Saturday, December 26, 2009
Book Club in times of Swine Flu
Rohit has lovingly chaperoned our book club – Cognition, and now it looks like the club may survive the recession. At one time, we were laying off people, or they were leaving us so fast, that I was afraid that our club may be buried soon. Thankfully we seem to have come through.
This month’s book was “ Smoke and Mirros” by Pallavi Iyer. She is the daughter of Geetanjali Iyer, and those who are from the Doordarshan days, may remember Geetanjali’s sonorous rendition of the news in English. Pallavi spent five years in China, where she managed many assignements as a journalist, and this book comes as a recollection of those times. Fortunately the book is not only a description of China, but also a study in contrast between India and China.
As a typical middle class bigoted Indian I had some very fixed ideas about China. I had heard that the Chinese society is very regimented, unquestioning of authority. They lack indivudual wills, and are easily coerced into making sacrifices for the greater good. They eat all sorts of animals, including dogs. They are willing to undergo extreme personal deprivations to imigrate to to the West. All this makes enables them to have jaw-dropping growth rate and eye-popping stats on manufacturing industry. ( The world’s largest sock maker is in China, who is making gazdillions of socks everyday). Well, after reading the book, all my impressions were confirmed.
Inspite of the economic progress made by China, despite the fact that India has still millions more in poverty, and not withstanding the enormous industrial infrastructure China has put up, one fact stands out starkly. The lack of freedom.
On the other hand I seem to have picked up some clues to living in a Chinese society. Never refuse food when offered in China. Apparantely they find it insulting. So even if Chicken legs make you nauseous, in the interest of the Great Indian- Chinese Friendship, swallow them. Same thing for paying the bill in a restraurant; whoever pays, wins. Pallavi illustrates some pretty devvious ways of paying up first. Actually, if you do not have the money, it might be a better idea to give in gracefully to this one. Oh, by the way, Buddhisim is not all that prevalent in China- another one of my favorite theory laid to rest.
I would defintely recommend this book to anyone interested in that dragon sitting east of us. Or to anybody who votes for CPI(M). Or to anybody who thinks India is a nasty place to live in. Try China.
Odds and Ends
After finishing this book, I picked up the long ignored Granta 105 (thank you, Manisha), and was quickly attracted to Elizabeth Pissani’s memory of events on June 3rd and 4th at Tiananmen Square. Elsizabeth was a highly mis-skilled journalist who happened to be in the right place and the right time. Her visceral recollections of the day stand out in contrast to easy narrative of Pallavi Iyer. The article also recalibrated my impressions of China. The spark of freedom is alive, and the faces of the students in the photograph (loved it) reflects this.
After looking at the evening smog in Delhi, which seems to be much worse than other years, the events at Copenhagen did interest me. The draft proposal floating around ( see http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/cop_15/application/pdf/cop15_cph_auv.pdf ) is reeking of political statements, diplomatic phrases and fuzzy half unsaid agenda. Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of Enviornment, tells with pride how we managed to get the phrase relating to “respecting sovereignty” into the draft. Big deal. Where is the phrase relating to cutting down carbon emissions? All that is a fuzzy part of “ recognizing the critical impact of climate change”. We are hiding behind politicians who have difficulty in recognizing anything else but their votes. Guys, wake up. The global temperature rise is proportional to burning hydrocarbons. Simple, ain’t it?