Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move
AFTER CHINA, IT’S EUROPE FOR PALLAVI AIYAR
Journalist Pallavi Aiyar, who gave us a glimpse of a rising giant in Smoke and Mirrors and Chinese Whiskers, moves from Beijing to the sanitised ‘first world’ environs of Brussels. The result is a funny, anecdotal take on a continent in crisis, curiously titled Punjabi Parmesan [Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Rs 599]
How would you introduce Punjabi Parmesan to a reader?
In equal parts a travelogue, memoir, and work of reportage, Punjabi Parmesan takes a panoramic look at a Europe in decline. It describes and analyses what Europe’s multiple “first world” crises look like from the perspective of an Indian who has just moved there, after an extended stay in a China on the rise.
Why the name Punjabi Parmesan?
The title refers to a section of the book in which I travel to Italy to meet with the Punjabi farmhands who constitute the second-largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the UK. This little-known-about group of agricultural workers from the Punjab have quickly become indispensable to the Italian farming sector, including dairy. It is therefore claimed that were Italy’s Punjabis to go on strike for a day, the country’s production of cheeses, like parmesan, would come to a grinding halt.
Immigration is one of the main challenges facing contemporary Europe and is a major theme of the book. With Europe’s population set to shrink by a million people a year over the next five decades, the continent is in need of immigrants. Yet it is struggling to come to terms with the anxieties and accommodations, both imagined and real, that immigration brings in its wake.
What was the best part about moving from Beijing to Brussels?
The clean air and healthcare system. In Beijing I had a chronic sore throat, which miraculously disappeared within a few weeks of my living in Brussels. I had one child born in China and another in Belgium. The latter experience was profoundly better. As I argue in the book, on certain indicators like the availability of consumer products, and even the provision of services, countries like India and China can be more “first world” than Europe. But on issues relating to health and the environment, the title of “first world” remains quite firmly with the West.
And the worst part?
Shops closing on Sunday. Having to wait for weeks to set up basic services like the Internet. Encountering the smugness and lack of self-reflexivity that imbues much popular discourse in Europe on issues ranging from climate change to China’s competitiveness to colonialism.
One thing a tourist must do in Beijing and in Brussels?
In Beijing, walk up Coal Hill in Jingshan Park and watch the sun rise over the Forbidden City. In Brussels, eat a lot of chocolate. Preferably in Le Galeries Saint Hubert.
You have moved back to Asia now, to Indonesia. How are you and your kids managing all this globe-trotting?
We are managing thanks to curiosity, and a sense of humour. All of us are open to new experiences, even if they take us out of our comfort zone. The kids have never known another kind of life. If you ask my (half-Indian, half-Spanish) five-year-old son where he’s from, he always replies: “China”. He eats sushi with as much gusto as he demolishes hummus, or samosas, or whatever we might serve up: octopus, fish eggs, guacamole. (To make up for this my younger son eats nothing but bananas, but that’s another story). They both speak Spanish with an Indian accent and bits of Bahasa Indonesian vocabulary tacked on. They sketch Chinese characters in the air to clarify what they mean. They don’t understand national and ethnic labels in the same way that most others do. They are blessed.
Do you have a sense of a hometown anymore?
Yes and no. I have a strong Indian identity having been born and brought up in Delhi. I first left India to live abroad when I was 20 years old. An adult. I’ve also continued to write for Indian publications and there is a strong sense of Indianness to my books. And yet, I’ve been away so long, and experienced so many different cultures, that I have also developed the outsider’s sensibility. I am no longer desensitised by habit to the crush, poverty, inequality and misogyny in Indian cities. I feel it acutely. Like a foreigner.
Also I can no longer deal with Indian-style socialising. I like to eat dinner, like the Chinese, at 6pm. And like most Europeans, I enjoy a glass of wine with, or after, my meal, not before.
Travel writers you like?
Peter Hessler, Samanth Subramanian and Luc Sante.
The Asian Age: A Look at Crisis Struck EU from an Asian Perspective: http://www.asianage.com/category/book-author-name/pallavi-aiyar
The Pioneer: From Busy Streets to Lazy Seats: http://www.dailypioneer.com/vivacity/from-busy-streets-to-lazy-seats.html
The Diplomat: Interview with Pallavi Aiyar: http://thediplomat.com/2014/06/interview-pallavi-aiyar/
New Asian Writing: Interview with Pallavi Aiyar: http://www.new-asian-writing.com/naw-interview-with-pallavi-aiyar/