The vacant page mutely gazing at me retells the current state of my mind. The sporadic cursor alternating the iridescent flashes of the gold teeth neatly aligned within Five Dragons’ proud mouth appears to be the solitary outlet alleviating the burden of my disorderly inferences about life, thriving within and around the Great Swan Rice Emporium. Startlingly, a habit I had once nurtured from my father found an uncanny presence among the pages of this manuscript, amid the raw rice kernels Five Dragons simultaneously popped in his mouth. The subtle aroma of freshly harvested rice maturing in several gunny bags, the blissful fragrant steam swirling from a humble bowl of boiled rice and the complacent hunger swaying to the tunes of mouthfuls of food stumble upon a significant bridge amalgamating personal nuances with those procured through fictitious consciousness yielding the magnitude of a modest food grain and its devastating persuasion. Su Tong’s artful phraseology dissolves along the sunlit streets of the Brick Mason Avenue casting forlorn memories of the quaint Maple-Poplar Village submerged in the nauseating innards of one entity, one defining personage, who compels to ponder on the humanistic possibilities and probabilities of redemption and retribution in the acrimony of deformed reality.
“Travellers from home are like stray dogs; they sleep when they’re tired, wherever they are and their expressions- lethargic and groggy at times ferocious at others are more doglike than human…… This is the city: chaotic and filled with weird things that draw people like flies, to lay their maggoty eggs and move on. Everyone damns the city, but sooner or later they come anyhow…”
An overpowering introspection of the 1930s China ; a land plagued with war, floods, famine and rebellion, plunged deeper into the darkest extremities of survival and life influenced by the delicate perception of an agricultural country and vulnerability of its populace. The rural territories ravaged by calamities, liable for hordes of homeless migrants swarming in the city , brings along an orphan from the Maple-Poplar Village on a strange journey where the long road ahead tempts with an endless supply of rice but is clueless of the destination where life and death meet. Five Dragons’ impression of the city evaluates the universal irony of two contradictory worlds triumphant in their own intrinsic virtuosity. The exodus depicts imaginative haven the rural folks concoct eventually surrendering to their temptations of fostered dreams of fame and wealth. Su Tong paints the harsh reality of the impervious glamorous city dwellings prioritizing the success rate of survival above all humanity , exemplifying an ugly truth of a ‘dog-eats-dog’ world brimming with black marketers, warlords, egocentrism, exploitation, murders, mutilations, torment and vengeance. The probability of a jade bracelet having a place in the family registry surpassed the accessibility of an ounce of love. The term “a great coffin” synonymous to the city elevates the significance of ‘rice’ through the degree of relationships between the country bumpkins and the city slickers, spiralling downwards onto a dais of corruption and consciousness.
Want to know how I managed to become what I am today? By nurturing that hatred. It’s the prize of human capital. You can forget your mother and father, but you must never relinquish your hatred.”
Are people condemned to live in isolation? Is a man born with the simmering emotion of hatred? Or, is it then ,the seeds of hatred are sown in the muddy waters of human manipulation, nurtured through season of egotism, infidelity, lowliness to the culmination of a vicious harvest of vengeance? Su Tong’s overwhelming portrayal of the sinister human nature entwines the cynicism of contemptuous standard of living and the sanguinity of a dream yet to be pursued, the rhythmic clatter of the railroad haunting the passage to time dilapidating flanked by delusion and veracity. Alongside the dream of improving his life, Five Dragons nurtured the bitter seeds of hatred, its shadows falling on the Feng family, its core of darkness thriving among seething anger and humiliation. The word ‘pity’ comes to my mind when the inherent images of the fated Feng family simultaneously click in the corner of my eye. The ugly side of the human nature corrode the benign innards through ceaseless suffocation and starvation to attain a sense of belonging and empathy. It is here that one stops reading the scripted prose and wonder whether life is simply a joke; clowning its way through the living. The yearly rice harvest being at the mercy of the whims and fancy of the nature; the imminent harvest callously being washed away by the sudden torrential rainfall. The puny shoots of peace withered into an impartial pairing of fortune and misfortune and the disgrace of feeling less than a human solidifying its monster approximating indestructible steel pounded through the furnace fires nurturing the sensation of hatred as an eternal tool in Wu Long’s troubled heart.
“Rice enveloping feminine flesh or feminine flesh wrapped around rice always drove him into a state of uncontrollable sexual desire.”
Su Tong’s vivid portrayal of a culture deeply rooted in its agricultural land symbolizes the annual survival of rice grains to the value of life and the heritage of a prevailing race. The cultivation of rice interprets the social, economical and political panorama of a country and the complexities of its populace. ‘Rice’ signifies the defining standard, the deciding scale upon which the stages of life and nature are carefully calculated; a method particularly central to the existence of Five dragons. The over implications of the act of illicit sex connote one of the imperative module in deciphering the state of sexual desire and the subsequent paradoxical measure to the “purity” of rice grains. The ruthless delineation of the abusive cycle of sex and violence in a misogynistic patriarchy traces its origins in the twisted psychological sentimentalities and habitual sadomasochism. Rice and sex are the two self-destructive forms of power and control seducing Five Dragons’ deepest sexual urges and sadistic fetishes. The expression of rice being more dependable and pragmatic than a woman congeals an irrational notion within Five Dragons of rice being much more “cleaner” than the woman being fucked or the act of sex. The tussle between the controlling calm over the presence of the “rice” and the chauvinistic power over the feminine flesh or to be precise the domination over a vagina, indicates a repulsive human personage crammed between the predatory yearnings and corrupted reality ; the mislaid human spirit clutching on to the wispy threads of love for a third lifeless entity. The widespread misogynistic attitude of strictly adhered in the sexual discrepancies and the obnoxious treatment meted out to the woman of the Feng family. The abusive state finding a justification in Cloud Weave’s heartening proclamation:-“The world is really strange. Men can play around all they want, but women aren’t supposed to return the favour…….Well, this is one woman who’s going to play by her own rules…” Su Tong’s female protagonists steadily become a sensitive pictogram of patriarchal victimizations, powerless and pedestrian, their sexuality the solitary source of their emancipation however insignificant the exercise of free will may have been.
Rice, the life-sustaining crop, the first solid food fed to a child, the first auspicious offering made to honour the dead, the sovereign symbol of prosperity and fertility; disintegrates in the deficient social order appropriating an antonym to life. Rice defining all becomes its own contradiction.
“To him nothing was important than life itself, unless it was improving the quality of life.”
What makes us human? What makes us subhuman? Are these two terminologies correlated with the disquieting response favouring the tipping dimensions of absurdity? The poignant reminder, a single tear shed in search for familiar faces in the crowd demarcating the parallel worlds of “false” and “real”. The desire to live for the accomplishment of a dream and the desperation to survive out of the fear of death; what can be labelled as a “bona fide” life? The existence that thrive in covetousness and wealth yet beckoning the fall of humankind or the life dishonoured in the dregs of poverty and subhuman conduct inching to a similar deteriorating of humankind? And then what should be termed as a “false” life? The new set of gold teeth becomes the speech of a voiceless man, the trust for a humane recognition. The pomposity of materialistic power metamorphosed the “false” into “real” and vice-versa. The actual calcified teeth, an altruistic gift from the parents disposed for being speechless, the mortification disseminating into the haughtiness of a golden lust.
The conflict between man and society unearthing the evil human nature festers in an endless contempt harboured by the various penned characters of this book. In the brutal struggle to improve the quality of life, each surviving person evokes an animalistic side, fiercely battling to seek an ounce of happiness and unchallenging acceptance. Does then, the prejudicial communal outlook renders oneself to be hateful? Or merely in a distorted reality the fight for survival is marred with merciless policy?
“It was, after all, rice, and rice alone, that had a calming, cooling effect on him; all his life it had comforted him.”
The simple rice grain strenuously toiling in a steaming pot, rinsing all the impurities to produce one perfect bowl of steamed rice, is an animated testament of the blood, tears and sweat shed by the farmers to produce one glorious harvest, that develop into a life-source for millions of hungry stomachs. In the vicious battle of survival, the world of rice provides the ultimate comfort to Five Dragons, his true sense of belonging, redefining the perversion of enduring extremities. A boxful of finest white rice becomes his sole salvation linking the calamitous nature to the complexities of man. Besides a handful of white grains, there may be no redemption, may be a delayed retribution and certainly no love, yet there is a chance of fortitude through every mound of rice glistening from the gunny bags, rice, a symbol of survival. And, each day at supper it finds a well-merited place on my dining table.