Award winning journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar spent six years living in a hutong home in the heart of the old imperial city of Beijing. She reported from across China for The Hindu and Indian Express in addition to teaching English at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. She is the winner of the 2007 Prem Bhatia Memorial Award for excellence in political reporting and analysis for her dispatches from China.
Her book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China won the Vodafone-Crossword Popular Book Award for 2008.
Her first novel is Chinese Whiskers.
From Aiyar's Q & A with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham at The China Beat:
MEC: How did you come to write a book that views Beijing from a cats’-eye perspective?--Marshal Zeringue
PA: I spent five years living in Beijing’s hutongs. These were neighbourhoods that reflected many of the tensions generated by the intersection of China’s almost remorseless embrace of modernity with persisting forms of a more traditional, communal way of life.
Animals were an intrinsic part of the hutongscape. At twilight you could sometimes spot the elongated silhouette of huang shu lang (黄鼠狼 the yellow weasel), the Beijing equivalent of the city fox, tip toeing across the roofs of courtyard houses sniffing for prey. Regardless of the season old men in patched up Mao suits would sit around corner stores on low stools, their caged song birds proudly on display next to them.
And then there were the dogs. The hutongs were disproportionately peopled with retirees and their pet dogs; the ever dwindling younger generation having taken off for swankier addresses. The aural backdrop to life in these alleyways was therefore punctuated by the yapping of Pekinese dogs who were as pampered and loved by their elderly owners as a favoured grandchild.
This was an environment where people and animals lived cheek to jowl, the cramped spaces of the living quarters forcing everyone out on the street.
In my previous book, Smoke and Mirrors, I wrote extensively about my life in the hutongs and this was one aspect of the book that people across the world, be it in India, China or the US, seemed fascinated by. It seemed natural therefore to situate my novel in this geography and the cats just seemed an intuitive and interesting way to gain entry into this world.
Especially since...[read on]