Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis
Penguin Books India, 2013
In a review of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers in Bookforum, Jonathan Shainin begins by dissecting a segment on the ABC program 20/20, on sex-selective abortion, titled ‘India’s Dirty Secret’. Anchor Elizabeth Vargas, Shainin claims, employs all the stock clichés associated with the foreign-correspondent-meets-third-world genre. We get, he writes, “obligatory references… to ‘spiritual’ India,” a “needless… reference to ‘ancient tradition’ as an explanation for contemporary behavior”, and even an irrelevant quote from M K Gandhi, accompanied by a misspelling of the great man’s name. “If you were playing Sentimental Orientalist bingo while watching at home,” writes Shainin, “your card would have filled up pretty fast.”
And, to be sure, in my first few months reporting in India, the same snares entrapped me. For almost a week I desperately pitched a story about an open sewage stream running through New Delhi’s posh Defence Colony neighborhood, and the ridiculous sheet-metal ‘cap’ that the local government offered as a solution (presumably in an effort to disguise the smell’s source, so that it could be blamed on the dog). During the summer, I’d taken Hindi classes next door and, between the scorching 40-degree plus heat and the chewable humidity, I could almost feel the stench crawling on my skin. But the response I always got from my editor was a sardonic ‘boo-hoo’ and an eye roll. Open sewage is a long-standing problem that wouldn’t constitute news to an Indian journalist. But coming from me, it would perhaps reek of Occidental snobbery.
Ultimately, I confronted what I believe is the central dilemma for any ambitious journalist hoping to write comprehensively in a foreign environment: if the writer focuses too much on the shock of the new with a novice’s moral relativism, then in-depth reporting devolves into sensationalist travel writing. But if the writer attempts to cast judgment on the host culture’s failings too resoundingly (as I found myself doing), the writing will ring of colonial or anti-colonial resentment. Navigating these tumultuous waters and seeking to produce good journalism that speaks to any reader are lofty goals, often out of reach for those handicapped by culture shock (and the polarising emotions associated with it).
But the fact that only a few can elegantly thread this needle does not detract from the limited successes of texts that do stray too far on one side of this binary. Having read numerous accounts of Westerners’ problematic writing on Southasia – from Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods (a loaded title to say the least), to the (largely successful) aforementioned work by Katherine Boo, or the frequent failings of reporters in the New York Times’ ‘India Ink’ or the Wall Street Journal’s ‘India Real Time’ – Pallavi Aiyar’s latest book, Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis, makes for a refreshing reversal of classic Orientalism. Though the book – a narrative account of the European debt crisis and Europe’s relative decline in the 21st century – has its flaws, its journey towards an acceptance of the difficulty inherent in writing narrative journalism while overseas provides a window into the complicated relationships globalisation produces. Plus, for your average Westerner, Punjabi Parmesan provides an acrid taste of his or her own medicine.
Exceeding the expertise
Pallavi Aiyar, educated in Delhi and then at Oxford and the London School of Economics, is the daughter of the acclaimed newspaper editor and columnist Swaminathan Aiyar. Since the beginning of her career in 1999, she has received numerous journalistic accolades, including the 2006-2007 Prem Bhatia Memorial Prize for Excellence in Reporting (she is the award’s youngest ever recipient). Aiyar worked in Beijing for six years, mostly as the China correspondent for the Hindu, before moving to Brussels in 2009, where she continued to report for the Hindu and accumulated material for Punjabi Parmesan.
I desperately pitched a story about an open sewage stream running through New Delhi’s posh Defence Colony neighborhood… but the response I always got from my editor was a sardonic ‘boo-hoo’ and an eye roll. Open sewage is a long-standing problem that wouldn’t constitute news to an Indian journalist. But coming from me, it would perhaps reek of Occidental snobbery.
The book travels around Europe with Aiyar, each chapter focusing on narratives that allude to larger global issues. From an account of immigration via the diamond trade in Antwerp, to a reflection on Islam’s influence in Europe via a profile of a scholar working at Brussels’ Islamic Cultural Centre of Belgium and a portrait of global warming via a trip to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 15), Aiyar’s skilled storytelling humanises each ambitious subject she picks up. After a few years in Brussels, Aiyar finishes the book with an account of her relocation to Jakarta.
All of this travel, while leading her in many directions as a reporter, seems to have reaffirmed a nostalgic viewpoint that sees the entire developing world as her patria. This vision is best revealed in a few trite generalisations included in the book’s introduction: “In emerging countries, people were motivated by the opportunity to work. In the developed world they appeared to be motivated chiefly by the opportunity to holiday.” Later, she continues:
A lot of the talk of the ‘Decline of Europe’ variety was in fact about a relative decline, a gradual process by which other parts of the world were beginning to claim fairer and larger portions of the global economic pie. If Europe were no longer as dominant in the world because other nations, long denied a fraction of the wealth and comfort of western European nations, were finally catching up, shouldn’t this in fact be celebrated, rather than bemoaned?
The outlook summarised here is easy to dismiss as slipshod economics, equating dominance with wealth (or perhaps living standards), and cramming global development’s complexities into a precarious zero-sum power politics model. Though poverty is an enormous problem across the globe, does Aiyar really wish to so flippantly advocate a massive global redistribution of relative wealth as a primary solution to it? This seems a suggestion that is beyond the author’s expertise. At times her sardonic tone seems to wed an aspiration for development to a resentment of those nations that have already developed. If Aiyar is hinting at an argument that all Westerners bear some sort of responsibility for global income disparities, then her book should have included some economic analysis, an area she avoids almost entirely.
Much to the book’s detriment, this bitterness imbues numerous otherwise insightful passages. In the chapter on immigration, Aiyar elegantly profiles a group of Sikh immigrants who have learnt Italian and made a new home for themselves in Italy. But shortly afterwards, she uses this sympathetic portrait as an opportunity to critique and stereotype the ‘lazy’ Walloons who refuse to learn Dutch (necessary for finding employment in the country’s Flemish region), or the incorrigible French in Selestat whose unemployment rate remains stubbornly high despite ample jobs available for German-speakers across the border in Emmendingen. That Aiyar refrains from equally in-depth profiles of these Walloons or Frenchmen severely hampers the journalistic integrity for which she strives.
What this sort of sweeping, self-selective reporting does when dealing with more global issues (which constitute the book’s larger themes), is almost lend itself to historical revisionism, which only amplifies the narrative’s tone of resentment. In particular, Aiyar leans heavily upon a precarious analogy that equates the European Union with India, and China with the United States. Insofar as she uses this as an excuse to berate Europeans reluctant to learn a second language (in contrast to India’s impressively multilingual internal migrants), or equate Chinese and American non-cooperation with international norms (both complex reactions to unique situations of regional hegemony), her book begins to sound like more of a diatribe than a nuanced portrait.
Reporter as character
The book’s nine chapters each take up a different topic. The first recounts Aiyar’s journey from China to Brussels, where she was promptly robbed at the airport by a North African immigrant, and then questioned by a racially-insensitive police officer. She uses this as a transition to launch into a diatribe about how divided and cold Belgians seem, in contrast to the “always…helpful” Chinese, and the “familial connectedness” of Indians. As someone who has lived in India, Europe, and the US, I can assure the reader that no culture has a monopoly on hospitality. I would have advised Aiyar to simply look at any foreigner’s experience in a bustling marketplace in India to see the affability of over-zealous salespeople. However, as someone who has dealt with the frustrations of drastic cultural transitions, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Aiyar’s unsavoury introduction to Brussels. Despite Aiyar’s authoritative tone and sweeping strokes, she is speaking from a very subjective place, the roiling lonesomeness of culture shock, prone to produce ample quantities of alienation and snark.
Therein, I believe, lies the key to gleaning Aiyar’s ample insights in Punjabi Parmesan. Once we begin to read Aiyar herself as a fallible character within the book, we understand not only her instinctive gag reflex at the quirks of Western culture, but also our obligation as readers to empathise with the character. Yes, imposing such heavy-handed narrative subjectivity upon a work of reportage dilutes the book’s conclusions about European culture, but it also informs the reader about a unique process of foreign adjustment. As thriving, ambitious Indians begin traveling more and more, Aiyar’s perspective through a privileged and worldly lens becomes all the more relevant. Perhaps, then, the book should be read with an understanding of the role of memoir within analytical writing.
What this sort of sweeping, self-selective reporting does when dealing with more global issues (which constitute the book’s larger themes), is almost lend itself to historical revisionism, which only amplifies the narrative’s tone of resentment.
With this approach in mind, we could choose to read the problematic passages discussed above as reactions to having grown up in India before the growth years following the end of the License Raj, having spent significant time examining China’s cut-throat race to development, and then finally stumbling upon Brussels’ serene rues, where one can spot Louis Vuitton-clad women bemoaning the weather with as much conviction as a Meryl Streep performance. Aiyar herself is digesting the vast global disparities that few are able to witness as closely, and her writing is, in a way, an account of the coping process. This reading depends upon an acceptance of our narrator’s fallibility and emotional unreliability. But it also sheds tremendous light on the aspiring Indian elite who are heading out in increasing numbers. In essence, we must see the work not so much as reportage but as a response to having reported. Treating the book as a reporter’s memoir helps contextualise an often biased cultural and social analysis.
Having equipped myself with this mindset, the book’s strengths – especially the relentless examination of the human side of global inequality – emerge more readily. The chapter on global warming, also the book’s finest, shows the author’s impressively strong BS-meter and willingness to speak truth to power. Weaving a narrative around the 2009 United Nations COP15 Conference and various meetings with officials in China and Europe, with heavy doses of skepticism, Aiyar’s writing thrives largely because the blame she spreads around is so well-grounded in hard facts. The average American does emit around five times as much carbon dioxide as his or her Chinese counterpart (and an alarming 17 times more than the average Indian), so a skeptic’s cultural relativism can only go so far.
Even though Aiyar’s cries for equality in the global conversation surrounding climate change are particularly vociferous, she also recognises that:
What really differentiates the developed and developing world, at least from an elites-in-emerging countries perspective, is…clean air, safe water and equitable access to quality healthcare…[T]he cold fact is that the average Chinese lives a full decade less than her European counterpart and the average Indian two decades less.
Yes, the West went through periods of development similar to those that China and India are now going through. But the author, having experienced both the developing and developed world, is able to articulate a more profound case for environmentalism back home than (what she rightfully identifies as) the oft-condescending Western indictments of Asia’s increased emissions. When it comes to the environment, people everywhere have changes to make. In this chapter, and indeed in much of the work, Aiyar’s no-nonsense attitude provides a backbone for the book’s larger cultural agenda.
Aiyar also begins an introspection that reveals new aspects of her personality – the apologist, the exhausted global citizen, and even the reluctant hypocrite.
[B]anter aside, I was knowingly aware of how, while I might well point an indignant finger at rich-country behaviour, at an individual level, the finger pointed straight back at me. Everything that could be said about the double standards of Europeans was equally true about rich Indians or Chinese. I would have occasional frissons of guilt [about my Western-like consumption] brought on by reading up on global warming science, but when life with its deadlines and more immediate problems overcame me, these would fade away quickly enough.
Moments like these, sprinkled sparingly throughout the book’s first chapters, allude to what Aiyar will offer in the work’s final chapter, titled ‘Celebrating the Decline of Europe’. When it comes to complex global issues, she says, hemispheres are a poor way of categorising people.
Distilling the errata
A reader may ask whether the book’s many flaws are inevitable, simply due to the nature of the task at hand. Any discussion of international processes such as globalisation is a complex one and runs the risk of engaging various fallacies. Though we may use the Coca-Cola can as a metonym for a vague notion of ‘Westernisation’ and leaders may revert to ambiguous phrases like ‘international norms’ from behind the podium at the UN, using generalisations to describe complex global situations is a losing proposition. While I may decry Aiyar’s lapses into judgmental closed-mindedness, as a reader I can’t help but admire the lengths to which she has gone to mould together a cohesive worldview, troubled though it may be. With the occasional insights into policy prescriptions, tales of multilingual bridge-building and critical introspection, Aiyar’s book culminates in what I think may be the closest a layman can come to a well-developed international paradigm, and the reader is better off for having witnessed the process of its formation. As someone who has now lived on three continents and traveled to two more, I can’t help but admire anyone who’s willing to report this extensively and then take on the task of distilling insight from the errata of our enigmatic world.
Aiyar’s actual reporting on outsiders in Europe is a clear indication of her journalistic talents. From the Sikh immigrants in Italy, to the Gujarati diamond entrepreneurs and the largely Jewish traders who preceded them, each of Aiyar’s portraits is written gracefully and reported thoughtfully. Her knowledge of the cultures in which she has lived is extensive, and the characters she chooses to empathise with are brought to life vividly on the page, a real boon for a book with such wandering ambitions. Readers interested in adept narrative journalism will find it in sufficient quantities if they’re willing to dig for it.
I often heard before moving overseas myself that culture shock comes in waves. When I first arrived in India I experienced the euphoria of new food and endless discovery. Then, after I began to build a life here, came a creeping frustration with the country’s inefficiencies and slower pace of life. The euphoria returns on choice days, but in increasingly smaller doses. Fortunately, the frustration wanes, too.
Throughout the book Aiyar seems to have encountered these waves in her journey West, even if frustration may have served as a stronger impetus for her writing than euphoria. By the end of the work, however, the undulations seem to subside. Aiyar writes, “[O]ver time, I was able to understand how this First World ‘crisis’ must feel to those experiencing it. Gradually, a reluctant empathy made pathways through my irritation with the hypocrisy and arrogance I encountered so regularly in Europe.” And, to the extent that empathy is a worthy goal of any narrative, Aiyar certainly succeeds. Not only for herself, but also for this sometimes exasperated reader.
~Adam B Lerner is a Henry Luce Scholar from Washington, DC. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Caravan.