BOOK REVIEW : Smoke and mirrors

BOOK REVIEW : Smoke and mirrors

Price: 300 INR

Author: Pallavi Aiyar

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte said ‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’ referring about China. The very statement become a reality today, as the dragon country literally started shaking the world in all dimensions – be it economical, political or social. None of us can imagine to ignore ‘Made in China’ phrase, given the fact that we use Chinese goods day-in and day-out – ranging from shirt button to iPad. The topic of China becomes all the more interesting, looking from Indian perspective. Both countries have  long history and tradition, but poles apart the way they are operating today. In her book ‘Smoke and mirrors’ author Pallavi Aiyer has attempted to explore many unknown aspects of China from an Indian point of view. The beauty of the book lies in the way she represented China – based on her personal memoirs, travel experience and interaction with tons native chinese people.

The storytelling starts when Pallavi, relocates to China (Beijing) for taking up her teaching profession in Beijing Broadcasting institute. Her first surprise comes in form of her students who are programmed to think in a pre-defined way. It is way different from what she has seen among journalist students in India, where journalism starts with freedom of expression. India is a country where ‘Aishwarya Rai is on her family way’ hits the mainstream media in no-time and people start doing ‘page-3’ research on it would affect Bollywood. China is way different, where the freedom of expression is limited to a larger extent. Whatever comes out the media, everybody is forced to believe it as truth. In another words – truth is not in its real form, but how the Chinese government wants it to be. For example, during her interactions, Pallavi finds all her students saying ‘Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong’ and she later understands that’s how they were thought during school days. Since there is no other source to validate this statement, students are forced to believe it as a truth. The main theme for this book emerges from the same topic – Is freedom of expression (in the name of democracy) is more important than financial development ? Is it worth having a vibrant media over poor infrastructure? Does economic growth mean happy people?

No doubt! China has emerged as the economic powerhouse of 21st century by threatening every other developed country in the world (read it as USA). This large scale, aggressive globalization with a strong communist government has definitely brought a whole lot of good by lifting its one third of the population out of poverty. Thanks to unmatched execution capability, China can literally make anything happen. For example, the Zhejiang province has emerged as the hub of manufacturing with every damn thing we can imagine takes it shape. For example in 2004 alone 3 billion pairs of socks where exported this province, which really talks about the scale and execution speed. China stunned the world by building 4300 KM Shanghai-Lhasa train route which is situated at 3600M above sea level, surrounded by snow mountains. Pallavi was one of the lucky passengers to travel in this ‘dream-train’ during its first journey. She vividly explains how China has built this marvel by taking care of smallest things (ex: installing cold water pumps near the rail track for nullifying the snow effect). Thanks to its robust infrastructure (mainly roads), the supply chain has become really world class. Goods can be moved from one and to other without any major hazzles, thereby aiding smooth exporting of its manufactured goods.

The above mentioned growth has come with its own cost. The never-transparent Chinese government always operates with a bunch controversies. When China stretched its muscles by hosting 2008 Beijing Olympics, countless number of ancient Chinese houses were demolished ruthlessly. Called as ‘hutong’ in Chinese, there ancient houses given a red mark called ‘chai’ (destruction) and vanished overnight to give urban makeover to the Beijing city. Not only buildings, people also do vanish, when they voice against Chinese government. Pallavi stayed in one of these hutongs and explains how the ancient Chinese way of living got affected in the name of urbanization. She also gives deeper social insights of China (ex: unbelievable change in the way sex is perceived among the youth, local passport system called hukou, aping the western way of living , copying anything and everything etc..) which is really interesting. In each case, Pallavi compares with India which makes it all the more fun to read.

Given the fact that even Google not able to crawl many sites in China, it is extremely difficult for a normal individual to understand China.In such scenario, Pallavi’s ‘Smoke and Mirror’ comes out as a relevant account, which gives realistic perspective about contemporary China. The style she has adapted in this book, would really interest both fiction and non-fiction readers.

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