“A lot of the ‘undocumented’ came via Moscow,” Onkar explains to me.
Forty years ago, visas to Russia and its neighbouring countries were easier for Indian nationals to acquire.
“They came with the help of ‘donkeys’ or smugglers,” he continues. “They mostly flew from India to Moscow and then made their way to Italy. Some took buses, some drove, some walked and some died along the way.” His tone is matter-of-fact.
Onkar himself had arrived in Italy in the 1980s through the proper channels. Over the last few decades, he has worked his way across the country to make a living for his family. Unlike the situation today, with visa restrictions making it difficult for Indians to move to Europe legally without jobs, funding or official sponsorship, it was easier in the ’80s to acquire visas and residence permits.
“My first job here was with the circus,” Onkar says, sitting across me at his home in Cremona.
Slurping on a steaming shot of espresso, he enumerates the other odd jobs he has held during his early years in Italy. He looks relaxed in a white Kappa tracksuit, a matching soft turban wrapped around his hair. Then he begins to tell me about the time when he first arrived in Italy.
Onkar had just made the move to Italy from Punjab, India, when he was hired as a driver by the Circo Cesare Togni, one of the country’s most popular circus shows in those days. He wasn’t the only non-Italian working on the production. Like Onkar, many of the first Punjabi Indians to settle in Italy worked in the amusement-park industry, undertaking demanding jobs like grooming animals and preparing the circus ring.
At the time Onkar was hired, the circus was travelling across southern Italy and he was living temporarily in Salerno near the Amalfi Coast. It was a grand enough show to offer work opportunities to a dozen other Punjabi boys who had also recently moved to the country. Tasks – collecting tickets, ushering in spectators and handling the animals, especially the horses – were divided among the group.
In those initial years in the country, a younger Onkar, tall, lean and clad in bell-bottom trousers and patterned shirts, was a driver for the circus, along with two other men. His photos from his youth remind me of my dad’s photos from his early days in America – the same style, the same flamboyant posture, the same hearty expression that typified young Punjabi men of those times.
Every night, Onkar would wait as the trapeze artistes inside the tent flew over the audience, accepting the dare to win over the crowds with their aerial acrobatics, and the animal trainers coaxed the performing animals to go through their routine acts.
“The circus performances would go on until midnight,” Onkar recalls.
That was when his own shift began. Circus crews would dismantle the set-up, pack up everything and load the trucks. Onkar drove one of the trucks to the nearest station, where the cargo would get hitched to a freight train and be hauled to the next city. Driving through the night to the same destination, Onkar would wait for the cargo to arrive at the station and move on to the next circus location.
It was good money and truck driving was a fun job for a young man eager to explore and discover a new country. Money and adventure were, after all, the key motivations for Onkar when he had left his family home in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, and flown to Italy.
After a few months of driving for the circus, he picked up a string of jobs along the way to make ends meet.
Weeks and months away from home turned into years as he travelled the country, following leads for jobs that mostly came through his Punjabi network of relatives who had settled in Italy – an aunt in Reggio Emilia, a cousin in Rome. With the network expanding over the years, the jobs kept coming. Onkar worked on machines in a factory in Palermo, Sicily. He helped build houses in Amelia. He picked tomatoes in the south of the country. He fixed cars in a village near the mountains to the north.
Italians were kind and accepting of Onkar, and he did his best to fit in, he says, learning to speak the language and even taking the difficult decision of cutting his hair short and removing his turban, as did many other Sikhs, including my father, who had moved out of India around the same time.
Onkar’s early years in Italy were taken up by demanding work, but photo albums in his living room reveal that it was a time of happiness for him and other members of the growing community. As others like him, with their roots in Punjab, made the journey to Italy, the already established overseas community of Sikhs here came forward with the help and reassurance that a close-knit family would have offered, accepting the new arrivals into their fold.
Onkar did return to India, but only to marry.
Later, his wife and two-year-old daughter, Jess, would join him in Italy. While he had picked up the local language through his interactions with Italians during his varied work experiences, his wife learned to speak Italian by chatting in the garden every morning with their neighbour’s talkative wife. So close did they become over the daily Italian lessons that the two couples would even travel together to India to vacation in Onkar’s family home in Punjab.
The photos in his home feature the neighbours snuggling up with the family under shared duvets on manja benches in Punjab and standing tall in Indian sugarcane fields.
Over the years, Onkar would grow his hair back to its original length and start wearing the turban again, thereby reclaiming the identity he was born with, but had set aside temporarily when he first settled in this country. It was in the early 1990s that he, along with his family, eventually moved to Cremona, where he found permanent work as a bergammo or dairy farmer. It was there that I would first meet Onkar and his family and learn why, after all these years in Italy, he still dreams about his house back in India.
Excerpted with permission from Searching For Home: Stories Of Indians Living Abroad, Simran Chawla, Hachette India.
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