The officials who had been deputed to collect us at the airport and escort us to our hotel were tense, distraught, and monosyllabic in their replies.
“Why did you all come?” the pretty interpreter blurted out somewhat agitatedly, and blushed. We were a bit taken aback. Having said that, she almost bit her tongue. It was an unusual welcome, to say the least.
It was 3 June 1989, and we were a delegation of five Indian writers visiting Beijing at the invitation of the People’s Republic of China. To be fair, before we left New Delhi, our newspapers had been reporting that strange things were happening in Beijing, where the world’s largest peaceful sit-in was in progress at the famed Tiananmen Square, with hundreds of students, teachers and writers camping in tents and demanding the right to free speech. What these reports did not tell us was that Deng Xiaoping’s government was losing patience and a massive crackdown was imminent.
Perhaps the only reason we had landed on the eve of the historic happenings of 4 June was that some mandarins somewhere had forgotten to request the government of India to cancel our visit, or at least indicate politely that this was perhaps not the best time for Indian writers to visit Beijing to discuss literature and freedom of expression.
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Anyway, there we stood, tired and dispirited and somewhat apprehensive about our next course of action. Unending lines of soldiers surrounded the deserted airport and stretched all the way into the heart of the city, where we were driven after being hurriedly bundled into bulletproof cars. As we alighted, we discovered that the hotel stood bang next to Tiananmen Square.
At the check-in counter, we were given a terse briefing to the effect that things were indeed rather bad outside, so would we please stay in our designated rooms and not venture outside the hotel gates, especially not towards the square, which was a “politically sensitive area”. All our needs would be taken care of by the hotel staff and our interpreter would be staying in the hotel to see that we were comfortable. We—Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy, Urdu critic Gopi Chand Narang, Asomiya writer Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya and myself—sat huddled together after the men left and pondered over our strange situation. It was obvious that those in charge were more or less as clueless as we were. They only knew we had to be confined indoors, and kept in comfort. Outside the hotel, next to our gates at the entrance to the Forbidden City where Chinese emperors used to live, lay the packed Tiananmen Square.
At this point, our interpreter, gently but firmly took things in hand. It was already dark and since we were rather tired after a long journey, she said, we could perhaps wait till the next morning.
On 4 June, we woke up, and before someone clamped down on the state broadcaster, our TV screens showed how People’s Liberation Army soldiers in green helmets were pouring out from all corners.
One group had lined up on the steps in front of the museum at the square and begun barking orders at the demonstrators, presumably asking them to vacate the Square or be ready to face the consequences. Then the screens went blank. We could hear the sounds of a thousand agitated voices and feet running towards our hotel and headed towards the lobby, where a few dozen other foreign guests were huddled, watching through the plate glass. A large crowd of unarmed citizens in a state of disarray began tumbling into the hotel. Some were bleeding , some were crying, most were moving in a daze. The hotel staff went out to serve water to them and offered whatever they could by way of bandages and first aid, but they soon gave up and returned indoors.
Slowly, the crowds dispersed, and for the two weeks that followed, we were near-prisoners. In the empty dining room, the chef would frequently serve us himself. He and the entire staff had been confined to the hotel like us, and as our interpreter told us later, all were worried stiff about their families. The chef worried for his young sons, who could have been in police custody. The interpreter herself had left an infant in her mother’s care and worried whether there was enough milk for the baby in the house.
The days that followed were full of claustrophobic indecision. I finally managed to contact some Indian friends at the Friendship Hostel at Beijing University. They were delighted to smuggle us out through the back doors for a few hours each day for the next two weeks as the staff looked away. Thus began a round of hurried and intense conversations with students, teachers and citizens, all of whom were deeply shaken by the crackdown and willing to pour their hearts out to writers. They talked to us of the endemic corruption in the political ranks (lists of secret bank accounts of Chinese leaders in Hong Kong had been actually nailed to trees on the campus), about the unspeakable atrocities suffered by the demonstrators during the crackdown, about the disgruntlement among students who saw only a future with low salaries and envied the large sums made by semi-literate barbers and taxi drivers, who also won all the pretty girls.
Often, as I peer at photographs of the cheering millions at the Beijing Olympics, I wonder where they are now. All those unhappy ones who wished to be free, who wished to laugh, jeer, sing and banter with the prettiest girls. Is it possible for an entire country to make a Faustian pact with a government and voluntarily erase all the nasty memories, and with them their beautiful hopes, in exchange for a “good life” that would at best remain an inferior imitation of the enemy’s?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org