I’m writing this column in Kunshan, China. The nearest city is Suzhou, which is a
prosperous little place, but it’s no match to flashy Shanghai. Despite this, just a few hours ago, I was with five other Indians, driving through Suzhou, gaping awe-struck and clicking photos of everything from streetlights to parking lots. It was dark but Suzhou was lit up like a video game. Our van rode smoothly on wide, pothole-less roads. Bright patterns of neon danced all over the buildings. Even the flyovers—Suzhou has a set of flyovers that make New Delhi’s tangle of elevated roadways look simple—were dotted with lights. One of us tentatively asked our Chinese friend if these were Christmas decorations. Our friend looked at us perplexed and replied, “No, no. This is every day. Christmas is not big in China.” All I could think of was how the Bandra Worli-Sea Link is illuminated; it suddenly seemed rather plain next to Suzhou’s disco flyovers.
Suzhou is an old city with a new sector. The old parts are neatly preserved. Its streetlights look like Chinese lanterns. It has winding streets, traditional tiled roofs and four beautiful, historic private gardens that are now open to the public. The new section is a grid of skyscrapers and malls, all glinting glass and neon. It has malls, boutiques, an expat colony and retail outlets of virtually every luxury brand. A high-speed train takes you from Suzhou to Shanghai in 20 minutes (the drive takes two hours). Suzhou also has two museums and a cinema that shows Hollywood releases.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a tier-two city in China. Contrast this to Mumbai, where we have no idea what it means to have a road without a pothole; where barely one museum is operational; and where resignation appears to be the mantra for survival.
The depressing part of seeing places like Suzhou isn’t acknowledging how much more developed China is than India. I’m no economist but I’ve read enough headlines to know India is about as likely to beat China at world domination by economic means as I am likely to ride off into a sunset with George Clooney. Seeing the infrastructure in China and comparing it to the unholy mess in India makes democracy look dysfunctional. Autocracy comes across as a necessary rite of passage for a developing country. Being a functioning democracy, we have overcrowded cities, inadequate and substandard infrastructural projects, corrupt politicians, gaping socio-economic inequalities and a situation where the value of human life is less than that of a car. We have secondary cities like Patna. China, on the other hand, has places like Suzhou.
One of my companions observed earnestly that, “But for details like not having elections and freedom of speech, the Chinese seem quite happy.” I was going to tweet this sentence with a suitably sarcastic hashtag, when I remembered that in China, my phone can’t access Twitter legally. That I was instructed to put down “writer”, not “journalist”, in my tourist visa application. That admiring traditional watercolours of bamboo, pandas and koi fish in little gift shops was kosher, but making and accessing art that dared to protest was dangerous. The most chilling thing about China is that it makes you wonder whether learning your way around firewalls isn’t a small price to pay for development; as though Mumbai’s local trains are in the condition they are because there are elections in our country.
Often in Mumbai, circumstances remind us how closed our society is. One’s social networks decide what opportunities one will get. Attempting to bring about even the slightest change feels like being a crash test dummy. News reports frequently serve to remind us that freedom is under threat. Our leaders seem to be more fixated upon personal profit than anything else. Yet for all these woes, at least news from the rest of the country reaches us and we know we can protest without the risk of imprisonment. That said, I do wish I had a few more days in both Suzhou and Shanghai, because next to them, Mumbai is a little dull.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.Tags: Suzhou, The Definite Article