Kids Corner


Punjabi Parmesan:
Why Sikh Immigrants Flourish Wherever They Go





The following is an excerpt from Pallavi Aiyar's travelogue titled "Punjabi Parmesan."



This was the case with 41-year-old Harbhajan Singh. The Sikh-Punjabi had spent over ten years cutting down trees in the central Italian countryside for Trulli Vittorio, a timber company.

I had scrambled up a low hill over thick, thorny bramble to get to the clearing where Harbhajan and two other Sikhs were felling trees on a Saturday afternoon.

It was a bright day in late February 2012. Other than his blue turban, Harbhajan wore no protective gear at all. Harbhajan attacked the trees like a demon, his chainsaw cutting great bloodless gashes into the trunks. The noise was violent. Wood chips sprayed high into the air as the trees lurched drunkenly.

As a tree came down, I squealed and scampered away to safety. Harbhajan and his friends stood their ground, confident, smiling at my fear. Angelino, a short, stocky Italian who was the Punjabi workers’ overseer called a rest stop.

Harbhajan had been working from 7:00 in the morning. It was close to 4:00 pm by then. Usually Saturday was a lighter day with work finishing just past noon. But the economic situation was tough. The bosses needed their workers to put in a few more hours than stipulated in their contracts. Harbhajan didn’t get paid extra for the additional hours.

“With the economy like this we’ve all got to work a bit harder. It’s normal. I don’t mind,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders.

Harbhajan was in the business for the long haul. “I’ve been here ten years and I’ll still be here for as long as I can work.” He’d been lucky. Not only had he secured a kosher Italian residence permit during one of the periodic legalisation initiatives Rome undertook every few years, but also had a permanent work contract with his company.

He was paid 65 euro for an eight-hour day (plus the occasional extra hours). “We’re cheaper than most other immigrants,” he boasted. Even the Romanians and Armenians wanted at least 80 euro for a day’s work. The illegals amongst those from the subcontinent often worked for as little as 3 or 4 euro an hour.

Harbhajan and his co-workers, all of whom had lived in Italy for at least a decade, spoke of their work with pride. They claimed the Sikhs had transformed Latina, the Italian province just south of Rome I was visiting, to learn more about these immigrants.

“Italians don’t like to work too much,” said Sartaj Singh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. “They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.” He lowered his voice even though we were talking in Punjabi and indicated Angelino, his overseer, with a quick sideways motion. “He never gets to work before 10:00 in the morning, even though we start at dawn.”

“Before we (Sikhs) got here, the fields were barren,” chipped in Harbhajan. There was no one to work in the fields. If there is agriculture in Latina today, it’s all because of us,” he beamed.

This was not an empty boast. Sikh agricultural immigrants in Italy constitute the second largest diaspora of those from the subcontinent in Europe, after the U.K. Official Italian government figures put the total number of workers from the subcontinent in Italy at around 121,000. But given the high number of illegals, the real figure is probably closer to 200,000 according to Marco Omizzolo, an Italian sociologist at the University of Florence, who studies the community.

In the Lazio region, an area that includes Latina and the city of Rome, government estimates put the number of Sikhs (and some others) at some 14,500, but in regions like Lombardia in Italy’s North West this number rises to 46,372. The vast majority of them are Sikh-Punjabis who had immigrated over the last 20 years, and most of them work on vegetable and dairy farms.

Tucked away in the remote Italian countryside, their presence has gone largely unnoticed in Italian society and is only rarely reported in the media. But it is nonetheless said by those in the know that were the Sikhs to go on strike, the country’s production of cheeses like Parmesan and Grana Padano would shut down.

Indeed, their “docility” and willingness to work hard while staying out of sight has meant that Italian authorities usually turn a blind eye to the illegal status of many of these workers. They are rarely detained. If they happen to literally run into the local police they are fingerprinted and let off. Deportations are extremely rare.

The immigrants I spoke to over a three-day period in Latina were remarkably positive in their assessment of the Italian police. “They’re friendly and quite polite,” said Gurtej Singh, a hulking forty-year-old dressed in a white turban, spotless kurta pajama, and gold-rimmed dark glasses. “Not like in India where they treat you like dirt and want bribes for everything.”

Gurtej Singh had arrived in Italy in 2001 but had waited nine years before getting legal documentation. He’d been caught and let off by the police more than a few times in the intervening years.

Gurtej told me about the fraught overland journey he had made from Punjab to Europe after paying an “agent” in India Rs. 300,000 (4,500 euro). The agent had convinced Gurtej and seven others from his village that the trip would be a cinch. They’d be taken from Delhi to Moscow by plane, before being whisked off straight to Germany in a taxi, they were assured.

The reality proved starkly different. The first leg of the trip was indeed by plane to Moscow, but once in Russia they were kept isolated in a windowless room for over a week with little food and no information. Eventually they were joined by small groups of illegals from Vietnam, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

They were then taken on foot through the Ukraine and Czech Republic. “Madam, it was winter and there was so much snow, sometimes till our knees,” Gurtej told me, his voice flat and eyes invisible behind his dark glasses. “There was a man in our group who got frostbite and he collapsed. He couldn’t walk anymore. The agent just left him there to die.”

Gurtej and several in his group were arrested near Prague after being abandoned to fend for themselves on a winter’s night in a “house” without a roof, somewhere deep in the countryside. “The agent just took off and said he’d come back for us the next day. But we realized if we stayed we’d die in the cold so we began to walk, even though it was dark and we didn’t know where we were going.”

A few hours later their group was arrested and held in a detention centre for around a month. They were eventually issued permits that allowed for short, unsupervised trips into town. On one of these outings their agent showed up again and spirited them away. Gurtej eventually reached Germany, his intended destination in Europe, two-and-a-half months after he’d left Punjab.

In Germany there were jobs available in the horticultural sector but prospective employers asked him to shave his beard and take off his turban. “They thought I looked like a terrorist. But for me, my religion is everything,” said Gurtej, “and I refused.” “Then I heard in Italy they were less strict about these things, so I came here instead.”

We were standing outside a gurdwara near the seaside town of Sabaudia. The building that housed the gurdwara had been a warehouse for stocking agricultural produce and despite the obvious care that had gone into maintaining it, retained a makeshift air. Outside, the yard was little more than an unpaved dirt track.

Motorbikes, bicycles, and a few cars crowded the yard. I reckoned 400-odd Sikhs had come in that morning from the surrounding farms for the Sunday prayers. Gurtej said the numbers could swell to 800. In all there were 35 gurdwaras in Italy, including some of the largest outside of Punjab and India. But the one in Sabaudia was unimposing.

It had been inaugurated only a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. When neighbours heard the gathered Sikhs shouting out “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” the traditional jaikara or “shout of exaltation” Sikhs use to express religious joy, they called the police, convinced that they were ‘terrorists’ celebrating the attacks.

“We’ve had a tough time since then, trying to explain to people we are not terrorists,” said Gurtej, “and they mostly get it now.” But it wasn’t uncommon for workers returning home on bikes after a ten-hour shift in the fields to be pelted with lemons and stones by Italian kids.

Why, I asked. “Because we look different,” replied Hurtej remarkably serenely. “They don’t really understand what they are doing.” How do you put up with that kind of humiliation, I persisted? Harbhajan joined in. “The money is better and it’s not like life is without humiliations back in India. At least here we don’t have to deal with the kind of corruption we face back home.”

When I told friends in Brussels this story they laughed out aloud. They’d never imagined anyone would look at Italy as a paragon of upright living. [Go figure, then, how bad India is!]

At the gurdwara that morning the granthi was reciting prayers. “Pain is the remedy,” he crooned. “The joy of mammon is the disease.” They sat, men on one side, women on the other, heads covered, eyes closed in remembrance, or perhaps simply exhaustion, and rocked gently back and forth.

Outside the gurdwara, we were joined by Marco, the Italian sociologist. Gurtej and Harbhajan chatted with him easily, in heavily Punjabi-accented Italian. I asked them how they had learnt the language. Had they taken classes? Harbhajan burst out laughing. After a whole day in the field or felling trees, who had the energy to attend classes? They’d learnt on the job.

“If we didn’t know the language who would hire us? We wouldn’t be able to understand instructions,” said Gurtej. Harbhajan added, “We’ve lived here ten years, madam. Even an animal would have learnt Italian in ten years.”

I thought of all the unemployed Walloons in southern Belgium who hadn’t learnt Dutch in a lifetime, despite the availability of jobs in Flanders that the language would have been the key to securing. And this was far from a uniquely Belgian problem. While in Italy I came across an article in the New York Times about a French town, Sélestat, on the Franco-German border. Sélestat suffered from high unemployment although plenty of work was going in the next-door German town of Emmendingen. But Selestat’s unemployed remained either unwilling or unable to learn German. The mayor of Emmendingen was quoted as saying, “There is a job here for anyone who can count to ten, but one needs to count in German.” The French couldn’t.

Harbhajan was wrong. The reason these immigrants had learnt Italian was not because they had lived in Italy for ten years but because no one would pay them an unemployment benefit if they didn’t work, and they needed to speak at least basic Italian to get a job. They had no choice. An accident of birth had meant they were shut out from the privileged world of the European workforce.

But what of their children? That afternoon Marco took me for a walk along Sabaudia’s lake. Flanked by low-lying hills, the lake and the sea beyond it glowed palely in the weakening sun. I spotted three local teenagers sitting on an embankment, smoking cigarettes and guffawing at shared jokes. One of them was obviously of Indian parentage. What was his future going to be like?

Like other second-generation Sikh immigrants who’d been born in places like Latina and gone to school with Italians, he looked like a Punjabi on the outside, but dressed and spoke like an Italian. Since Sikh immigration in the region was a relatively new phenomenon, the second generation was still mostly of school-going age. The few who were older had already begun to move up the economic value chain. In Rome I noticed young Sikh bus conductors and waiters in restaurants. Like their Italian contemporaries, they showed little appetite for the gruelling farm work that had brought their parents to the country.

But given the economic stresses Europe, and Italy in particular, are facing, jobs as a whole are scarce. “Docile” immigrants toiling deep in the countryside might have easily fitted into Italian society by virtue of being content with remaining hidden away from that society. Educated Sikh-Italians competing for the limited number of jobs in the service sector however, might not be accepted as easily.

These second generation Sikh-Italians are denied Italian citizenship and granted residence permits only if they can prove employment. The potential for friction is obvious, as expectations rub up against reality and pliant, “humble” first-wave immigrants give way to a disillusioned, “demanding” new generation of Sikh-Italians.

The author has worked as a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia. She is the author of, inter alia, the 2008 China-memoir, Smoke and Mirrors.

[Courtesy: The Aerogram. Edited for]
August 24, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Amarjit Singh Chandan (London, England), August 24, 2014, 3:53 PM.

"Punjabi Parmesan". Really? Why not 'Sikh' Parmesan? As they have labelled Punjabi Games as Sikh Games in Australia. Further types of cheese may be - Khatri Parmesan, Jatt Parmesan, Tarkhaan Parmesan, Dalit Parmesan and so on. Dhann Sikhi.

Comment on "Punjabi Parmesan:
Why Sikh Immigrants Flourish Wherever They Go"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.