Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book: Smoke and Mirrors by Pallavi Aiyer

"The two countries were like mirror opposites of each other. One provided roads, schools and electricity but stifled diversity, criticism and participation; the other allowed diversity, criticism and participation, yet achieved little in improving livelihoods and providing economic opportunities." (page 234)

This is probably the view that most of us Indians already have about India and China. Pallavi Aiyer's book brings home this same fact in a much nuanced and yet poignant way. The perspective is entirely an Indian one. This trained journalist desists from making quick judgements about what she observes. The restraint and the wisdom show through in each and every page.

Smoke and Mirrors is a memoir, a travelogue and a political analysis all combined into one book. The political aspect holds much significance for us Indians. While India has experienced much success as a political democracy in the last six decades, it has also faced enormous challenges in becoming a social democracy. In the last two decades, economic growth has brought with it  inequity and resentment in large sections of society in India.

While India talks about "inclusive growth" to achieve social stability, China even with its spectacular economic success has to safeguard political stability. China's arrangement certainly has worked well so far in terms of poverty reduction and brought in great material prosperity. But such prosperity has come at the cost of personal liberty for the people.

"China's economic achievement over the last thirty or so years may have been unparallelled historically, but so was India's political feat. Its democracy was almost unique amongst post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea." (page 242)

It is amazing how Pallavi Aiyer manages to find a way to be fair and loyal to both her native country and to the one that she has adopted for the period of five years. What impresses is not just her loyalty to the two countries but also the wise analysis she provides of the strengths and weaknesses of both the countries. In Chapter 12, titled 'Squaring the Circle and Coming Full Circle' the author provides a good perspective on the good and the bad from the two countries.

While she remarks that "maintaining a one-party system subject to the rule of the law was probably a project that would always remain incomplete" in China, she also points out that "India's democracy was far from being a fully actualized ideal".(page 256)

You can't help but nod in agreement when the author summarizes her impressions on the politics of the two countries thus- " democracy was often used as an excuse in India to justify bad governance, just as India's democracy was used as an excuse in China to carry on with its (relatively) efficient one-party dictatorship. India was the example of choice in China when it came to pointing out the pitfalls of democracy, while in India those who admired China's achievements simultaneously bemoaned the fact that they could come only at the cost of democracy." (page 257)

Well, the political angle apart, there is much in this book to ponder and wonder about. The author's experience as an English teacher, her life in a hutong, the trip to Lhasa, all these sections are delightful. Reading these sections certainly makes one wish to experience China. The language impediment that the author manages to overcome definitely is one herculean challenge for anyone wanting to take on the middle kingdom. One other thing to notice in the narration is the fact that curiosity  in India about China is of a much higher order than in China about India.

At the end of reading this book, the perception about China is bound to change from one of 'smoke and mirrors' to a 'much clearer mirror reflection'.

Find more reviews for this book here-

1 comment:

Girish B Hukkeri said...

Srinath has the gift to condense the book in a few words and distill the essence. Thanks!