Diary item: Shanghai ki angdai

The new ism in the city is nationalism.

Written by M J Akbar | Published:October 16, 2015 12:12 am
communism, Chinese communism, China economy, Mao Zedong China, Gajendra Chauhan, FTII, indian express, express column The success of Chinese communism may lie in the simplest of all solutions: They have driven drab out of doctrine and let a hundred colours bloom.

The success of Chinese communism may lie in the simplest of all solutions: They have driven drab out of doctrine and let a hundred colours bloom. The human landscape in “Great Leader” Mao Zedong’s China was grey, as the anxious search for elusive equality sought psychological comfort in uniformity. Mao has been elevated into a towering statue, but his one-size-fits-all dress code is dead, and his Little Red Book [the holy writ of the 1966 Cultural Revolution elided from discourse. Mao is revered as a liberator and hushed as an administrator; subtly, his memory has been strengthened and his legacy weakened.

Mao would be a puzzled alien were he to stroll through the Shanghai airport of 2015. It is a churning point of vibrant faces that reflect an upwardly mobile economy rather than a stagnant ideology. As anywhere else in the world, Shanghai’s young, lifted by the pride of their age, strut; the 30-somethings strain gently to adjust to changing seasons; the middle-aged make a heavy show of maturity; and elders reminisce in wonder at how much has cha-nged within a lifetime. But Maoism has not been replaced by the uncertainties of a vacuum. The new ism is nationalism, buoyed by the conviction that it works better, and dividends are real.

The useful bit about any ancient civilisation is the ready availability of philosophy. China’s sages once noted that if you sit by a river long enough, you will see the corpses of your enemies float by. But instead of a quiet, grassy bank along the mighty Yangtze, which runs through Shanghai on its way to the nearby ocean, there is a massive strand built by British empirewallahs to take in the evening air after they had spent a hard day selling opium, now packed with tourists, leaving little scope for philosophy. There is a touch of British Calcutta in the facade of the 19th century buildings constructed to serve colonial interests. Court, banks, an administrative block with a tower clock that boomed every 15 minutes, which is a bit too often for the oriental temperament. Modern China’s answer is stretched along the further bank: New

Shanghai is a spectacular cluster of skyscrapers that pay architectural homage to Manhattan, London and Paris.

Ever since an exquisite Helen summed up her charms in an immortal line — “Singapore ka jauban mera, Shanghai ki angdai” — during an Indian cabaret with Chinese characteristics, we Indians have been in search of an answer to an existentialist question. What precisely is Shanghai’s “angdai”?

“Angdai” is almost impossible to translate into English, for it belongs to an art of living beyond the consciousness of Europe. It is sensuous, magical, feminine movement, whether in the swing of Helen as she warbles “Mera naam Chin Chin Choo”, or in the half-glance of Waheeda Rehman when woken by moonlight to the soft strains of Guru Dutt’s “Chaudhvin ka chand ho”. The collective memory of Asia was, not too long ago, entranced by the youth of Singapore and seduction of Shanghai. Youth will always retain its magnetic power, but seduction is too languorous a process for today’s fast-paced age. There are a dozen excellent reasons to visit Shanghai, but nostalgia for Helen is not among them.

Wise old man saying of the fortnight: To go too far is the same as not going far enough. This is the sort of general truth that keeps Confucius in the advice business after two-and-a-half millennia. It could, and perhaps should, serve as a practical guide to border negotiations between India and China. I got the sense, during 48 fairly hectic hours of think-tanking with elite institutions, that the Chinese were exploring how long the next step on this most intractable of problems between two powerful neighbours should be. There is a growing belief that after decades of mutually convenient file-shuffling, New Delhi is not interested in simple stagnation anymore, and the time could be right for forward movement. We shall see what happens.

It is always good to be back home, and into the cacophony of Indian politics. I was delighted to discover a nugget ensconced within more familiar tales of anger and accusation in the ruthless battles of survival wars. This story was about a Ramlila in Delhi, not a Mahabharata in Bihar. The television star, Gajendra Chauhan, who became a bit more famous after being appointed chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, is playing a stellar role in the celebrated public performance of Ramlila. It is easier to be god, said Chauhan, than chairman of the FTII. Is there anything in Confucius to top that?

The writer is national spokersperson of the BJP.

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