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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.