City scope: the China story

Charukesi Ramadurai in Calcutta

An increasing number of Indian writers seem to be in the grip of a "China craze", fascinated by the country and its metamorphosis from dynasty-ruled kingdom to global powerhouse.

Mishi Saran, the Indian-born author who spent the first 10 years of her life in New Delhi before moving abroad, is a case in point.

Mishi Saran's essay "A House for Mr Tata, An Old Shanghai Tale" appears in Travelling In, Travelling Out.
Her first book, (2005), charts the epic journey of seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang from China to India via central Asia. To research her subject, she spent a year retracing the monk's footsteps along the Silk Road.

Almost 10 years on, Saran's fascination with China remains undiminished, as proves her latest essay, "A House for Mr Tata, An Old Shanghai Tale", published this year in the anthology .

It's the story of how a distant cousin of the founder of the Tata empire (a multinational conglom-erate that started out as a trading operation in Mumbai in the 1860s) made it big in Shanghai in the 20th century and built Avan Villa, which stood in the Chinese city until a decade ago, at one point serving as an antique shop.

The writer began studying Putonghua in 1988. "At that time," she says, "all the cool kids were studying Japanese and China was nowhere on the map.

"But my interest in China stemmed from the language. It was the beauty and strangeness of the Chinese characters, how different they were to any language I had come across."

Some Indian writers, like author Pankaj Mishra, prefer to analyse the country through its cultural artefacts, including the works of Chinese writers, from Qian Zhongshu to Ma Jian.

The result is Mishra's latest offering, which he says he wrote to educate fellow Indians about the rising superpower next door, which "we remain in the dark about".

Others, such as Pallavi Aiyar - a former Beijing correspondent for newspaper - write from their own experience of life in China.

Aiyar's novel, (2010), is a glimpse into the vanishing world of Beijing's hutongs through the eyes of two cats, set against the backdrop of the Sars epidemic.


Her first book, (2008), is a witty account of the five years she spent living in the Chinese capital, examining the parallels and differences between India and China as the Asian nations race to modernise.

Aiyar writes of a long-ago conversation at home in India during which she was asked who are the people most "alien" to Indians. "I paused … for barely a moment before answering, 'the Chinese'."


Could it be that this simple exchange explains the fascina-tion of Indian writers for all things Chinese?



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The China story