Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move
|Author-Journalist Pallavi |
Aiyar at the book launch
in Delhi (PTI)
Writing is not new to Pallavi Aiyar who has just published Smoke And Mirrors, An Experience Of China (The Fourth Estate, HarperCollins). Aiyar is the Beijing-based China correspondent for the Hindu group of publications and also consults with Confederation of Indian Industries on China-related issues. In this book, a collection of 12 chapters – part memoir, part travelogue - Aiyar reveals the Chinese way of life based on her stay in the country for about six years. She writes about her initial apprehensions about living in an alien land, her struggle to learn the language (its different accents, which means different things), and adapting herself to the local culture, be it food, way of dressing or even living in a hutong, China's traditional courtyard residence. With plans to relocate to Europe next year, Aiyar gives vent to her Chinese exploits. She talks to Sanjitha Rao Chaini on how Indians should deal with culture conflicts in China, and more.
Why did you choose the title Smoke And Mirrors for your book?
China is the kind of place that elicits immediate reactions; strong snap judgments. However, it is in fact a society and culture that doesn't give up its secrets easily. There are layers upon layers of "truth" that need to be uncovered during any attempt to understand the country. Along the way, the red herrings are numerous. What is immediately visible on the surface is quite often a mask one needs to look below. Take the government for example. China is ruled by a Communist Party but this is also a party that has instituted some of the most rapaciously capitalist policies in the world. Again, when you walk around the historic areas of Beijing you often discover that these were built a year ago! China is great at faux antique. So what the title is getting at is how China is a country of smoke and mirrors and, thus, requires much considered caution when navigating. It is a country about which it is best to defer judgements.
Several books have been written about Indian and China. Why do we need another book on China? And why now?
The book comes out just a couple of months before the Beijing Olympics, a time when the global spotlight is firmly trained on China. But the timing of the book is really less important than its substance. While a lot of books have been written about India and China, these have exclusively come from an academic tradition. Prior to Smoke And Mirrors, India-China books have been written by "pundits" attempting to theorise the geo-strategic dimensions of the India-China relationship. Others have looked at "Chindia" from a macro economic point of view. This book s unique in its coming from a journalistic tradition that relies on first-hand reportage. It attempts to illuminate China from the ground up rather than top down, through the everyday lives of ordinary Chinese as well as through my own experiences over five years in the country as a journalist and writer. Its insights are thus borne of direct experience rather than arm chair analysis.
Most Indian businessmen in China complain of the language hurdle. Do you think India is doing enough to train people in Chinese language?
I believe that Chinese is becoming an increasingly popular foreign language amongst Indians but it is quite clear that the opportunities and options for studying Mandarin in India are limited. Chinese is a particularly difficult language given that it is tonal. It moreover lacks an alphabet, using thousands of characters instead. It's therefore tough for foreigners to master in any case.
In India there is also little opportunity for language students to practice their skills. It is thus imperative for Indian universities and language institutes to develop links with counterpart institutions and teachers in China, so as to arrange for students to actually live and study in the Chinese mainland. China has emerged as India's largest trade partner, but only a handful of Indians speak Chinese. Compare this to the number of Indians who speak the language of our second largest trade partner - the US! Given that language is really key to an understanding of the workings of a culture, including business culture and practices, this lacuna is glaring.
Aiyar is a Tamil surname, your book reveals you grew up in Delhi and later, settled in China. Don't you think exposure to different cultures makes it easier for Indians to adapt to different environs, in your case, China.
Cultural fluidity is crucial to the ability of an individual or corporation to flourish in a foreign environment. Such fluidity can only come from experience. Learning to speak different languages, adapting to different climates, acquiring a wide-ranging culinary appreciation are all important. However, even though most Indians are multi-lingual they remain parochial and in China tend to suffer from an inability to transcend their ingrained habits. Unlike most Europeans for example, expatriate Indians in China tend to stay away from Chinese food, choosing to eat in Indian restaurants. Many do not learn something as basic as the ability to use chopsticks even after years in the country. Very few learn the language and even fewer develop a taste for baijiu, a lethal local liquor, the constant quaffing of which is an integral part of any successful Chinese business dinner!
Your have written extensively talked about life in Hutongs. Is there any hope it will still be there 10 years down the line?
While Beijing's formidable embrace of "modernity" has already spelt the death knell for large swathes of the city's hutongs, there is some belated awareness of the value in preserving these graceful remnants of old Beijing. A cluster of hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City (including the one I live in) have thus been declared as protected and monies have even been apportioned for their renovation and upkeep. In ten years it is likely that the hutongs will undergo a gentrification, a process that has already begun, acquiring a kind of rustic chic. Original inhabitants will probably sell out to those with deep enough pockets to restore the courtyard homes to their pre-communist revolution glory. Restaurants, boutique shops, etc. will also flourish here, making them into major tourist draws. A portion of the hutongs will thus survive, albeit in Disney-fied form.
How do you think this book will be received in China -- keeping in mind the not so positive points you have made on China?
I don't think that this book will find a publisher in China -- without cuts. We will sell it in English language bookstores but unless it is translated into Chinese the audience will remain very limited. Better chances in Hong Kong or Singapore.
What did you read as a child/teenager? Who are you favourite Indian authors?
I adored P.G. Wodehouse and J. R. R. Tolkien. As a teenager I became a huge fan of Vikram Seth. I adored the Golden Gate. Later I was impossibly moved by An Equal Music. Vikram Seth's China connection has also always been interesting to me. At the Delhi launch of Smoke And Mirrors, his mother asked me to a sign a copy of the book for her to present to him. Given the fact that I spent my teen years trying to collect books signed by him, that was quite a thrilling moment! I also like Pankaj Mishra very much. On China, I like Peter Hessler. Both Mishra and Hessler are masters of the narrative non-fiction form that Smoke And Mirrors attempts.
What did you finish reading recently?
What Is The What by Dave Eggers