Smoke and Mirrors

pallavi-7304-166191724_stdWhen Pallavi Aiyar first arrives in Beijing, she is a baffled plus-one, trailing reluctantly behind her future husband. After serving time as an English teacher to an eager but snooty class of yuppie students, she falls into journalism, writing for The Hindu. Just as her tales of Beijing street life exhaust the possibilities of quirky neighbours and intercultural misunderstandings, she is suddenly propelled into a new narrative, speeding off with business delegations, reporting on politicians and pushing herself further afield in search of new stories in Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China.

Writing primarily for an Indian readership, Aiyar’s touchstones for Chinese history are a refreshing world away from most other China hands’. She visits the Shaolin Temple and the White Horse Temple, centres of early Buddhism back in the Silk Road days when the Chinese still regarded it as a foreign, Indian import. She lampoons the culture clash of Chinese banquets, where hosts honouring their guests with sea slugs and chicken feet are baffled by the dietary requirements of teetotal vegetarians. She approaches “unique” issues with even-handed objectivity, pointing out that there are provinces in India with far worse boy-girl birth ratios, even without a one-child policy. And she offers the Indian version of everybody’s Beijing traffic horror stories, pointing out that, to visitors from Delhi, Chinese roads are impressively calm and peaceful.

img-1-small480Books about Beijing are ten-a-penny and often sadly samey, but Aiyar is unafraid to go that extra mile. Many, myself included, have reported on the presence of a Bad English Hotline before the Olympics, designed to hunt down the worst mistakes on signage. But Aiyar is the writer who actually calls up to report an error, only to discover that the woman on the other end of the phone doesn’t speak English.

Every decade produces at least one kick-arse account that has an angle valuable enough to work as historical reportage, and Smoke and Mirrors deserves to be shelved alongside Michael Meyer’s Last Days of Old Beijing, for offering important anecdotal details of the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, from SARS to the preparations for the Olympics.

This is an immensely valuable perspective, dragging the reader off from traditional journalistic angles, which, as Aiyar herself points out, are usually white, western ones. She has since turned the tables in similar fashion on Europe itself, which she approaches with occidentalist glee in New Old World, and brought insightful comparisons in her account of the smogs of Beijing and Delhi in Choked. Since she is now based in Tokyo, Japan is sure to follow.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing. Smoke & Mirrors: An Experience of China is published by Fourth Estate. See Clements and Aiyar in conversation at Mumbai’s 2016 Times Litfest here.

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Mumbai or Bust

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I’m off to India in December as a guest of the Times LitFest, where this year’s theme is “That Man Woman Thing, exploring the relationship, or lack of it, across time, place, space, profession, family, and oh yes, literature.” I expect I shall be mainly pushing the Indian edition of my Silk Road book, which is yours for a mere 196 rupees. Although considering the topic, I expect Empress Wu will come up a bit, too. Apparently,  my schedule so far is:
  • Saturday 3rd Dec, 11:45am to 12:45pm 
  • The East is Read 
  • Two Asia analysts unravel the inscrutable. Jonathan Clements with Pallavi Aiyar.
  • Sunday 4th Dec, 1:30pm to 2:30pm 
  • Wanderlit – Three travel writers explore the craft 
  • Alexander Frater, Jonathan Clements, and William Dalrymple in conversation.

Indian Spin

suraj the rising starSuraj is a poor boy growing up in Mumbai, under the watchful eye of his sister Shanti and widowed father Shyam. Dad was once a promising cricketer, and is obsessed with turning his son into a world-class player with a harsh training regime. Inexplicably fair-haired rich kid Vikram is an ace batsman from a family of wealth and privilege, who fears the potential of his slumdog rival, and determines to thwart him at every turn as they fight their way through the ranks of Indian cricket, hoping to qualify for the national team.

Suraj the Rising Star is not Japanese, but although it’s made in India for the Colors network, it is based firmly on the classic anime series Star of the Giants. Repurposing the original’s baseball story with wickets and stumps, Suraj allows Japanese investors to capitalise on a tried and tested formula in a new territory, without having to meet any of the standards required of “real” anime.

Story-wise at least, the tropes and scenes in Suraj have been hammered out and refined over several TV serials and many imitators. But Suraj has very little of the dizzying animation techniques of the 1968 original, and often features sequences in which the characters barely move. Backgrounds smudge all too often into impressionistic blurs when Suraj runs jerkily to bowl or catch, and the imagery often drifts perilously close to something someone might have knocked up on Microsoft Paint. But this is precisely the sort of criticism levelled against early anime in Japan, while young fans lapped up the new storytelling medium.

One is swiftly drawn away from the clunky animation to peripheral areas of studied difference – the subcontinental twang of the music, and the casual contrast of glittering modernity with ramshackle slums. Suraj is openly aspirational towards middle-class affluence, signified in repeated product-placement shots of All Nippon Airlines planes soaring above the slums, new-fangled Nissin cup noodles, Daikin aircon units and Maruti Suzuki cars that motor past swish Maruti Suzuki showrooms. Yes, it’s pretty easy to tell who the sponsors are. Suraj is still Japanese where it counts.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #111, 2013.

UPDATE (12th June 2013): Now they’re trying to sell an Astro Boy remake to Nigeria.