Made on China
Humra Quraishi

Journalist Pallavi Aiyarís novel Chinese Whiskers brings out
interesting facets of life in the dragon country 

AWARD-winning journalist-writer Pallavi Aiyar launched her debut novel, Chinese Whiskers (HarperCollins), last weekend in New Delhi. Before Chinese Whiskers Pallavi had written non-fiction on China, titled Smoke And Mirrors. And that volume was enough to indicate that this young writer would write more `85several more volumes. It was written not just with passion but also with a tremendous flow. By the time one reached the last page, one seemed to know more about China and its people than all those history and geography books could ever teach. In fact, such well-written books should make their way into our school syllabi and libraries so that we could get to know our neighbour better.

And now that Pallavi is out with her debut novel, which again revolves around China, itís time to get into those finer details.

Excerpts from an interview with the writer:

You wrote your earlier book on China with much involvement with the place, its people and their daily lives. And now your debut novel again has a Chinese background or, say flavour. Why this fascination with that land?

In many ways, my new novel Chinese Whiskers is a disjuncture from my earlier work. Smoke and Mirrors was a work of narrative non-fiction, blending reportage and memoir, while CW is a fable whose main protagonists are two Ďanthropomorphisedí cats. But there are also continuities, as you point out. People seemed to respond to the chapters set in Beijingfast disappearing hutong neighbourhoods with fascination when they read Smoke and Mirrors. This was a geography I wanted to explore further, partly because it was one in rapid transition, in danger of being lost to the world and partly because there is a universality to the experience of living there that I thought would help "normalise" the discourse on China. Foreigners often tend to view China as somehow uniquely different...whereas I believe that parallels between the experience and challenges of a rapidly changing, modernising China have a resonance in all developing countries, including India.

Comment on the ongoing lurking suspicion and that air of subtle accusations between India and China. As an Indian living in Beijing, how did you cope with these factors? How does the average apolitical Chinese react to India and to Indians?

India has a China pathology, a constant obsession and rivalry with China being the hallmark of this condition. But India does not loom large in the Chinese imagination. Most Chinese do not feel threatened or suspicious towards India. They tend to see India through a spiritual lens, having been taught that Buddhism spread to China from India. They are often surprised to know that India is no longer a predominantly a Buddhist country. People of a certain demographic associate it with vintage Hindi movies like Awara, Do Bigha Zameen and Caravan. Recently, the geo-strategic community in China has, however, begun to play closer attention to India as a rising player in the chessboard of international power politics, particularly following the Indo-US nuclear deal.

China and India share much ó traditions, borders etc. As an Indian what similarities struck whilst you lived there?

I think many of the similarities came home in the hutongs, the neighbourhoods where my novel is set. The itinerant sales people selling everything from vegetables to knife-sharpening services, the knock on the door of the local recycler or kabadiwalla come to buy your rubbish off you for a nominal fee, the nosiness and kindness of neighbours, the lack of a culture of political correctness, the high degree of comfort with large crowds and noise: these were all similarities that struck me. Some of the tensions generated by the clash between an embrace of consumerism on the one hand and persisting traditional values on the other hand, are also shared by India and China.

Little is known to us in India about todayís literary scenario in China ó their writers and the  books getting published there. Comment .

The biggest problem Chinese literature suffers from is a lack of qualified translators. Moreover, there is little Chinese writing in English, so unlike Indian writers who write in English, this automatically makes it harder for them to become big international names. But I also think that despite Indiaís China obsession, on a cultural level there is a disconnect between the two and most Indians while fascinated by the ĎChina miracle" of a zooming GDP and awesome infrastructure are not particularly interested in understanding the texture of Chinese culture. The stories we grew up with were Enid Blyton and C.S Lewis and it is western culture that continues to fascinate us. The market for Chinese stories does not exist, as yet. I hope to change that!

You have now moved to Brussels. Comment on the total change of the scenario.

Yes, itís quite a dramatic change: from chopsticks to chocolate, as one friend joked. What struck me most was how stagnant and pessimistic Europe seems in contrast to the dynamism and optimism characteristic of China. There is an enormous insecurity in Europe today as it grapples with the changing geo-political power equations of the 21st century. The nice thing about the move is that I can finally step outdoors and breathe clean air, a commodity that was wholly absent in China.

Chinese Whiskers has two cats as central characters and it's through them that the story runs. And you have two cats as pets at home ... tell us more?

I chose cats as the narrators because animals were an intuitive way to talk about the hutong landscape I wanted to bring alive through the novel. The crowded quarters of hutongs force people and animals to live cheek to jowl and animals are ubiquitous to this geography. Cats are perfectly placed to have an insider-outsider perspective on human society. I also wanted this to be a story that had cross-generational appeal with younger readers also finding their curiosity piqued about our large and important neighbour. I firmly believe that the cultural disconnect between India and China is in large part due to the absence of stories about each other when we are growing up. Cats are an attractive way to lure younger readers into a new and exciting world. Also, I have two Chinese cats myself and they were my muse!

You are married and have a young child. How do you manage to snatch enough time to write, long and short stories?

Oh, itís a struggle. I find that with kids, leisure time or time for myself is what gets most squeezed.`A0 So, Iím lucky in that writing for me is both work and what I enjoy doing most, so I find pleasure and a self-oriented space away from domestic demands in my work. I have another baby on the way though, and Iím sure thatís going to make time an even more precious commodity.

Any other books in the pipeline? This time, will the focus `be on Brussels?

Iím toying with the idea of another work of narrative non-fiction, this time focusing on Europe. But itís only a sketchy idea at the moment.