Smoke and Mirrors - Book Review

4:44 PM Shanky 1 Comments


There are certain books that claim to have all the answers for all the questions. There are books that gives you only questions and asks you for the answers. Then there are books that just narrates a stroy and provokes questions in your mind. The third variety of books are powerful as the provoked questions wont leave your head until you give them the due time and analyse them. Smoke & Mirrors by Pallavi Aiyar is one such book. 


This book details about the five year love-hate relationship the author shared with China while living there. This is the first non-fiction and non-management book for me, I think, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Mostly because it had what I enjoy while watching a travel channel. It was not at all about the tourist places and how to get there and how much it will cost. It was more about what do people do there on a day today basis? What is it like inside their homes, office and schools/colleges? Are girls as much fussy as they are in India? Ok, I made that one up. But you got my point. This book is about exactly what the author saw in China and what she liked and what she did not like so much. She also breaks a number of wrong believes that we Indians hold against the Chinese. Also having been educated in India she could not resist herself from analysing the situation - political, social and economical. But the good thing is, most of the time she does not paralyse you with her analysis, rather makes you think over it more. Further, being an Indian herself she cannot but compare what she saw in China with what she has seen in India. As an Indian she is amazed at the dragon paced growth of China, the efficiency of the government and the healthy senior citizens of China. Yet as an Indian she also slyly rejoices about the democracy we have. The democracy that allows us to protest against the government, dirty the streets in the name of protest and then protest again against the government inaction in clearing the mess we had created. 

India and China have many things in common. But the author does not dwell too much into such common ground as it is too mundane. She instead gets into the controversial and more thought provoking world of  differences and the never ending thirst of each country to size the other one up. The world sees the two countries as the Asian giants with huge potential and capabilities that might disturb the current world order. But closer home it is a different story. It is constant comparison between the two. Almost like a middle class mother comparing her son with the neighbor's son or daughter. Being in India, we simply cannot stop  comparing. Out of this comparison rises many questions all of which can be put as sub-question to a larger debate: which is better - communist regime in China or the democratic Indian way? The answer lies in the grey cells of the reader. 

The most interesting part for me were the ones that described the author's life in Hutongs (name for traditional neighborhoods in Beijing) and her interactions with her landlord Mr. Wu. Partly my interest is derived from the fact that my childhood was spent in a very similar neighborhood in India. In my neighborhood everyone knows everyone, condiments and vegetables arrive at your door step with the sharp cry of the hawker, evenings are to be spent socializing with your neighbors. This part of the book is also free from the annoying intelligent questions that pop up in every other chapter of the book. This is the emotional part of the book and I would even go to say that it was the soul of the book that discussed about the common man in Beijing. Another important and inspirational part of the book is the one about the entrepreneurial spirit in some of the states and districts of China. 

This is a book to be read one chapter at a time with tea/coffee and is best avoided if you are a fast reader who devour one bestseller after another.This is one of the biggest drawbacks of the book. The reason why I say this is that it sometimes confuses you with the structure. Author goes into the travelogue, takes a break by inserting a little analysis of what she saw, then a conversation with a cab driver and then the travelogue will resume. Another reason is also that the author simply could not give up on her journalistic choice of words. I found some of the words to be, what I call, GRE words. As far as the aesthetics are concerned, the book does good. Typography and cover are attractive. Pictures of the place being discussed in the chapter at the beginning of each chapter would have taken this book to another level and could have made it easier for the reader to imagine the entire scene that is being described. 

So, will India overtake China? Will democracy be a boon or bane to India? Will China be the next super power? I have no answer to these questions, only further questions that can be augmented. However for the curious cats, Prof. Michael Witt from Insead claims to have the answer here.

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