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Journalist Pallavi Aiyar on Indian Road Envy

**You’re one of the only Mandarin-speaking Indian journalists in China and you talk about seeing China through Indian eyes. So what does an Indian see when they first get to China?** The one thing that Indians have is road envy. When I first came to China in 2001, I was amazed at that road from the airport. Of course, you hear about the infrastructure being built in China, but this is still supposed to be a developing country. For an Indian, China’s butter-smooth roads are almost unbelievable. Its really the first thing about China that most Indians notice.. **Your 2008 book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China is based on your travels and reporting in China over five years. You told us how when writing this book, you wanted to give a more grassroots view of China and avoid some of the popular business or geopolitical comparisons that have been made between China and India. What’s the thrust of the book?** I was resistant to writing a book at first. Publishers and my editors were telling me that I needed to publish a book, maybe a collection of my articles, which had elicited a really strong response in India. But I thought this wasn’t challenging enough and didn’t offer anything new. I decided finally to write about my time in China using narrative non-fiction. I followed a loosely chronological sequence of events but also organized chapters by themes like religion, minorities, the “economic miracle,” and so on. I talked a lot about how my Indian background framed my observations about Chinese culture and society. Really, when you make observations about a country, you in turn look back on your own. So the book was also a reflection back on India after having a China experience. **What do you think about the relationship between the two countries?** China and India have long been strangers to each other, even though they share the world’s longest border. There was not even a direct flight until 2002. Historically, China and India’s spheres of influence have not overlapped. India has tended to look west toward the Muslim world and China eastward. There are geopolitical reasons too like the [Sino-Indian War] in 1962, China’s support of Pakistan and its controversial (as far as India is concerned) position on Kashmir. As the only Mandarin-speaking Indian journalist in China, I’m really one of the only contemporary voices on the Sino-indian relationship who uses lived experiences as the basis for their analysis. I don’t say this to show off but because it’s absurd. I am the primary journalistic link between a population of 1.3 billion and 1.5 billion. **And why the title Smoke and Mirrors?** The name connotes deceptive surfaces. This is a phrase that applies to China and India’s relationship. [The two countries] make these claims of friendships but in some ways, China is India’s biggest threat, not Pakistan. China’s military is stronger and the two countries have an active border dispute. The point is, if you take things at face value, you won’t get the full story. **So how did you get started in journalism and why China?** There were only two things that I ever wanted to be in life: a veterinarian or a journalist. I wanted to spend all day with cats and dogs. But then I realized that I wouldn’t actually be spending my day playing with cats and dogs, but cutting them open. So I decided that I didn’t want to do that, and I’d do journalism instead. I was finishing up a graduate program in California when I visited China in 2001. I was amazed. There was all this construction, buildings practically being vomited up in the city. There was so much dynamism and energy. I thought to myself, “What world have I been living in?” This is THE story. I felt like it would be a pity to not at least dip my toes into it **So you moved over and then stayed for five years writing for international publications like the Wall Street Journal Asia and then full time for The Hindu. How did you get your start here?** I got my break really when SARS broke out. Many foreigners left but I stayed at the university [where I was teaching news writing]. The school had pretty much been shut down with the students under quarantine. I called up my old TV station [in Delhi] and they were so excited to get insider reporting. So I was reporting over the phone, looking out of my window and describing what I saw. Like… they’re wearing masks! Anyway, it was then that I found my voice and my medium [print journalism]. I realized in writing that I love words. From then on, I was writing about everything China-related. The great thing about being a foreign correspondent is that you get to be both a specialist and a generalist. What are you working on next? I’m writing a kid’s book. The book is set in China and based on two Chinese hutong cats that become diplomat cats. It’s called From Dustbin to Diplomat and is a window on contemporary China. The cats are named Doudou and Tofu, after my own. **Why cats?** Well, I love my cats, and my husband and I often use them to role play or brainstorm. We’d say, I wonder what Tofu would think about this or that. So we’d developed these incredibly complex personalities for them. I also used to write my mother long emails about my cats, and one day she suggested that I just write a book about them. My publisher, Harper Collins, wanted me to write another book like the first, since of course publishers just want you to do more of the same because it’s easier to market. But I gave them this idea and they agreed, eventually. **What do you think of international coverage of China right now?** The international reporting on China, I think suffers from a narrow range of perspectives. What you get are journalists that know China and their own country very well, but not anywhere else. So you’ve got them saying that certain phenomena are peculiarly Chinese or [representative of the] communist party, when this is not necessarily the case. There are well over a hundred foreign journalists in Beijing, a couple from India. But none from Africa, for example, even though Africa and China’s relationship is very important right now. I think there is a lot of room for other perspectives.

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