I don’t remember where I first read about New Old World by Pallavi Aiyar, but I do remember that I stopped reading and immediately put a hold on the book at the library. And I’m so glad I did because it might be the best book I’ve read all year. New Old World was eye opening in the same way that the novel The Life of Octavian Nothing was for me – it changed my perspective on something I thought I already knew, and I will never look at it the same way again.
When I retrieved the book from the library and opened it up to read, I got a bit of vertigo. The text was upside and backwards. I closed the book. The cover was right-side up. I opened the book again. It was upside down. It took a moment to realize that the dust jacket had been taped in place incorrectly. This sort of thing drives me crazy, but this time I did not peel off the tape and reattach the cover. The reversed cover was just too appropriate to what was happening inside the pages. Aiyar deftly turns stereotypes and established fact about the Global North/South, First/Third World, industrial/developing nations on their ear.
New Old World is a nonfiction account of the three years Aiyar spent in Belgium covering the European Union as a foreign correspondent for an Indian newspaper. Aiyar is an Oxford-educated Indian journalist who spent a decade covering China’s meteoric rise on the global scene before she moved to Belgium. Her personal experiences allow her to understand the “first-world” perspective on global events, but her own perspective is that of an upper middle class professional from the “developing world.”
This results in many observations that are irrefutably true but that almost no white observer would make.
Ballooning unemployment, economic stagnation and eroding trust in political institutions are not developments that can be contemplated with complacency, especially given Europe’s history of civil war and devastating ideologies like fascism. [emphasis mine]
European and North American sources wax hysterical on the threat of growing power in Asia. Aiyar says, in essence, “Guys, the center of gravity has already shifted.” It’s not a pending threat, it is historical fact.
The chapters in New Old World are obviously based on in-depth news stories she published during her time in Belgium, so they are full of careful, journalistic research. But for the book she has added a great deal of sharp, insightful editorializing. It is often delivered with a wry smirk, but rarely without the cool detachment of a professional. She dispassionately delineates all kinds of infuriating hypocrisy and condescension, and only gets a little hot under the collar when she gets to the subject of climate change. Even there, Aiyar is fair, noting her own personal environmental failings and calling out the Indian government, too. She often introduces new topics with her own first impressions, bringing the reader along as new information leads her more nuanced and complex opinions.
It’s hard to argue against most of her conclusions. Life is easier for the middle classes in the poor countries where hippie college students backpack to see what’s real than it is in the wealthy countries where they bought the fancy backpacks. This is, she admits, in large part because the income inequality is still so great there. But it also demonstrates how ludicrously self-congratulating EU paranoia about floods of Indian programmers swamping their immigration system really is.
I am of course a product of this entitlement culture she mocks, and so even when her observations are unassailable, I don’t always agree with her conclusions.
The somewhat satirical conclusion that I come to … has a real kernel of truth in it: In countries like India and China, what people really want is the right to work; in Europe, it is the right to holiday that is the goal.
I see no need for satire. From my perspective, it is obviously better to work for a life than to work for a living if there is any choice at all. I am reminded of the opening lines of the 1860 song “Go Forth”
Go forth all ye sinners, put your glasses down and calmly walk away
I am so much like you, I have squandered hopes and buried dreams for pay
Aiyar makes a pretty strong argument that the necessary global redistribution of wealth and power may eliminate that choice.
The 1860 song continues…
Rise up all as winners,
As your sun rises it sets on someone else.
Maybe it’s just her perspective coming from a rising nation, but speaking of the “platitudes of (mostly) men in dark suits gathered…across the region’s traffic-snarled cities,” she concludes
The boring and bureaucratic hold hidden in them the potential for the transcendent.
After a decade working in the public sector, I have a hard time sharing her optimism. But I hope that she is right about this, too.