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Mews from China

SRAVASTI DATTA
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Book Pallavi Aiyar's novel tells stories of a people we envy and admire, but don't really know much about

GOING CATTY Pallavi Aiyar photo: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.
GOING CATTY Pallavi Aiyar photo: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

W hat is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear ‘China'? Mysterious? An emerging economic superpower? An unfriendly neighbour, even? But journalist-cum-writer Pallavi Aiyar depicts a completely different side of the country in her recently released novel “Chinese Whiskers” (Harper Collins, Rs. 399).

“I am tired of all the arm-chair theorising that goes on about China. I am not interested in all the discourse on the Chinese government; I want to focus on the people and their lifestyle,” says the former foreign correspondent of The Hindu and The Indian Express.

Following the success of her first, non-fiction work on China “Smoke and Mirrors,” Pallavi decided to write a fictional narrative on the Hutong neighbourhoods of Imperial Beijing and at the same time address the conflict between the traditional and the modern.

During her stint as a foreign correspondent in China, Pallavi learnt the language so as not to be dependant on interpreters to interview the local people.

She travelled extensively to get a better understanding of the lives of the common people. She also lived for five years in a Hutong neighbourhood. “After ‘Smoke and Mirrors', I decided to further expand on life in Hutong neighbourhoods. Hutongs were the houses of noblemen in Imperial Beijing; they were considered the soul of the capital city. But the Communists sold these properties and over the years the neighbourhoods were so badly dilapidated that they were reduced to slums.”

The narrative in “Chinese Whiskers” is told through the eyes of two cats: Soyabean and Tofu. The duo not only witness individual lives, but also observe how Ren (human beings) react to larger problems and issues such as the SARS virus, the Olympic Games and the tainted-pet food scandal.

Apart from the fact that the author loves cats, there were other reasons for choosing these adorable narrators. “Animals are an important part in the Hutong neighbourhoods. I wanted to tell my story in a unique way hence pets as narrators were a good option.”

“Chinese Whiskers” is written in simple language, making it appealing to younger readers.

“Indians hardly read about Chinese stories. This book is for youngsters because it's only when you are in school that you develop an affinity for other places, people and things.” That being said, the novel also reaches out to a larger audience. “It's also for those who are not interested in serious topics and would rather read about cats and heart-warming stories full of affection.”

The universality of experience helped Pallavi to understand Chinese culture and write about it. “During my stay in China, I realised that the average life of a Chinese is not much different from that of the average Indian's.”

The transition from writing non-fiction to fiction was for Pallavi an easy task. “I lived this story. Also fiction allowed me to show how, when traditional society changes, corruption sets in.”

Pallavi admires the industriousness of the Chinese. “They are so practical and flexible, always open to change.

Moreover, the bottoms-up approach, unregulated economic activity and chaos controlled policies make China a rapidly advancing economy. A distant village producing small lighters in a matter of a few years can become a huge, profitable market,” says the award-winning journalist.

Pallavi now stays in Brussels with her husband, son and two cats.

“Moving from China to Europe is like going from a rising economy to a stagnated one. I plan to write on this some time,” Pallavi concludes.

SRAVASTI DATTA

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