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.

BOOK REVIEW : SriLanka – From war to peace

Sri Lanka

Price: 395 INR
Author: Nitin Gokhale

Given the fact that I am a Tamilian, Sri Lankan civil war and struggle of Tamils has been very special for me. After 25 years of fiercely fought battle, the LTTE story came to an end when their supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran’s dead body was found in Vanni forest on 19th May 2009. Of course! There are still rumors floating that Prabharakan is alive, but nobody can deny that LTTE has been completely washed out of the country. As far as the Sri Lankan army is concerned their ‘mission impossible’ has become a reality. There is a long history of three ‘Eezham wars’ (1983, 1990 and 1994) before this one, where LTTE literally drove out the army from North-eastern (Vanni)part. But this time it was different. Popularly known as ‘4th Eezham war’, what did the army do differently? How come the Sri Lankan army, which was perceived as a weaker side, eventually able to conquer the most dangerous gorilla group? Did Prabhakaran overlooked the options for peace when he was in complete control of Vanni? In his book titled ‘Sri Lanka – From war to peace’ author Nitin Gokhale (an NDTV journalist, who spent significant amount of time in war-field) provides deeper insights to the 4th Eezham war and subsequent fallout of LTTE.

During the formative years of LTTE (especially during 80s), India (especially Tamilnadu) was providing lot of support for their activities in multiple forms. LTTE leaders were able to move freely into various areas of Tamilnadu and politicians (especially MGR, who was born in Sri Lanka) were backing them up strongly to create their training camps in various parts of the state. However the mistake from LTTE came in form of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, that too in Tamilnadu, which not only ruined their relationship with India but also blocked support from Tamilnadu. The snowball effect of this single event has played a significant role in LTTE’s fallout.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as the president of Sri Lanka during 2004, he did two important things. First he extended the term of Commander Sarath Fonseka, less that 30 days before he was scheduled to retire. Second he recalled his bother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from the US and appointed him as a Defense Secretary. The Fonseka-Gotabhaya duo was instrumental in coming up with a master-plan with deeper understanding of the LTTE, which systematically launched attacks for 33 months. On the LTTE side the same year marked a another important turning point when their eastern chief commando Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (popularly known as Colonel Karuna) had a major spat with Prabhakaran and eventually joined the Sri Lankan politics. It was the second costly mistake from Prabhakaran.

The Sri Lankan army might have lost first three Eezham wars, but Fonseka learned a lot about LTTE. Apart from war strategies, he clearly understood the actions need to be taken internally for strengthening the army, both in physically and mentally. Thanks to Colonel Karuna’s exit, the ‘Eastern Province’ (consisting Maṭṭakkaḷappu, Ampara and Trincomalee) became more vulnerable, which became the first target point for the army. The initial strategy was to create a ‘task force’ of 8 people, who will initially infiltrate into the LTTE regiment. When enough disturbance and panic situation is created, army will switch into traditional approach thereby capturing the land by killing the militants. This mixed approach was never expected by the LTTE, who initially under estimated the army operations. Eventually the eastern region came under the army’s control on 19th July 2007. It was really a significant milestone for the army, who would never imagined getting such a victory for decades together.

Having said that, moving further into the Northern side (known as ‘Vanni’ consist of Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi) is not that easy. It was under LTTE’s control from 1983, where Prabhakarn had a strong hold. During the first three Eezham wars, Vanni remained as a distant dream for the army to capture. Fonseka was very well aware of this, hence created attacks from multiple ends across all districts of Vanni. Due to multi-sided attacks LTTE’s veteran Colonel Balraj lost his life due to heart attack. During such crunch times, LTTE has relied on Eastern Province from where Colonel Karuna used to send troops. This option was completely ruled out this time, where the higher level LTTE leadership was forced into the front line. With systematic approach and pushing army leaders to give more than 100%, eventually army was able to completely capture Vanni. With this significant milestone, followed by the death of Prabhakaran marked the end of 4th Eezham war during 2009. Through multiple chapters Gokhale provides finer details on how the Sri Lankan army captured each LTTE regime in Vanni, which is too difficult to summarize here. One of the notable points to ponder is the way Sri Lankan government handled the media. Unlike previous wars, they clearly understood that LTTE had a great deal of coverage in the media, mainly thro’ TamilNet website. In order to counter attack a brand new department was created for handling media and reporters across the globe, which also provided regular updates via their Defense website.

Primarily I read the book to understand the details of the 4th Eezham war, which was well covered with finer level details from the Indian journalist point of view. Gokhale also touches upon India’s stand in this war. With central (congress) and state (DMK) had opposite viewpoints in supporting LTTE even though they are part of UPA. However both of them could do little to prevent the genocide happened against Tamils during the fag and of the war.

Leaving the political view apart, I would like to conclude with the following questions to ponder:

  • This ‘military victory’ of the Sri Lankan army means end of terrorist activities from LTTE? Will this rule out all possibilities of future resurgence?
  • Will the concerns of Sri Lankan Tamils will be addressed by creating an inclusive society? Are the so called ‘humanitarian operations’ will result in betterment for civilians who lost everything in this war?
  • Did Prabhakaran took the right step by keeping thousands of civilians in hostile during last phase of the war? Were civilian’s interests protected during the war time, as far as LTTE is concerned

In the current world order, weapon aided militant activities in the name of getting freedom might not yield any long term solutions. However it is very critical to provide peaceful living for affected Tamils, which they rightfully deserve.