An Indian in Switzerland: The oldest Indian-origin inhabitant of Switzerland shares his Experience

National Day Special By Vaidyanathan Sitaraman

I was one of the founders of the Indian Association in Bern in 1978. Mr Sukdev Chaudhry was the first president. I worked as the Association’s secretary for many years and experienced the growth of the Indian community in Switzerland first-hand.

I am glad to put forward my experiences as one of the oldest inhabitants from India in Bern. I have completed 54 years in Switzerland. I came to Bern on 20th October, 1962, on an offer from the then Radio-Swiss Ltd (Telekommunikation und Flugsicherung). My job in Switzerland was unexpected and I never even dreamt that I would be travelling abroad. Having worked in Overseas Communications Service in Bombay and Calcutta, I got this offer through a friend who was working for Radio Swiss in Bern.

After getting my resignation accepted and procuring a passport with great difficulty, I managed to get a ticket on a ship of the Lauro Lines TV Sydney. I left Bombay on 7th October 1962, and reached Genoa early in the morning on 20th October. A pen friend of mine from Rome met me at Genoa port and put me on the train to Bern. I reached Bern at 11 PM. I recall it was very cold despite my warm clothing.

My friend Mr Gast, met me at the station and took me to his home. Radio Swiss had booked a room for me only from 1st November onwards. Mr Gast was kind enough to accommodate me in his flat for 10 days.

The first dish I was offered in Switzerland was a plate of Salad, this contained leaves! Somewhat taken aback, I told my friend that in India only cows and animals ate leaves. Did he really expect me to eat only leaves? His wife patiently (in broken English) explained to me that these were not mere leaves. One was free to add spices and dressing. Somewhat unconvinced, I swallowed the leaves. Luckily, there was some bread to go along with it!!!

Since I had come to Europe by ship, I had brought along two big steel ‘steamer’ trunks, which was usual when one travelled by sea. I was carrying dal, sambar powder, spices and other similar food items as these were not available in Bern in those days.

I started working with Radio Swisson Monday, 22nd October, 1962. Being a strict vegetarian (brought up in an orthodox Brahmin family) made it very difficult to find something to eat. Vegetarianism was unknown in those days. My options were limited. I lived mainly on boiled vegetables. It was difficult to eat them without any spices. Fortunately, Nelly Gast, my hostess, allowed me to cook in her kitchen. I thus managed to cook some spicy food at least once a day.

Besides, very few people spoke English then. I did not speak any German either. So how could I communicate? When I wanted to buy something in a shop, the sales person would look for someone who could speak English!

Shifting to my own room on the 30th of October was really an unusual experience; one single room and no running hot water. Temperature -12 deg C! My landlady said that there was no hot water when I wanted to have a shower the next morning. I wanted to buy an immersion heater. But my landlady vetoed the idea, stating that I could not use any electrical appliances in the room. I could not even make tea in the morning! I had to go out to a nearby restaurant or tea room if I wanted tea, which meant I had to dress up for the cold weather.

Fortunately, the Radio Swiss office had several shower cabins in its basement. I could also get a towel and soap for Fr1. So, I took my shower daily after work! However, by 15th November 1962, I had enough of this rough living. I recall it was -18 deg C in Bern that day. I told my friend that I cannot live in such conditions and that I wanted to go back to India. After I told him why, we decided to look for an apartment.

During this period, I got in touch with the Indian Embassy and there were only about 8 or 9 Indians in Bern (whom I had met) apart from the Embassy staff. We had a good First Secretary at that time and he helped me by giving tips and advising me. Further, there was one probationer (bachelor) in the Embassy as second secretary and he had an apartment and was very happy to allow me to come and cook food as he was also happy to eat home-made food.

I finally managed to get a single-room apartment on Kursaalstrasse 6 with a kitchen and shower with running hot water from 1st January, 1963, for 110 CHF per month. Since I had not given enough notice to vacate my room, I was forced to pay three months rent. But at least from that point onwards, life was more comfortable.

Later, I learned about the International Club, at Hotel National where English-speaking people got together. I thus came to know other persons from India, Canada, the UK and other countries. We would meet every week, for some meetings, lectures and get-togethers that we organised. I became the Secretary of the International Club for few years.

Then, several foreign nationals formed a field hockey club, which I joined. There were a few hockey clubs in Switzerland and we used to have league matches. Later, we also started a Cricket club, and so I started to play cricket as well; only in summer naturally. My involvement with sports helped me to integrate.

In those days, it was not possible to get any Indian spices and condiments in Switzerland. I used to import them from England until Mr Dey started supplying Indian spices and Dals, among other things.

In February 1963, I was transferred to main operation centre in Bollwerk. There, I met another Indian who worked in Radio Swiss. He was very helpful. I could go to his house and cook food there as both he and his wife enjoyed South Indian food. So, life became much easier. I had also made friends during the voyage to Europe and some of them lived in Zurich. I would go to Zurich on weekends and spend time with them. I recall that in April 1963, the temperature went down to -32 deg C. The lake of Zurich was frozen completely. One could actually walk on the frozen lake! That was really an amazing experience.

Learning Swiss customs took time. One day, a colleague asked me if I would like to have a coffee with him. I agreed and we went to the restaurant. I assumed he had paid for my tea, and we left the restaurant. But the lady came running and said something in German which I did not understand. My friend then asked me if I had not paid for my tea. I felt very bad, as I had believed that since he had invited me, he would have paid for my tea as well. I soon learnt that an invitation did not imply payment!

My social situation improved gradually. I met several other Indians in Bern over time. Soon we started meeting in Burgernziel, and this is how I came to know Mr Chaudhry, who figures later in my story. In all we were only about 9 Indians who used to meet regularly. We used to have parties at the Indian Ambassador’s residence on occasion. Thus, I got to know some more people from Geneva, Zurich and other places in Switzerland.

I should also add that the Radio Swiss authorities were very fair. If you worked hard, you were rewarded irrespective of nationality and colour.

I went to India in April 1967, for the second time and got married the following month. (Here Radio Swiss was very considerate and allowed me to take two years earned leave together so that I could spend 6 weeks in India). It was very difficult to get an apartment in Bern. Finally, I found a 2-1/2 room apartment in Breitenrain with the help of my Swiss friend. My wife joined me in August 1967 and started working in the Indian Embassy till our first child Sripriya was born in 1972. We soon shifted to Münchenbuchsee and our son Murali was born in 1976.

I was one of the founders of the Indian Association in Bern in 1978. Mr Sukdev Chaudhry was the first president. I worked as the Association’s secretary for many years and experienced the growth of the Indian community in Switzerland first-hand. In 1996, I was also a founder member of the Bharatiya Association Bern. I was also elected as the President of the Indian Association of Switzerland (IAS) which had to be discontinued as there was no support from other associations.

In January 1977, my boss informed me that I was eligible for a promotion to a post reserved for Swiss nationals. The question then arose: should I apply for Swiss nationality? I was of two minds, as I did not want to lose my Indian passport. My wife and I were distressed with the idea of needing a visa to visit our motherland. However, family elders and close friends convinced us that there was no harm in applying. We applied for Swiss nationality.

I remember taking a written test about Swiss history, geography and civics. Some of the questions were so obscure that most Swiss nationals would not be able to answer them. (I later informally asked some of my office staff to answer the question paper. No Swiss person could answer more than 10 questions correctly. My wife and I had correctly answered 19 out of 20 questions). We then had our nationality interview and we got our Swiss Passport after 14 months.

As many years passed by, slowly things were improving. The availability of Indian food improved with years. Mr Aggarwal opened a chain of Indian shops. Getting Indian food ingredients was no longer a problem. The number of Indians in Bern grew steadily. As the number of our Indian friends grew, we organised Indian festivals especially Navrathri (Dussehra) at our house. Nearly 70 to 80 people from all over Switzerland used to take part.

During the time I began in Switzerland, there were a total of about 500 Indians in Switzerland. Today, I hear that there are more than 12,000 Indians in Switzerland. I wish everyone better times and happy days in Switzerland.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.