I once went to a bookshop and asked for Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The assistant thought for a bit and said, “Sir, the food section is over there”. A book with a title like ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ runs a similar risk. But no, it’s not anything like Sanjeev Kapoor’s latest opus on Punjabi fusion cuisine; it’s a book about today’s troubled Europe: one part travelogue, one part economic thesis.
Pallavi Aiyar seems to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time, resulting in the writing of the right book. In the early 2000s she was The Hindu’s bureau chief in Beijing, which positioned her ideally to write Smoke and Mirrors, an insightful book on China’s economic emergence. Then, in 2009, she moved with her husband to Brussels which, once again, serendipitously positioned her to write about an economically besieged Europe in the post-Lehman world. The result is Punjabi Parmesan, which takes its title, incidentally, from the industrious Punjabi farm workers, who, in an Italy depleted of local labour, appear to be gradually taking over entire sectors of agriculture, such as the production of Parmesan cheese.
The book is a cautionary tale about the rise and fall of economies, perhaps even civilisations. Aiyar vividly describes a Europe that has grown fat and complacent, people possessed by a strong sense of entitlement, coupled with a taste for the good things in life (including longer holidays and shorter working hours). It is a Europe, therefore, that is frighteningly vulnerable today, especially in a world where an aggressive China and India are in the ascendant. The reaction of Europeans to all this so far seems to be mainly one of bewilderment and anger, rather than any great instinct to take responsibility. The scenario that Aiyar paints will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has visited Europe in recent times.
The book examines a range of threatening issues that Europe is confronted with today: excessive bureaucracy; unsustainable attitudes towards the quality of life; prejudices against immigrants who either ‘work too hard’ or, conversely, have fallen into dark spirals of welfare dependency, economic exclusion and ghettoisation. Aiyar, with her elegant left-liberal worldview, honed over her years in India and China (and presumably buffed in the debating circles of Oxford), holds up a cruel mirror for Europe to look into, and I have no doubt the book will cause a frisson of indignation, all the way from London to Copenhagen.
The most interesting section of the book, however, is probably the part on the internal dynamics of the European Union, and the conflicting tugs and cultural dissonances between the North (read Germany) and the South (read Greece). Aiyar writes that, “It was Germany, above any other country, that was looked up to, to provide leadership for the region. But as soon as Berlin showed any signs of gathering up the reins, it was condemned for imposing German interests on Europe”. She mischievously goes on to cite the 2012 Euro Cup football quarter-final between Germany and Greece, which was dubbed ‘The Battle of the Bailout’, with German fans yelling “Without Angie you wouldn’t be here!”, and the Greek fans yelling back, “We’ll never pay you back!” In the event, Germany won 4-2, which was perhaps significant, though the author, with uncharacteristic politeness, refrains from saying so. But Europe, like India, she reflects in a kinder moment, is not just a cumbersome polity, it’s a huge political achievement, which allows the world to imagine alternative, inclusive configurations as opposed to the exclusions and bigotry of national tribalisms. Both are messy and contradictory, but in their idealised potential resides considerable hope for humanity. Food for thought, like much else in the book.
Punjabi Parmesan belongs to a new genre of writings that look at the world through an unusual lens: that of the global Indian—someone with a global education/experience, but an Indian sensibility. It’s a growing genre that ranges from Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire and Vikram Seth’s Two Lives to Allan Sealy’s From Yukon to Yucatan and Dilip D’Souza’s Road Runner, a genre that adds a lively new dimension to the way the contemporary world talks to itself. Meanwhile, I eagerly await Aiyar’s next book: given her talent for finding herself in the right environs at the opportune juncture, I have little doubt that she’ll find something elegantly incisive to say about Indonesia and Southeast Asia, where she has now relocated herself. Just give her a couple of years.