Book Review | The Dark Road3 min read . Updated: 25 May 2013, 12:14 AM IST
An unsparing critique of China's one-child policy, this novel has parallels closer home
The Dark Road | Ma Jian
Born into hell
There’s a war on. It is waged by men, sometimes as husbands, sometimes as the State. The battlefield is Everywoman’s body or, more allegorically, the dark road that is her reproductive system. Her womb contains both destiny and despair, it is simultaneously promise and threat.
Exiled dissident Ma Jian’s spare and unsparing novel The Dark Road is ostensibly a critique of China’s one-child policy, but it is impossible to read it without recalling deeply uncomfortable parallels closer home.
The mood for just how dark the road ahead will be is set in the opening scene, through a family planning squad’s crackdown on a village called Kong. “Haven’t you read the public notice?" a state official asks Meili, the protagonist, as he drags away a neighbour, Fang, who has just given birth to her second child, “breast milk dripping from her exposed red nipples". “If a woman is found to be pregnant without authorization, every household within one hundred metres of her home will be punished."
Meili has reason to be terrified because she too is pregnant. She has a two-year-old daughter but her husband Kongzi, a 76th-generation descendant of Confucius, is desperate for a son who will continue the family name. Kongzi has greased palms to acquire false birth papers but they will not pass muster with this squad. And so Meili and Kongzi have no option but to flee down the Yangtze, to the town of Sanxia, which is being pulled down for the construction of the Three Gorges dam upriver.
On a boat on the Yangtze, a co-passenger with crimson lips tells Meili: “Take care in train stations, town squares.... If they see a woman they suspect of being illegally pregnant, they...drag her to a clinic for an abortion. And be especially careful in the big cities.... The authorities think we (peasants) give foreign tourists a bad impression, so they round us up and...charge us an ‘urban beautification tax’.... The only way to avoid arrest is to live on the water."
That is what Meili, Kongzi and their daughter Nannan do, drifting up the river to a dream destination called Heaven Township, “where you can live in complete freedom (since) the town’s air contains chemicals which kill men’s sperm". Along the way, Meili’s baby is forcibly birthed and killed in its eighth month—a scene that makes the conception of Rosemary’s baby (in Ira Levin’s novel) seem like a picnic in the zoo; one child is born abnormal and subsequently sold by the father and, finally, at Heaven, another foetus refuses to emerge for five years. There are references, too, to rapes conducted as a power statement, to children maimed for beggary, to infants slaughtered for soup.
With the State a faceless monster and the husband a self-serving weakling, such positivity as there is in The Dark Road is propelled by women. In the toxic wasteland that is Heaven—a township that strips down the world’s e-waste for reusable material—Meili reinvents herself as a businesswoman, running a shop of, what else, fake branded goods, educating her daughter in a makeshift school and planning a safe passage for the son that Kongzi still desires so ardently. So infectious, so simple is her hope for a better life that we too wish for a happy ending for her, even as we suspect its impossibility.
“Men control our vaginas, the state controls our womb," says Meili’s boat companion, in what could be the mission statement for The Dark Road, which Ma researched for months in central and southern China in the guise of an official reporter. Extreme and absurd as it may seem in parts, demanding as it may be on our reserves of compassion, somewhere at the back of our heads while reading The Dark Road, we will find ourselves remembering the 2005-06 serial killings in Nithari, a village in Noida, and the 16 December gang rape in Delhi, remembering that our local mix of poverty, patriarchy and population control is a thin ideological line away from our neighbour’s.