India’s strange addiction to Switzerland

A love story based on scenery, souvenir T-shirts, watches and hope.

Come summer vacation, we’d pack our bags and head east into the impoverished, potholed interior of India to visit relatives. We would come home to embarrassing poverty: a mud hut, misshapen windows that looked out to a courtyard full of drying cow dung and happy naked mud-streaked children riding rodeo on billy goats. We would come bearing trinkets from the city: a carved stone Ganesha, a box of gulab jamuns and posters of Switzerland.

The bent, twisted and prematurely-aged uncle we stayed with would return home at sunset from his daily toil to his half-room, half-goat shed reeking of sweat and cheap tobacco. His cheeks hollowed, his chest bare and scrawny, eyes cataract-clouded and squinting in the kerosene-oil light, he would switch on All India Radio and rest his cracked soles on a stool. He would then spend an hour gazing at the poster of a steam engine winding through Interlaken in Switzerland. He didn’t talk much but collected posters: blooming tulips in Gstaad, ruminating cows in the Canton of Uri and the clear Lake Lucerne. He’d have a mouthful of rice, ghee, an onion and a pinch of salt for dinner, stare at the posters for an hour more and finally blow the lantern out and fall asleep.

Withered, tubercular and dying, he still continues to this day - asking those returning from Delhi to bring him “Swiss” posters.

Ever since Bollywood fled the Kashmir Valley bloodshed and started cavorting on the meadows of Interlaken, Indians have been flocking to Switzerland. For many others the prospect of visiting Switzerland remains a frustrating dream.

The cable car station at the snow-strewn summit of Jungfraujoch has a kitschy ice-cave with cut-outs of Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan. Swiss shopkeepers and restaurant owners have developed the uncanny ability to spot Bollywood producers on the streets. Vegetarian restaurants have sprung up in tiny alpine villages where pilgrims come to sup from Chennai and Mumbai. Meanwhile, the Swiss government has launched a new tourism drive to lure second-tier city dwellers in India, who have never been abroad.

At high school in India, I knew a chap who now works at CERN in Geneva. He was dirt-poor and only owned two pairs of trousers, one of which was for school uniform. After classes he, an “untouchable”, would stay behind to sweep the school corridor and mop the latrines. He kept a folded photo of a Bollywood actress in his wallet, preening herself on a green meadow with the Eiger looming behind. His ultimate driving force in life was a desire to live and work in Switzerland. Today, somewhere out there in Geneva, there is a badly-dressed Indian boy splitting atoms with a smile on his face.

There is perhaps a deeper reason for this fascination that the average Indian professes for Switzerland. A reputation for governance, cuckoo-clock punctuality and the incredibly spotless setting are a stark contrast with the bribery and squalor back home. It is a promised land, a land like no other; an infinitely better place representing the way things should be.

Consider Britain and India: lovers and haters, master and slave, a BDSM relationship befitting ropes and shackles, colonial fetishes, Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul, Bend It Like Beckham, Mountbatten and Kipling; every conceivable story between the two has been played out. All permutations are exhausted. It is time India looked for new pastures and new stories, and what better way to start than “lights, camera, action!”

Just think of it. Two nations dissimilar in every way coming together. Indians yearn for the manufactured languor of the Swiss, the Teutonic forests and waterfalls, the sheer otherworldliness. The Swiss love the money the Indians bring in. It is one of the greatest love stories of our times: one based on scenery, souvenir T-shirts, watches and hope.

The Indian in his rural hinterland now knows of the yodelling on the meadows, the panoramic views from the Glacier Express and the impossibly green turf on the Grindelwald. The Swiss on the other hand... are just bemused.

So unlike India in every way, and yet the object of so much affection... Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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