Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Ashok Alexander’s ‘A Stranger Truth’

October 6, 2018 in Reviews | Comments (0)



In 2003 Ashok Alexander left a top job at McKinsey & Co. and took on the task of setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s India AIDS Initiative. Under Ashok’s stewardship the Initiative soon became the world’s largest privately sponsored HIV prevention program; it is credited with having played an important part in the subsequent decline in India’s HIV epidemic.

A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers (Juggernaut, 2018)



is the story of this remarkable journey. Written in the form of a memoir the book is, in one of its aspects, an organizational chronicle, a fascinating story of bureaucratic and institutional infighting, enlivened by sketches of the author’s encounters with Bill Gates, Richard Gere and many other celebrities.












In another, even more compelling aspect, the book is a richly detailed ethnography of sex work in India, filled with tales that are sometimes desperately sad and sometimes heart-warming. In both these aspects the book is always engaging, thoroughly readable.

A Stranger Truth is a portrait of contemporary India like no other: in its pages some of the richest and most powerful people in the world cross paths with some of the poorest and most desperate.

Having known Ashok since my college days it comes as no surprise to me that he turned out to be a managerial wunderkind.


What does come as a surprise is the discovery that he is also an unusually gifted writer.



Prasenjit Duara’s ‘Crisis of Global Modernity’

January 21, 2015 in Reviews | Comments (0)





Prasenjit Duara’s The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge University Press, 2015)


Coverpic.12July (429x648)is a wide-ranging overview of Asian environmental history and philosophy. A singularly timely publication, it is a hugely important intervention in the global discussion of climate change.










Prasenjit Duara is singularly well equipped for this ambitious undertaking. Assamese by birth, he was educated at Delhi University and Harvard, and was for many years a professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago (he also taught briefly at Delhi University where, I am proud to say, I was one of the many undergraduates who hung upon his words). He is currently the Raffles Professor of the Humanities at the National University of Singapore and also the director of the university’s Asian Research Institute. Fluent in Japanese, Mandarin and several other languages, Duara is the author of many books and articles in East Asian history, among them the ground-breaking study Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern.



Crisis of Global Modernity is thus founded upon a lifetime of scholarship, in diverse fields: it is at once a magisterial tour de horizon of many centuries of Asian thought, and also a provocative meditation on the resources that Asian traditions can offer to a world in which the dominant models of economy and governance have proved catastrophically dysfunctional.

Through his scholarly career, nationalism and the nation-state have been among Duara’s central concerns. In Crisis of Global Modernity he identifies the institution of the nation state as one of the prime drivers of the present crisis.

In the post-Cold War era, the growing collusion between transnational capital and the nation-state means that the latter is not as capable of protecting the interests of the community and the natural world in their territories. Not only are many national institutions diverted from promoting public services and protecting the commons, profit-driven economic globalization has wreaked environmental degradation across the world that can hardly be addressed only by national policies. The growing economic interdependence of the world requires the political and cultural authority to be able to manage and regulate it. Global sustainability requires a cosmopolitanism that is able to transcend the nation. (241)

He then proceeds to identify several domains of cosmopolitanism that could serve to overcome national divisions and inter-state rivalries in Asia. Among them are maritime and mercantile connections:

The Asian maritime networks of the pre-colonial era … involved a wide variety of merchant communities at different points who did not speak the same languages or trade in the same currencies… In many ways, contemporary Asian regional interdependence resembles the maritime Asian trade networks, because of the separation of political, economic and military levels and power…. Although the actual products flowing through the Asian maritime networks were miniscule compared to today’s figures, the cultural flows they enabled–packaged in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Islam—were nothing short of world-transforming… Nonetheless, the older Asian models of cultural circulation without state domination of identity presents us with a historical resource to explore new possibilities. (277)

Duara finds reason for optimism also in regional economic groupings, ASEAN in particular.

[T]he quickening pace of ASEAN integration has spawned a vast and vibrant space of civil society including those sponsored by ASEAN administration and those committed to an ‘alternative’ or ‘people-centered ASEAN.’ At any rate, the development of the region not only furnishes a wider framework to observe and manage the problem of the commons, it also provides opportunities for alliances and networking across a diverse region with a variety of informational and organizational resources. (273)

In the growth of trans-Asian cultural connections Duara identifies yet another promising trend.

There is some indication of greater cultural interest of Asians in Asia. We see this in the increase in the number of tourists circulating the region to over pre-crisis levels. Not only has the market demand for Asian art sky-rocketed, but there are plenty of exhibitions and showings of Asian art in which artists and curators experiment with new ideas of Asia as well as art. These shows often deliberately distance themselves from the culturally unified notion of Asia or reified versions of national civilizations prevalent among their predecessors like Okakura and Nand Lal Bose. They often seek to showcase the contemporary, urban multi-cultural experience of Asia emphasizing heterogeneity and cultural encounters. At a popular level, the circulation of East Asian cinema, manga, anime, TV shows, food, design and allied areas in East and Southeast Asia have been the most conspicuous cultural development in Asia since the 1990s. (256)






Prasenjit Duara

Prasenjit Duara

Among the most interesting chapters of Crisis of Global Modernity is one that provides an overview of contemporary environmental movements across Asia. Some of these, such as India’s Chipko and Narmada Dam movements, have been extensively chronicled.










It is the material on environmental movements in China that comes as a real surprise: here again Duara paints a picture quite different from those we usually see.

[W]hile the daily news is filled with small and large environmental disasters, China has also witnessed some remarkable developments in the environmental sphere. Among all developing countries, the Chinese government’s efforts in environmental education are probably the greatest. In 2007, President Hu Jintao coined the idea of Ecological Civilization through which he sought to replace economic construction as the core of development with sustainable development that must incorporate a balanced relationship between humans and nature. The central government in China has been steadily developing the institutional and financial infrastructure of environmental protection. In 2005, China raised its expenditure for environmental protection in the national budget to 1.4% of GDP and in 2008, the State Environmental Protection Agency was given full ministerial status and established local environmental protection branches all over the country. (35-36)

Over the last twenty years, environmental NGOs or ENGOs as well as informal groups and movements have mushroomed across the country. Indeed, Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun have dubbed this activism as the “green public sphere” in China. According to the government affiliated… All China Environmental Federation, in 2008, there were 2768 ENGOs (employing 224,000), which rose to almost 8,000 in 2013. . There are many thousands of others which are not formally registered as ENGOs. Their role has been enhanced by recognition at higher levels of government for the environmental services they can render such as enhancing environmental consciousness among the public and mobilizing for projects like reforestation. More importantly, they are able to serve as watchdogs to expose the violation or non-implementation of environmental laws. Of course, as civic organizations in the PRC, they occupy a vulnerable status and most organizations are careful not to oppose state policies, but serve rather in a vital ‘supplementary’ role as pressure groups, guardians and enablers for the victimized. (36)

Nonetheless, ENGOs have been perhaps unexpectedly successful in influencing state policies over the last decade—until very recently. A landmark event for Chinese environmental history was the halting—or shelving– of the massive Nu River Dam projects in 2004 … The event was important for various reasons, including the collective action taken not only by the Chinese groups, but with international NGOS and groups and governments in Southeast Asian countries that would have been affected by the enormous environmental impact on their societies. The Chinese groups also ignited the media campaign– including both the old and new media—that launched the vigorous ‘green public sphere’ and ‘greenspeak’ which is remarkably continuous with the global green discourse of climate change, sustainable consumption, bio-diversity, desertification, etc. (37)

The profile of activists and activities of the ENGOs suggests an orientation that transcends consumerist and materialist approaches to life, at least among the youth for the time being. Bao Maohong notes that eighty percent of the staff of the registered ENGOs is under thirty and although over half of them have college degrees, they are motivated by their mission rather than their rather paltry, if any, salaries. Greenspeak tends to promote a new moral-spiritual/religious vision and practices and promotes volunteerism and civil participation in opposition to materialist and consumerist practices. The All China Environmental Federation notes that 70% of the public surveyed by it recognized and supported the activities of the ENGOs. (37)

[T]here are some interesting experiments in environmental education among grass-roots environmental NGOs,


Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

especially in Yunnan, a province rich in bio-diversity and called the “cradle of NGOs.”














Robert Erfid’s study of NGOs working in the Naxi region of  Lijiang and particularly Lashihai shows how some of these small,


Lijiang, Yunnan

Lijiang, Yunnan

 shoe-string budget NGOs committed to environmental education have sought, not merely to tailor environmental learning to local circumstances, but also to engage children in a practical, hands-on education with the environment. (38)










Although Crisis of Global Modernity teems with detail, Duara’s fundamental concern is not with the nitty-gritty of historical and social analysis. The book’s essential engagement (and this perhaps is its greatest surprise) is with what Duara calls ‘transcendence’. By this he means

a way of human knowing based upon an inscrutable yearning or calling with several attributes that coexist in varying degrees. It is a critique of existing conditions that draws on a non-worldly moral authority. (6)

The domain that Duara is gesturing at is that of religious and spiritual tradition: these, he seems to suggest, are Mankind’s last best hope for tackling the climate crisis.

Much of this book has dealt with the descriptions and expressions of … a reaching beyond the self that is not committed to a single all-powerful God, truth or eschaton. Dialogue involves incrementalism and negotiation between local needs and universal requirements and is intertwined with ideals from the living historical repertoire that can engage the changing requirements of the present. Its value today will lie in the capacity to create a sustainable ideal which much of the world can endorse. The second requirement is the capacity of culture to create personal and collective commitment, a problem of hope and sacrality. [282]

… Modern universalisms have tended to lack confidence in investing the transcendent or utopian truths they propose with symbols and rituals of sacred authority. Their hesitation doubtless has good reasons that we may see from the rampaging power of extreme nationalisms, such as Nazism, or blinding faith in utopian science triumphant over reason. But no movement of major social change has succeeded without a compelling symbology and affective power. [282]

Working with the Abrahamic religions, Ricoeur identifies faith, hope and the sacred as a primordial complex identified with ‘manifest communities’ founded on numinous and preverbal experiences of the sacred in nature before they become book-centered, interpretive, intratribal and iconoclastic ‘proclamation communities’. At the same time, he does not believe that interpretive reason or kerygmatic logic can negate the primordial sacred. Rational exposition and logical interpretation derive from and are dependent upon the symbolism of the sacred, say, the figure of Christ; but, just as much, they are necessary for the sacred. From this he argues that the task of contemporary interpreters and philosophers of religion is to rationally explicate such figures of hope in a contemporary world of injustice and suffering. (283)

In the course of writing this book, I began to wonder if the thorny task of mediating the sacred with reason could be eased if we can recognize that the gap between ideal, project, and effort and its realization may be occupied not principally by faith or belief, but by hope. Consider some of the cases I discussed in the book where reverence and reason were inseparably entwined with hope. (284)

Whether by the Confucian sage or the laywomen of the Morality Society, Tian and Dao were viewed as the source and highest judge of the ethical mission for humans. Yet, neither Heaven nor the Way is anthropomorphic like an all-powerful God with a clear and singular message, and failure to follow its path – by this time in Chinese history – does not result in punishment either immediately or in the afterlife. The sacrality of Heaven was intertwined with reason and hope; indeed, the ambiguities of Heaven’s message ironically subjected it to rational deliberation and empirical persuasion… (284)

Similarly, the environmental, rural reconstructionist and moral (anticorruption) movements inspired by Gandhianism draw on a complex matrix of goals and methods. Their moral authority derives significantly from Gandhi – his message, goals, methods, life and the movement he spawned – as a figure of hope … (284)

The perspective of Crisis of Global Modernity is thus post-secular and post-national: Duara recognizes that the climate crisis has indeed changed everything and that it is futile to attempt to engage with it through the 19th and 20th century frameworks of economy and governance that created it in the first place.




An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 2

November 7, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (0)



One of the pleasures of Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan §  is that it addresses the pressing issues of contemporary Europe through a chorus of contrasting voices. Pallavi is a diligent reporter and a fine interviewer; she has an extraordinary knack for finding interesting people to talk to, on a wide range of subjects – the environment, inter-faith relations, immigration, the crisis of the Euro, the resilience of the German economy, the legacy of imperialism and so on.

Her other great strength is her knowledge of India and China: her gift for comparison often leads to unexpected insights. For instance, on the subject of tolerance and religious pluralism:

For most Indians, a certain amount of role-playing is an accepted part of life and the contradictions between one’s varied roles is not usually a matter of existential angst. An atheist bowing down before a shrine in a temple; a habitually mini-skirted girl choosing to dress demurely to meet her more conservative relatives; an observant teetotaller Jain offering his dinner party guests a glass of beer: such common accommodations are not about lacking the guts to stand up for one’s own beliefs as much as about expressing a respect for the beliefs of others. In Europe, this would probably have been frowned upon as hypocrisy. In India, it is considered tact. And tact has a definite advantage in a multicultural space. (85)


Europeans are usually quick to censure authoritarian China for the restrictions on the practice of religion placed by Beijing on its western Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, muezzins are banned from using loudspeakers during their call to prayer. Imams are not permitted to teach the Koran in private, and the study of Arabic is allowed only at designated government schools. But the difference between the constraints on Islam imposed by China and those by some European countries is arguably a matter of degree rather than substance. (80)



In one wonderfully entertaining chapter, Pallavi accompanies a group of Chinese schoolchildren on a tour of Europe. ‘Chinese travellers have emerged as the European tourism industry’s knights in shining armour, riding to the rescue of otherwise stagnant economies.’ (187)

She visits Bordeaux where the Chinese have become a major force: ‘Thanks to the explosion of Chinese wine consumption, the price of Bordeaux wines had risen in recent years, even though wine consumption in France itself (where 50–60 per cent of the region’s wines are sold) had been falling. Chinese consumers of wine had played an important part in ensuring Bordeaux continued to flourish despite the economic slowdown in Europe and aggressive competition from new, world wines.’


Zhang stands on the steps of his Chateau Grand Moueys

Chinese tycoon Zhang Jin Shan stands on the steps of the Chateau Grand Moueys


She interviews Zhang Jin Shan the new owner of Chateau du Grand Mouëys, a well-known French vineyard.










Like Baron Dilip Mehta, Zhang Jin Shan is a man who does not mince his words.

‘Born in 1963, a few years before the start of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang grew up in the hardscrabble of an obscure town in one of China’s poorest provinces, Ningxia. His mother was a peasant working the fields, while his father had a small-time job in the local railways.

Zhang never made it to university but a technical diploma landed him an accounting job with a state-owned enterprise in 1983. By 1996, he had somehow made the leap to running a baijiu (a popular Chinese spirit) factory, and in 2000 he bought Ningxiahong, then a struggling factory, and transformed it into the successful, diversified business it is today. Other than goji berry-related products, the company’s activities currently also include real estate, printing, catering, and a travel agency.

Zhang did not seem to want to dwell on the past. During our interview, it was the future he was all fired up about. He was dismissive about the wine produced at Chateau du Grand Mouëys, in its current avatar, and oblivious to any hurt French feelings his curt assessment might engender… ‘It’s no good,’ he said, of the wine.



Zhang Jin Shan (Bordeaux's latest wine baron) & Pallavi in his Chateau in France

Zhang Jin Shan (Bordeaux’s latest wine baron) & Pallavi in his Chateau in France


The taste, he claimed, was mama huhu, mediocre. Everything must change, including the packaging, he continued, because it was of ‘low quality’.











Pallavi is often scathing about European pretensions, most of all on matters relating to the environment (there is a wonderful section on the Copenhagen conference, which she covered). In my view though, this is one subject on which she allows her gift for satire to get the better of her judgement.

There can be no doubt that Europe does speak in many voices on the environment and some of these are indeed sanctimonious, hypocritical and self-serving. But this cacophony can be misleading: it is more productive perhaps to focus on what Europe actually does. And the fact is that Europe has moved in a direction that is markedly different from the trajectory of the US, Australia and Canada: some of the countries of the EU have banned fracking for example, and many are vigorously exploring sources of alternative energy. Most of all in Europe there is a willingness to accept the reality of climate change: it is telling that Europe does not have any counterparts to the well-funded denial movements that play such an important part in the debate in Anglo-Saxon countries. Some European countries, like Holland, have already made extensive preparations for large-scale flooding etc: the world has a great deal to learn from them. I have written about this subject elsewhere and will not belabour it here. Suffice it to say that  in my view Europe holds what little hope there is for any kind of leadership on matters relating to climate change.

Although Pallavi does not pull any punches, she is at heart a firm believer in the idea of Europe. She also insists on its relevance to the world, and especially to India. One of her most interesting insights is this:

‘It struck me with some force how in many ways the Chinese were the Americans of Asia, while the Indians were the Europeans. As players on the international stage, the United States and China are both goal-oriented and able to act decisively in their national interest. Despite the existence of internal divisions, they are coherent entities that speak with a unified voice. Backed by hard power, their strategic planners take a long-term view of evolving rivalries and alliances.

‘In contrast, the Indians, like their European counterparts, are notable for the glacial pace of their decision-making. Constrained by the workings of coalition politics, both the twenty-seven-member EU and India valorize plurality and argumentation over actual outcomes and performance. They often appear unable to articulate a clear vision of their core interests, with internal factiousness hijacking unified, long-term agendas. Unlike the Unites States and ironically, ‘communist’ China, the political mainstream in both Europe and India is Leftish and characterized by a distrust of unfettered markets.

‘Polyphonic (both boast over twenty official languages) and seemingly chaotic, the EU and India are the world’s two most populous democracies. The commonalities between them are underscored by the fact that their governments use an identical catchphrase to describe their union: ‘unity in diversity’.

‘But despite the similarities, or perhaps because of them, neither India nor the EU was particularly engaged with the other. Rather, the US and China formed the twin poles of their (once again) common strategic fixations. Ultimately, both India and the EU were in essence soft powers, beguiled by and envious of the hard muscle shown by the Americans and the Chinese.’ (226-7)

As she points out, India and Europe are in many ways mirrors of each other, only they don’t know it:

In some ways, India is a proto-European Union, having stitched together a large region of diverse social and cultural fabric into a political and economic union. Like the EU, it is the antithesis of the concept of the nineteenth-century European nation state where a single religion, a single language and a common enemy form the ‘natural’ basis for the only sustainable kind of political unit.’ (306)

Yet, few Indians are invested in the idea of Europe—an attitude that is mirrored in Brussels, where few seem even aware of the idea of India. As a result, both India and the EU fail to engage with the other seriously, in what seems to be a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. As essentially soft powers, hamstrung by coalitions and the niceties of convoluted political processes, and consumed by the challenges of handling enormous diversity, the EU and India sneer at each other’s purported incompetence and arrogance. Instead, it is the hard powers of the United States and China that are the poles of their common strategic fixations and awe.’ (312-3)

Elsewhere she writes:

‘India and the European Union are not just cumbersome polities; they are huge political achievements that allow the world to imagine alternative, inclusive configurations to the exclusions and bigotry of national tribalisms. This is not to claim that either lives up perfectly to its own underlying idea. Both remain messy and contradictory and half-baked. But in their idealized potential there resides considerable hope for humanity.’

These are words of real wisdom.


Pallavi Aiyar & family

Pallavi Aiyar & family

In sum Punjabi Parmesan is the story of the shared journey of Europe, India and China over the last tumultous decade.







It is an enormously ambitious narrative, yet the human scale of its perspective, its unflinching honesty, its critical acuity, its humour and generosity, and the directness of the writing make it wonderfully readable as well as richly instructive.

The book ends with Pallavi and her family moving to Jakarta where her husband has been appointed to a position in the EU’s delegation. Pallavi is now the Hindu’s Indonesia correspondent. I very much hope that her new assignment will lead to another volume of this engrossing journalistic autobiography.





§ Forthcoming Penguin India, December 2013. All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar.


An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 1

November 4, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (2)



Pallavi Aiyar’s new book, Punjabi Parmesan (Penguin India, December 2013) is an account of contemporary Europe seen through Asian eyes. The project is ambitious, timely and important, and I cannot think of anyone who is better equipped to undertake it than Pallavi Aiyar.

Born, raised and schooled in India, Pallavi also has a degree from Oxford. She lived in China for many years, reporting for the Hindu, and speaks Mandarin. Her first book Smoke and Mirrors was about her time in that country. A fine blend of memoir and straightforward reporting, the book is woven around an account of the time Pallavi spent living in a hutong in Beijing, with her Spanish husband, Julio Arias. It is to my mind among the best of the slew of recent books about China – a  compelling blend of autobiography, social history and journalism.

I should add here that my personal acquaintance with Pallavi is very brief. I met her at a book event some years years ago, soon after I’d read Smoke and Mirrors. I told her how much I had liked the book, which is why, I suppose, she sent me the proofs of Punjabi Parmesan



Pallavi Aiyar in Spain

Pallavi Aiyar in Spain


(later, when I decided to write about it, I asked for some pictures and she sent the photographs that are posted here).












Punjabi Parmesan (and I must note here that the title is one of the few things I didn’t like about the book) could be described as the second volume of Pallavi’s ongoing journalistic autobiography. In this book we follow her from Beijing to Brussels where her husband Julio has taken a job in the offices of the European Commission.

The move, undertaken for family reasons, brings about a sea change in Pallavi’s journalistic career: ‘For years I’d had front row seats to the volcanic awakening of this Asian colossus [China], the consequences of which were leading to an epochal inversion of world power… Indian newspapers had developed a Chinese obsession, alternatively adulating and vilifying the country. This had worked to my advantage as a journalist, as almost every story I filed from Beijing was prominently showcased. Europe, on the other hand, barely registered a bleep on the Indian media’s radar… I was resigned to the fact that I’d be lucky if my dispatches from Brussels made it to the newspaper at all. … I consoled myself with philosophical reflections on my stage of life. I was, after all, no longer a footloose youngster, guzzling sea slugs with ne’er a care. I had a baby now, and planned on more. Adventure for me had become equated with the contents of a diaper. Perhaps pretty, stable, pleasant Europe was exactly what I needed.’

But of course nothing ever works out as expected. ‘The ‘story’ found a way of chasing me. The timing of my move, in 2009, was such that before long I was once again in the eye of a news maelstrom. From the “Rise of China,” I now found myself with front row seats to the “Decline of Europe”. In some ways, of course, the two were the flip side of the same coin.’

The way Pallavi frames her project is characteristic, both in its modesty and its sly subversiveness. Her family and her children are placed at the very centre of the narrative and she makes no bones about subordinating her career to her husband’s: but far from constraining her, these choices lead to the discovery of an exciting new project, one that becomes all the richer because she approaches it not just as a journalist and writer but also as a mother and spouse.

The confounding of expectations is a recurrent and refreshing theme in Pallavi’s narrative. Europe turns out to be rather different from the ‘pretty, stable, pleasant’  place that she had expected. Arriving in Brussels airport is a bureaucratic disaster; within minutes of stepping out of the airport the family is robbed of a large part of their possessions.

Expectations of ease and comfort in Europe are confounded in other ways too: ‘Efficiency, reliability, quality, cleanliness: these words had echoed in my head, taking on an almost hallucinatory allure as our plane prepared for landing in Brussels on a late April’s day.’ But, in the event: ‘It took me a day to get a phone connection installed in Beijing, but several weeks to get one in Brussels. It took me five days to get my residence card in China when I moved there back in 2002, compared to nine weeks for the equivalent in Brussels.’

The plot thickens as Pallavi and her family learn to cope with the Great European Vacation. ‘We began our European lives just as continental Europe was gearing up for what the Belgians (or at least the French-speaking amongst them) called ‘Les Grand Vacances. This was a staggeringly long period between July and August when large parts of the continent, and certainly Brussels, came to a halt, with everyone from EU civil servants to primary school teachers heading off on a grand vacation, clasping suntan lotion and beach towels. (11) ‘I was increasingly convinced of the religious overtones to vacations in Belgium, where many seemed to hold holidays as the raison d’être for work, and even life itself.’ (12)

Imagine, then, my disorientation in having landed from China in Brussels, a city that not only shut shop for les grand vacances but every Sunday as well. When I tried to impress people by telling them how China was pretty much open for business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they would shake their head sadly, exclaiming,  ‘Yes, isn’t it terrible?!’ Not quite the reaction I was hoping for. (13)

This leads Pallavi to ask some searching questions about the contemporary European work ethic. She seeks out Baron Dilip Mehta, a hugely successful Gujarati diamond merchant, now based in Antwerp. The Baron minces no words; according to him the key ingredient in the success of Indians in the diamond industry is ‘a willingness to work harder and longer hours than the competition.’


Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world

Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world


This, he says, is how Gujaratis came to displace the Jews who had previously dominated this industry.










‘‘[They] just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,’ he said with a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. ‘We are married to our businesses. We will work at night. We will work on the weekends. We will do whatever it takes to get a client. And we are willing to work this hard even for small margins.’

The baron sighed.Of course, sometimes I feel guilty that I’m such a company-driven person. My family always comes second to the business. But that’s just the way it is.’ (29)



Diamond Street in Antwerp

Diamond Street in Antwerp

Pallavi then interviews a Jewish diamond merchant, who essentially confirms the Baron’s diagnosis:










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.’ (32)

The irony, as Pallavi points out is that ‘[These] allegations … 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 levelled time and again, over centuries, against the Jews themselves.’ (34)





Sikhs at the Gurudwara in Sabaudia in central Italy


Pallavi hears a similar story in Italy where ‘Punjabi agricultural immigrants … constitute the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the UK’.








‘‘Italians don’t like to work too much,’ said Sartaj Singh,



Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy



a clean-shaven Sikh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. ‘They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.








He lowered his voice even though we were talking in Punjabi, and indicated Angelino, his overseer, with a quick sideways motion. ‘He never gets to work before 10 in the morning, even though we start at dawn.’




Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy


‘Before we (Punjabis) got here, the fields were barren,’ chipped in Harbhajan.








There was no one to work in the fields. If there is agriculture in Latina today, it’s all because of us,’ he beamed.’


















Pallavi goes to Rome to interview a First Secretary in the Indian embassy.

He tells her: ‘‘You know, Italians don’t like to work in the fields … Italy needed labour and since the late 1980s Indians have been providing it. It’s worked well because they [the Italians] see the Indians as reliable, enterprising and quite docile. They work hard and don’t demand things like some of these others . . . the First Secretary left the rest of the sentence dangling complicitly between us.

The words ‘docile’ and ‘reliable’ leapt out at me: it was astonishing to see this 21st century Indian diplomat using the exact words that British colonial officials liked to use to describe Indian indentured workers in the 19th century.

I was reminded also of another set of words that occurs often in European writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘the lazy native’. Colonial officials of that period concocted all kinds of theories about what they saw as the laziness and profligacy of Asians and Africans.  These notions were of course bitterly resented and the Malaysian politician and thinker, Syed Hussein Alatas, even devoted a whole book to the subject:  The Myth of the Lazy Native.

Can we soon expect a screed with a title like The Myth of the Lazy European /First Worlder? To judge by the furore that greeted Ratan Tata’s comments on the British workforce, it would certainly seem so.

Sometimes the wheel of history turns very fast.



All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar





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