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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Capital Letter

European Odyssey: Swiss Journal 

Theme for a (Gandhian) dream...

Milan’s Malpensa airport is a bit like Ahmedabad airport before it was modernized. We arrived there on a hot and sultry day and waited forever to retrieve our bags. I was a bit grumpy; who would expect this in Milan, the world’s fashion hot spot? What next, I asked my wife? Rickshaw guys milling about the exit? I want my money back!

Within minutes of emerging into the arrival area, my frown disappeared. We were greeted with warm smiles by Beat (pronounced ‘bey-ut’ though our daughters often say his name to rhyme with neat) and Raul, the Swiss component of our family. As we loaded our bags into Beat’s Audi, I looked forward to the drive that skirted the city to take us into the hills of Switzerland, headed for Tessin, aka Ticino.

The picturesque Ticino canton is spread across mountainous country and is the southernmost part of Switzerland. Called Italian Switzerland, the region, I am surprised to learn, is, after Zurich and Geneva, the third largest financial center in the country.

It took us all of 90 minutes, including a stop in a farm with a tumble down barn where we bought fresh fruit and vegetables, to get to Al Ruscello, the house by the brook, in the heavenly little village of Gordola in the Locarno district. With a view of the northern tip of Lago (Lake) Maggiore, the house is Beat and our niece Lisa’s family home. On the northern side, it is surrounded by vineyard slopes that grow the local Merlot grapes. Ticino is the warmest part of Switzerland.

Lisa and Beat come here to get away from the hustle and bustle of Zurich, where they live.

Really? They need to get away from a picture-postcard city that is consistently voted the most livable city in the world? I guess it takes all kinds. Maybe the civilized 400,000 residents; maybe the smooth flowing traffic; perhaps the quiet neighborhoods and the picturesque lakefront get to them and they want to go rough it out in Ticino. But it’s just more of the same: quiet, easy, beautiful...only on a much smaller scale; Gordola’s population is just 5,000.

Even for just 5,000 people, there is a wealth of local infrastructure. Some of it is evident from  the balcony of Al Ruscello, which offers a view of local trains, commuter railroads, private boats and ferries, civilian planes and helicopters for medical emergencies. And it’s not just in Ticino; it’s all over the country: a display of civic extravagance that towers above the fabled wealth of Swiss banks and the affluence of its citizens.

Meanwhile, the superstructure is unobtrusive: the grocery store, the butcher shop, the bakery, the fruit and vegetable store appear modest and innocuous but are lavish with an abandonza of local products. It was this “local” aspect that also struck me when we visited Ticino five years ago.

In a column for a national newspaper,  I wrote:  “...isn’t this what Mohandas Gandhi said when he talked about...villages being self sufficient? ‘Every village will be a republic… (It) has to be self sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world,’ he wrote in the Harijan, some 65 years ago, on July 28, 1946. So while the Swiss people exult in their village republics, they also have a global presence with world beating companies in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, machine tools, textile machinery and also in lifestyle brands like Swatch, Omega, Mont Blanc and even ultimately the Swiss Army.

“Sadly, in India, villages are dens of filth and inequity; major stumbling blocks to progress. As far as global brands, India now finally boasts some companies like Infosys, Wipro and Tata. In political terms, self sufficiency in India means cronyism and a seller’s market. But the Swiss version, which I experienced in Tessin, was modern and enlightened. I thought to myself: isn’t this exactly what Gandhi advocated?

“In reviewing Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, the historian Ramchandra Guha wrote: ‘As a multilingual and yet democratic country, India’s only rival is Switzerland.’ Guha’s review in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 8, 2005, a scathing dismissal of Sen’s book, which has become the bible of the soft left in India,  hit the nail on the head. Switzerland appears to have been the model on the basis of which Gandhi proffered his theory about village republics.”

In the five years that elapsed since our last trip to this wondrous region of the world, it appeared that things hadn’t changed much. They hadn’t deteriorated as they would in India, for sure. In fact, they might have gotten better. In the midst of the economic disaster in Europe, Switzerland held firm, bouncing back firmly from a slight downturn. In the quarter ended June 2011, the economy grew 2.4 percent and exports grew nearly six percent despite the fact that the Swiss franc appreciated sharply against the dollar and the euro.

It appeared as though this pristine little country has weathered the economic storms that are buffeting Europe. Switzerland has much to cheer about.

The dining room at Al Ruscella boasted a fireplace that served as a grill. We barbecued locally sourced beef, venison and sausage, tossed a hearty salad with local produce, selected the local white Merlot as an accompaniment to the meal, relished home-made dessert and topped the meal off with local grappa. We silently raised our glasses to the resourcefulness of the Swiss people and in thanksgiving that our extended family includes a Swiss branch.

This appeared on Capital Letter, The Times of India Blogs on November 7, 2011.