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From a Tagore fan, The Fat Years

world Updated: Jul 15, 2011 01:29 IST
Reshma Patil in Beijing
Reshma Patil in Beijing
Hindustan Times
Reshma Patil

The thousands of readers who download The Fat Years just before the websites and virtual shops are shutdown (and new ones spring up) may not know that the Beijing-based author of the political satire would call himself ‘Tagore-ist’ if he had to pick a label.

I happened to meet Chan Koonchung on Wednesday, when China announced 9.6% GDP growth for the last six months.

The Chinese title of his searing novel is the ‘prosperous age’, inspired by an official banner in his neighbourhood post office.

It is 2013 and the leadership succession is settled. Starbucks serves lychee black dragon lattes. Authoritarian China has survived the economic tsunami and emerged ‘stronger and wealthier,’ while the West declines.

Before China declares the prosperous age, there is one month of near anarchy — it is wiped out of official records and the minds of people.

The connections with 1989 are unspoken but obvious. A small group of friends who remember the past set out in search of the ‘missing month’.

Chan wrote the novel in 2009 but he uncannily set the missing month in early 2011 when Beijing actually reacted to the jasmine revolts with a sweep on dissidents, activists and lawyers.

“There is a conceit crisis,’’ Chan said of the euphoric society he fictionalised. “This is my fantasy scenario of what will happen if the political system does not change. China can and should do better, even under one Party, but there are so many constraints.’’

“Everybody’s saying there’s no country in the world as good as China,’’ says his protagonist at first.

The ‘happy, harmonious’ writer bumps into old friends like a girl, an eighties democracy activist, who remembers the lost month.

Inspired by the events of 2008 including the Lhasa riots and Olympics, the plot races through a Beijing transformed into a capitalist colossus, until they solve the mystery of the missing month.

“In the end,’’ he said, “the liberals are marginalised and the anti-liberals win. Purely fiction, of course.’’

In the late eighties, Chan trawled north India as a scriptwriter and producer researching Tibetan Buddhism.

Last year, he started Minjian International, an NGO that connects Chinese intellectuals with thinkers across Asia. He’s getting more interested in India, and how India is ‘held together despite diversity’.