CHINA> India
Viewing China through Indian eyes
By Margie Sastry (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-21 07:22

"To understand China you need a common bond of humanity and the cheer of good fellowship. One must feel with the pulse of the heart as well as see with the eyes of the mind. Only with a little detachment and a little simplicity of mind can you understand a foreign nation."

How reassuring it was to find this in the prologue of the book, "My Country and My People" by Dr Lin. For many months I have been scribbling away anecdotes and experiences of my stay in China.

But my statement "I am writing a book about China" would elicit all sorts of reactions ranging from scepticism, suspicion, sheer disbelief to utter amusement. I tried a rider to strengthen my case. "From the Indian point of view," I added emphatically. But this made the reaction more candidly questioning.

The next question was inevitable. "So you have learnt Mandarin?" No, I would admit. I do not understand the language yet, but I am beginning to understand the people and the culture. By this time there was a truly transparent message in their non-verbal communication. And even without an iota of telepathic talent I could read their minds. Gone gaga with the trailing wife syndrome, they seemed to say in silence.

And yet how can I blame them? How could I claim to comprehend the conundrum that is the changing China of today? I am no economist able to pontificate on the balance of trade or global economy or whatever it is that makes headlines in financial circles. Politics is a terra incognita for me, even in the Indian context (even though I am proud of my pictures taken with two prime ministers at the ages of six and 46). I am not even an established author who would command giddy advance sums from prominent publishers. I cannot do number-crunching stunning statistics that measure comparative growth and development.

I write mostly for children and young adults, in a simple style, bereft of hype and hoopla, demystified and shorn of all jargon. I do not quote for adding complexity, weighting age to my prose nor have references galore.

But I do have a true curiosity about understanding why I am here and making the most of my stay in China. It is easy to dislike or be indifferent from a distance, but to be able to love, proximity is needed. So just by being in China and opening your heart and mind you can imbibe a lot. By leaving biases and familiar ways behind, you can absorb and assimilate a whole new world.

When I say I mean to write about the Chinese spirit and values, family bonds and esteem for elders, Chinese set phrases that encode pithy truth and humour, stories, fables, poems, folklore and traditions, songs and dances, no one believes I can do so unless I can master Mandarin. But while I struggle to do so, there is such a rich array of material available in English.

When I claim that there is much in common between India and China, there are people who refuse to believe me for the similarities are not on the surface but in the soul of the countries. They lie in the fact that despite the new stamp of the modern giants of today's material world, they really are old, great countries with a continuity of culture. Their rich art and literature, home-grown philosophy that is translated into lifestyle and value systems, the wisdom of age, and the slightly surreal self-assurance of the aged. They do have these factors that have sustained through centuries.

The urge to write about the two countries is also propelled by memories of the world-view about the two countries not so long ago. Of caricatured oriental characters in Western movies, which are now replaced by genuine interest and appreciation of the cinema of the East? The endless jokes about the population explosion that was supposed to be a doom to destruction. The same population now causes Pavlovian salivation reflex as the foreign producers view the enormous consumer market in China and India. Now Mandarin classes are mushrooming all over the world and people across nations gyrate to Indian music and use Indian software on their computers. How wonderful to live through the change.

It's a time to take stock, to reflect and rejoice, to share and compare, to remember and convey the myriad little things that are part of everyday life and the lessons one can learn from other cultures as from other people.

So I want to write a book, not a tome to rest on library shelves or a coffee table that is just a glitzy showpiece, but a small little book that captures the mellow sunshine of autumn mornings, tells of the grace and bonhomie of gracious grannies, of plump baby girls with intricate plaits and ribbons, of shikumen houses coexisting with the tallest skyscrapers, of the explosion of Sichuan pepper in the mouth, of songs that sound so romantic even though you do not know the words, the fruits and flowers that herald the season even in a modern metropolis like Shanghai, the happy families reading together in the city of books, of the horticultural marvels that are sculpted to greet all international events, of the myriad ways in which China grows upon you and encompasses your heart and mind. Yes I will write that book yet.

(China Daily 11/21/2006 page4)