In an idealistic world, there might come a day when geographical borders are reduced to lines on a map. But would the borders we learn to draw around ourselves ever be erased? Would identities be separated from occupation and ethnicity to disable differences in privilege? Similar to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa voices stories of the outcast sections of society in the 21st century.
Hawa Liu, a rural peasant, moves to Xi’an motivated by the intent to make it big and never return to his homeland. He changes his name to ‘Happy’ Liu to cope with the helplessness caused by his failure to identify with his ethnicity, status and his hopes of achieving contentment. We follow his life, and that of his friend and loyal side-kick, Wufu, whose death marks the opening and the ending of the book.
In the very first chapter, Happy advocates that his witty nature, cheerful personality, and ability to appreciate the finer things in life, make him unique and merit a superior destiny. He justifies this belief with his arithmetic and conversational skills, the structure of his face and his taste in women. He believes that he must be considered an inhabitant of the city since he sold his kidney to a city dweller!
Having been rejected by a prospective match in the village, Happy expectantly embarks on a romantic mission to fill the high-heeled shoes he’s bought. Somewhat reminiscent of Cinderella, his life crosses paths with Yichun, a stunningly gorgeous woman sporting the same style of shoes in a parlour, which to his bewilderment turns out to be an establishment for prostitution. To relieve his guilt over being in love with a hooker, he assures himself of a divine connection between a bodhisattva and her, and promptly commences, like a knight in shining armour, to aid in avenging her brother’s murder.
Happy comes across as a slightly delusional and conflicted idealist for the most part initially. But as he continually tries to emulate an educated, wise and artistic spirit, his character evolves from that of a narcissist to a progressive and ambitious optimist. He succeeds in convincing many characters in the book, including his love interest, Yichun, that he might indeed be extraordinary.
The novel is set in the early 2000s, a little over a decade after the first set of regulations for the management of municipal solid waste were implemented in People’s Republic of China. Active industrialization, growth in the standard of living and the concomitant exponential rise in the waste produced in cities were followed by the need for an increased number of sanitation workers, garbage collectors and other daily wage workers. This need was met by migration to the cities in large numbers. The book explores the lives of a few such migrants through Happy’s narrative, a migrant working as a trash-picker.
The book is enriched with varied flavours of culture and characters. The life of other trash-pickers and fellow tenants of Happy and Wufu’s residence, Leftover House, are governed by similar destitution, insecurities and adversities, uniting them in their tribulations despite the habitual discord amongst them. Eight, a fellow tenant and trash picker, and an occasional accomplice of the protagonist-duo, is a disapproving critic of the government and the city. He does not hesitate to implement shrewd schemes to earn an extra buck, or to avoid shelling out from his wallet. When a man threatens to commit suicide by jumping off a building, the crowd below encourages him to do so; Eight claims he was the only one who tried to out-shout the crowd and stop the man. But he remains unashamed about having stolen the dead man’s jacket.
The characters representative of typical middlemen of the trade, Jem Han, Mighty and Happy’s nephew, the Briquette King, exploit workers in the lowest rungs.
Wufu, an obedient mentee and reliable friend of Happy’s, is an adorable and congenial simpleton. In the end, Happy loses Wufu when trying to bail Yichun out of a reformation centre. The sudden loss of a companion inevitably bound to him by fate, and his failure to save him or bury him in his homeland marks the final blow to Happy’s unwavering confidence; undoubtedly a heartbreaking and poignant end to the story.
The book presents a thought-provoking contrast between Happy’s complaints about how Eight and Wufu would remain incorrigible trash pickers, because of their unruly and often inappropriate behaviour, and his pleas for well-mannered behaviour towards him from the wealthy. He reiterates that he is a trash collector, and not garbage, entitling him to the same respect as any other individual.
The book is dedicated to the workers of the neglected lowermost rungs of society. The lives of the middle class and the rich are intimately intertwined with them, but their complacency leaves them unable to feel empathy, compassion and gratitude towards the workers. Instead of appreciation, people belonging to this rung receive repetitive reminders of the divide created by society through unfounded suspicion due to the depravity of a few among them. For example, Happy feels gravely insulted when he overhears the neighbours express concern over the possibility of theft shortly after he ingeniously helps unlock an accidentally locked apartment door.
Jia Pingwa is a critically acclaimed and celebrated author in Asia and is now garnering a worldwide audience through translations of his work. A prolific writer of novels, short stories, essays and poetry, especially realistic fiction, he is unafraid to court controversy with the sexually and verbally explicit nature of his work. Born in 1952, shortly after the formation of People’s Republic of China, his early years were spent labouring on farms and construction sites, but life took a fortunate turn when he was sponsored to study at North Western University in the US. Thereafter, he began to publish his works and head publishing houses, becoming one of the eminent authors at the forefront of contemporary Chinese literature. In the afterword of the book, originally published in 2007, he reflects on the process of writing this novel, his research and the inspiration for Happy Liu’s character and how his education steered him away from the life of a daily wage labourer.
Hansika Chhabra is a PhD scholar in the Molecular Biophysics Unit in IISc Bangalore.