(First published in Issue #14 of Cha)
-This post by Rumjhum Biswas was awarded the First Prize in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.
Those who were children in India during the years when ‘Made in China’ not only spelt quality at a better price, but a superior brand as well, will immediately be able to relate to this poem. But perhaps the persona came from a later time, when ‘Made in China’ merely spelt inexpensive, enough for the pockets of convent going school children — ‘Lunch was martyrdom /we escaped at his cheap store’ (L14-L15).
Whatever the era, the story of children sacrificing their lunch money to go foraging in a toy shop is a familiar one. The poet does not name the place. Yet I get a sense of hills beyond, in a town that is closer to the Himalayas, where Chinese-made toys would be more abundant, and the toy (shop) keeper would be either of Chinese or Tibetan origin, sporting a beard like Chinese lace, wispy, with gentle tendrils floating down. The shop draws ‘pig-tailed heads in’ (L11) — ah! Now we know they are girls, school girls! Now we begin to get a whiff of the ‘garlic-clove trail’ (L26). We begin to understand why, in the very first stanza, we drew a shiver, not quite daring to stare up ‘eyeball to eyeball’ (L5) into eyes whose ‘eyelids were fans / that cooled magma beds’ (L8-L9) of lust seething beneath heavy lids.
“Love: Made in China” is no love story. The poet sets the atmosphere immediately after the title with opening lines — ‘He was a part-time prophet / a full-time love clerk’ (L1-L2) — that draw darkness down like a thick curtain. The persona takes over right after, gripping the reader’s hands hard as she tumbles down into that dark place where the innocent sound of coins jingling in eager pockets meet the ‘footstep’ (L27) and ‘bubble gum scented(his) whisper’ (L30) yet all the while maintaining a cold distance, as if the child in the poem no longer meant anything to her. It is almost as if the persona has changed loyalties or camps, and this feeling becomes stronger as the poem progresses, but still feels compelled to go back to the place where it all began. The poem tells a story, of violation and betrayal, in the very place that is supposed to bring childish glee and unwrap imagination. The poet knows that and skilfully weaves words from a normal world into images of cold terror. The persona, having plunged into painful memory now holds it up like a mirror:
His hand in my pocket:
it was rape of a tree.
Then flood on the tongue –
a faithful Lhasa lake.
His China store was a wedding
night bedroom –
touch was free.
A paedophile’s patience.
There, she has uttered the word — ‘paedophile’! And nothing is real afterwards, except for the distant voices of children innocently playing The Farmer’s in the Den, unwary of the real den, where terror lurks. Then it is time to move forward, grow, learn… how and what does the persona grow and learn? What face does the persona present to the world afterwards? All we can be sure of is that the persona ‘forsook ribbons /… grew immune /…changed pockets’ (L49-L53). She tells us that ‘love was ice’ (L52), and then gives a glimpse of what the experience has done to her, where (her) ‘adulthood was a new vice’ (L55). The persona confesses that she ‘remains loyal’ — to what? Her terrible secret? To her violator? The images flash and subside almost instantaneously, because ‘love was betrayal’ (L58)… Now we know, surely we know, we understand, how a child would adore a keeper of toys, be lured in, and then be blackmailed into keeping the secret of ‘flood on the tongue – / a faithful Lhasa lake’ (L33-L34)
Lhasa lake? Chinese lace? These two images, placed far apart in the poem, suddenly conjure up a picture beyond that of child, children’s games and paedophilia. There is suddenly an undercurrent of something much larger, where bones become as malleable as bread — visualize humans beaten to pulp — and saliva induced from pain filling mouths like soup. Love was terror: ‘Made in China’ signifying the emotions of not a child but a people. And the last lines — ‘Love was betrayal: /”Made in China”‘ (59-60) begins to sound like a larger betrayal, perhaps one that came at great cost and painful coercion.
In Sumana Roy’s poem “Love: Made in China”, a scorching childhood incident becomes the metaphor for something else.
Sumana Roy teaches at the Department of Humanities, Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College. An early draft of her first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. Her poems, fiction and essays have appeared in 21 Under 40 (Zubaan), The New Anthem (Westland), Pratilipi, Caravan, Asia Writes, Himal Southasian, Biblio, OPEN, Tehelka, among other places. [Also see Roy’s Cha profile.]