China - It is a mysterious nation to most Indians partly because our media loves to hate it (Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Dalai Lama etc) and partly because there is hardly any window we have into what is actually taking place there. I always get intrigued whenever I chance upon any fictional account set during historically significant periods or of late, non-fiction that is lucid, informative and wraps a subject that interests me.
Politics, be it in Sudan (Tears of the desert by Halima Bashir), Ethiopia (Sweetness in the belly by Emily cabb), Libya (In the country of Men by Hisham Matar), Kenya (The In-between World of Vikram Lal by MG Vassanji) or Iran (The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer), when read in bboks through the eyes of protagonists is a different subject altogether. All of a sudden, history and politics conjure a world full of possibilities - one complementing the other.
Coming to the subject of this post, 'The dragon of the pearl', its author Sirin Phathanothai writes in the 'Acknowledgments' - "To me, as to many others, China seems a repository of myths; living in their midst, I found I could only occasionally pierce them. And without my so choosing, I was borne along on the current of tumultuous political change and struggle occurring both in China and in my native Thailand." That is probably encapsulating the enormity and significance of the events that she has lived through much too simply...
The author in the relatively quieter period of late 50s is sent by her father - Sang Phathanothai, a prominent Thai Politician and adviser to Marshal Pibul - along with her brother to live under the care of the first Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The Chinese Premier warming up to the trust imposed by such an action - read as a signal for bolstering backdoor ties with China - lavishes affection and care on the two children, Sirin in particular.
In a sense, the autobiography starts there though initially the reader is privy to the close ties between Sang and Pibul seen from the author's eye. In China, Sirin and her brother Wai take time to get used to the harsh life having to forsake luxuries. They live through the Great Leap Forward. Sirin contributes to the movement by joining the "steel campaign" as she puts it. She learns how politics works everywhere and she describes it beautifully - "Public statements about events (by political leaders) did not have to conform with private evaluations of them". It is in these places that the book scores highly giving a glimpse, in anecdotal details, about the conversations she has with Zhou Enlai.
As a reader, the descriptions of her experiences studying in a Chinese school and later at a music conservatory, made me feel as if I was living through them too! This is one of the greatest assets of reading books - I get the sense of being transported to a black and white past where events and people constantly buzz around with myself in the center. It is an experience that affects my dreams and some times, pervades my activities so much that i have to shake myself out from them.
Wiki describes Zhou thus: "To a large extent, Zhou epitomized the paradox inherent in a communist politician with traditional Chinese upbringing: at once conservative and radical, pragmatic and ideological, possessed by a belief in order and harmony as well as a faith in the progressive power of rebellion and revolution". As I progressed through the book and got to observe Zhou in his various avatars, I realized how challenging it must have been to maneuver so delicately across the political waters in such turbulent times!
The book loses pace after the 'Great Leap forward' and picks steam during the cultural revolution. (There is an excellent and informative photo series on the revolution) Sirin is forced to separate from Liao Chengzhi whom she and her brother come to view as a father figure. The events that unfold gave goose-bumps to me. As I read the accounts of Sirin living in the countryside and later denouncing her own brother and father, my pulse raced.
Indeed to a person who knew nothing of the cultural revolution before reading the book, this was like a history lesson - one not written by any academic body. History is often spoken of as written by winners; an objective account of history is by definition impossible to achieve unless one can travel back in time and live through momentous times ourselves. In the absence of such an absurdity, autobiographies like these might come very close to the actual truth!
Coming back to the book, The Gang of Four in the struggle for control with Zhou Enlai wreck havoc on the lives of loyal party leaders. In the meantime, Sirin's father is arrested by the military junta that captures power in Thailand and is later released. His role after the release and his constant conviction in belief are lessons in attention to execution come what may.
The book ends when China embarks on economic development under Deng Xiaoping. Sirin lavishes praise on Zhou Enlai even as she quotes the Premier as often saying "Life is a negotiation". How true it is ! This book is one of the richest as far as the information and the manner in which it is presented goes. I am immensely happy after completing it and sharing the experience through this post!