On the minority Indian – excerpts from Rome and Riyadh

I like to travel. By now, this is stale news. I don’t do museums and basilica’s so much as I do not relate so much to them. I try the food and being a foodie, there never needs to be a second invitation as far as that is concerned. Even for someone of my build, I take pleasure in walking around a new city instead of relying heavily on public transit. Ofcourse the temptation of using the public transit is very high thanks to the kind of work I do, but always remains minimal enough to make a judgement on the prevailing transport system and the (in)adequacies of the same. As much as walking around a new city is the best way to explore it, observing the immigrant communities and their ways of life in a new city, give a fair indication of how things work there. My short stints in Rome and later in Riyadh (on transit) were eye opening in that respect.

First things first, Rome could well be the next best thing to heaven. The city has a charm regardless of most of the ruins that make it up as of now. It is certainly a traveller’s delight in every respect – The Vatican, history, arts and culture, piazza’s and the ruins, the food, the gelati – all in all, a brilliant package of the old and new. Being the administrative powerhouse of Italy, Rome has tried its best to preserve the heritage that once made a civilization thrive along the city – outwards into Eastern Europe all the way into the Middle East and North Africa, which is a heart-warming sight. And ofcourse, Indians are aplenty in Rome. 5 minutes by foot and you inevitably bump into one. They are everywhere – on the subway (both the corridors and the trains), the sidewalks, running little shops, kebab places and ofcourse, traditional Indian places spread judiciously across the city.

Disturbingly though, many of these minority Indians are on the sidewalks selling one thing or the other, in every nook and cranny of the city – ranging from imitation goods to fancy items along the sidewalk. You might wonder why just Indians. Well, its not just them – there are Pakistani’s, Bangaldeshi’s, Sri Lankan’s as well – all in unison and in the effort of making a living. I wonder how they survive solely on these. Not having any bit of a steady income and considering how expensive the city of Rome is, it doesn’t make their predicament any bit easier. I might not have been surprised seeing this trend in Lisbon or Sofia, two of the cheapest and most affordable European capitals of the modern day. But fact remains that the sidewalks and the subway corridors in Lisbon are infested by the blacks – probably due to the close proximity to Africa and also due to the relation with the former colonies. Certainly the stance of the Vatican to safeguard the interests of those who come seeking protection also should be playing a role in this mass exodus. But seeing the economic climate of Italy and most of Europe, it is just about alarming.

I infact happened to meet a Malayali guy (they are just about everywhere!! ) who works as part of the nursing staff in one of the hospitals in Rome. He was telling me how difficult life had become, over the past 2 years. He started working at EUR 9/ hour, but was soon forced to cut down his wages to EUR 6/ hour in order to keep his job because there were many takers for the same position, even at this rate. And this decline, at a time when the inflation has kept taking the upside trend is surely not meant to help. The only way he manages to keep the boat from sinking (in his own words) is to work night shifts since they pay you more. Those have impacts on the long term as well. But everyone has a story at home to quote in their defense of such punishing schedules. The average minority Indian’s story goes on similar lines – whether he is in Europe, Asia or America.

Riyadh was pretty much similar as well, if not worse. I did not get to explore the city like Rome as I was on transit, but the time spent at the airport and on the flight to Chennai was good enough to gauge the situation. The boarding gate clearly resembling the open flood gates for prisoners who were out on parole. Many of those bore relieved looks, some were sporting wry half smiles, others were clearly trying to hide signs of fatigue (I was initially wondering all the whys ans the hows and later realized) from what most likely were punishing schedules again. It all got worse when the B777 I was in, had its cabins so full that the flight attendants had forced some of the hand baggage to be kept on the under belly because that was only half full, apparently.  For people who were going home after 2-3 years, this was supposed to be very unusual. Most often what we see are the big suitcases laden with goodies, stacked up one over the other in a taxi, home bound. Movies, ofcourse. But then, the reality of it was such.

My co-passenger was someone who hailed from Tindivanam dist, south of Chennai. He did not know his date of birth (even the passport acknowledged that), in his 50s and going home after 7 years. 7 years!!! I don’t even know how that feels. Misery got compounded when I was asked to fill his immigration form (he only knew Tamil). He was a very warm person, so I obviously obliged. I filled 22 more of these forms during the course of the flight. The lure to make a quick buck was taking many people out of the country. Most of the people back home in India are unawares of the kinds of jobs these guys are doing. They won’t be, so long as there is some trickling in of the funds and its a natural thing. But where they really building up stone castles or just as far as those with sand?? It looked more the latter to me.

Master Degree, check!

Successful defense of the Master Degree Dissertation (Thesis Report) happened last week. Although it got a bit debated on the nuances, still made for a grand stand finish. There is a huge sigh of relief right now. and its a good feeling. But then, you are not so much into relishing the relief that apprehension starts once again. Thoughts of the next step grab the attention of the voices from within. And that ofcourse doesn’t get any help or a move – on when you have a lot of people showing a whole lot of concern (untimely, unnecessary and often with ill motives) on what is going to be the next step. Anyways, some things that I think I have learnt deserve to be penned down here.

  • Everyone has his/her way of working through the research work. No hard and fast rules, some slow starters, some lift off and then subside. All the same towards the end. 
  • Spoon feeding never made you a good academic or researcher. Being constantly told what to do is not something anyone should be proud even if that comes in the way of “guidance”. Your work, your rules.
  • Extensive literature review always helps in building a strong case. A lean literature review is always like a sand castle. Just a matter of today or tomorrow.
  • Know your capabilities well and only then commit to anything on the abstract. Big words such as micro-simulation, econometric modelling etc should be backed up by your abilities (unless you pride in being a quick learner and get it done).
  • Confusion is always a good thing to have. Being confused tells me you have been thinking.
  • You have to fail once or twice to win. You have never won it hands down, unless you have failed and then won over your failure.
  • Be on time and stick to your limits. Your superiors may not agree to listen to this, but you do your bit. A 20 minute presentation can be of 19 minutes, but not 21 minutes. Again, these rules may not hold for your superior, but never mind.
  • Lastly, have a life while you are at the thick of things as well. Occasional breaks during the midweek, football weekends (if you are me, ofcourse), time spent with people whose company you enjoy should never be compromised over work. After all, there is more to life and more often than not, all these may not matter in 20 years if you are alone and depressed.

Next on the agenda is to complete the official formalities, take a break from everything, go on a holiday (Rome for me) and then back home to be with family. And then go on a holiday again for some much needed peace and calm, sort your life and get back on the grind.

The last moments of a dying spring

For the many thousands of immigrants who crossed over from their home continents, the European dream is rapidly falling apart. This is year 2012 and in many ways, serving right for all that the lunar calendar had foreseen or for that horror show of a movie which came out by the same name. Stories of crumbling economies, spurts in unemployment, pink slips, relocation and the like hound the headlines and quite frankly, its depressing to hear these first thing in the morning. Today, I have a few characters to acquaint you with and also their lives which as always, have some stories to say (hopefully not long enough to make you yawn, but indicative of what is happening around this part of the world) .

I start with the two guys I meet in this Indian restaurant quite regularly – Prem and Rasheed. They work in the restaurant. Prem is quite new to Lisbon, three years since he came here while Rasheed has been around for 7. Prem is a funny guy, speaks broken Hindi (he is originally from Nepal), thinks he is a stud, speaks Portuguese quite decently as well as the job involves interacting with the customers on a regular basis. He is an electronics engineer who one day hopes to study further. One of my first questions to him is the cliched Indian mentality of asking – You say you are an engineer. How did you land up in the kitchen of an Indian restaurant? To which he said that he landed up in Lisbon in the end of 2008, hoping to find a suitable work profile in Europe. Portugal because, firstly it was cheaper with easier visa processing formalities and the electronics/ telecommunications had witnessed quite a boom in the mid 2000s, along with the rest of the world. He later realized that the timing of his arrival in Lisbon coincided with the start of the global  recession and the ensuing European crisis. Ended up in a restaurant and never got out of it. He is leaving for home on Tuesday for the first time since the end of 2009 (He says he used to earn twice as much in 2008, when comparing to his salary at the present moment) saving up a little over 700 euros after 3 years of work.

Rasheed worked 11 years around Europe and was finally able to bring his wife to stay along with him, 6 months back. His kids are still in Pokhara (his wife hails from Pokhara, Nepal). Unlike Prem, he hasn’t seen the doors of university although took a loan from his step father to get into Europe in the wake of making an easy buck or two. Not a bad thought although it is strictly  reminiscent of the immigrant issues countries like Greece and United Kingdom are protesting against. Back in 2001, there was no real pressure in stemming the exodus of people towards Europe or the United States and so he survived, As things got worse concluding in the global recession and the recent eurozone crisis, he saw his salary dip to a third of what it was in 2006. He could save up a bit to ensure he went home four times in the last 11 years.

The third person Irfanuddin, the Pakistani father of 3 from Karachi runs a small supermarket in the avenue where I stay, is contemplating on going back to his motherland. His eldest son enters college this year and he couldn’t afford to put him into a good university in Pakistan despite the boy being brilliant. Even after being in Lisbon for 9 straight years, he couldn’t afford to give the boy a sum of 2500 euros to ensure his admission and the poor guy was obviously distraught when I met him last weekend. Sometimes I feel bad that I am compelled from deep down to purchase a few things from him despite them being a few cents costlier than the others. These days he says, all that he earns by keeping the store open from 0900 to 0000 is 40 euros, most of which happens by the sale of tobacco.

Most of the Indian graduates studying in the United Kingdom or majority of the European Union and United States are force – returned home as a counter measure adopted by these countries to counter the immigrant mess. The criteria for getting a work visa and/or employment in the United Kingdom is bound by a cyclic criteria, which shall eventually shut out hopes for a non – EU/ UK citizen. The stories can go on and on – be it be the Indian guy with an immobile right hand who wanted to find work in Europe returning empty handed (because nobody in his right frame of mind would engage a guy with only one hand, any work when there are countless others walking without any job at hand) to this Latin american guy I know who decided to get married to a Portuguese to make himself legal in the country.

European societies are highly multi – cultural, so there is enough scope for a cross continental wedding to save your life, if you are up for it. And I do see a lot of couples around me who are open to this, one way or another. And I belong to a country where, forget being from the same state, the partner might have to pass through the caste filter to make things legal. Anyways, that is a debate for a different day although quite note worthy of the changing notions of union and also reflective of the times that we are in, today. Coming to think of it from the point of view of the nations involved, it makes perfect sense to react the way they have been responding to the hard times by having more stringent immigrant policies. Most nations revel in bringing populist measures, which is easily anti – immigrants because they want to give higher chances for their youth, in comparison with a foreigner. And that indeed happens to be the right way to go about it.  [This was not supposed to be a rant, just in case you missed that in the midst of all this.]

But what is sad is when talented professionals are given no choice but to become the Prems of tomorrow, having to do something in order to ensure there is sustenance. I can authoritatively say that almost 80% of the new recruits are not happy with their current job profiles, but nobody wants to throw it away because you are not sure, when can you land up on a more suitable profile for work. So, for the next 4-5 years, we might very well be witness to MBA’s working in the kitchens of McDonald’s to make a quick buck, of more and more people turning into academia as a means of surviving the rough seas (most academic positions ensure you get a stipend, deemed fit enough to survive), Africans and Latinos marrying Europeans and Americans and vice versa for getting the documents which make them legal  [not the most apt, but indicative enough to get the hang of what is meant] and more of these kind of questions by eager individuals trying to survive the grind. The optimist will always push the individual showing light 5 years ahead of him which shall or shall not be necessarily true, the pessimist will conclude the world will end on 21/12/2012 and the realist will concur that there sure was a spring, (which will explain the exodus) and that it doesn’t exist anymore.

PS: Reading into a lot of conspiracy theories lately, it gives me a feeling that our existence and these tough times right now are part of a major conspiracy theory boiling over.  Major major conspiracy theory!

On food and other stuff…

As far as I know, the Portuguese and most other European societies are physically very fit people.  They enjoy a nice climate all year round, are curled up to the confines of  home for six months (until the beginning of July or so, when people start hitting the beaches for holidays), eat three lunches a day 3 times a week, are very much a dine out culture and yet they manage to stick on a pencil frame.

Add to all these indulgences, these night long snack bars/ take away places –  which are open all night long just like the one below my apartment. And if you think they have a lean business, well congratulations. Absolutely wrong. By the time I am done jogging (yeah, new habit. desperate times.. desperate measures.. likewise..), the queue to hog a midnight snack reaches outside towards the sidewalk.

And I stand there bewildered looking down. I see these 100 pound women (they might struggle to get a grip if the cyclonic storms strike right now) walking into the shack and off it grabbing a piece of their favourite hamburger. And then I look at myself. Midnight snacks are sure delightful. But I feel, I put on weight even when I drink water.

Copenhagen Trails

Copenhagen was amazing. And it sure reiterates the difference that people speak about when Scandinavia comes into their minds. Despite the fact that it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, locking heads with Oslo (Norway), it is every bit worth the experience. The tall sloping roofs as seen above are a highlight to counter for the snow, the city is mad about cycling (55% copenhageners commute by cycles, and that’s about 800,000 people daily). More pictures and details in the subsequent posts.