Europe Through the Looking Glass: Nina Martyris on Pallavi Aiyar

An Indian author, having written about China, turns her gaze to Europe.

Europe Through the Looking Glass: Nina Martyris on Pallavi Aiyar

Punjabi Parmesan by Pallavi Aiyar. Penguin India. 344 pages.

TWO YEARS AGO, earthquakes in northern Italy caused hundreds of thousands of wheels of Parmesan cheese to come crashing to the floor, resulting in devastating losses of over a hundred million euro. Responding with culinary patriotism, a celebrated Italian chef helped organize a nationwide solidarity night. Italians were asked to cook a Parmesan-themed dish whose recipe the chef put out. But that evening, when Italy sat down to its delicious risotto cacio e pepe, one wonders how many Italians were aware that they were helping not merely their country’s beleaguered cheese-makers but also the 100,000-plus Punjabi migrants from India who depend on northern Italy’s dairy and agricultural industry for employment — and without whose backbreaking labor cheese-making in Parma would, quite simply, collapse.

That valuable nugget of information — that the king of Italian cheeses depends so completely on migrant labor — is reflected in the title of Pallavi Aiyar’s absorbing and enjoyable book Punjabi Parmesan, whose subtitle is equally revealing: “Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis.” Through a series of elegant and thoughtful essays tinged with humor and wry comment, Aiyar takes the reader on a journey through Western Europe’s still affluent but increasingly discomfited heart: a recession-hit welfare continent in which the steely Germanic North finds itself in the role of fiscal nanny to the chaotic Mediterranean South (“the naughty Greeks and thin-lipped Germans”). A continent beset by German schizophrenia, wherein a strong and stable Germany is both looked to for bailouts but also eyed with suspicion. A continent haunted by the guilt over its colonial past while looking reluctantly to a European Union future. An aging continent with escalating health costs, predominantly white and culturally Christian — if religiously secular — impressed by globalization from below and above: below are the poor immigrants from the former colonies who helped build Europe’s postwar economies and then, instead of obediently returning to their home countries, brought their wives over, had children, and continued to live in their adopted countries, and above are the rapacious foreigners, the Chinese millionaires who buy up French vineyards and châteaus and make disparaging remarks about croissants, the Gujaratis in Antwerp who have outpaced the Jews in the diamond trade, and the Indian billionaire who coolly bought the steel giant Arcelor — a continent where scapegoat-hunting is on the rise — manifested in veil bans and minaret bans and the Eurabia rhetoric of right-wing politicians. Also on the rise are unemployment, entitlements, and a pervasive Zukunftsangst (fear of the future).

But first, a little about Aiyar’s background, which is integral to the perspective and strengths of this book: an Oxford-educated Indian journalist who has lived in Los Angeles, London, and Beijing, Aiyar is married to a Spaniard who is an ardent Sinophile — in short, her credentials are as impeccably global as that other Iyer’s, Pico. For seven years she lived in China, worked as a foreign correspondent for two Indian newspapers, learnt Mandarin, taught English, traveled the country and Tibet, and produced Smoke and Mirrors, a reportage-based memoir that documents “the relentless churnings and changes” in China but also pauses to savor Beijing’s hutongs, “painfully beautiful in the snow,” and discern that “alongside pervasive money worship, a subtle but palpable resurgence of interest in the spiritual was also emerging.” Smoke and Mirrors is as far from the standard foreign-correspondent parachute product as possible, and is in fact superior in terms of solid reporting and insight to other books on China as seen through Indian eyes, such as Pankaj Mishra’s collection of journalistic pieces, A Great Clamour, published in India.

In 2009, when Aiyar’s husband, who works with the European Commission, was transferred to Brussels, the family moved with him to “the heart of Europe.” Having documented “the rise of the rest,” Aiyar was now in the perfect place to report on “the decline of the West,” and, indeed, she exploits her India-China knowledge to its fullest, drawing frequent comparisons between the economies of the sclerotic “Old World” and the frenetic “New World.” The comparisons range from the philosophical — secularism and tolerance in Europe vs. the same concepts in India — to the utilitarian — it takes a day to get a phone connection in Beijing; it takes several weeks in Brussels — to the cultural. Aiyar is acutely aware of how much healthier and cleaner Europe’s cities are — there is no perpetual throat-irritating haze, which China’s big cities are shrouded with; the milk is safe, as is the drinking water. But she also dwells on the isolation and sense of estrangement she experiences on the polite and depopulated streets of Brussels, something she never felt in re nao (hot and noisy but in a positive way) China, and how her little son gets his first culture shock when he addresses a kindly neighbor with, “Hi, Auntie” — the standard form of address used by children for women in India — only to be politely told, “I am not your Auntie, dear.” “She wasn’t being rude,” writes Aiyar, “merely factual.”

The terms “Old World” and “New World” are, of course, almost nonsensically ironic, something Aiyar is well aware of. While it’s a refreshing change to read an Easterner’s cool, prescriptive take on European mores — the title of the first chapter, “Adventures in Occidentalism,” winks at the centuries of Oriental kitchen-sink exotica dished out by Western travelers, journalists, moralists, diarists, and other self-appointed prisms — what makes the experience really enjoyable is that her observations, while often critical, are never strident.

Aiyar’s Mandarin also proves invaluable, allowing her to interact in a relaxed way with Chinese businessmen and schnitzel-hating Chinese children. When she accompanies a group of these super-wealthy kids — who call her “Auntie Journalist” — to the Swarovski store, where they proceed to blow thousands of euros, one cheeky little boy shows her a crystal dog he has bought: “You know what I like about this?” he grins. “The fact that it’s not ‘Made in China’!” These Little Emperors, she muses, will never know what it is to chi ku (eat bitterness) the way their parents and grandparents had to, and perhaps this next generation will be as unwilling to tighten their belts as the Europeans are today.

One of the funniest chapters in the book describes the ludicrous rules of retail in Belgium: slippers, for instance, are a seasonal item sold only in September, and stores can hold sales only twice a year (ostensibly to protect small stores from dumping by large chains). The European Union (EU), thankfully, is quickly getting rid of these absurdities, but the deeper problem is the entrenched culture of entitlement that governs the economic morality in Europe. Aiyar notes with bemusement how local workers, who are part of the “global labor elite,” go on strike at the slightest provocation, “quivering with talk of injustice,” and she is quietly appalled when Belgian farmers spill around three million liters of milk on fields to protest the EU’s plan to gradually abolish milk quotas. In the face of this kind of criminal waste, the Old and New Worlds seem to belong to very different galaxies.

Two words that leave their imprimatur on Punjabi Parmesan are “vacation” and “work.” Even in the middle of the recession, notes Aiyar, there was a spoiled insistence on le grand vacances — the long and leisurely summer holiday during which everyone from the local gardener to the top civil servants goes to the beach. The vacation ritual is followed with religious passion — the European Commission dining hall even has a tableau of a beach scene “like a shrine to the God of vacances.” While the natives are rubbing themselves down with suntan lotion, the immigrants continue to saw trees, drive taxis, trade in diamonds — and get cursed for it. In Europe, as in every other part of the world, immigrants work long hours for low wages — through holidays and Sundays — sacrifice time spent with family, miss social events, and do everything possible to increase their incomes — and this applies from the Punjabi tree-fellers to the millionaire diamantaires. Put bluntly, says Aiyar, the immigrants want the “right to work” while the natives want the “right to vacation.”

One of the most emotionally fraught encounters in the book occurs when Aiyar meets the Jewish head of a diamond house, an old man called Pinkusewitz, faced with the bitter prospect of having to pack up and leave Antwerp because it is impossible to compete with the Indians, whose strong family networks, cheap diamond-cutting and polishing centers in India, and 24/7 work ethic has made them unassailable. She sympathizes with his predicament but:

“The Indians work too hard,” he spat. It was the first time I’d ever heard “work” made to sound like a dirty word. “That’s all they talk about, ‘diamonds.’ It’s their life and they won’t stop at anything to grab customers. Even if it means selling at a loss.”

[…] I felt uncomfortable. […] Like so many of his community, it was apparent that Pinkusewitz was handcuffed to the painful history of the Jews, which cast their present-day plight in particularly sharp relief. How many times had they been hounded out of the professions they had carefully staked out as their own with hard work and forbearance? […] The allegations Pinkusewitz had made against the Indians — the “unfair” competition they posed because of their willingness to work too hard and their desire to “grab” business at any cost — are charges that have been leveled time and again, over centuries, against the Jews themselves. […] [But] the Antwerp Jews of today appeared, somewhat unreflexively, to espouse a common European sentiment towards the continent’s new immigrants: they worked too hard, for too little.

At least the diamond traders are wealthy and can look after themselves. Not every migrant group is that fortunate. The chapter titled “The Veiled Threat” examines the largely hostile relationship between Europe and its poor Muslim migrants, mainly from North Africa. The cultural difference and new demographics, writes Aiyar, are something that Europe is struggling to assimilate: “To be Belgian meant being white, culturally Catholic, eating speculoos biscuits with afternoon coffee and going to the seaside in the summer.” It isn’t equated with “wearing headscarves, molding your actions to the Koran’s diktats, or being called Mohammed. Yet, since 2008, Mohammed has in fact become the most popular name for baby boys in Brussels.” Lest this suggest that the bogey of Eurabia has taken flesh, Aiyar is quick to point out that only four million of the EU’s population is Muslim, and that for all the heat generated over the veil ban, only 350 women in France actually wore the burqa in public, while only one percent of Muslim girls wore a headscarf to school. Surprisingly, though, for a writer alert to the workings of history, she doesn’t explore the hundreds of years of Moorish rule that Europe experienced, during which Spanish Andalusia became the center of an unprecedented scientific and cultural flowering between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — a period of religious tolerance that Europe needs to be reminded of to counter the contemporary trend of conflating Islam with terrorism, backwardness, and fanaticism.

If there is one project that has Aiyar’s vote, it is the European Union, a collaboration she is as enthusiastic about as its most famous cheerleader, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. (“We no longer have the choice: It is political union or death.”) Having reported on the EU’s numerous institutions, she is painfully aware of the ponderous nature of the beast, its bureaucratic bloat, “duplicity and hubris.” And yet, she says, “Its essence is precious. And fragile.” With its tolerant, open, peaceful, and diversity-espousing manifesto, the EU is absolutely vital to check the “smorgasbord of unsavory tendencies — from xenophobia and protectionism, to the reassertion of tribal, nationalistic identities.” Every time questions about the viability of the EU were raised, she writes, “a clammy hand gripped my heart.”

The closing chapter title, “Celebrating the Decline of Europe?,” might sound a tad harsh, but Aiyar clarifies it is prompted not by schadenfreude, but a broader acknowledgment — the relative decline of Europe means that the rest of the world is catching up with the standards of the developed world, and that prosperity is being spread somewhat more equitably across the globe. Moreover, for all the doomsday declinism, things will never really be as dire in Western Europe as they are in the third world, where billions live in “disease-ravaged, gut-distending poverty.”

Even following proposed reforms to restore economic competitiveness, Europe’s health care would be more affordable, its unemployment benefits more generous, its home more temperature-controlled, than in most places in the world.

But in order to maintain that status quo, it is time to stop the “naval-gazing pessimism” and start on a mild regimen of chi ku.


Nina Marytris is a frequent contributor to LARB.

LARB Contributor

Nina Martyris has written for several publications including The Times of India, The Guardian, The New RepublicSlateSalon and The Millions.


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