“Who says nationality is the sole barometer of belonging?” asks Indian novelist Mishi Saran. The peripatetic author has a point. Born in the north Indian city of Allahabad, and still an Indian citizen, Saran has also lived in Switzerland, Indonesia, the United States, China, and South Korea. Today, she calls Hong Kong home.
Of all those places, Saran says it’s China, and specifically Shanghai, that has had the most profound influence on her sense of place. “My eight years in Shanghai were some of the most intensely lived moments of my life — an unpeeling of an onion, as I dug through the city’s layers, reaching for an understanding, however weak,” she said.
To Saran’s surprise, she found under one of those layers a story close to home: Shanghai’s Parsi population. Parsis are the followers of the prophet Zarathustra. With their roots in Persia (present-day Iran), many Parsis took flight to India in the eighth century to escape religious persecution, although some scholars debate that impetus. Later, many of them found their way to Shanghai, where they once formed a small but vibrant community.
Saran spoke to Sixth Tone about memory and place, her uncovering of the legacy of the Parsi people in China, and the inexplicable, perpetual allure of Shanghai.
A portrait of Mishi Saran. Courtesy Mishi Saran.
Sixth Tone: What were your first impressions of China when you came here almost three decades ago?
Mishi Saran: I first landed in China as a language exchange student in Beijing in the fall of 1988. I remember the wide, silent streets, a poured-gold afternoon light, a single donkey-drawn cart, the plain blue clothes people wore, the mingled smell of garlic and coal and cigarettes, which is still China’s body odor. Shortly thereafter, I began to write about it. How could I not?
Sixth Tone: How did you first approach China in your writing?
Saran: For my first book “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang,” I followed the tracks of a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk on the Silk Road, seeking India under his guidance, determined to link my Indian heritage and my passion for China, still buzzing with preoccupations of identity. The great western expanses of China’s deserts drew me; the thrill of travel filled my lungs. My second book, a novel called “The Other Side of Light,” in hindsight was partly an attempt to imagine a life in India, and perhaps thus set myself free of it.
Sixth Tone: You are based in Hong Kong these days, but Shanghai has strongly shaped both you and your writing. Why is that?
Saran: Although I majored in Chinese studies as an undergraduate and had written reams about China, when I moved to Shanghai in 2006, it was because of my husband’s job. I had no idea I was going to fall hard — not for another man, or anything mundane like that, but for the city.
For one thing, there was this weird familiarity about Shanghai’s buildings: terrazzo floors, those smooth, rounded wooden banisters and balustrades, art deco facades, the bold furniture of that era — I recognized it immediately. My grandmother had chairs like that.
Shanghai’s architecture resembles many bits of Indian cities. In Mumbai there are buildings just like the ones on the Bund. You find glimpses of the former French Concession scattered all over Delhi. As a girl, the house I lived in had terrazzo floors, and every time I see terrazzo floors in Shanghai, I can’t help feeling immediately at home. Grounded, if you will. I recognized these Shanghai villas with lawns that lay behind walls. I even recognized the sharp-edged glass stuck atop those boundary walls so people can’t climb over and steal your valuables.
As I have written before, Shanghai felt to me littered with stories; they lay at our feet like dust-covered gold nuggets. We skirted them or kicked at them every single day, and it maddened me to think that I wouldn’t live long enough to tackle each one. Of course, Hong Kong must have them too. It’s just that Shanghai’s stories seem to vibrate at the same frequency as me.
A villa in Shanghai near the former French Concession where members of the Parsi community once lived, Sept. 2, 2016. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: When was it that you discovered that the Parsi people had a place among all those countless stories?
Saran: I remember the shock the first time I heard that there were once Sikh policemen in Shanghai. Later, I learned quite by accident that there had once been Parsis in Shanghai when I stumbled on Jehangir Bejan (“J.B.”) Tata, who was born in Shanghai in 1919 and lived into his 90s. I learned through long interviews with him how the story of his house, and the story of his life, mingled with China’s modern history.
After the Parsis settled on India’s west coast, they expanded to other parts of the subcontinent and to other corners of the world, including China.
On India’s west coast, in Mumbai and Surat, for example, Parsi traders often worked closely with their British counterparts, plying the sea routes between Mumbai and Canton, and like the British also settled and worked in these places. Later, after China lost the Opium Wars to British naval might, Parsis settled in Hong Kong before drifting north to Shanghai, where they prospered, mostly as traders. The Tata clan, too, stayed in Shanghai until China’s Communists won the civil war in 1949.
The Tatas of Shanghai are distantly related to India’s powerful and far-reaching Tata family. J.B. Tata’s father, Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, sailed east in 1904 and eventually settled in Shanghai near the Bund, where he had five children with his Parsi wife. The family’s own house, just by the French Concession, was completed in 1935.
For decades, J.B. Tata had been trying to persuade the Indian consulate in Shanghai to help him recover his family’s ancestral home, which had been lost when the Communists won the war. He and I talked on the phone for ages. I met him and his Russian wife in San Francisco a few times, and we spoke some more in person.
By then he was already blind and very deaf. He told me where to look for his old house, on Wulumuqi Road. He couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast, but he remembered everything about Shanghai. I pored over old maps in the library of Tess Johnston, the grande dame of Shanghai's foreign history, and she was the one who spotted the location of the Parsi cemetery on Fuzhou Road. From there, the story grew by leaps and bounds.
Now, I seek scattered graveyards in Macau and Guangzhou. I scan the names of the dead, wondering who they were, and flick through archives, driven by the pure need to discover, filled with the satisfaction of knowing that I wasn’t the first Indian to tangle thus with Shanghai, and with China.
Sixth Tone: Would you say you still feel the pull of Shanghai today?
Saran: In Hong Kong, every time I hear someone say “Shanghai,” my heart hopscotches and I look at that person with something like fury, for they have trod on streets that belong to me.
Once upon a time in Hong Kong, it meant something to be from Shanghai. A woman born and bred in Hong Kong once told me that her father, who hailed from Shanghai, would speak of the place with such yearning that she grew up feeling jealous of a city she did not even know. I know how your father felt, I wanted to tell her.
I’m still obsessed with the “incessant tick-tock of history.” The phrase comes from Leung Ping-kwan’s poem “Wanchai,” a district in Hong Kong that is my present home. But now I don’t want a home. I’m happy in the fictional city I build in my mind, for the novel I’m currently working on is set in Shanghai, and I write about Shanghai most days of the week.
If I finish the novel, I will lose Shanghai. This is my petrified belief, and so I splash the story out, watching it become longer and longer.
(Header image: A photo taken on June 29, 1941, shows a gathering of some members of the Parsi community at Avan Villa, near the former French Concession, Shanghai. Courtesy of the Tata Family)