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Changing Equations


Shalini Grover

PUNJABI PARMESAN
By Pallavi Aiyar
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2013, Rs. 599.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 4 April 2015

Indians who travel abroad or migrate internationally rarely write about the societies they intimately encounter and adopt as ‘home’. Contrastively, from the time of the colonial era, western writers have produced a copious and authoritative body of travelogues, fiction, and scholarship on the Indian subcontinent. Punjabi Parmesan offers compelling insights into Europe’s ongoing cultural and economic crisis. Immigrant paranoia, anti-Muslim sentiments, global inequalities, and climate change feature extensively. Punjabi Parmesan’s originality lies in continental Europe, particularly Belgium and Italy, being viewed through a comparative China-India framework. Prior to Belgium, Aiyar spent several years in China where she witnessed, first-hand, the country’s mammoth economic rise. Her knowledge of China and India as two ‘growing economies’ versus stagnant First World economies has promoted a rigorous analysis (‘from the rise of China, I now found myself with front row seats to the decline of Europe’: p. xii). In ‘Hall of Mirror’, some of these dissonances are explored via the way people’s everyday working lives are discussed and valued in a changing Europe. Certain generations have got so accustomed to welfare state benefits that ‘working hard’ or even ‘extra’ now amounts to ‘hardship’. In China, work has an altogether different meaning. Young people are motivated by the opportunity to work and rising standards of living means that ‘work is worship’. In Belgium, the harder the immigrants like the Gujarati diamond merchants work, the more resentment and criticism they encounter. Consider then how the Jewish community in Antwerp, traditionally associated with the utmost industriousness and hard work, view aspiring expatriates. In an interview with a prominent Jewish merchant, ‘work’ is made to sound like a dirty word (2013: 32): ‘The Indians work too hard. That’s all they talk about, “diamonds”. It’s their life and they won’t stop at anything to grab customers.’ Yet in Italy, immigrants like Harbhajan Singh have paid a price by working long hours; their docile bodies are considered the cheapest. Punjabi agricultural labours have transformed parts of the countryside in Italy. If they were to go on strike, premier cheeses like Parmesan would virtually disappear. The normalized use of cheap immigrant labour is in sharp contrast to how Europeans consider annual holidays a birthright. Aiyar asserts that these entitlements are now unsustainable. ‘The Veiled Threat’ is a must read chapter that dwells on the lives, identities, and cultural spaces of different generations of Muslims in Europe. ...


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