Monday, November 12, 2012

Quick trip to Shanghai and Nanjing

If Manhattan wears black and England is grey, then China is red.  Red is the theme coming off the jetway at Beijing airport, an enormous airport with acres of stainless fixtures and designer stores.  Not a brazen hussy red, neither the dark crimson that suggests an obsession with the past, but a sanguine statement of strength and vitality for a nation at full gallop, a Mao Little Red Book Red (banned in the India of the 70s, but we had a copy anyway), not a red splattered with abandon, but one of effective restraint; enough to impart just a dollop of tension, paired at times with a bright deep yellow.  The last time I was this close to China was 1962, when my mother—pregnant with me—fled the border town of Tezpur as the Chinese marched into India. But those times are long gone, and today I witness nothing but unfailing politeness and friendliness.  A lady at the counter asks me where I am originally from. She then smiles and tells me that she finds Indian women very beautiful.  With no other Indians around, I, of balding crown and graying beard, feel compelled to accept some indirect responsibility and find myself thanking her. 

I have some Thai food at Beijing airport.  It tastes as bad as the Thai food in Thornwood, except that this one had expletive inspiring quarter inch slices of chillies (the red kind) that added one more layer of torture to this complex dish.  I decided to stick to Chinese fare while in China. 

I had escaped an impending storm in Westchester that would go on to lay 6 inches of snow where I live, a second storm in a matter of weeks, bringing to mind the Hindi saying, that when the Lord gives, He delivers till it perforates the roof.  A limo ride to Newark with a driver who lectured me on Latin American writers while waving a copy of  Vargas Llosa for President in his hand, was followed by a grueling 14 hour flight to Beijing.  A two hour flight then brought me to Nanjing, followed by an hour long drive through fog infested roads where the driver lost his way multiple times, till—after the third time—he set aside his machismo and pulled out a perfectly working GPS system from a small plastic package.  Peace arrived late at night in the form of a beautiful conference center and resort with a quiet lakeside room and forbidding mountains in the dark beyond. 
The next evening I travelled to Shanghai on the bullet train.  It is one thing to see impressive infrastructure in a small country, but seeing it tackled at the enormity of scale that China presents boggles the mind.  Like Tokyo, Seoul and Dubai, Shanghai follows the tradition of the grand Asian super city - mile upon mile of skyscrapers, serpentine flyovers, and enormous buildings that impose their magnificent sense of indestructibility with hunks of steel and glass and with the hubris of a city in its prime; these are beacons of civilization sucking the population out of the rural hinterlands like some giant capillary force driven machine of humanity. Looking out the window from my hotel in Pudong, I see other common elements of a large Asian city: a grandly lit river with barges and cruises, a well-kept promenade and a park along its banks.  I see a Prada at one corner and a Rolex store on another block.  This is cosmopolitan Asia’s one weakness—a fanatical obsession with Western luxury brands among the affluent.  Most likely originating in India’s princely past, this obsession resurfaced in Japan, and today appears to embrace any Asian economic segment as soon as it crosses the threshold of a certain level of economic development. 
In the morning I cross over from one side of the river, Pudong, to the other, an older embankment called the Bund that is lined with stately old buildings in the European style.  How incongruous this Urdu-Persian word sounds today in the midst of the center of commerce in China!  Yet it stands as a reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of old Shanghai.  One of the pleasures of walking around in Shanghai in the Bund and Nanjing Road area is to suddenly come upon entire small blocks full of charming one and two storeyed old buildings and narrow alleyways segregated, intact, from the encroaching construction. These are the remnants of old Shanghai: greying yet dignified counterpoints to the present and the future, scattered exclusions from the near total metamorphosis of this city.  Each building is different, each with its own twist, multicolored clothes hanging on a clothes line, a ramshackle bookstore here, a quaint shop selling tea there, a bit decrepit perhaps but full of soul; places that remind me of the back alleys of Esplanade in Calcutta. The Bund’s soulmate is Calcutta, and decades later when Calcutta will be able to afford to fix up its old buildings and mansions, I would imagine that it will look something like the Bund.   
 I cross back into Pudong and return to my hotel walking along the banks of the Huangpu.  Vendors from the Central Asian regions of China are hawking street food wearing Muslim prayer caps. Their equipment consists of a modified bicycle with a coal grill built into the pillion.  Smoke and the familiar smells of kebabs and naans rise in the air.  I have my camera with me and people on the streets have generally been co-operative.  A quiet. older kebabwalla is selling kebabs and when I ask him about being photographed, he waives me off furiously with rapid shakes of his hand.   He does not want his sense of dignity pimped.

For years, Shanghai was the only city after which a word existed in the English language.  To be Shanghaied meant to be tricked into an undesirable circumstance.  Today there are two more members to this club.  To be Bangalored is to lose one’s job to outsourcing.  And  Californication refers to the spread of California’s (and by extension today, the West’s) mindless urban development style or its sex and violence driven entertainment culture. Today California is getting Bangalored and one might argue that both Shanghai and Bangalore are getting Californicated.  In other words, some might say that the East and the West are mutually Shanghai’ing one another! 

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