Archive for November, 2013

Book III of the IBIS TRILOGY

Chrestomather | November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (124)

 

I am pleased to announced the title of the third book of the Ibis Trilogy. It  is:

Flood of Fire.

The estimated date of publication is the Spring of 2015. More details will appear anon in the catalogues of my publishers: Penguin India, John Murray (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA).

 


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

Chrestomather | 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)

And

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.

 

 

 

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

 


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

Chrestomather | 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)

 

 

 

DSCF4760

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,

 

DSCF4759

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.’

 

 

DSCF6860

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.’

 

 

 

DSCF6849

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar

 

 

 

 


Letter from a reader

Chrestomather | November 3, 2013 in Letters | Comments (0)

 

Dear Amitav,

I just finished reading The Glass Palace. It was such an amazing read. I had no idea about Burma; that it was an egalitarian society, that it was a rich country, that it had no caste system and many other things. I think The Glass Palace will remain in my head for those scenes of Burmese jungle with timber and elephants and local and other asian men working under 18-20 year old British officers. It is so interesting to read that in some other time in history 18 year olds did things which 30 year olds don’t do now. And knowing life could be so uncertain then at 18, when most 18 year olds I know today are having burger and watching Hollywood films :). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that things can be so different.
I was so glued to the book during that scene when cow elephant kills British officer and in turn gets shot. Somebody had freed her of those chains in night, there were foot-marks on soil. But, it was written as if we are reading a dream. I was just thinking it would make such a great scene on a screen.
That part on Arjun fighting as a rebel (rebel from British perspective) and shooting when he could have surrendered was so troubling and yet touching.
I’ve been a bit pissed with India and your book seemed to generate interest in subcontinent’s history. I thought I would ask you for few suggestions of books, which are similar in terms of weaving stories, which throw light on subcontinent’s history.
Great writing and I am looking forward to reading Sea of Poppies.
Regards,
Karan



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