Tuesday, 21 October 2014

China Flash: Lean In Beijing on the new sexism, corporate ambition, marital choices and awesome girls in modern China

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing last month.

A Lean In Beijing meeting, image (c) Lean In Beijing
Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about how she battled corporate sexism to rise to the top at Facebook, has struck a chord with young, ambitious women in China. “I saw Sandberg’s TED talk in March 2013,” says one of Lean In Beijing’s founding members, Allison Ye. “I was shocked because I had never seen a successful Chinese female leader talk with such openness and honesty about how exactly she got there. It was refreshing. Her message was that we can be responsible for our situation and we can control our lives. It was very positive.”

The talk triggered the formation of Lean in Beijing, which sent a survey [PDF]to more than 500 women, asking about their aspirations, their careers and the challenges they experienced in their lives. It revealed that 90% of respondents had never seen a professional women’s network – and wanted one. “We had 60 to 70 women at our first meeting, and every one had a story to tell. Things they wouldn’t tell to their own friends and families, they would tell to strangers,” says Ye. The Lean In message of female solidarity, boosted by speaker events, high social media connectivity, consciousness raising 'circles' and the open discussion of everyday sexism has proven so popular and necessary that Lean In has spread to several Chinese cities far beyond Beijing. Even within the capital, Lean In members have founded their own offshoots like the Lean In Thinktank led by Yolanda Wang and Maggie Zhang and the six Lean In College mentoring schemes founded by Alicia Lui. The mentoring scheme involves bringing in younger professional women to be mentors to college age students, Lui tells me. “Mentoring is a really great way to work through relationship, career and family pressures. At our last event in May, 150 students showed up and we had 15 mentors, all from different industries and with different interests. After the event, lots more professional women wanted to be a part of the network as mentors.”

We are meeting up at a time when gender inequality is back with a vengeance in China, with ancient stereotypes about femininity, double standards about gender roles, endemic and normalised violence against women, media misrepresentation and longstanding pressures on women meeting new corporate injustices around equal pay, property ownership, female leadership and opportunity, as chronicled in Leta Hong Fincher’s brilliant and vital book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

Lean In Beijing’s discussions aren’t just about strategising within a corporate context, combating institutional sexism, why prominent Chinese women business leaders stand at less than 5% or why women are paid less than men for the same job. “It’s [also about] the pressure of getting married young, the pressure that’s coming from all directions,” says Ye, “not just the family but the media, the government, society. Every young woman in a family is pressured to get married really young. The message behind it is that a woman cannot be happy by herself, she needs to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother in order to be fulfilled in her purpose in life.” Yolanda Wang agrees: “For a man in China, at the age of 30 you’re meant to have a career, a car, a job. For a woman, the main responsibility is to find someone, to get married. And the pressure on her [to do that] starts at the age of 22 or 23.”

Recently, the journalist (and friend of Lean In Beijing) Roseann Lake co-organised the Leftover Monologues – women’s monologues from all over the world, prompted by a combination of the Chinese women’s movement, Leta Hong Fincher’s work on gender inequality and activist Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. It was the first time many of the Chinese contributors had presented their own stories. “It’s really hard for Chinese people to speak out. They’ll be judged by society as a bad girl, judged by family and friends,” says Maggie Zhang. The Lean In movement in China is radical in itself, for its fostering of open dialogue. The conversation goes far beyond tips on how to negotiate for higher salaries, be less self-critical, manage career progression, handle confrontation or consider a company job versus entrepreneurship - although Lean In Beijing members have discussed all these and more. “The idea is not necessarily limited to work or career, or even family,” says Lui, “it’s more about a close knit, confidential community of women who listen to you, empathise with you and help you.” “Women at big companies are afraid to speak out at meetings,” says Wang, adding, “In the US women sit and talk about their [professional and life] dreams. In China people ask you, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? What does he do?’ Nobody thinks a woman has a dream.” “We asked women how they saw their purpose in life,” says Ye, “and lots of women told us that that was the first time they’d ever asked that question of themselves.”

“Our parents tell us not to get a boyfriend when we’re at college, so we can concentrate completely on our studies,” says Maggie Zhang, “but then, when we turn 25, they pressure us to get a husband.” “I was told, ‘You should never try to be too smart or you won’t find a boyfriend’ by my mother’s friend,” says Lui, “and I was pressured to marry from the age of 26. The family is still considered the centre of everything. I’ve heard, ‘You can’t get a PhD because no-one wants to marry a PhD.’” 

"The other side of the ‘leftover women' story is that we’re moving forward as never before,” says Ye. “Women don’t need a partner to sustain their lifestyles. It’s inevitable that women in China will have more freedom and that this will force change. The post-90s generation is already changing things, they’re really independent. They see that it’s important to have your own thoughts.” Lui chips in, “On one hand China has been one country that’s done the best in equalising everyone to some extent. People’s lives are getting better. But there are problems with the way it’s being done and the consequences. The Chinese haven’t got used to money yet. They want to show off, to show people what they've got. CEOs of companies are in their 20s and 30s. They start a company, they make money. The Chinese mentality-change is one of the fastest in the world, because of the way modern China has started itself up.” “The economy is changing very fast. But society changes slowly,” says Wang. Ye says, “My parents went through the hunger, when they didn’t have enough to eat. That’s why what they want for me is the best: comfort, a husband. When my generation has its kids, it’ll be different.”

While women are regarded as valuable only within the domestic sphere, where their labour can be exploited for free, domestic duties are regarded as demeaning for men to do. “If a man is a stay at home dad, people think he doesn’t have what it takes to go out into the world and support the family. It’s about saving face,” says Zhang. “In Chinese TV shows the man is always rich, tall, successful and the woman is obedient and subservient.”

“There are a lot of social barriers,” Ye agrees when I balk at the idea of individual women changing themselves in order to somehow evade, circumvent, win out against or contend with endemically antiwomen structures, judgements, customs, stereotypes and activities. “We can’t change the outside of society very fast but within our generation and the next we can change the policy-makers of the future. There’s only so much one person can do, but if everyone plays their part you can change a lot.” However, the barriers to equality and liberation are high. “You are discriminated against as a single woman,” says Ye. “Single women are barred from adoption. Sometimes a woman will choose her family over her career. Or she’ll choose her career. But women aren’t allowed to be both.” Yolanda Wang’s company asked one of her female colleagues to sign a piece of paper promising that she wouldn’t get pregnant for two years. “We never hear about men’s work-life balance, only women’s. And you’re judged badly whatever you choose,” she says. Maggie Zhang adds, “We have to educate not only women but also men, who are under huge pressure to be successful.”

Alicia Lui believes that Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring talk and book have “raised issues which enable us to have more open conversations about [sexism]. Lean In was a catalyst. It said to women, if you really feel you have a need for something you have to raise your hand and ask for it.”

Ye believes the movement is a chance for women to look at their lives afresh: “Before you change anyone’s life you have to change the way they see themselves. We have high rates of employment for women here, but sometimes women are happy with less demanding hours and less pay, because it means they still have time to do all their family duties. I believed all that too – until I was brave enough to say that that was not what I want. Once people see alternatives then they can begin to lean in and change their lives. We want to help women pursue their own definition of success, help them when they’re young and share stories of other women’s lives so they see themselves in these women.”

Lean In Beijing derives its momentum and power from its focus on co-operation between women. “Why do women judge each other?” says Allison Ye. “We don’t have that tradition of women helping women.” “We support each other to take the next step,” says Alicia Lui, “but starting something requires the other side to response. I argued with my mum [who put pressure on me to marry] and now she’s coming to understand my thinking. Each of us has a personal stake in Lean In Beijing because these issues affect us personally.”

Yolanda Wang says, “At my first Lean In Beijing meeting I realised I’m not on my own, I’m not crazy. Women are so honest, so encouraging, they push you to change things. For women it’s very hard to be their real self. Who they are now is who their family wants them to be, who society wants them to be. The clichĂ© was that the only thing between girls was jealousy. But that’s not true. It’s so good to see girls who say to each other, ‘I like you because you’re awesome.’”

Further reading in the China Flash series:

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Seven

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

I dressed, went down to the first floor and found Devika’s office. I was let in by Gita. The office was the same size as my room, with a desk pushed into the end. Opposite the desk and at the wrong height were two dark green chairs with the foam coming out. Waist height bookshelves containing dozens of bound papers and reports lined the long walls on either side. On one of the bookshelves was an old grey cube TV. It was on.
“You’re famous,” Gita said.
I saw myself on State TV. The bright orange letters running along the bottom of the screen asked, “When does civilised discussion become civil disobedience?” Then some buzzwords flashed up: “Defiance.” "Theft.” “Immodesty.” “Indecency.” “Children at risk.”
Devika picked up the remote and turned the sound up. Bang in the middle of the screen was me, aggravating the Mayor by answering back to him, loitering in the doorway. Then, sped up to make it look like a single aggressive movement, I appeared to strike the promoter’s arm. The whole thing looked sinister, choppy and orange-lit as the locals surrounded the promoters and the Mayor, instead of rearing over us as he had in reality, looked like he was unfairly marooned. That was the end of the clip. They had cut all the women out.
“They’ve been showing that three times an hour,” said Devika.
“That’s not – it’s been edited!” I said.
“Why did you have to get involved? That’s what I don’t understand,” said Devika to me.
“I didn’t think. As usual. I got fired up. I thought I was defending the place.”
“You show up quite clearly on the footage,”  said Gita in concern.
            Devika muted the sound.
“Half the laws in Miriadh aren’t enforced except when they want to enforce them. Ordinarily, nobody would usually penalise you for shouting something to a politician,” she said.
“But they’ll enforce the laws when they want to make sure their pet projects work,” said Gita.
“Should I clear my room?” I said.
“Tidy it?” asked Devika.
“Obviously, I’d leave it tidy,” I said, offended.  “You want me to go, don’t you?”
“Go where?” said Gita.
“You’re chucking me out.”
“Of course not,” said Devika. She gestured at the TV. “We’ve had far worse trouble than this. Ali Mercator gets the same response wherever he goes. He knows exactly what to do to get a rise of people then punish them for it.”
“And I fell for it.”
“Let’s see what happens,” Devika concluded. “Everyone – everyone normal, I mean – knows that State TV’s just a propaganda channel.”
“They’ll still build the bridge and flatten the square,” I said.
“We’ll find away to survive. Now, Gita’s taking you out today. You have another appointment.”
“At?” I said.
“The opticians,” said Gita. “Devika told me you were rubbing your eyes when you were looking at maps yesterday.”
The anorak on reception duty looked at me with a flash of TV-recognition as she buzzed us out. Gita and I crossed about a fifth of the high street, until we got stuck behind a bus which honked hoarsely and spat of a lungful of smoke so thick I actually felt its pith coating the inside of my mouth. Pressing in from the other side was a line of peddlers with tall poles bearing helium balloons at the top, giant nets full of footballs in the middle and stuffed children’s toys at the bottom.
            We spotted a gap and ran for it, straight into a waist high metal barrier that must have gone up in the last few hours. Rubbing our ribs, we edged around it. 
“That must be for the Family drive-through tomorrow,” said Gita. “They’ll make the road one-way and there’ll be barriers like these all the way along, plus a line of police.”
“Aren’t they afraid of everything kicking off again?”
            Gita shook her head.
“At big events like these, public goodwill outweighs local protest. Everyone wants to be part of the block party. Everyone cooks, they put their radios out. All the stalls are open. It’s good for business.”
“Isn’t it gross, though?” I said as we walked along the street. “A rich family driving through a poor area, giving us the opportunity of seeing the outside of their cars, while making sure we’re not close enough to touch them and they’re not close enough to smell us.”
“That’s just your opinion. Lots of people in Miriadh adore the Family. They bring stability, they never change. It’s reassuring.”
“I like change.”
“Many people don’t. I just need to stop in here.”
It was a pharmacist’s place, an open-fronted shop whose wares spilled out onto the pavement. Bundles of foil-wrapped pills, the original boxes discarded, bound together with elastic bands, were stuffed into the display cases. Gita asked for a tub of sixty multivitamin tablets. The man found one, blew the dust off it and gave it to her. She counted out the tokens, gave them to him and gave me the tub.
“Oh, they’re for you are they?” said the shopkeeper. “Wait a moment please.”
            After a few moments came back with an even bigger tub.
“One hundred and twenty capsules, same price.”
“Were you in the square last night?” I asked, bemused.
            His eyes twinkled.
“What square? This is just a special offer on vitamins.”
            We accepted it. I’d left my bag in my room so I carried the tub, telling myself not to over-thank Gita.
The opticians was part of a national brand, with a large and brightly-lit store overlooking the junction. Big posters of models resembling Mirian musical stars filled the windows, all mauve-painted eyelids, frosted pink lips and auburn-highlighted hair boosted with hairpieces, all wearing glittering rhinestone specs and sunglasses.
The moment Gita and I walked in, the atmosphere chilled. The staff clocked Gita’s anorak, slid their gazes over to me and looked me up and down. There were about four young women on duty, and they all moved in a little, bracing, as though I might run around the displays stealing all the glasses.
Gita announced us and the woman at reception said,
“I’ll let Mrs Shiva know you’re here. Could you pay for the eye test upfront please Ms Sawlani? Which concessions are you claiming against this?”
A few of the other customers turned around and looked me over as Gita reeled off some discount codes. We sat down on the long benches in the middle of the room to wait our turn.
“I’m amazed they haven’t given me a plastic sheet to sit on, so I don’t dirty the bench,” I said.
“We used to have a fantastic optometrist on the high street. But when this place opened up, he lost business.”
Mrs Shiva the optician came out  and called Gita’s name  – I was just a nameless Care In The Community case, obviously – and we went in together.
“Has she had an eye-test before?” asked Mrs Shiva.
“No,” I said.
“Has she reported any blurred vision, headaches, loss of sight, flashing lights?”
“My eyes ache when I try to read,” I said.
“If she could sit upright in the chair and put her chin on the chin-rest….”
            And so it continued. She dimmed the lights, shone torches into my eyes, got me to look left, right, up and down, reached out and flipped my eyelids up with her freezing cold hands, turned the lights back up, clicked a contraption tight around my temples and sped me through a prescription test.
“She’s giving me conflicting answers,” she said.
“You’re going too fast,” said Gita.
“I’m going at the normal speed,” said Mrs Shiva.
            Eventually we settled on a prescription. Mrs Shiva sat writing on the small cards in her tiny handwriting.
“She also needs to improve her eye hygiene,” she said.
            She gave the card to Gita, reached across and shoved the door open without even getting up. We went out.
“You shouldn’t give these people your money,” I hissed to Gita.
“You have every right to be here. And there’s nowhere else. My priority is getting your eyes sorted. I don’t care what they think of us.”
“Neither do I. But I care how they treat us.”
            We ordered some thick brown tortoiseshell frames from the budget range and they gave us a collection slip for around the same time tomorrow. I put it in my trouser pocket and forgot about it.
            In the time that we’d been out, preparations for the Family drive-through had increased. There were now lines of tiny flags criss-crossing all the streets on the route, and the barriers had extended along the main roads. Swags of tinsel, foil stars, plastic baubles, fairy lights and whatever else people had to hand were going up in a mish-mash of textures, colours and patterns.
“Everything’s going to close early, to give people an early start tomorrow. No more rabble-rousing tonight,” said Gita as we walked home.
“I promise,” I laughed. “I’m already tired, even though I haven’t done anything today.”
“It’s being in a new place.”

I was looking forward to being alone, back in my room, my windowless healing space. At the Lotus project, every day felt exactly like every other day. It was part of what made the place seem so secure, the feeling of silent, strong safety running deep. No part of the outside world could touch me, no person, no part of my past. There was only myself, in the present, and I wasn’t to worry about the space being ruptured, because it never would be. It was a sealed box, invisible to outsiders, like a jewellery safe. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

WHY: What's happening for the young? A new festival at the Southbank, launching Thursday

Children and young people stand up for their rights at a new Southbank Centre festival, running from Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 October 2014

WHY? What’s Happening for the Young will take over the entire site for four packed days of talks, debates, performances, free participatory events and workshops exploring all aspects of the current protection and promotion of children and young people’s rights in the UK.

Programmed in consultation with over a hundred individuals, organisations and figureheads, WHY? brings together the voices of children and adults of different backgrounds and experiences to explore what it means to be a child today. The festival is an opportunity for policy makers, social workers, families, children of all ages and their schools to immerse themselves in fundamental questions about childhood today. Inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the topics covered include politics, young people’s access to culture, immigration, career advice and sex education

  • A chance for children to make political banners and learn protest songs before taking to the Southbank Centre streets to participate in the BIG PROTEST for children’s rights (Thursday 23).
  • Events with leading policy-makers, figureheads, teachers and artists including: Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England; writer and Kids Company Director, Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE; classical musician and organiser of Channel 4’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ campaign, James Rhodes; Coronation Street star, Charlie Condou; actor and director, Femi Oyeniran who starred in Adulthood and Kidulthood and artist, banner-maker, Ed Hall. The voice of children and young people will be at the heart of WHY?,with many of the discussion panels including at least one child or young adult.
  • An interactive session led by UNICEF for adults and children to openly discuss and explore the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Friday 24).
  • Bryony Kimmings’ That Catherine Bennett Show – an interactive show for families challenging today’s role models for eight-year-old girls (Saturday 25 – Tuesday 28).
  • Pondling   a family comedy play with Best Actress (Dublin Fringe Festival 2013) Genevieve Hulme-Beaman about the confusing troubles of a growing little girl. (Friday 24 - Saturday 25).
  • Devoted and Disgruntled event focused on arts and sports in education (Saturday 25 & Sunday 26).
  • Hungry Childhoods – an exhibition of artwork by children and young people experiencing chronic hunger and food insecurity (a partnership by The Kids Company and Ella’s Kitchen.) 
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, said:
“All too often children and young people’s rights and creativity are sidelined so at WHY? What’s Happening for the Young? we seek to provide an open platform for urgent conversations about how the needs and ideas of children and young people can be properly included in the world. In this country we no longer take seriously the adage ‘children should be seen not heard’, and we don’t send youngsters up chimneys or down mines or into the mills or fields to earn their keep. With the number of toys, games and clothes aimed at the children’s market other societies might even accuse us of becoming too indulgent of children’s perceived tastes. However, we know from research that too many children don’t experience basic levels of happiness or a sense of belonging. They suffer from pressures at school, online and from notions of ‘fitting in’ that can cause real worry or sadness for them – and too many children still have to deal with violence and neglect inside the home. Once they reach teenage years they are often expected to behave like adults, but without enough support.”
Barbara Reeves, Partner in sponsor Mishcon de Reya's Family Practice, said: 
"This festival will provide a forum for children, young people and adults to debate, probe and question ideas around children’s rights and raise awareness, an issue that we feel extremely passionate about. Our objective is to put children – specifically their wishes, needs and wellbeing – at the forefront during parental disputes and separation. As a nation, we rarely consult children on issues that impact, shape and influence their lives. At Mishcon, we believe it's important to lead a national debate about this critical issue."
Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:
“I don’t ‘campaign’ in my role as Children’s Commissioner for England but I have a legal duty to promote and protect children’s rights, so I am delighted that the Southbank Centre, one of the country’s best known arts centres, is championing children and young people’s rights.”

For further details click here.

All text and images (c) Southbank Centre

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Six

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

About ten women in their sixties strolled into the square and were surrounded by their grandchildren and middle-aged sons. I had no desire to go back inside and wanted to see everything.
“So. This is him,” said one woman. “Even fatter in the flesh.”
She came up very close to the Mayor and pushed her bosoms into his chest.
“Ali,” she said. “I am a good woman.”
“Oh! I’m sure you are…Madam… that is obvious,” said the Mayor, too polite, or too shocked, to actually push her off him.
“I run a decent business and a good home. We knew you were coming today, we know what it’s about, we don’t want to hear it, and I have to tell you, this-is-not-acceptable.”
“We’ve been on this planet much longer than you and we know what’s best for us!” said one of the other women.
“I am a midwife!” shouted a woman.
“I am a cook!” shouted another woman.
“I’m a key-cutter!” shouted another woman. She was small, wiry, with white hair in two stiff plaits that stuck out like tusks. “I’m having to leave this block – your steamrollers are going straight over my shop. So what do you have to tell me, Mister Ali Mercator High and Mighty?”
“Ladies, it’s very unfair of you to expect me to become an instant expert on individual cases,” Ali Mercator’s voice took on an overripe, wheedling tone, “when I have to look after the whole of Binar and its suburbs.”
“The Binari suburbs! Where the Mirian soul goes to die,” shouted one of the men to loud communal agreement. “Binar was supposed to be a city, not an endless suburb as big as the desert.”
The Mayor and his promoters were being backed out of the square by the women, followed by their sons and grandchildren
“We don’t want your bridge. We don’t want your ‘piazza’. We don’t want your business. We don’t want your traffic and we don’t want you.”
“Madam – Auntie – ”
            The women gave a roar of outrage.
“Who are you calling ‘Auntie’? Who are you to be so over-familiar? I’m not your auntie. My sister isn’t your mother – my brother isn’t your father –”
            One of the promoters made the mistake of taking out his phone again, and as quickly as a snake striking a woman’s hand shot out and grabbed, not his phone, but his ear, and twisted it.
“What do you want? Do you want to take away everything we have?” shouted a woman.
“We’re not taking anything away! We’re - giving!” stuttered the Mayor.
 “We don’t use your roads! We can’t pay the city car tax – we can’t afford cars, we use the buses. But we clean your cars. We work in the petrol stations putting petrol in your cars. We can’t afford hotels. We need homes.”
“We won’t be stripped of our rights!”
“We won’t be stripped!” And then a clap. “We won’t be stripped!” A step. “Not by your hand!” And then a clap.
            Now all were shifting and clapping, and I joined in. Attracted by the noise, people from the high street were pouring in through the alleyways.
“You want to know what a woman looks like, stripped of her rights?” shouted a woman.
The women threw their printed stoles onto the ground.
“There! We throw everything we have at your feet!”
“What are we without our rights? Nothing! We are naked women.”
            They began to undo their blouses. The Mayor and the promoter howled, writhing, blushing to the roots of their expensive haircuts. There was no greater shaming for a Mirian man than to be in the presence of a disrobed older lady, regardless of what girls they leered at on the street. The faces of the Mayor and the promoters were like a row of Agony masks. The women lined up and backed their bottoms into the men like a row of reversing trucks. The Mayor and the promoters, unable to take any more, peeled away from the wall, all pride beaten out of them, and ran away. 
We all laughed and cheered while the women retrieved their stoles and smoothed each other down. I had never before experienced the pleasure, of running someone out of town – or rather, I’d  experienced it plenty of times from the wrong end. People waited good-humouredly for the bottlenecks to clear or invited each other down to the riverside for a walk and a smoke. When the square emptied out I discreetly knocked on the Lotus Project door and was buzzed in.
I was met by Nushy, Kushy, Beatriz, Riven, Gita and Devika, who were all crowded around the CCTV camera.
“Are you okay?” Devika asked.
“That was great!” I said at the same time.
“D’you reckon the promoters’ll come back?” I asked Nushy.
“They always do,” said Gita. “You can’t go up against MIDAS.  A demo by forty people’s nothing to them.”
Kushy was scrolling back on the CCTV controls and watching the protest again.
 “You got right in there,” said Beatriz to me.
“I’ll pay for it later,” I said.
            I stood in the middle of all of them, feeling pumped up and exultant, buzzing from the noise and movement and feeling of belonging.
“Why aren’t you taking this more seriously?” said Devika to everyone. “Esha, just what were you doing bringing attention to yourself and answering back like that?”
“I …couldn’t help it,” I admitted.
“You put your hands on one of them.”
“I knocked his arm away. He was filming me.”
“He was filming you answering back to the Mayor.”
“I’ve got every right to do that.”
“It wasn’t safe.”
“I was perfectly safe,” I said blithely.
But she was rattled and my cocky, gloating attitude was making it worse. My voice had taken on a shifty tone that I hated to hear coming out of my own mouth.
 “Disrespecting a state representative is a crime in itself,” she said.
“I’ll tell the authorities what I saw: they were bullying us.”
“But they weren’t! These guys know exactly how to behave - they know exactly what to do to get local people to hang themselves with their own rope.”
            We separated glumly and Gita escorted me to the Lotus Project’s clinic, where a Dr Nanda subjected me to a quick health check, jabbed me with multiple vaccinations and told me I was under-sized and under-nourished, with weak eyes and gingivitis. Afterwards, I went up to ‘my’ floor, collected my vanity case and had a quick wash, using a pea-sized blob of toothpaste and again trying to preserve the soap.
I went to my room, three-quarters expecting it to be occupied by someone else. I couldn’t believe that I had been out all afternoon, had even participated in a public challenge to a man famous from the TV, and all the while the room had been reserved, behind a locked door, just for me. I got into my bed and slept for another hundred years.
            I was woken up by someone knocking steadily on my door, not hard – but they weren’t going to go away.
“Who is it?”

“Gita. Can you meet me in Devika’s office in ten minutes? Something’s happened.”

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Five

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

The policeman noticed Devika, touched his cap and said,
“Afternoon, Madam. Sorry about this.”
“Hullo Pak,” said Devika.
            The promoter tensed his shoulders, looking furious at this subtle betrayal.
“Whose side are you one?” he snarled to the officers. 
The policeman ignored him and said to his colleague,
“Devika Madam runs the community centre. She does a lot of good work in the neighbourhood.”
The second officer brightened in recognition, put her hands together and ducked her head in a traditional Mirian greeting. 
“Officer Elifa Shima – I just transferred from the south. I’m Pak’s cousin.”           
Devika nodded graciously. I noticed that she was careful not to bring me to notice. She and I subtly fell away from each other and I merged backwards into the crowd.
“Look,” sputtered the main promoter, uncertain about who exactly to address himself to. “I need you to disperse. I have every right, in accordance with the law – ”
“Ah! Mirian law!” shouted out someone behind me. “It has more loopholes than your great-grandmother’s crochet. It’s stingier than her weekly budget. It’s stiffer than her knees. It’s dumber than her deaf old parrot. It’s as crusty as her loaf. It’s as complicated as her goulash recipe.” And then everyone, even the police officers, came together for the sarcastic, dirge-like final line, “But just like our great-grandmother, we love it anyway.”
The Lotus project’s front door opened a fraction, the faces of Nushy and Kushy appeared, four arms reached out and pulled Devika inside. The door closed.  
“Listen!” screamed the promoter, almost popping out of his suit. “I have every right to make a projection, for my employers, on the development plans that we have for this area, without fear of intimidation. If you stop me from doing my job, with protection, and with witnesses endorsed by the state,” there was a spontaneous jeer from the crowd, and the police officers shuffled awkwardly,  “ as is my right,  I will have every person who stands in my way arrested.”
            Directly behind me I could hear urbane voices politely working their way through the crowd. More suits strode into the square. They were joined by one other man, who was instantly familiar to me from State TV. More than familiar. Notorious. He had a dirty shirt with a lot of chest hair frothing out of it, a bald head with a greasy comb over smelling of hair oil and a large moustache which was crisped and auburn at the ends from the smoke from his cigar. He was holding a red plastic beer crate. It was the mayor of Binar, Ali Mercator. He was constantly slithering out of court cases for corruption, pimping, receiving and offering bribes, ‘vice’ parties and a lot more, but somehow he always avoided prison.
The two police officers were instantly cowed.
“I hope you’re doing your duty to protect our friend,” said the mayor to them, putting the crate on the ground and getting up on it.
“Oh yes, sir, absolutely, he’ll – come to no harm,” said Officer Pak weakly
            The promoters surrounded the Mayor’s crate. They all set their phones to Record and held them up reverently to film him.
“Your attention please,” cried the Mayor, and the locals who’d been slinking away stopped unwillingly. “I’m so glad I have you all here,” oozed Ali Mercator. “I’ve just had a very promising meeting with the Kader Dock Authority and we and our new friends at MIDAS, the Miriadh Industrial Design and Architecture Scheme, are delighted to confirm the signing of a new development deal: The Prince Raed Bridge! In honour of the state’s dearly cherished son on the year of his marriage to his adorable bride…” He couldn’t remember her name and simply moved on, “a project which will bring untold enrichment to the surrounding area.”
“Huh!” said every single person within earshot.
“This is a bridge that will revolutionise transport and radically improve visitors’ experience of this great capital city –”
“Just like all the other bridges did?” heckled someone.
            The streetlights came on, a fuzzy, dirty orange that barely relieved the darkness. Immediately the air seemed ten times stickier and dustier.
“We have made a pledge to build two thousand units of safe and accessible social housing, a few miles from this site but I assure you still in Binar West, wonderful new homes with all sorts of payment schemes for you,” said Ali Mercator, his loud voice boxing our ears. “You start by renting at controlled rates, and after some time you may be able to upgrade to a rent-to-buy scheme, so, over time, you might be able – ”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
“Excuse me?” said the Mayor. I avoided his eye but felt it pick me out nonetheless. Everyone craned their heads to look at me.
“You know what he’s saying, don’t you?” I said. “The end of the bridge is going to fall exactly here, across this block. They’re going to knock it down, and all the houses and shops with it – ”
“And we’re going to make something better,” said Ali Mercator, “that’s going to create thousands of jobs and hundreds of new dwellings.”
“Not everyone wants to be a waiter in a tourist cafĂ© or work a toll booth on a bridge,” I said. “Where are local people and their families supposed to live while you build the dwellings? What work are they supposed to do? Where are they supposed to buy food or visit the doctor?” I said.
Another man shouted,
“We’re not building site labourers. We don’t want short-term menial jobs destroying our own community.”
The Mayor had lost the crowd by now, even though he valiantly carried on talking. They were going to build a four lane bridge with traffic going in both directions. At this end of the bridge the lanes would tail off into a massive junction with exits bleeding out into the rest of the city, surrounding a pedestrianised ‘piazza’ with tourist shops and cafes on it. Knowing Ali Mercator I was sure a casino and gentlemen’s nightclub would spring up on it too before long.
I had managed to slide across until I was close to the Lotus project’s door.
“You’re proposing building this bridge, without even consulting us,” cried someone.
“I’m consulting you now!” said Ali Mercator.
“The area needs basic services, not tourist shops,” I said.
“I think we’ve heard enough from you,” said the Mayor.
 “You’re going to knock down this block and drive cars through it!” I finished.
            The Mayor gave me a very cold look and I realised, as usual a second too late, that he’d noted me down as a troublemaker. I realised that I was being filmed by the promoters.
“Get that camera out of my face,” I said.
“Or what?” said one.
            I knocked his hand away and the crowd gave a hiss of released tension. The promoter recoiled, brushing his arm as though I’d given him fleas.  A large group of local men holding bewildered-looking children by the hand burst into the square. My instinct told me the new arrivals were the same men who’d been fighting with the promoters earlier in the day. They had the same dark, square shape. The men thrust their children at the MIDAS men, shouting,
“You said it to our faces without a blush – now say it to our children! Tell my daughter that one day when she comes home, it won’t be there, there’ll be a bulldozer in its place and all her toys will be gone.”
One of the men pushed forward his daughter, who looked up at the Mayor with enormous eyes, her too-big school satchel hanging from her shoulder and her too-big white cone skirt dangling around her.
Instead of being elevated above the common man, the Mayor was now marooned on his crate.
“Now, now,” he panted while sweat gleamed on his cheeks, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves, nobody said anything about bulldozing children’s toys –”
            The father had caught one of the MIDAS young men filming him and the little girl as he confronted the mayor. The camera screen glowed in his frozen hand, still recording. The father puffed up until he seemed double his original size.
“I didn’t – I didn’t,” squeaked the promoter. He had been thoroughly abandoned by the other promoters, who had gone around the other side of the beer crate.
            The man with the daughter stuck out both hands. One began throttling the promoter–this was immediately filmed by the other promoters – while the other snatched the phone and threw it on the ground, where it broke. The promoter had gone as limp as a rubber chicken.  The man shook him, then let go. The promoter fell onto the ground, winded, ignored by everyone.
It was stifling in the square and many of the children were complaining about being hungry. Officers Pak and Elifa had been cornered by various people  wanting to talk about neighbourhood matters.
The Mayor got off his crate.
“Well I think this has been very productive,” he boomed, dangling the crate from his hand. “So we want to thank you for that. We hear what you say and what we’re going to do is, we’re going to take it on board and incorporate it into our plans for the new Prince Raed Bridge road and retail space development plan. And you’re all invited to the launch, of course.”
But it wasn’t over. One of the children suddenly squealed,

Saturday, 18 October 2014

China Flash: Film-maker Jenny Man Wu on contemporary Chinese women’s wit, pain and ambivalence

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing, where I am currently doing a stint as Deputy Editor.

Jenny Man Wu is a film-making powerhouse, describing her work as “soul led, not fantastical or abstract” and “inspired by a European arthouse sensibility in terms of the acceptance of the director as an auteur, rather than the Hollywood sensibility where a producer is the most important person and decides on the cast, the setting, the marketing and the distribution. It’s not important to me to make a million dollar movie. I want to continue to make low-budget movies where I have the right to do what I want, to show to and influence a certain small number of people. When I consider the price and sacrifice a director needs to pay to have a high budget cinema-style movie, I can say no to that. And if you’re making movies that you want to be screened in China you have to submit to censorship from the government.”

Over the course of four punchy short films, Man Wu has garnered international attention within just a few years of graduating from her studies in screenwriting and literature at Beijing Film Academy. Some Sort of Loneliness, A Choice (Maybe Not), Crime Scene and Last Words, all produced between 2012 and 2013, feature women in the throes of tragicomic contemporary despair. “It all starts with very little things, small daily situations,” says Man Wu. “Then I start to describe them, to look at them from a different angle.” In A Choice (Maybe Not), two young women are in a coffee shop, “and one of the girls is a little bit OCD about the choices she makes. She doesn’t want coffee. She doesn’t want lemonade. The beer is overpriced. The wine’s been open for two days. It's a comedy but it’s really about the pressure on women to choose. Women in the olden days almost never walked out of the house alone – and now we have all these choices, it seems. But there are so many choices it's hard to tell if you've made the right one or not. And sometimes when you're forced to make a big decision it's easy to put it down to fate, to the inevitable or the subconscious.”

Last Words, a monologue which Man Wu acted in herself, examines the notion of choice in a far darker way. “It’s a stream of consciousness, a woman talking about suicide and presenting her last words. She’s thinking about something [abusive] that happened in her childhood. The core of the film is not about how she develops her obsession with suicide but her recent experience of domestic violence, her struggle with her parents and the restraint she’s experienced from her father. It’s about how a female wants to have a different kind of life, about her struggle against patriarchy and disappointment and her desperation about her future. She feels that suicide is the only thing that she can do because she’s a perfectionist and an idealist – and these beliefs make her suffer all the more. At the end, she looks into the camera and asks, If I kill myself, does it mean I’ve surrendered to the world?”

Man Wu is committed to focusing on the issue of gender in China. “I have a political view about gender in general and that comes through in my work. Gender issues are political issues. I have a responsibility: I understand how it is overseas and how it is in Beijing and feel I must connect the two, to show that women could be living in so many different ways. We had a women’s revolution in China in the 1920s but all this did was release free female labour into the market.” In giving voice to the ambivalence, pain and wit of her women characters, Man Wu points out that she is going against society’s assumption that “women’s feelings and emotions are small and not political.”

When it comes to gender, Man Wu “can’t say it’s going backwards. It’s very complicated, how [society] sees single women. It’s related to capital and economics. It’s also that under the one child policy, girls do feel cherished within their family, they are insulated and protected from the frustrations of gender inequality at a personal level, so many don’t understand why they should fight for their rights. But it’s important to recognise that a lot of the problems in daily life are actually related to gender. For example I know of a young woman at school who wasn’t a virgin. But she was with a new boyfriend and to pretend to be a virgin, she put some [red] colour in herself – and the colour wouldn’t wash off the guy! And this was presented as a big joke by the guy’s friends. But there’s a double standard: girls really are expected to be virgins.”

Man Wu was selected to show at the 2013 Beijing Independent Film Festival, has just got back from the high profile Elles Tournent Film Festival in Brussels and is currently directing the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which will be running at various venues across town until December. However, both the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Queer Film festival have both been shut down by the authorities on their launch dates in the past. One typically clever strategy for circumventing this possibility has been to screen films on special buses driving around the city; yet another example of the ingenuity which has developed in China as a response to the caprices and controls of those in power.

“I can’t leave Beijing,” vows Man Wu. “A lot of things are happening here. I see the changes and they’re not always good. It’s sad to see old buildings being demolished, places becoming more commercial. It’s always good and bad – but that’s what makes the world interesting. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”

Further reading in the China Flash series:

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Four

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

Lovely stood in the middle of the shop. Her face was large and perfectly made up, jade-coloured eyeliner, thick black brows, powdered skin and eyes as bright and glittering as a jewelled snake. Around her, women and girls were putting fish fries into a small fryer, making tea and serving it on tin trays in delicate crockery.
“You see how many women she employs here – more than she needs to. And I know she pays them more than the other shopkeepers,” said Devika as we sat down.
“If she’s rich, she should,” I said.
Devika shushed me. Lovely swept over to our table and towered over us.
“Devika – sister,” she purred like a lethal jungle cat, “so wonderful to see you. Come for some refreshment, very understandable on a day as hot as this,” went the rolling patter, “and I know what you need . Pistachio, rose and vermicelli rice cakes, small, for two. And two cups of Moonblush blend.”    
            Devika did not contradict her. If Lovely said Moonblush, Moonblush it was to be. Throughout this, Lovely had ignored me, although her eyes had flicked over me as she approached, sharp as a lash, taking everything in and no doubt pegging me exactly right.
            The tea shop was so busy and noisy, with Lovely’s banter, the clanging of tea tins, bubbling of boiling water, clink of porcelain and the hiss of the fat fryer, that it gave us cover to talk freely. There were many women like Devika at the tables and several mixed groups of high-spirited college age students. It made me ache to watch them, in their humour and confidence, peppering American-English phrases and local dialect into their flawlessly pronounced state Mirian. They were the same age as me.
            Devika took a thick bundle of folded paper out of her bag and gave it to me.
“Maps. I thought you might want to orientate yourself. Tilly told me you were asking about the city.”
“Is everything in Binar built on a grid?” I asked, studying one of  them.
“No, that’s unique to Binar West because it’s the most recently built – relatively speaking. Binar North has medieval lanes leading to a market square. Central core’s got  squares, boulevards and royal gardens with straight main streets leading out of them – very good for military parades and Family processions,” said Devika wryly, “so it’s geometric, but it’s not a grid.”
            Lovely’s fist came down between us holding a delicate white plate. On it were two cakes no bigger than a pair of cufflinks, with a shred of rose petal and a pale green pistachio half on top. Next came two white, fluted teacups of golden tea. I looked from them to Lovely’s strong fingers, which I could easily imaging putting someone’s eye out, just reaching in and firmly screwing it out like a light bulb.
Devika was looking at me steadily. She didn’t pretend to have any interest in the tea or the cakes. We blinked at each other in silence for a few seconds – then I broke and told her a little of what I’d seen, starting with Father Francis. I couldn’t tell her about the orphanage. She listened, her eyes never leaving my face.
“You’ve been through a lot,” was all she said.
She finally took a sip of tea, which must have been cold and sour by then. A teashop worker took the empty cake plate from between my hands, where I’d been dabbing up the last white crumbs with the pad of my finger. I saw, just revealed under the edge of her blouse, the blush of a bruise.
“This is a safe-house, isn’t it?” I said, when she was gone. “That’s why there are so many women working here, even though there’s not enough work for them.”
“They seem to know you. Some of the women who work here came to you first.”
“Lovely’s powerful in the area – some of the shop units along this side of the street are owned by her and leased out. She knows everyone from the officials and petty bureaucrats to the local security personnel to the local transport and delivery businesses. She’s a good woman.”
             The bill arrived, placed squarely in front on Devika. I snatched it over to my side and studied the numbers. Eleven tokens, fifty fractions.
“Where I’m from, one sack of rice flour costs six tokens and a litre bottle of cooking oil costs four and twenty. A cup of tea from a hawker costs one token,” I said, pushing the bill back. “Thank you. For everything.”
“It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. You’re all so damn nice it drives me crazy.”
“But we don’t do it out of niceness. This is our job. I take a salary and so do all the permanent staff. The interns are paid by the hour. Don’t think of us as charitable people doing you a favour out of pity. When you’re on your feet, come back and coach others. Or set up a project of your own, wherever you are.”
 We got up to leave, receiving an airy goodbye wave from Lovely, her sharpened nails expertly painted red. Outside, guys were up on ladders stringing decorative flags across the street. The flags flapped sluggishly in the humidity.
 “The Family are doing a tour of Binar in the run-up to Prince Raed’s wedding,” said Devika as we crossed the road. That’s why those flags are going up. There’ll be crowds all along here this weekend. It’ll be fun. We’ll have a block party. Everyone from the smallest baby to the most senior people come out.”
Out on the street, stalls sold noodles, curried meat on sticks and egg rolls, men and women were returning from work and maids were on their way home, their empty tiffin boxes swinging from tired hands. Drivers where swapping shifts, day shift ending, the long night shift starting. We had to wait for our alleyway to clear, there were so many people filing in. When we got to our square we realised what had caused the hold-up. The promoters were back. They were backed up – unwillingly, I thought – by a couple of short, bored looking police officers. One was a man and one was a woman but apart from the woman’s plait they looked the same.
Devika and I had walked into the middle of a standoff.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Three

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

Tilly whipped around when the man first hit the glass and whipped back again.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said tightly. “It happens all the time. It’s nothing to do with us.”
“What’s on the other side of the glass?”
“The high street.”
            Big, shadowy bodies continued shoving each other into the toughened glass.
The imprints of first a briefcase and then a black barrel shape that must had been a bin flashed through. The glass began to smear with shapes: a whole knot of people fighting. It looked, from the silhouetted, shifting movements that  swept from one side of the glass to the other, that one party was trying to drive off another.
“I’m sorry,” I said, getting up, “I really need to know what’s going on. You said this was a safe place.”
            I put my tray on the rack for dirty things and walked out, giving a grateful thumbs-up to Beatriz when she caught my eye. Tilly followed, too insipid to actually stop me. I went to the entrance. Through the front door – which, I noticed, had four separate locks and an alarm system worked along its edge as well as a CCTV camera trained on it – I could hear the argument more clearly:
“You come here, with your suits and your briefcases, you think you can just wave a cheque and sweep us all away like we’re fucking cockroaches?”
“Just calm down,” a smarmy voice answered back, and I pictured a businessman holding his briefcase like a shield, pointing his pen like a defensive sword. “We’ve offered you the chance to consult with us several times. The state has every right to use up unoccupied land for civic facilities that benefit everyone…”
“Does it look unoccupied to you? Don’t we live here? We don’t need a Starbucks. We need a school. We need a college. We need a health centre. You tell me, do you think that’s right? I’ve got two daughters. Rosa wants to be a doctor. Wadia wants to be an engineer.  Is Starbucks going to send them to training college? Or maybe you think Starbucks wants to employ me? Fuck you!”
The two anoraks at the reception desk were also keeping track of the argument. One of them invited me into the booth to watch on the security monitor. It was as I’d thought: a group of local men in traditional shirts and baggy pants were seeing off a businessman, noticeable younger and thinner than them, with a neater hair cut, no beard and a phone mic clipped over his ear. They had squared up to each other but the businessman, his face impassive, clearly wasn’t interested in a fight. His face said clearly enough that a group of ‘locals’, however angry, never won out against a corporation.
The argument cooled, the group dissipated and the footage showed, once again, the tiny square being criss-crossed by locals: people coming from the riverside with big  square laundry bags of textiles to sell, a young boy with a yoke of emptied and cut open petrol barrels, a woman carrying a broken stereo. 
“Who was that guy, in the suit, out there?” I asked one of the two young women at reception.
“They call themselves promoters,” she said.   “They’re property developers.”
“Property sharks,” cut in the other anorak.
“Are you two sisters?” I asked.
“Yeah,” they both replied.
            Their names were Kushy and Tushy – proper names Kushwani and Tushara.
“Developers see this as dead space,” said Tushy. “They don’t care that two hundred families live here, in a relatively small area, because in their minds, thousands of yuppies could be living here, if they knocked down these tenements and put up luxury apartment towers.”
“Gym, spa, porter, cocktail bar, balcony, river views, underground car-parking, water taxi shuttle service to the financial district every morning,” said Kushy.
“Who would buy those?” I asked.
“All of Binar’s new finance and science and technology and medical graduates.”
“And everyone else can just go hang,” said Tushy. “The developers are heavy handed. We’ve seen it happen all along the river and now it’s our turn.”  
“But first, they pretend to play nice,” said Kushy,
“then they say, ‘Oh, our legal requirement is to send three letters telling you what we’re going to do and inviting you for a consultation, but you didn’t fill in the correct objection forms and take them to the planning office, and you were aggressive at the consultation and so you wasted your chance and blah blah blah.’”
“Hi girls.”
Devika was standing on the other side of the partition, with a handbag slung across her front, sunglasses in her hand and some lipstick on – and no anorak. “Hello Esha – I take it you slept okay?”
“I did. And I had lunch, too.”
“Good. Very good. Your room was empty but your things were still in there so I knew you hadn’t hopped it.”
“Do people run away?”
“Sometimes,” said Kushy.
“I was going to come and see you,” I said, although I’d forgotten.
“Want to join me now? I’m just going for a walk,” she said, although I doubted it. She was too dutiful to go for a walk in the middle of the day for her health.  
            Devika and I walked along the alley to the high street. I had thought that the moment we were out, I would feel relief and release. Instead, there was fear in leaving behind the protection of the building behind. In only a day I had let it get under my skin, make me feeble.
“There are sometimes drug raids on the nearby houses,” she remarked. “The drug squad park off the high street then file into these alleyways. One of them gives a signal and they slither into a building. We’ve seen it.”
“Do they ever arrest anyone?”
“Sometimes.” She dropped her voice. “But it’s usually for show. The corruption around here… We find it hard to deal with officials.”
            The high street was narrow, so that the two directions of traffic passed each other with barely an inch of space and all the shops seemed to stoop in. The ‘pavements’ were long, sagging lengths of broken stonework, the dips and ditches covered over with soggy wood or muddy plastic, the kerbs barely an inch above the road.  
“Don’t be put off by appearances,” said Devika. “We have everything here. Medicines and homeopathic remedies. That’s the place where they fix everything that’s broken. That’s the phone-and-photocopying shop and Internet cafe. Ladies’ salon. Betting shop. That shop buys gold and silver. The traditional sweets and yogurt shop. That man runs the dairy stall for eggs, curd, churned cheese and milk. The big market’s once a week. If you go round the corner there’s some cycle rickshaws, and if you follow tit down you’ll find the auto-taxis, and you’ll see the bus stop from there.”
“What direction’s Binar central core?”
            She pointed towards the cycle rickshaw park.
“It’s far – the city’s huge.”
“How many people?”
“Eighteen million and growing. Not that we’re all on top of each other. Binar’s like a pool of crude oil, always spreading out at the edges.”
As we passed different shops, Devika was greeted respectfully by the men and women inside, who called her Sister, Mother, Daughter or Auntie according to their ages. I was enjoying our walk, even though we were constantly dodging the people walking into our path. We passed numerous alleyways cutting back towards the river. While some of the passageways were empty, most were full of children playing.
            I could see a sign saying Lovely’s Tea Room at the end of the row. There was  picture of a tea cup, with the word Lovely spelled out from the steam. Inside, the place was the size of a tram carriage. There were round canisters of tea on the left and tables and stools along the wood panelled wall on the right. The wood panels were made from the sides of tea shipping crates, marked with transit stamps and customs stickers.
“Lovely built this place from nothing,” said Devika. “Her father and mother were tea-hawkers. They had bicycles racks on the back. They sent Lovely to school – and very slowly, she developed this place. There are private quarters upstairs.”

I realised that a simple shower and change of clothes had immediately lifted me away from the dirty looks, roughness and dismissal I would usually encounter in a place like Lovely’s, especially if I was alone. I was no longer right at the very bottom, as I had been. I was in disguise and it was working.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Two

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

When I was finally done I dried the soap carefully and diluted the shampoo with a couple of drops of cold water to make it last longer. The best thing in the vanity case was a pot of plain white cream. I touched the perfect surface with the pad of my forefinger, barely lifting any off, and rubbed it into my face. I resisted taking more.
There was also a toothbrush and a large tube of toothpaste. I began brushing, groaning in relief; my teeth and tongue felt as though they were covered in scales and moss. My teeth were moving as I brushed them. They weren’t swinging loose, but they shifted slightly in the gums. When I spat out, the froth was striped with blood. I looked into the mirror, something I’d been avoiding since I first got into the bathroom.
            The person in front of me had a peaky, bashed, asymmetrical quality. My hands and face were burned dark and I had blackish freckles over the bridge of my nose and the tops of my cheeks. My eyeballs were yellow, with grey bags underneath.
There were scratches and bruises all over my body, old and new, fresh and healing, layered over each other. Worst of all was the expression in my eyes. It was hard and mistrustful, wary and wounded.
I decided not to bother with mirrors again. I put the towel around me and was about to creep out when I remembered the clothes Devika said she’d leave for me. There they were, on the bench, smelling of washing powder. Under the bench was a pair of sandals. I put everything on: the cheesecloth shirt, the soft cotton scarf that went with it, the linen trousers.
            I came out. Someone was waiting for me, texting on her phone. It was Gita, the anorak who’d shared her tea with me.
“Hey!” she grinned, tucking her phone into her pocket. I could tell by the way she looked at me that I was a huge improvement.
“I feel a bit more normal now,” I said.
“Let me just … there,” said Gita.      
She rearranged my scarf, widening it out around my shoulders. I checked the bathroom to make sure I’d left it neat. I took my towel with me, carrying it over my arm.
“Sorry for hogging it.”
“You didn’t,” said Gita, leading me back to the landing. “There’s  a bathroom for every three bedrooms, people shouldn’t have to wait or ask permission to do basic things like wash or use a toilet or give their kids a bath – that kind of control is what some of them are escaping from.”
I could hear voices and kids’ laughter, and radios kept on low, around the building. From a lower floor I could smell lamb cooking, yet while my mouth watered, my stomach tightened painfully. I was too tired to eat and had an instinct that rich food might make me sick. It was odd, but somehow taking all those layers of dirt off myself seemed to have taken away a few layers of strength, too. I felt soft and weak.
            We stopped at a door which had a chess piece painted on it, and Gita keyed in the code. 
“There’s a keypad on both sides. I’m afraid we can’t let you lock yourselves in.”
            She showed me into a tiny room with a bed, a towel stand, a wooden trunk and an empty bookshelf. The room smelled of fresh cotton from the bed cover.
“It’s not much,” Gita started.
“It’s perfect, it’s perfect, it’s perfect, it’s perfect.”
“I’m sorry there’s no window.”
“I don’t care about that.”
            I arranged the towel on the stand, spread out so that it’d dry quickly. I sat down on the bed, felt the mattress sink under me and mould to me. I got under the covers in my day clothes, my body melting into the bed.
“Take as long as you need,” said Gita, already half out the door. “We won’t wake you – although, if it’s okay, we might just look in on you once or twice. When you feel rested, come down one flight and find one of us. We’ll get some food in you. The food’s good here. We make a point of it.”
“Do you eat the same food as us?”
“Of course we do. And after that, Devika would like to see you.”
            Gita shut the door. The room was quiet. The room was safe. Nothing bad was going to happen. Yet as soon as I was alone a great terror opened up, and an emptiness. Every time I closed my eyes they snapped open again. Eventually, I did sleep, I wasn’t sure how long for. The sleep was absolutely thick, with no dreams and thankfully no nightmares.
            When I finally awoke, my head felt clear, my thoughts brassy and freshly washed. I edged around my room, exploring it. There wasn’t much to see. The trunk contained another change of clothes, a bag, some nightwear and some underwear. I was ravenously hungry and thirsty. Feeling shy and out of place I opened the door, punching the stiff buttons of the security lock, and stepped out into the corridor. Because there were no windows I couldn’t tell what time of day or night it was, but I could hear talking from the other rooms.
The landing of the first floor was full of women of all ages, types, appearance and religious symbols, plus kids. It was the children I noticed most. The littlest ones were bonny and free, but the slightly older ones had a silent, clenched, still quality. I knew that well.
There were three anoraks sitting behind a trestle table, on which were stacks of printed leaflets. They were guides to legal representation, counselling, healthcare, community housing. Every fourth word had to be chopped through, or I had to mouth the words as I read them, and some of the grammatical quirks of formal Mirian – the dashes and underscores that could change the meaning of a word almost to its opposite – defeated me. Either I hadn’t got far enough in school to learn them, or I’d forgotten them.
            One of the anoraks, a young girl, introduced herself as Tilly:
“I was on the boat that came out to get you yesterday morning.”
“That means I slept for twenty four hours straight.”
“That’s a good solid run,” grinned another of the anoraks. 
“It’s normal, sweetie,” one of the women in the room said to me.
“Gita mentioned that I might …be able to get something to eat?” I said.
Tilly took me back to the ground floor and into the canteen, the most vibrant part of the Lotus project I’d seen so far. Three tables at the far end were given over to lessons for different age-sets of children, and there was a soft play area for the smallest kids. On the long side, facing the street, the windows had been frosted thickly.
            We greeted the woman at the serving hatch.  Her tunic sleeves were pushed up to reveal two small but clear prison tattoos. There was a whole zone of outer Miriadh given over to mega-prison complexes.
“You’re a new face,” she smiled.
            We introduced ourselves – her name was Beatriz.
““I got here yesterday. But I’ve only just woken up,” I said.
“When I first got here, me and the girl in the next room used to have competitions to see who could sleep the longest.”
She was standing behind six lidded tureens. She clinked the edge of one with a serving spoon.  
“Pearl barley.” Up went the next lid: “Salmon and fennel.” Up went the next lid: “Peppercorn pork.”
            I couldn’t decide, so she gave me a little of everything.
            Tilly was sitting primly at a table. I joined her and without a word ate my meal until there was nothing left.  Eventually, I was done. I sat back, stretching my legs and rubbing my stomach. My eyes felt heavy. I forced myself to make conversation.
“Could you tell me, which part of Binar West are we in exactly? What’s it called?”
“This is 7B, block Q.”
It doesn’t even have a name?
            I had grown up dreaming about the capital city’s famous sites: the Toshi skating rink and mall, named after one of the commerce ministers; the great bridges; the Beurgalance art museum that contained treasures from across the Mirian empire,; the palaces; the four interconnected pleasure gardens that, if you followed them, led you diagonally from the north east to the southwest corner of Binar central core, and were each named after queens from the Family’s ancient history, Ankita Anirban, Agra Coron, Riga Erata and Gabria Kuo; the Maxim theatre,  a great wedding-cake-like behemoth established by the Family to show the best operas. The idea that any place outside these famous destinations in the central core would not even be graced with a name had never occurred to me.
There was a loud thump on the frosted glass, from the other side, and for a split second the shape of the back of a man, his rump and shoulders and splayed arms, was imprinted there, dark, before being snatched off again. There was a  fight going on outside.