Book review: Smoke and Mirrors

This has been the second Smoke and Mirrors book this year for me. And both couldn’t be as far from each other as possible. The first was a short story collection by Neil Gaiman dealing almost entirely with the supernatural and fantasy. The second, the one which will be the subject of this post is a non-fiction work by Pallavi Aiyar detailing her stay in China for five years and her thoughts on the country.

I picked this up one Saturday from the IIWC library, surprised to find it nestled in the political science section. It had been on my radar, having seen this on Anush’s reading list from last year(Although he read the other Smoke and Mirrors and Chinese Whiskers by Aiyar). Incidentally, the period of her stay in China coincided with mine, the start almost the same as the time I landed up there. In a way, more than anything I expected, I wanted to see if this could stoke some degree of nostalgia and remind me of my stay in China. It did.

The only other non-fiction work on China that I’ve read is ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang, detailing the history of China told through the eyes of three generations of women – the author, her mother and grandmother and covers the period from early 20th century through the Koumintang rule, the ascension of the Communist party, Mao’s cultural revolution finishing with Deng Xiaoping’s rule. And yes, that is a very recommended read too!

‘Smoke and Mirrors’ starts in the early 2000s, but there are enough traces from Deng’s or Mao’s rule, and is in a way a continuation from where Jung leaves you. The style is witty and humorous and the flow of prose is very impressive. It’s hard to write a non-fiction work which is more or less a series of journals you have maintained and make it sound neither tacky nor too sophisticated. Pallavi Aiyer does a remarkable job here on that front.

She compares India and China in almost every chapter, but avoids falling into the usual cliché-traps or sweeping generalizations that are the norm for journalists. Comparing Tibet with the Indian North-east, how the rest of each country treats the other is brilliantly done. She travels to different parts, exploring the usual things we associate with China – the manufacturing industry, English language, infrastructure, Government Authoritarianism, religion. There are enough of the unusual hidden in, like the hutongs, and the people themselves. There is even a special chapter reserved entirely for SARS. Vajpayee’s visit happened around that time and the opening up of trade between the two countries followed. Being an Indian based in China and speaking Mandarin, she gets to be part of different trade groups visiting China. Her detailing of chaste Indian businessmen and officials, and their usual stereotypes of Chinese and trouble with food is hilarious.

Reading about China, including the author’s own first impressions definitely made me nostalgic. The book is set mostly in Beijing which was her base during her stay in China and where I spent just over 3 months around 2004 and witnessed first hand the changes the city was going through – the pollution, the sticky heat, the elderly, the crowds and the sheer size of the city. The chapter about SARS and reactions of people did remind me of my time in Shenzhen with SARS at its peak just across the border in Hong Kong. Thinking back, SARS holds a very personal connection and I think of it as something that changed my career and the direction my life has taken since.

The last chapter where she wraps it up, looking at the future for the CCP and even trying to answer a hypothetical question – India or China, is excellently done. For a non-fiction work I was able to finish this in just over 4 days with mostly bus and weekend reading. So definitely a breezy read. Much recommended.

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