Smoke and Mirrors
Rs 395 PP 274
Indians and Chinese, declares Pallavi Aiyar, are “largely culturally untranslatable to each other”. So much so, that years before she set foot in China, when her Danish friend asked her whom she considered the archetypal ‘other’, she promptly replied, “The Chinese.” Little did she know back then that she herself would one day become that valuable missing translator, her series of sketches-cum-essays on China making intelligible what might appear to Indians as an alien cocktail of Communism, Buddhism and Confucianism. That cultural translation is possible, desirable even, was, in fact, a life-changing lesson Aiyar, the Mandarin-speaking China bureau chief for The Hindu, learnt at the end of five years in that country between 2002 and 2007, first as a teacher and then as a, journalist.
“It is deeply wrong to be put off by the unknown,” she writes in her concluding chapter. “Familiarity…[lies] closer than imagined. You only…[need] to turn a corner to find it.” The culmination of Aiyar’s five working years in the Middle Kingdom, the book belongs to a long Western tradition of foreign correspondents stitching up their piecemeal narratives into something grander at the end of their assignments. Chrystia Freeland’s book on Russia, Edward Luce’s on India, and James Kynge’s on China are some examples (all three happen to be correspondents for the Financial Times). India neither boasts legions of foreign correspondents nor does it have a long tradition of this genre of non-fiction writing. Aiyar’s entertaining and insightful book is, therefore, a landmark of sorts.
Aiyar seamlessly combines reportage and analysis: through the warp of her descriptions she weaves in the weft of interpretation. The final pattern is pleasing. For instance, in an evocative chapter on her life in one of Beijing’s hutongs, those quaint neighbourhoods of traditional courtyard homes that Chinese authorities have been tearing down at a ferocious rate to make way for ultramodern structures of glass, titanium and steel, Aiyar pauses to contrast state power in India and China. Among other things, she points out that the poor in India may be much more wretched than in China, but they at least have the power, as a group, to stall the most vaunted power and automobile projects.
Her reportage is wide-ranging and perceptive, if not always very rich in detail. The chapter on the mutually exclusive culinary tastes of Chinese and Indians is hilarious and the one on the resurgence of religions ardour in China is particularly insightful. Some parts of the chapter on Chinese manufacturing evoke a sense of déjà vu, so much has, after all, been written about this. Yet we also encounter some fine ground reporting and astute observations.
For example, we learn that one of the largest Indian communities in China is to be found not in Beijing but in little-known Shaoxing, headquarters to the world’s largest textile market. She also describes several instances of “creative disobedience”, and goes on say “What I realised , was that much of China’s economic reform… was not a top-down affair steered by… Deng Xiaoping…but a messy , bottom-up affair in which unauthorised experimentation was crucial.” Beijing dominates the first half of the book. In the second half, we get windows on to the rest of the vast and diverse country as Aiyar’s reporting takes her from Zheziang, a prosperous eastern coastal province that is the epicentre of China’s manufacturing might, to Ningxia in the north, where the Hui Muslims are concentrated; from central China’s Henan province, the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism, to the southern province of Yunnan, bordering Tibet; and finally to Tibet itself — on the first journey on a new train connecting Beijing to the autonomous region.
The book may be about China, but India lingers in the background, emerging from the shadows every so often, when Aiyar decides to look both countries up and down. In the final chapter, she explicitly sets out answering the question, “Which country is better?”, something she was asked again and again by both sides. Although the question appears juvenile, her answers are not. She argues that China is way ahead of India in providing public goods and services such as roads and education because the Chinese Communist Party gets its “legitimacy from delivering growth” while in India a government derives its legitimacy simply from being voted in. “Delivering on its promises [is] thus less important than the fact of having been elected.” I won’t give her conclusion away.