India on a Chongqing bus
“How is Shah Rukh Khan doing?” asked Paul Zhang.
At 9 pm, the locked doors of the Agape Church opened and a crowd of twenty-something Chongqing residents with backpacks and guitars streamed out to chat on the dimly-lit pavement.
From the outside, the church looks like an office building. The newcomer in the group is a student member of the Communist Party of China. The medical student introduced himself by his English name, Forever. We were in Chongqing, the southwest sprawl on the Yangtze, with a population as big as Mumbai plus Kolkata. It is the largest municipality on the planet, a cluster of districts including 40 counties under central administration.
“In the future, you will see Shanghai in the east and Chongqing in the west,” said Zhou Bo, a propaganda official. For now, the metropolis is still laidback. In the sweltering afternoon when temperatures hit 39 degrees, the city goes to sleep. Chongqing is better-known for the iron fisted rule of its top official Bo Xilai, who has sent over 4,000 criminals into jail and ordered the singing of Mao-era red songs in public places, than for its new Chongqing-Antwerp freight train transporting thousands of laptops.
I opted out of the Yangtze cruise to see the Chongqing nightlife and decided to wander on foot, subway, a taxi reeking of tobacco and by bus to glimpse a slice of student life in this nationalist wartime capital of China. During the entire evening, I never spotted another Indian. Forever met me at the Hilton, which was last year downgraded after a raid on ‘prostitution and gang activities’, making it perhaps the world’s lowest priced Hilton.
We walked to the Lianglukou entrance of the new Chongqing subway. The maps were entirely in Chinese so I needed an attendant’s help to buy a ticket to the station closest to the church. “Careful. Risk of hand pinching,’’ warned a signboard.
The subway, one of the latest transport projects in 20 cities across China, was surprisingly empty considering the population of Chongqing. As we poured out of the station into the basement of a high-rise mall, Forever said just one thing. “Wow.” I wondered where were all the people in the most populous city, because the mall like the subway station, was near empty.
We waited on the pavement for the church doors to open. I was told this is where more and more children of atheist Chinese parents are coming in search of spiritual solace, often against their parents’ wishes. They sing hymns, discuss the Bible and practise English with foreigners. Personal challenges typical to modern Chinese life including job pressures and rising property prices that delay marriage prospects come up in the discussions.
Paul, who spent a year working as an interpreter in India, said he was baptised this summer, much to his parents’ consternation. “Jesus found me,” he said.
Jacky, an English schoolteacher, learnt to read the Bible while studying English in university. “I feel inner peace when I am inside the church,” he said. This group says it believes in state authority. Chongqing has a separate set of believers who congregate in underground house churches.
We strolled past the church to the liberation monument, first built to commemorate Sun Yat Sen. The wooden tower is circled by luxury storefronts, pedestrians out for evening walks and ‘bang bang’ men, who earn a living carrying shopping bags on bamboo poles, sleeping on the pavements.
I asked the students about the nightspots I Googled — a singles bar called True Love and Pirates Pub — and heard that both were shutdown.
So I hopped aboard Bus number 405. A stock broker returning home from an ‘English corner’ where locals gather to hone their conversation skills, began chatting about how his city changes by the month and taxi drivers who return from annual holidays get lost in the maze of new landmarks.
I wanted to ask him more questions about Chongqing. But the man became insistent to talk about India. “Aren’t you going to ask me about India?’’ he demanded.
As my bus stop neared and the lights were switched on, the man had his say in a rush. “I don’t want to put a hammer on your heart,’’ he said in English. “But we want India to be prosperous and developed. So that Indians will stop thinking about war.’’
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