Postcard from Beijing

By Avtar Singh 0

Reflections on home and the world from across the Great Wall

There is such a thing as the mehfil-e-Beijing.

The “Indian community”—that well-known monolith—gets together for a “musical afternoon of evergreen Bollywood songs”. Tea is served after.

Before you think I’m sending this up, I’ve actually been to something like this at a friend’s home. The singers took it in turns—more Rafi than Nigam, praise be—a couple of semi-professionals played a harmonium and a keyboard, a man I know jammed on the tabla. There was even a quiz.

No, I didn’t sing. But I did kill the treats on offer afterwards—jalebis!—and my family enjoyed the desi music, offered up with zest and received without judgement.

The only odd thing, and only I seemed to notice, was that in a room full of South Indians, only one non-Bollywood number was attempted. It didn’t matter, really. People had come from far and wide. I haven’t seen most of them since.

What I do remember was how happy the singers were to sing.


By the time this magazine hits the stands, I’ll have been resident in Beijing for 11 months. We arrived in the hot weather, when the spotting is good for the lesser-shirted Beijinger. The male of the species lounges about in public with its ganji rolled up under its boobs.

At the other end of the decorum scale, this was also a time of ladies—and the occasional man—dancing in parks, outside buildings and frequently even on streets in the quiet evenfall. The Chinese refer to this as “square dancing”. There’s tinny music, a leader lays down the move and the cohort behind follows as best they can. It’s exercise and social time all at once. It is almost incredibly charming.

The weather changed. The trees grew bare, it rained, an increasingly icy wind from the north howled across the Great Wall. We bundled up as we cycled around, ate lamb kababs on the street, waited for the lakes to freeze over so we could go skating. Beijing’s “polar bears” jumped through holes cut in the ice to swim in the darkness below.

We visited tourist spots, got hauled into photos with passing Chinese tourists, learnt to use the subway. Spring came, with it Sakura, prodigiously scented lilac and crab-apples. And over everything, the “snow” of floating catkin flowers, legacy of past greenings with willow and poplar. There were dust storms, breezes that threatened to push my cycle backwards, then clear blue skies. Finally, summer.

In our suburb, a blessed lack of noise.

In my life, a lack of noise—no politics, no extended family, no social obligations.

Do I miss the noise?


In Delhi, because I belonged to a community of writers—such as it is—perhaps I took being part of a network for granted. Here, as the newbie, I have to seek out writers, readers, other English speakers who map their worlds on the page.


Social media is everything in China. You find out about events on an app; you meet people at the event; you add their contacts within that same app; you join a group. Or you join a group first and take it from there. If you’re a Luddite, a non-adopter, a conscientious objector to the ubiquity of information, you’re going to struggle. You’ll be that guy on the train taking photos of carriages where every single person is immersed in their phones.

You may snigger at the artificiality of their connection to that world their device delivers unto them.

You think you’ve got it figured out, but the truth is you’re alone.


In Delhi I have many networks. School pals, sports fans, unalienated ex-colleagues. Family! Back home, being solitary is an exercise. To be elsewhere is to know solitude as a consequence.

Solitude was one major reason why I agreed to move in the first place. I needed to be quiet, for the first time in years, to write another book. For the most part, I’ve embraced it. Then a friend came visiting, whom I took to a writer’s event, the sort I would never have gone to in Delhi—amateur hour, I might have sniffed—where writers actually read their work out loud. I thought it was convivial and celebratory and rather fun.

“Lonely bastards,” my friend told me afterwards. “You can see it. Why are you hanging out with them?”

Yet what I remember is how happy the writers were to recite.


Being lonely and being alone are two markedly different things, of course. Equally, being part of a larger community needn’t always be “noisy”. You can, if you’re lucky, pick and choose.

You can sing a Bollywood song with people you don’t know. You can stand up and read aloud from a work in progress and have it be heard without judgement by strangers. After, you go back to your own life. But for that moment, you’ll have been happy with other people you share something with.

Unless you’re on drugs, for most of us, happiness comes and goes.

It is as welcome and as fleeting as sunlight through trees.

This article was published in the July-September 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is “Class”.

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