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Bone china

In our obsession to figure out how India can play catch-up with China, we seem to have ignored one thing: wanting to know China beyond our points of dispute and envy.

books Updated: Dec 18, 2010 00:21 IST
AN Swami
AN Swami
Hindustan Times

Chinese Whiskers
Pallavi Aiyar
Rs 399 pp 223

When A Billion Chinese Jump
Jonathan Watts
Rs 599 pp 483

In our obsession to figure out how India can play catch-up with China, we seem to have ignored one thing: wanting to know China beyond our points of dispute and envy. For all its steroid-driven ability to turn a post-industrial marathon into a 100-metre dash, China’s ‘developing country’ mark, however, remains like stubborn oil stain on a wok.

And it is this underplayed aspect of controlled chaos and Confucian confusion that should be of special interest to readers of a country who share much of these traits, however apart China and India may have grown in the last 30 years on the (important) surface. And this is where two journalists, both waiguo Ren — foreigners — in China, provide two very different pictures from the inside of an emergent world power in their books.

Pallavi Aiyar, a former Beijing correspondent for The Hindu and The Indian Express, follows up her insightful collection of despatches, Smoke and Mirrors, with Chinese Whiskers. Written in the form of a fable in which life in Beijing is seen from the points of view of two cats, Soyabean and Tofu, it is a touching, pastel-coloured close-up of urban China inhabited by its citizens. Individuals, such a rare entity in all those piles of China books, form the characters of this story that is a veiled memoir. (Mrs and Mr A, owners of the cats, are clearly Aiyar and her husband).

We find the conflict between Old China and New China in the form of the almost 80-year-old Nai Nai (“Why have we Chinese lost our sense of wonder?... They don’t read, they watch TV. They don’t go to the theatre but to the disco. What with all this SMS and computers.. [they have] forgotten how to write Chinese characters altogether!”) and her grandson Xiao Xu (“Chinese need to be more practical... Calligraphy doesn’t make money... Poetry doesn’t buy cars”). In a way, it’s also about the generation gap in all societies.

Aiyar weaves the story of the two cats around contemporary events such as the SARS virus (where animals, especially cats, are suddenly suspected of being the cause of the epidemic), a pet-food scandal (on which hinges the main narrative) and migrant workers flooding in to work during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Police door knocks and local busybody thugs appear as ‘situations’. The cat metaphor is a strong one, Soyabean and Tofu coming from ‘middle-class’ and ‘dustbin’ backgrounds respectively and negotiating life in 21st century Beijing. And at its core, Chinese Whispers is a ‘cute’, Bambi-like story.

The Guardian’s Asian environment correspondent Jonathan Watts’ When A Billion Chinese Jump is hardknuckled reportage. But here, too, we meet individuals, people who are usually left out of any ‘China story’. The book is part-travelogue, part-deep diving into the world of rural China and migrant labourers set in the not-gleaming-at-all surroundings made up of clogged rivers, choking emissions, filthy water and a supply-demand of natural resources that makes Dickens’ Victorian soot-and-grime London look like a gleaming Shanghai.

It is in this book that we find startling similarities with the more visible (and, therefore, more embarrassing) ‘Third World’ chunks of the India story. Watts writes about a PR lady at the Jaguar Gorgeous Award Party making a pitch for the new 5-litre XKR. “It’s a wow car!” she gushes. “But you can barely move in Shanghai’s traffic. Why would anyone want such a huge engine?” asks Watts. “Rich people never take the subway. Even if the traffic is bad, they need a car.”

We are taken to the government-manufactured resort of Shangri-La, the renamed ex-logging town of Zhongdian, built as a PR counter to bad press about China’s environmental record. We are introduced to families in the ‘cancer village’ in Tianjin where a chemical plant has wreaked havoc. This is China no-holds-barred.

The title, from the West’s old xenophobic phrase, ‘If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all’ (a bastardisation of Napoleon’s apocryphal line, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”), is misleading in the sense that Watts does talk about development and environmental sustainability rather than an apocalyptic tale for post-industrial Occidental eco-warriors.

Both Aiyar and Watts take us away from the main streets and guide us through terrains where other Chinas reside and feed the ‘One China’ that we get to see on the podium. In Chinese Whiskers, a migrant construction worker tells the lost cat Tofu, “Our great leader Deng Xiaoping said it didn’t matter if it was a black cat or white cat as long as it caught mice. But he forgot to add that what really matters is whether it’s a rich cat or a poor cat. You see there are no mice to catch for the peasant cat at all. The fat cats in the city gobble them all up, leaving nothing for the rest.”

Now do you see any resemblance between the two countries that Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh calls the architects of the ‘Asian century’?

AN Swami is a Delhi-based writer on foreign affairs.

First Published: Dec 18, 2010 00:19 IST