Chinese Whiskers has a major play of the cat metaphor - Soyabean and Tofu coming from 'middle-class' and 'dustbin' backgrounds respectively and negotiating life in 21st century Beijing. At times the book comes across as 'cute'- a Bambi-like story.
The author – Pallavi Aiyar - is a former journalist. Written in the form of a fable in which life in Beijing is seen from the points of view of two cats, Soyabean and Tofu, the tale is a touching, colourful montage of urban China inhabited by its citizens. She has smartly sketched the characters of this story in the form of veiled memoir.
The conflict between Old China and New China is evident in the form of the almost 80-year-old Nai Nai and her grandson Xiao Xu. The generation gap in all societies is a strong undercurrent in the book. Conversations flow, "Why have we Chinese lost our sense of wonder?... They don't read, they watch TV. They don't go to the theatre but to the disco." And "Chinese need to be more practical... Calligraphy doesn't make money... Poetry doesn't buy cars".
Chinese Whiskers is woven around the two cats. Also incorporated are contemporary events such as the SARS virus, a pet-food scandal and migrant workers flooding in to work during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
Significant to the modern take on China, Aiyar's characters take us to the terrains where other Chinas reside. A migrant construction worker tells the lost cat Tofu, "Our great leader Deng Xiaoping said it didn't matter if it was a black cat or white cat as long as it caught mice. But he forgot to add that what really matters is whether it's a rich cat or a poor cat. You see there are no mice to catch for the peasant cat at all. The fat cats in the city gobble them all up, leaving nothing for the rest.
Author: Pallavi Aiyar; Publisher: Harper Collins; Price: Rs 399