SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Fourth Estate, Rs 395
One could live forever in India without really having to face the idea of China. We look askance at heads of state signing memoranda. We squirm through documentaries on gigantic dams and impossibly high rail lines. We grunt in satisfaction at reports of lead in cosmetics and poisonous pet food. But, for at least two years, Pallavi Aiyar’s column in the pages of The Hindu has been a compelling window into life in China that we can’t help gazing into.
Her book, therefore, will be snatched up by anyone who has been following the column. Pallavi Aiyar describes frankly the terror with which she faced the prospect of going to China, the humbling effect of seeing highways and cleanliness that urban Indians can only dream of. It is a nation "already impossibly modern and sophisticated", in her words, hurtling forward into a future we can’t begin to imagine, much less quantify. Quantify she does, of course, as do all writers on China, and the chapters are strewn with millions and billions.
But Aiyar’s news articles put the sinews and flesh on our image of China, probing the life of courtyard homes and common loos, with their Yuan dynasty charm and Yuan dynasty plumbing. Similarly, her book allows us into the minds of the Chinese, especially in her most interesting chapter, ‘Coronavirus’, about the SARS epidemic. Aiyar, who taught news writing at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, tells us how her students, who came from a class generally protected from disasters, were at first incredulous at reports from the Western press and then, when reality hit, furious at the government. Classrooms emptied out but, on the other hand, the government built a SARS hospital in seven days and made it operational almost immediately. That figure, seven days, is more frightening and humbling to an Indian than all those other Chinese millions and billions.
Throughout there is the comparison with life in India, which weighs rather heavily at the end. But this is a book to be savoured. Aiyar’s prose sweeps from the poignancy of old widowers dancing together to the hum of villages where native commerce survived Mao’s communism. She talks of all those things made in China, from plastic Ganapatis to Indian doctors, the shift from blithe atheism to a problematic religiosity and, what is most hopeful of all, the way China’s rulers are answering its growingly vocal people. —Latha Anantharaman