Not a moment of boredom

Issue 20 - Nov 2008

Nitin Pai

The cultural and linguistic barriers between India and China are perhaps as high as the geographical ones that separate them. For the first time in history, large numbers of people of the two countries are in a position to overcome them. And when they do, both Indians and the Chinese often find themselves evaluation the long-held images of each other. It is yet unclear whether this process of popular reappraisal will lead the two countries to draw closer together or indeed, to decide that the distance is well kept.

The barriers are coming down because somewhere around the dawn of the new millennium Indians began to visit China in increasing numbers, and a small Indian expatriate community took shape in China’s metropolises. The Chinese, for their part, began embracing English. Pallavi Aiyar epitomises the two trends. Smoke and Mirrors—An Experience of China is the story of her life in China, first as an English teacher and then as a correspondent for NDTV and The Hindu.

Ms Aiyar’s book must be read not for fresh, new insights on emerging China, but rather to meet the real people who make the China story. Not only the Chinese ones, but the Indian ones too. Like Yogi Mohan, a young man from Garhwal whose little yoga school in Beijing became a chain of fifty-one Yogi Yoga centres, with over 10,000 students across China—in three years.

“Chindia”, that dreadful portmanteau was invented around the time Ms Aiyar made the switch from teacher to journalist, and figures early on in the book. To her credit though, she diligently compares her observations in China with her previous experiences in India and presents her readers with honest contrasts. Ms Aiyar’s easy prose and informal style makes the comprehension easier. Some readers might notice the similarities between the two countries, others the differences, and still others might notice both.

Ms Aiyar does ask herself the question “If I were to choose, would I rather be born Indian or Chinese?” and admits that there are no simple, black or white answers to what is arguably a trade-off between individual freedom and material prosperity. As the astute blogger at Plus Ultra points out “were she to be able to ensure being born even moderately well-off, she would plump for India over China. In India, (those with) money (can) exist happily enough despite the failure of the government. No electricity? You could buy a genset. No police protection? You could have your own security agency. And so on.

On the other hand, were she to be born poor, she would be better off taking her chances in authoritarian China, where despite lacking a vote and the freedom that is taken for granted in India, the likelihood of her being decently fed, clothed and housed were considerably higher. More crucially, China would present her with greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility. So that even though she may have been born impoverished, there was a better chance she wouldn’t die as wretched in China as in India.”

It didn’t start in 1998

A retired senior police officer complained to Bahukutumbi Raman, a former intelligence officer and prolific commentator, that intelligence agencies and police show a greater readiness to share their information with Praveen Swami, than with each other. And that “we all wait for his columns in The Hindu to know what information other agencies and the police of other States have.” That is as much an indictment of the internal security set-up as it is a compliment to Mr Swami. Those familiar with Mr Swami’s reportage will know that some of India’s best writings on terrorism and internal security come from his MacBook.