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5 December 2012

India’s strange addiction to Switzerland

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

By Ritwik Deo

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.

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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.