China lite

Nov 02 2013, 05:50 IST
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SummaryPankaj Mishra’s account of China’s engagement with its neighbours is geared for a Western audience looking for an Indian viewpoint on the issue, but much of it is pitifully facile.

Book: A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its Neighbours

Author: Pankaj Mishra

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Pages: 325

Price: Rs 499

A Great Clamour opens with all the questions, doubts, ambiguities, and contradictions of the young, restless, not-so-rooted, educated Indian with regard to modernity, capitalism, civilisation, interconnectedness, alternatives and the rapid pace of economic transformation. “We don’t know enough…about political and social experiments in other Asian societies,” says author Pankaj Mishra. Nary a truer word! “We know even less about…the particular challenges and dilemmas of China… [xiv] (the “Greece of Asia” [p xvi]) The laudable objective of the book is “self education” — “to sense the inner life of a society” [p xx] through not only physical journeys but also politics, history and literature [p xviii]; to “eavesdrop” on the debates and quarrels not meant for foreign consumption and plunge into the parallels and symmetries between Asian societies.

So we do not expect a deeply researched work but a travelogue; about people and places; about journeys — the inner and outer — which interweave to create a world, which the reader can both appropriate and share. But we are straightaway plunged into a succession of essentially one-sided historical narratives, each chapter derived from summarising select scholarly, fiction and nonfiction books interspersed with a series of conversations. From Qian Zhongshu (Besieged Fortress), a novel on life in Shanghai in the 1940s, to Yang Jisheng (Tombstone) and Frank Dikötter (Mao’s Great Famine) on the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s; from Ma Jian, the London-based novelist, to interactions with Zhu Xueqin and Wang Hui — the liberal and the new left intellectuals respectively and the novelist Yu Hua — this is literally an encounter with some of the most intelligent, perceptive and witty intellectuals of China.

We move from chapter to chapter, not quite clear as to where exactly we are headed (not literally, of course), wondering when we are going to feel the quickening of the blood and the racing of the pulse which always happens with good travel writing. The first breath of originality — and some fresh air — comes after ploughing through 66 pages when Mishra describes his response to Shanghai. And an enormous sense of relief on reaching page 85 and discovering that Mishra has actually visited a tea-growing village in Zhejiang. The description of his train ride to Tibet is the other section where some degree of authenticity comes across

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