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A borderline case of discomfort

Alok Sarkar 

Reshma Patil
HarperCollins India;

288 pages; Rs 599

In Strangers Across the Border, Reshma Patil has presented a kaleidoscopic picture of two giants, both deeply uncomfortable in their relationship with each other. The book summarises the findings of a series of encounters between the author and the Chinese, spread over three and a half years. Every encounter appears in a vivid and picturesque form, and the topics cover such a wide range that it is hard to quickly think of anything that has been left out. The description "Strangers" is apt, for even Indians who are interested know very little about China; and from what Ms Patil has written, even those Chinese interested in our country know far less about India. It appears that undistorted views of India are not easy to come by in China. The author deserves to be complimented on having made a significant contribution towards bridging this gap.

The subtitle "Indian Encounters in Boomtown China" is appropriate. On one hand, the book is a large collection of encounters; on the other, there is no doubt that China is a "boomtown" that continues to grow rapidly - even though it is a matter of much debate as to how long it can continue to do so. Ms Patil reports that "China's annual double digit budget for internal security has exceeded its military budget for three years since 2011". This is a heavy burden on its economy. China's high gross domestic product growth is still driven by exports that are becoming increasingly uncompetitive and huge investments in infrastructure that cannot be continued indefinitely, for any infrastructure that is not used sufficiently to generate adequate returns is a sunk cost. The Chinese leadership knows and acknowledges this and is working hard to re-orient its growth pattern; but this is easier said than done.

The rapid ageing of the Chinese population is another adverse factor. Moreover, the one-child policy in place for over three decades has resulted in China having an increasing number of spoilt children, because children with no siblings don't learn to share and because being surrounded by two parents and four doting grandparents is not exactly the best way of building well-balanced characters. From this angle, it can well be argued that India (and for that matter Japan, Vietnam and others with land and sea disputes with China) perhaps does not need to give away too much in efforts to secure quick resolutions of these disputes.

The author's knowledge of Mandarin has given her access to much information that may otherwise have been inaccessible. For instance, she is able to report extensively on the delicate topic of continuing pockets of dissent in China in spite of much effort by the authorities. Nevertheless, the innumerable difficulties in understanding restrictions and the omnipresent anxieties in the minds of the Chinese people resulting from the elaborate and overactive internal security apparatus do create a disjointed feeling while reading the book.

The description in the prologue of the Chinese method of building cricket teams is a delight. The extent to which the unstable and small Pakistan is painted as China's only reliable friend in the eyes of the Chinese is a revelation. While it is hard to think of a more succinct description of the popular view of India in China than "India is dirty", "India is poor", "India invaded and seized China's land" and "India hosts the Dalai Lama", it is hard to avoid the feeling that this simplistic view has been deliberately engineered by the authorities.

In contrast, the epilogue begins with the intriguing Chinese saying "if a man lived a good life, then he would be reborn in India". The delicate exploration of the individual, personal, human side of life in China in the epilogue is moving. The manner in which trade with India compensated temporarily to some extent for the sudden disappearance of the Western market just after the 2008 global crash - and how this trade later ran into commercial disputes compounded by an unfamiliar and completely different legal system - is a revelation. But efforts to boost trade by young entrepreneurs on both sides continue, and there is little doubt that the future of China-India relations will be substantially influenced by trade - which needs to be made more balanced both economically and technologically.

The acute discomfort of both China and India with the circumstances that they have found themselves in over the past 60 years comes out strongly in this book. In the 1950s, both new nations were well aware of the need to be friends in a world delicately balanced between the manifest leader, the United States-led West, and the challenger and short-time technological leader, the erstwhile Soviet Russia. But the isolated Tibetan plateau, under Chinese suzerainty for one half and quasi-independent for the other half down the ages, has turned out to be the single factor preventing total friendship and cooperation between China and India. Tibet had been overrun effortlessly in 1903-04 by 750 horsemen led by captain Younghusband of the British Indian army. India readily gave away its residual rights in Tibet in a genuine effort to be friends with China; but when China moved into Tibet in such a manner that the Dalai Lama had to flee to India, he could hardly be denied refuge by a nation with India's traditions. And China understandably saw (and continues to see) that as a threat. Therein lies the rub.

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First Published: Tue, August 19 2014. 21:25 IST