Pallavi Aiyar is a foreign correspondent and author of the Vodafone-Crossword Award winning book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China. After stints in Beijing and Brussels, she now lives in Jakarta, where she reports on Southeast Asia.
NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?
I discovered I wanted to be a writer more or less around the time that I became a reader. My first short story about a rabbit called Charlie (I can’t remember much else about it) was written when I was 7. I brought out my first (handwritten and photocopied) magazine at the age of 8, and sold it to captive family members at Rs 2 a copy.
NAW- Tell us about your first book ‘Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China’, how did you get the idea for the book? What research did you carry out?
Smoke and Mirrors is a blend of travelogue, reportage and memoir which takes a close reading of contemporary China, while comparing the choices of the modern Chinese state to that of India’s. It emerged from the years I spent living in, and reporting from, China, between 2002-2007. Despite the fact that Indians have somewhat of a China pathology, which sees them oscillating between pride and prejudice when it comes to their larger, more powerful, northern neighbour, very few Indians have actually lived in China and learnt the language, and even fewer have written about it. I moved to Beijing as a young woman straight out of university, and ended up becoming the sole Chinese-speaking, Indian, and foreign correspondent to be based there, at what was a historic time in Chinese history. The early twenty first century saw the global power balance undergo a seismic shift eastward, and Beijing was at the epicenter of this change. Over the years I travelled across the country from troubled Tibet, to booming Zhejiang. Along the way I interviewed a diverse cast of characters including freewheeling entrepreneurs, young monks desperate to escape to India, toilet cleaners, nationalistic students and activist lawyers. These years spent in nose-to-the-ground reporting were the bedrock research that shaped and informed Smoke and Mirrors.
NAW- Did you face any difficulties in finding a publisher? Did you hire an agency for representation?
I was in an unusual position. My first book was about a country, China, for which there was a greater demand than supply of informed analysis. When I conceived of Smoke and Mirrors, I sent an email to an editor at Harper Collins India putting forward a tentative book proposal, and within hours I had an unqualified “yes,” for a reply. Since then I have published one other book with Harper Collins and one with Penguin India. I do have a New York-based agent, but this is only for rights sales in other parts of the world. My second book, Chinese Whiskers, was also published in the U.S, Italy and Belgium. In India, I continue to deal directly with publishers, without mediation.
NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis’?
Punjabi Parmesan is an attempt to understand the multiples crises afflicting contemporary Europe from a unique, Indian-Chinese perspective. In 2009 I moved to Europe with my family after having lived in China for almost seven years. I realized quickly that after having witnessed and written about the Rise of China, I now had front row seats to the flip side of the coin: “The Decline of Europe.” In Punjabi Parmesan I try and unpack the different dimensions of Europe’s crises, focusing on themes like immigration (hence the title, from Punjabi agricultural immigrant labour in Italy), the challenges of accommodating Islam, the rise of Asian challengers like China and India, climate change and so on. I interweave these themes with my own personal story, so that the book is part memoir and part analysis.
NAW- Europe stands at a cross roads and the crisis of identity coupled with the idea of the EU is also threatened. Is there a need for perhaps a reorganization of citizen’s relationship with the state in a time of recession?
The post-second world war social contract between the state and citizens of many European nations is certainly in need of a re-write. There are various phenomena necessitating this change. There is a crisis of competitiveness, as large Asian challengers like China, in particular, but also India and others, alter the rules of global business. There is the crisis of the design and legitimacy of the European Union. These have combined to highlight the unsustainability of Europe’s famously generous welfare states, which have for decades been at the heart of the so-called European way of life.
A final aspect of this crisis of social contract has to do with the new kinds of citizens that the postcolonial states of Western Europe are grappling with. These citizens are often ethnically and religiously at odds with their adopted countries of citizenship. In cities like Brussels and Amsterdam, Muslim immigrants now account for over a quarter of the population. The visible differences of dress and skin colour of these Muslim citizens, coupled with their ostensibly “medieval” values, provokes anxieties about what it means to be European today. Europe therefore also faces a crisis of “diversity.”
NAW- Is there an inherent problem with the South-Indian diaspora in the sense that they can never fully integrate with the local culture and the people in spite of living in Europe or west for decades and is this the reason for skepticism on part of the natives?
I’m not sure I would divide the Indian diaspora along regional lines when it comes to issues of integration in host countries. Indians abroad do tend to keep a certain cultural distance from the mainstream. In part this stems from anxiety over being able to maintain their distinct religious-social-cultural identity in a “foreign” country. After all, full “integration” would entail any diaspora writing itself out of existence. Also, members of the diaspora can lack the social capital to confidently mix with other communities.
But while certain forms of segregation, like a tendency to avoid inter-marrying, are common, Indians in Europe do integrate in other ways. For instance they usually learn the languages of their host countries. Punjabi agricultural labourers in Flanders in northern Belgium, for example, invariably speak Flemish, the local language. But even other Belgians from Wallonia, the French-speaking south of the country, rarely learn Flemish. Arguably, Indian immigrants make more of an effort to integrate in Flanders than the majority of Wallonians.
Europeans in foreign countries, both historically and in their current avatar as “expats,” tend to integrate with the local population far less than people that belong to diasporas from poor countries can afford to, when they immigrate to Europe.
NAW- You have attempted both fiction as well as non- fiction. Which one is more fulfilling, fiction or non- fiction and why?
Great literature is usually fiction. And I wish I had it in me to write great literature. The reality is that I am more modest in ability and ambition than the greats. My writing has mostly grown out of my work as a reporter and traveler. I enjoy analyzing why and how people from different cultures and contexts interpret the same phenomena. And writing has also been a way for me to constantly interrogate my own suppositions and biases. So, I suppose I prefer writing narrative non-fiction. I certainly feel in my element when I’m doing so. And truth is stranger than fiction, after all.
NAW- What drew you to writing? Which writers would you name as your influences?
Reading drew me to writing. From my days as a reader of children’s books I knew I wanted to part of the world of literature. Also, my father was a journalist and so I came from a family where words mattered.
The kind of writing I like most is literary non-fiction. I particularly like intelligent travelogues that combine historical context with first-hand observations. Peter Hessler on China has been an influence, as have William Dalrymple and Pankaj Mishra on India. Luc Sante is a Belgian-American writer whom I also greatly admire.
NAW-Please name your five favourite books.
The Lord of the Rings
All About H Hatterr
The Wind on the Moon
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
I’m writing a motherhood memoir, chronicling the craziness of carting two small kids around the globe (Beijing, Brussels, Jakarta) while trying (and often failing) to balance my roles as mother and writer.