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India Through the Eyes of a Chinese Journalist



 A poster for Kaal, an Indian horror film, on display outside a cinema at Connaught Place in New Delhi.

If not for my in-depth exchanges with local Indians and the intimate understanding I have gained of Indian society, my impressions of the Indian subcontinent would be as superficial as those of the majority of Chinese – that it is a place with fewer skyscrapers and international shopping centers than China, more beggars and poverty-stricken people, narrower roads, and an overwhelmingly chaotic and polluted urban environment. India is also, according to the limited Chinese understanding, a software giant, all Indians speak English, Bollywood films are no more than simple love stories interspersed with song and dance sequences, and Indian trains are always packed to over-capacity, with people sitting on the roof and trying to board while the train is moving. Chinese people also perceive India as a large country bent on competing with China in all respects. All of these impressions, however, are based on either Chinese or Indian media coverage. Few Chinese people have actually been to India.

I also held these misconceptions until I actually lived there and came to know more about Indian society. It was then that I realized how media descriptions of India are less than inaccurate, or at best incomplete. I think one must live in a country for at least one year to fully understand a nation.

Turtle vs. Bunny

When my fellow researchers and I attended a meeting in Kochi in 2008 we could see from our hotel window the work in progress on expanding a nearby multi-story building. An Indian friend told me that the project had been going on for more than three years owing to problems with hiring construction workers. We were astonished, knowing that in China such project could be finished within six months.

India's pace when building infrastructure such as roads and bridges is indeed relatively slow, and has seriously affected foreign investment. The stipulation in India's overly rigid labor law that a certain procedure must be followed before Indian workers can be fired also makes it difficult to attract foreign capital into the subcontinent's labor-intensive industries. But Indians have their own way of rationalizing this problem. "India's democratic system includes the protection of every citizen's rights. Although reforms to the labor law are needed, not a single ruling party in India would dare run the risk of mass unemployment. We hope that India will develop labor intensive manufacturing industries in the same way as China, but believe we should work on it step-by-step. That many people compare India to an elephant hence seems reasonable. We do move 'slower' than China does, but advance steadily," an Indian friend of mine once told me.

Western media like to compare competitiveness between China and India to a battle between a dragon and an elephant. It struck me as funny that Indian media are more inclined to compare it to a race between a turtle and a bunny, because to their way of thinking, India moves at a turtle's steadier pace.

"Vote for Me"

While living in India I traveled extensively in remote rural areas to see first-hand local farmers' living conditions. But it was not until assigned to the government of Baishui County in Shaanxi Province, an underdeveloped rural area of China, that I saw the fundamental differences between life in the countryside of China and of India. In China's villages, banners saying, "To get rich, first build roads" and "The family planning policy is great and girl children are as good as boys" are ubiquitous. Most of the posters seen in India's rural areas, however, bear the slogan "vote for me" beneath the logos of various political parties. A visiting Indian expert in Baishui County told me that government cadres in China personally understand the needs of farmers and offer their help, whereas most Indian cadres think about farmers only at times of elections when they need their votes.

But something that distinguished India from China was the active role NGOs play in helping local farmers. There are many in India that do all they can to help farmers acquire new knowledge and practical farming techniques. When natural disasters such as tsunamis or earthquakes occur, these NGOs immediately step forward to support and give help to the poor. I personally witnessed how their warm-hearted efforts made a significant difference to the material and cultural lives of local farmers.

Luxury or Sardine Train Travel

I often come across various accounts on Chinese blogs of train travel experiences in India. Some praise the cleanliness, excellent service and high quality of food and drink that Indian rail travel offers, but more complain about their sufferings on sardine-style trains. A person unfamiliar with India might be bemused at these contradictory portrayals, but I can confirm that both are true and that the bloggers concerned have taken different types of train.

India has luxury trains as well as ordinary ones. There is, for instance, a luxury tourist train tailor-made for foreign travelers that crosses western India, and also fast trains such as the Rajdhani and Shatabdi Express. All are characterized by cleanliness and considerate service. When the train departs, attendants ask passengers whether or not they eat meat, and snacks and beverages are provided throughout the journey. But, as might be expected, the cost of traveling on luxury trains is relatively high.

Everyday Indian people usually travel second class where there is no air-conditioning. I found this kind of train travel acceptable as long as the weather was not too hot. But they are usually jam-packed because two or more people squeeze into a seat intended for one. I found short distance trains the most uncomfortable. As there are no seat reservations they work on the same principle as bus travel. Each one I took was so crowded that I was unable to move for the two or three hours the journey took. But I never saw a train so crowded that passengers overflowed on to the roof or clung to its doors as it moved. I think this is the kind of scenario seen only in the movies.

Rediscover Bollywood

Chinese people have heard of India's world-famous Bollywood, but have seldom seen any of the films it produces. Most only know classics such as Awaara (1951) and Caravan (1971). Bollywood films have through bold innovations created and developed vivid forms of expression, although they mainly stick to the traditional format of a plot incorporating song and dance performances. The majority of Bollywood films are either romances or about family ethics. An ever-greater proportion, however, exposes existent social evils. Bollywood romances are a little over-the-top for my taste, but I find those made from a social realist perspective that reflect the lives of the people both impressive and touching.

The 2007 film Taare Zameen Par, which was nominated for an academy award for Best Foreign Language Film, tells the story of a boy with the wildest of imaginations, but who is always getting in trouble and constantly chastised for failing his exams. In a final effort to discipline him, his parents send him to boarding school. Things change when the boy meets his new art teacher, whose patience and care help the boy find confidence in himself. The film's colorful scenarios successfully mirror the child's internal world of rich wonders, and move the audience as well as make them laugh. If this film were to be screened in China I'm certain it would cause a sensation among Chinese parents and teachers.

Another film Rann, which hit the big screen in 2010, portrays a realistic picture of modern Indian society. It tells the story of cut-throat fighting for survival among television media. In an attempt to win the ratings battle and more advertising income, various television channels make and release fake news that flatters certain politicians, thus becoming no more than a device to deceive everyday voters. The film's true-to-life scenes bring to my mind the irresponsible reports from the Indian media last year of encroachments by China's troops.

Fluent in both English and Hindi?

India has more than ten official languages of which English and Hindi are the two most commonly spoken. Chinese people hence assume that all Indians are bilingual in Hindi and English, but this is not necessarily true. I remember being in Chennai City of Tamil Nadu in southern India, where a local friend invited me to a movie. As he had offered to translate the dialogue for me, I happily chose the one I most wanted to see. But his response was, "I'm sorry, but that film is in Hindi, which I don't understand either. Could you pick one in Tamil?"

After making several trips to more remote areas, I also realized that English is far less widely spoken in India than most Chinese assume. After a stay as a visiting scholar in the deeply Hindu Gujarat State of western India, I understood how unlikely it was that India had 100 million or so population who could speak English.

None in Gujarat – neither street vendors nor the teachers and students at the school where I stayed – could speak English. When I gave a lecture in English at the university, only one third of the audience could understand what I was saying. The remaining two thirds relied on the translated transcript of my lecture.


TANG LU is a journalist and senior editor at Xinhua News Agency. She studied at the School of International Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi from 1996 to 1997, and was a senior visiting scholar at Sardar Patel University in Gujarat from 2004 to 2005.


VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us