I don't know how the thing started. It might have been my patriotic impulse to sort out the Arunachal Pradesh imbroglio, which is the first time I've used this word in real life, so pardon me while do a little war dance. Or it might have been that I wanted to buy some furniture for our new house.
Anyway, I found myself face to face with Hu Jintao, the Supreme leader of the Council of Supreme Leaders of the Peoples and workers party or something, aka, The Man Who Kicks All Ass in China.
Hu wasn't much of a lad for conversation. A taciturn and grim bloke. And to me, he looked like someone with gas trouble. And he kept saying that everything was an integral part of China.
“Integral Part of China.”
“What about Tibet?”
“You gotta be kidding me” Hu's been spending too much time with American policy makers “Tibet is definitely an integral part of China”.
I tried to change my tack. Perhaps the soft power of Bollywood would soften him up. I once escaped a traffic ticket by asking the cop if he was related to Rajesh Khanna. He wasn't, but he was flattered that discerning cutters of lanes and jumpers of signals thought so.
“Are you related to Preity Jintao” I asked, just to break ice. He eh-eh-ed and consulted with advisors, all of whom presented the standard inscrutable Chinese appearance of mild puzzlement.
“She's a Bollywood actress,” I added, by way of clarification. “She might be from a collateral branch of your family”
“Ah, Bollywood! Integral part of China”
Now it was my turn to be puzzled. “Since when?”
“You made a movie called 'Chandni Chowk to China', did you not”. “No! No! No!” I screamed. “I did not make that movie!”
“Wake up, Naren”, I heard the missus saying, with a well aimed finger jabbing me in the ribs. “We'll be landing in Hong Kong now. And you look a complete mess.”
As far as the missus is concerned I am always looking a mess but this time even by my extremely considerate standards, I thought I resembled something dragged out of a trash can by a cat with very catholic tastes.
“Must have been all that work pressure from yesterday”, I told her, “I was really exhausted.”
“Nonsense. You had far too much wine. Come on now, fill up these immigration forms,” she said. And as usual, the filling out of all kinds of forms being in my job description since the day I was married, I plodded through the things and wondered for the zillionth time who in his right mind would read anything written in it. In fact, this is exactly what I think when I write something on my blog.
And in addition they had one of those disarmingly innocent health declaration forms which in effect says, when you take away the heretofores and whereases, “No boss, I am not having any bird or swine flu”
Bureaucrats all over the world are the same. We used to have a Premier Padmini back in the days when I was a dashing young lad, carefree and debonair, to which I had an air-conditioner fitted. My father used to call it the perfect metaphor for bureaucracy. It would generate lots of air. It would create plenty of activity like louvres swinging and lights glowing on. It would use up a lot of resources. The only thing it wouldn't do was cool the car. But I digress.
We shuffled into line before the immigration officer who gave me a long and unblinking stare which made be feel I was an international spy, and then, thinking it over, decided I didn't look smart enough to cause any real damage. He gave me my passport and glared a “beat it, creep” look at me. The missus of course never has these problems. They smile at her, she smiles back, plenty of thank yous and you're welcomes. There is no justice in this world, I tell you. If between the two of us there was one who could stage a coup d'etat and takeover a country, that would be the missus. I couldn't take over an unmanned lighthouse. Yet they treat her like she was Queen Victoria while I get the reception reserved for people suffering from halitosis.
That little ceremony over, we shuffled into a bus which would take us into China, to Guangzhou, and I witnessed for the first time an immigration check where the immigration officer doesn't bother to even look at you. All done in five minutes. I was extremely impressed with Chinese efficiency and their faith in Old Confucius' maxim that the country which executes illegal aliens doesn't have many.
The Missus and I, celebrating my acceptance by the Immigration chaps
Our hotel turned out to a very lavish place, considering what we were paying for it, with a bevy of extremely well coiffured Chinese ladies welcoming us. One of them, rather sportingly I thought, asked me how my knee was. I've been troubled by a touch of arthritis over the last few months and had blogged about it. Perhaps this charming lady had read it.
“ Oh, it's much better now, thank you very much, though it still hurts a bit if I climb stairs too fast”, I told her.
She looked helplessly from me to the missus, who promptly hissed “Silly! 'Ni Hao' is 'Welcome' in Chinese” and gave my bewildered interlocutor a conciliatory smile.
I soon learned that in China, English has the same staus that Hindi has in Chennai. Everyone agrees that it is an important language but no one gives a rat's ass about learning or speaking it. And who is to say they're not right. Chinese is a particularly dicey language, though. It has a lot to do with intonation, which means that you can say the same sentence in two different sing-songs and mean two completely different things. Like you might want to compliment the hostess on her nice house and end up telling her that there are astronauts urinating in her back yard. I had heard a story, probably apocryphal, about a bloke who wanted to know where the restrooms were and accidentally ended up marrying a Chinese girl.
I decided to stick to English.
A funny thing among most English speakers is that we believe people who don't understand English can magically understand it if we speak it in broken syllables with gesticulation. It doesn't work. I had a situation, right on day 1, where, typical of me, I had forgotten to charge my phone and it was on it's last legs, a bit like the flickering lamp next to the dying grandfather in Hindi movies. About to go out at any moment. So I asked my hosts with active sign language, brandishing my phone, for a charger.
“Charrrr gerrr” “Chaaaaar Gerrrr” I asked. At first they looked at me with a completely stoned silence, like they had just smoked this awesome weed and I was somebody's father who had just barged into the room.
“Charrrr gerrr” “Chaaaaar Gerrrr” I asked again, this time with hand and leg gestures.
Something seemed to be stirring. Suddenly one of them exclaimed “Oh oh oh oh okay okay okay okay” in joyous comprehension and rushed out, beckoning me to follow. We went down two flights and landed up opposite a washing machine. I'm not making this up.
Stay tuned for part II folks.