Once upon a time, there was a boy named Xin. ‘Xin’ means Heart in Chinese but the boy only partly understood his name. Sometimes he was grateful for his name but most of the times, the boy thought ‘Xin’ to be such a silly name and blamed his Chinese ancestry for it. He would complain to himself, Why can’t I have a simple name like ‘Jai’ or even a Christian name like ‘John’? All options sounded better than ‘Xin’…
Xin thought himself to be Indian but Indians saw him as Chinese. Looks don’t lie, right? Xin had that Chinese looking face, his squinty eyes, flat nose, black hair and ‘fair’ skin colour…so he was Chinese although he was born and raised in India. Xin grew up playing cricket and football in Kolkata’s green Maidan, he grew up under the sight of the mighty Howrah Bridge and he grew up eating dal baath1 and biryani2 with his hands. Anyway looks don’t lie, right? A ‘Chinese’ is a Chinese and an ‘Indian’ is an Indian. Can you be both? ‘Hell no,’ most people would say.
Actually the only few ties that Xin has to China is the historical fact that his great-grandfather boarded a trade ship from his ancestral homeland in a village in south China to British India. Xin always had that inner desire to ask his great-grandfather ‘Why did you decide to come to India?’. Since his great-grandfather is already resting in a Chinese cemetery in the Hills3, Xin tried asking his grandparents all these questions about this mysterious land of China. And from what he could extract from his grandparents was that there were conflicts and famine in China and since he heard of money and jobs in India, he decided to give it a ‘shot’. A big ‘shot’ he took, crossing the sea in a trade ship from Guangdong to Calcutta…His great-grandfather’s original plan was to cross the sea in a trade ship, make some money, send some home and return to China as soon as he could. However that return trip never happened and somehow he fell in love, married a lady from Northeast India and settled down in the land of Ganga Ma.
During Xin’s great-grandfather’s life in India, the beautiful Ganga was still engaged to the powerful Brahmaputra. People, culture and trade actively flowed along their joined hair-like threads of life. This marriage had lasted for centuries and was sustained by small fishermen and trading boats travelling up and down these joined Rivers. Then European colonizers came and everything changed. His great-grandfather arrived during the peak of the British Raj and ships cut through the channels between the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers carrying laborers, tea, silk, jute, cotton and opium. This marriage had become dark and all different kinds of transactions happened along its waters. Lies, cheating and domestic violence, this marriage was doomed to end. And it ended in 1947, what a painful, bloody and tearful separation…
These Rivers have now separated but maybe one day they are destined to reunite again. Once in a while, both Rivers still have flashbacks of their former union and their common source—the mighty Himalayas. These holy, sacred mountains that touch Heaven and separate the long-lost brothers of India and China.
Growing up in India, Xin wanted the smallest connection possible to China. He wanted to be considered Indian, not Chinese by others. Therefore, he had to act like an Indian not Chinese. However one day, after seeing a very old photo of his great-grandfather somewhere in the Himalayas, an inner urge sparked within Xin to go beyond these mountains and journey to China. From his heart, curiosity bursted and he started searching…Xin started wondering about his great-grandfather’s journey from China to India and how hard it was and the details of it. First he asked his grandfather, who was reading a Chinese newspaper published in India, this existential question: ‘Why? Why didn’t great-grandfather return to China? Why did he choose to stay here in India?’
His grandfather replied, ‘I wish I knew Xin, if I asked him that time, he would have given me a nice beating…’ He paused for a second while giving another glance at his newspaper. ‘Some people say love is a powerful force,’ added his grandfather with a laugh. Xin kept interrogating both his grandfather and grandmother about China and Chinese culture for these two topics were quite intriguing and fascinating to him. They tried to answer Xin as much as they could but sometimes they would be get annoyed by such an inquisitive child. ‘This boy keeps asking questions and questions…put him to work as a detective or investigator or something,’ his grandparents would say to Xin’s parents.
Oh how Xin enjoyed listening and asking questions about Chinese folk stories from his beloved grandparents! There was one story about mythical dragons who slumbered deep down the river and awakened every year to send rain upon the land. These water dragons were quite ill-tempered. Sometimes they would send no rain at all causing painful droughts and sometimes they would send too much rain bringing floods. Hence it was very necessary to appease these dragons with offerings. Every year in China, during the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, all kinds of offerings were made to these river dragons. One of the most important offerings were zong zi—glutinous rice stuffed with meat or sweet paste wrapped in bamboo leaves.
And there was another story about a wondering poet and exiled minister named Qu Yuan who who offered his body to the River after hearing the tragic news about the demise of his home Kingdom of Chu. Qu Yuan had warned the King and other ministers about a neighbour Kingdom’s false peace treaty but the King and other minister’s didn’t listen to him and exiled him instead. The poet and former minister wandered for years producing enduring poems that still touch the hearts of readers today. When the poet heard the news that his Kingdom of Chu had been conquered by the Kingdom of Qin, Qu Yuan decided to offer his life to the river as an act of protest. The fishermen and local villagers after hearing about Qu Yuan’s suicide, they took out their boats and searched for his body and while throwing zong zi into the river in hope that the fish would eat the zong zi instead of Qu Yuan’s body.
During school break, the boy tried telling these stories to his group of ‘friends’. Oh how he was laughed at and became the target of schoolyard jokes.
‘Xin, Xin, listen, yesterday I saw a dragon in the river.’ One of his ‘friends’ talked to Xin with a sneaky smile while making eye contact with the other boys.
‘Where, where?’ asked Xin very excited.
‘In your crazy head.’ Everyone bursted out laughing unscrupulously. ‘He’s such crazy boy. Leave him, let’s go watch a movie after school, the new Transformers movie is out.’
During school time, Xin would sketch all types of dragons in his notebook. He loved drawing and painting, he did have the innate talent for art but he was afraid to show it to others. One day, the gang snatched his precious notebook and showed it to everyone while laughing at his drawings to finally rip them apart.
How they ripped apart the boy’s paper heart into little shreds. Broken, the boy picked up his shredded pieces of heart and tried to assemble it back by the riverside where an ancient Portuguese church stood mighty like a fortress. By the river, the boy sat at one of the benches facing the beautiful riverscape.
Sometimes he sobbed his broken heart out—even the passerby animals took pity on him. Wondering dogs, goats, birds and fish would stop and dwell next him, perhaps in an attempt to comfort him. Other times, he got jolted by sparks of inspiration and drew river dragons as he imagined them to be. And sometimes he prayed. How he prayed to Lord Jesus Christ, the Buddha and other deities so that his ‘friends’ would stop bullying him. How he prayed that one day, he could catch a river dragon, ride it down the river and show everyone the Truth—that dragons really do exist!
These riverside pilgrimages became a daily routine for the boy.
‘Oh crazy boy! Where are you going? Are you going to cry like a baby by the river?’ The boy didn’t pay attention to the bullies’ taunts so everyday he continued his silent pilgrimages to the bench by the riverside. Time passed by. Days, weeks and months flowed by just like the Ganga rushing to join the sea.
One day, on a very sunny day, during the time of the year when the flower buds perform their stretching yogas to blossom into the world and little birds pitch their chirping to praise the beauty of Creation, the boy sat at the bench by the river. He was fully concentrated sketching river dragons. Suddenly he heard a soft, singing like voice next to him:
‘Ei ekati nadi dragana haya?’ (in Bengali) (Is this a river dragon?)
‘Ksama karem? Caca, mainne tumhem suna nahim tha.’(In Hindi) (Sorry? Uncle, I couldn’t hear you.)—replied the boy confused.
‘Is that a river dragon?’—asked the short, tanned, thin man with a short bush-like beard. He wore a yellowish white banian, a dhoti and was standing barefoot. He must be one of these fishermen who work by the river, thought the boy.
‘Yes, how do you know about dragons sir?’
‘I’ve seen a few back in the days when I was your age.’
‘What? You’ve seen dragons?’, asked the boy really surprised.
‘Yes,’ replied the man like it was the most natural thing in the world.
‘My friends always tell me that dragons don’t exist. They say that I’m crazy for believing that dragons exist.’
‘If you have friends like these, who needs enemies?’
‘Hm you’re right about that,’ nodding his head with a pensive expression.
‘True friends are like very rare fish, it is very hard to catch these days. So don’t confuse the low quality fish latta with the rare fish hilsa.’
‘Yes, sometimes I do wonder if they really are my friends. They make my life miserable.’
‘Don’t worry, one day you will find the best fish in the world. Just make sure when you find it, you don’t let it slip away.’
‘Yes,’ nodded the boy in agreement.
‘Where did you see the river dragon uncle?’
‘Does it really matter where? I am telling you I’ve seen it.’
‘Then when did you see the river dragon uncle?’
‘Does it really matter when? I am telling you I’ve seen it.’
‘Ok, did other people also see that river dragon uncle?’
‘Does it really matter if others also saw the river dragon? I am telling you I’ve seen it.’
Perplexed by his vague answers, the boy stared into the river and reflected on the fisherman’s words for some time. The river was orange with brushstrokes of dark blue and green from the surrounding trees and the sun was slowly setting, ready for a peaceful nap. The birds were chirping, dragonflies circling and a gentle breeze was blowing like an old man smoking, very relaxed in his old arm-chair.
‘You’re right. It doesn’t really matter as long as you yourself experienced it.’
‘Can you take me to see the river dragon?’—asked the boy burning with excitement.
The fisherman looked at the boy—his eyes were shinning like the North Star on a dark cloudless night. Just like the times when he gazed at the sky’s divine Beauty while lying on his back in his boat dancing with the river in the by the rhythm of life. The fisherman reminisced for a moment and calmly replied, ‘Ok you come tomorrow around the same time with your sketchbook and we can prepare to go see the river dragon.’
The next day Xin rushed to go meet the fisherman. His heart was drumming with joy. In the same place by the river, the fisherman greeted him with a nod and said, ‘Before we start preparing for this journey to see the dragon, I am going to ask you a few questions. Hope you don’t mind.’
‘Sure, not at all,’ quickly replied the boy.
‘Do you really want to see the river dragon?’
‘Yes!’—replied Xin with a flash of certainty.
‘Aren’t you afraid to see the river dragon?’
The boy pauses for a few seconds and answers with a solid ‘No.’
‘How badly do you want to see the river dragon?’
‘I want to see it from the bottom of my heart!’
‘It seems like you do want to see the river dragon. Let’s get ready for the journey then.’
‘First we have to build a boat and then we sail down the river to find that dragon.’
‘What kind of boat are we building?’
‘A dragon boat!’
‘Oh a dragon boat. I still remember when my grandparents used to tell me stories about how my people—the Chinese used to build dragon boats and hold races during the Double Five Festival in honor of river dragons and the poet Qu Yuan.’
‘Yes! That’s the dragon boat I’m talking about. Now you draw me a dragon boat.’
‘But I can’t. I can draw river dragons but not a dragon boat.”
‘You should hear the words you are saying. Of course you can! Believe in yourself my friend. You can draw dragons, right? Just visualize it. Shape the dragon into the form of a boat. See my boat over there. You can take the shape and measurements from it.’
The boy examined the fisherman’s boat, noted down the specific shape and measurements from it and started drawing and filling it with colours. After some time, Xin finished sketching a dragon boat.
‘Beautiful! See, it wasn’t hard at all. It’s all in your mind. The biggest obstacles are not outside of you but all inside your mind. Break them free! Now take my dear boat, see those these buckets of paint over there and paint it just like the dragon boat you’ve sketched.’
‘But this is your boat? Don’t you need it for your fishing? I’m afraid of ruining your boat.’
‘Don’t worry about that. My boat, your boat, all the same. Anyway I need to change the looks of my old boat, it has gotten too boring.’
‘Thank you sir.’ The boy raised his concentration and transformed the fisherman’s boat to look like the dragon boat he visualized. Of course the traditional Chinese dragon boat is much longer and thinner in width but Xin had to work with what it was given by the fisherman. Xin worked for hours and hours on this boat and he only stopped after he completed his assigned task.
‘You took your time but not bad! The boat work is done, now we have to wait for the auspicious day of Double Five and we set sail into the river to see the dragon!’
‘Wait that’s actually in five days!’
‘Yes, go rest for five days and return here during Double Five Festival! On that day we are going see the river dragon! Also, you have to bring a set of Chinese drums and some zongzi. The drums will be used to awaken the dragon and the zongzi will be used as offerings to it. Are you going to remember this?’
‘Yes,’ replied the boy while noting everything down in his sketchbook.
‘Good. Now go and take some rest. Keep yourself healthy and see you in five days.’
These five days went by very slowly. The boy was very anxious and started to have streaks of heat and cold, insomnia, mood swings from worry to grief to fear, to anger and back to happiness and his body went completely out of balance. Sometimes his heart beat too fast, sometimes he felt there was something wrong with his liver or kidney or lungs or spleen. What a crazy five day journey! He was so happy that he came out alive after these five days of crazy change. It was now the day for the Double Five Festival. Xin got his grandfather’s set of Chinese drums and some zong zi made by his mother to go meet the fisherman.
Xin left his home early so he slowly and joyfully walked to the riverside to meet the fisherman. He sang his old childhood songs along the way and he looked at his surroundings in a state of bliss and admiration of all the Beauty surrounding him. It seemed like life finally made sense. No more searching, no more striving, just Being in time. Once he reached the riverside, the fisherman was sitting under the shade of a banyan tree, very relaxed and taking a few puffs of a bindi while sitting under the shade of a tree.
Gently the fisherman asked, ‘I hope you are feeling well.’
‘Now I am feeling great. Not so well for the last five days.’
‘I am glad you are feeling better,’ said the fisherman with a smile.
‘Are you ready for the dragon?’
‘I was born ready!’
‘Haha, good to hear!’
The boy and the fisherman worked together to push the boat through the mud into the river. At first Xin slipped a few times while pushing the boat but soon he got the hang of it. They got momentum from their joined force and used it to reach the river. Both of them got into the boat.
‘Sails up! Drums ready?’ exclaimed the fisherman.
‘It’s time to set sail! Forward we go!’ screamed the fisherman to encourage Xin.
‘Forward we go!’ repeated Xin, brimming confidence.
The fisherman and the boy sailed out into the river playing the Chinese drums out loud. Then they threw the zong zi into the river as offerings. The Chinese drums kept soaring higher and higher. They sailed down the river towards the sea. The drums kept soaring higher and higher.
All the people in the river bathing and doing puja in the ghats stopped and saw the happening, looking perplexed. Xin’s so called ‘friends’ saw it and became speechless…Suddenly they started cheering for Xin and the news soon spread across the town and people started flocking to the riverside. Xin’s parents and grandparents came to see, how proud they were. The boy’s community—the Indian Chinese came to see, how awed they were. Everyone from Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Biharis, Punjabis, Rich, Poor, Literate, Illiterate, Old, Young, all kept exclaiming ‘There is a Dragon In the River!’
‘There is a Dragon In the River!’
‘There is a Dragon In the River!’
To be continued or not…
dal baath1 A popular staple food dish in India, Nepal and Bangladesh consisting of steamed rice and lentil soup.
biryani2 A famous Indian mixed rice dish consisting of long-size rice cooked with spices, meat and/or vegetables. the Hills3 A local term used to refer hill stations such as Darjeeling and Kalimpong where tea is often cultivated and the Chinese used to worked in these plantations.