In our new series, Namaste Switzerland invites the first generation of Indians who moved to Switzerland as professionals or trailing spouses to tell us more about “back then…”
The first time that Aruna Kapoor flew into the Alpine country of Switzerland was in 1986. She was on a 6-week-long business trip here. Yes, she was not the trailing spouse – but the leading one, perhaps one among the first few Indian women to have come here on their own steam – on business.
“I had been sent by BHEL to complete the programming of a power plant control system. Almost a year after my return to India, the Head of the Control systems department of ABB Switzerland came to India and offered my husband and I jobs in Switzerland. We decided to accept the offer. It meant leaving our friends and family behind, but hey, Switzerland was calling!” says Aruna.
An immense change lay ahead
She still remembers: “On August 8, 1988, my husband Rajeev and I, along with my mom, two young kids and 17 pieces of baggage filled with ‘dals’, pickle, a pressure cooker, and other such indispensables landed in Switzerland. We had left behind a comfortable lifestyle in India, to soon find out that here, in Switzerland, you were the cook, the maid, the ‘dhobi’, the ‘mali’, the ‘ayah’ – all rolled into one.”
“In Switzerland, we quickly realised that work life and social life were clearly separate. At the time, we had no friends and no social life and we tried to spend as much quality time with the children as possible since both of us were working. Being vegetarian made life harder. In addition, there were no English channels on TV – and after a long day, when the children were tucked into their beds, Rajeev and I would struggle to make sense of German programmes. We would actually long for good old ‘Doordarshan’. Fresh coriander was more precious than gold. And within six months, we were ready to pack our bags and go back.”
But that didn’t happen. Something egged the family to stay on.
Aruna worked at the Sales and Tendering department, which entailed rigid deadlines and travel, juggling home, family and work. “There was always a nagging guilt that, perhaps, I was depriving my children of a good childhood. The biggest boost to my confidence was when one day my 11-year-old son told me that he was very proud to have a mother who was an engineer and who was traveling the world on business,” smiles Aruna with a hint of nostalgia.
Setting some rules to hold on to culture
Aruna and Rajeev were both very keen that their children do not let go of their Indian roots. And the best way to hold on to the culture was by ensuring they knew their mother tongue. “We decided very early on that we would speak Hindi at home. Our daughter Smriti put up a poster on the wall that read ‘Only Hindi’. And, if we were to lapse into English or German, she would fiercely draw our attention to the poster. Smriti was a conscientious student and very responsible. Being 5 years older than Shrey, she was his ‘ersatz’ mother (additional mother, so to speak). Even today, I have the feeling that Shrey listens more to her than to me.”
Building home away from home comes with its own set of challenges. The most difficult to handle are probably the ones pertaining to children – their values and morals. Aruna thinks back and says, “ We were very lucky that there were no real culture clashes at home. Not to say that we as parents didn’t have sleepless nights! When Shrey started crawling in home at 2 am, in time we learned that letting go was a better idea. In retrospect, we’ve always had a congenial family atmosphere where most issues get discussed and resolved. I also realised that after Rajeev’s passing away, the kids and I have become even closer.”
The “missing home” factor
Aruna set up home and roots here in Switzerland. But her home country or country of origin continued to remain India. Are there any moments of regret or of nostalgia that she encounters? “Not now. Globalisation in general, the internet, cheaper air travel, last but not the least Whatsapp and FaceTime have changed life dramatically. It is possible to keep in touch with long lost friends across the globe. Over 30 years of having lived here, we now have friends in Switzerland and a rich social life with plenty of opportunities to travel and basically do anything you want,” she says, concluding: “I’m now retired and am enjoying my grandchildren, as well as my 89-year-old mother who lives with us here.”
And to hear the views of her daughter, who is now, married, a mother of two, and a pediatrician in Wohlen, read: Generation Next: Smriti Kapoor.
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