later, they took Pintu with them.

But Pintu had learned from his father, and along the way the three Chinese found themselves feeling very happy and relaxed as daily doses of opium made their way into their food. This continued all the way to China, and the very evening that they landed in Canton, Pintu made his way to the Red Guards and told them that he was very sorry to tell them that he was in the company of three opium smugglers.

He had thought that he would get some award, a way into the hierarchy of China, but he had overestimated himself once again. His traveling companions were arrested, all right, but the Red Guards didn’t know what to do with Pintu. They figured he was a criminal for sure, and the Cultural Revolution had just been launched. All sorts of people were being carted off to the jail. One of the Red Guards laughed, and said, “He is our very own little Deng Xioaping.”

It was newly fashionable to blame Deng, and all of Canton was buzzing with the news that the former General Secretary of the Communist Party had been stripped of his position and was working as a lowly worker in a tractor factory in the neighbouring province of Jiangxi. He was being spoken of as a backstabber and betrayer, somebody with a smooth tongue.

Pintu knew none of this. He had survived only on the news that the Chinese in Gorakhpur had. But they were exiles, out of touch with the news in the country by months at the least. Pintu only knew that Deng was a powerful man and he burst out to say, “Yes, I am just like Deng!”

The Red Guards didn’t know whether to laugh or not, but the Cultural Revolution rewarded only two things: brutality and cruelty. Pintu was beaten, and then beaten again, and then, out of some obscure form of viciousness, he was sent to the same tractor factory where Deng was working in Jiangxi.

People say that Deng was treated well in that factory, or at least no worse than the normal, but these are all lies, and everybody knows that. He was beaten and humiliated, spat upon, and made to dance for the amusement of his tormentors. And suddenly Pintu was procured.

“This is another Deng,” the Red Guards said, and they made Pintu work beside Deng, to copy the fallen General Secretary, and mock him. In an inspired bit of cruelty, a plastic surgeon was procured, and Pintu was once again exposed to the blade. The work was crude, and you could easily tell the differences, but Pintu could have passed off as Deng from a distance.

In the evenings there would be beatings, and Deng was made to recite all his famous sayings, while Pintu was made to learn them. Then both would be set up to perform, mimicking each other, in a parody of parodies.

Far away in this other world, time continued its own long march. Zhou Enlai, Premier of China, found himself dying of cancer, and tried to convince Mao to bring back Deng, who alone could manage a country bent towards its own destruction by the Great Helmsman. Mao hesitated, raped a few more virgins and enjoyed the tortures of another dozen dissidents before finally agreeing.

But by the time the message reached the tractor factory, Deng had died, a victim of his old age and all the cruelties that petty minds can conjure up when they have a powerful man at their mercy. Pintu, though, had survived. As had his ambition. He told the Red Guards that he would go in Deng’s place and nobody would learn of the old man’s death.

“But you aren’t even Chinese,” they protested.

“It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice,” Pintu replied, and went on to change the world.


Omair Ahmad

OMAIR AHMAD is a former political adviser and author of Encounters.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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