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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

A Corporate Melting Pot | Bhupendra Chauhan

Friday 16 July 2021


by Bhupendra Chauhan

Working in an Indian factory one gets to hear different languages. A brief stint in the Brown Boveri Corporation in Baden, Switzerland, introduced me to several nationalities in one office. This large multi-national corporation manufactured power generating equipment, traction systems and industrial controls. We three colleagues from BHEL Bangalore were deputed there for training in the summer of 1978. The corporation later got merged with Asea, a Swedish multi-national, and is now known as Asea Brown Boveri.

Brown Boveri had a large campus in Baden. It was in the heart of the city or maybe, the city grew around it. Baden is some 25 Km north-west of Zurich, the better-known city of Switzerland. It was our opportunity to look at the work culture of a large, first world enterprise. I was posted in the development section of the Static Excitation Systems. The group was tasked with development of electronic control modules. My two colleagues were in thyristor power modules and equipment testing departments.

I was introduced to Mr Graf, the manager of electronic control modules group, by Mr Prabhu, a very helpful manager in the sales department. Mr Prabhu was a Konkani married to a German lady. He made sure that we did not feel uncomfortable in our new setting. There were five other desks in Mr Graf’s room. Diagonally to my left was the desk of Peter. He was friendly and he immediately struck a conversation with me. His English, though a bit slow, was good. He turned out to be the best friend I had in Switzerland. The room had a rack against one wall which had document folders neatly stacked. There was a folder each for the control modules I was to learn about. The control module numbers were neatly written on the spines of the folders. The circuit diagrams, parts lists, design calculations, everything was there, from earliest version of the module to the latest version in production. The documentation was so good that there was not much need to ask Mr Graf or others. I observed them working. Peter would use a stencil and scale to draw a neat circuit diagram and file it. The electronic parts-lists were either typewritten or neatly handwritten on a printed template and filed.

The place was multi-cultural. Swiss are multi-cultural in the sense that Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Swiss Romansch. While German is spoken by a majority, the areas bordering France and Italy speak French and Italian respectively. Swiss Romansch is the national language spoken mainly in the Swiss Kanton (state) of Grisons. And as Peter would say, Swiss were not racist either as they did not have colonies. Brown Boveri attracted workers from all over. There were Germans from nearby towns like Waldshut, Tiengen etc.; no more than 25 Km away, who would commute from Germany through border at Koblenz. They were in all jobs, blue collar, white collar and management. One German, Mr Wallstein was a former Luftwaffe pilot. His plane was shot down over England during second world war and he was imprisoned there. That accounted for his English language skills. He had taken Swiss nationality and was a bit boisterous.

There were Italians, mostly in blue collar jobs. Many of them stood out as they were short, stocky and noisy; not at work but in the evening at company’s hostel where we were staying. Once we happened to go to the hostel canteen in the evening. The mostly Italian crowd was so noisy that we beat a hasty retreat.

As Swiss economy was doing better than neighbouring Austria, there were some workers from Austria too. Then there were Czechoslovaks and other East Europeans. Czechoslovaks were more visible. They must have migrated there around 1968 when Russian tanks rolled onto the streets of Prague. Swiss political asylum laws are considered one of the most liberal. It must surely have facilitated the entry of Czechs into Switzerland. In fact, when I was transiting through Zurich Airport in the year 2000, I saw many Tamil airport workers. They were perhaps Sri Lankan Tamils who were granted asylum by the Swiss Government.

There was a sprinkling of Yugoslavs too. The Yugoslavia was united then and had not broken into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia etc. The head of the drafting department was a jovial Yugoslav. There were a good number of Turks, mostly in low skill jobs like packing and driving fork lifters. But we also attended a lecture by an ethnic Turk professor in ETH, the premier educational institute of Switzerland located in Zurich. One Turk became so friendly with our colleague Mr Banerjee, during his previous stay at Baden, that when he returned to India, the Turk would show his picture to other Indians in the hostel and ask about him.

There were not many from former Eastern Bloc. It probably had something to do with the fear of Communism and Soviet Union during the cold war years. The Swiss feared that their prosperity made them Russia’s target. The scandal of passing of defence secrets to Russia by General Jeanmaire of Swiss army only added to their suspicions. Our friend Klaus, a Swiss army personnel himself in Switzerland’s largely civilian army, was vehement in his hatred for Jeanmaire. “Such people should be shot dead” he would say. General Jeanmaire was found guilty and imprisoned but escaped death as there was no death penalty in Swiss law. There was one Hungarian Mr Deak in the sales department. He was married to a Swiss. He seemed quite reserved, more guarded to me, but he did invite me and Jagdish to dinner once at his house.

On the same floor in the office, there was a quiet Iraqi Mr Haroun. We would converse sometimes on lunch table. It transpired that he was not able to visit his near and dear ones in Iraq. Saddam Hussain was ruling Iraq then and any visiting Iraqi professional like Mr Haroun would be detained to stay and work for Iraqi Government. Around the same time, I read somewhere that the Iraqi students, sent by Saddam’s Government to study in UK, were not allowed by their government to appear in some final examination. That way, while they were fully trained, they did not receive the degrees. That greatly reduced their prospects in the job market and allowed Iraqi Government to treat them as bonded engineers.

Once Mr Prabhu took us to see the Brown Boveri’s power semiconductor factory at Mannheim, West Germany (there were two Germanies then, East Germany, officially known as DDR and West Germany with FRG as its official name. The joke was that the one with ‘Democratic’ in its name was not Democratic at all). We stayed in Wiesbaden that night and had dinner with one Mr Mota and his wife. Mr Mota was a Portuguese and a friend of Mr Prabhu. Mr Prabhu was also quite successful in getting a large order from Brazil for the Ilha Solteira hydro power project. I came to know much later that Brazilians spoke Portuguese. Since Mr Prabhu was a Konkani, his knowledge of Portuguese must have helped him build rapport with Mr Mota and the Brazilian customers.

We happened to make friends of different nationalities. There was a Dutch student who had come to Brown Boveri for his summer project. His nephew received us and showed us around in Amsterdam when we visited the city in August. There was an American student Dennis who was quite friendly. He introduced me to his Swiss-Czech girlfriend Jana. Jana became a good friend and we met many times after Dennis had returned to US. Jana took me to restaurants for dinner a couple of times and would not let me pay; for India’s image was that of a poor country. And, most friendly of all was one Egyptian Mr Abou who was working in Germany and had come to Brown Boveri for training in Transport Engineering. He was our neighbour and a great companion who used to find Aloo Parantha, cooked by our colleague Mr Singh, irresistible.

There were quite a number of Indians working in Brown Boveri, mostly in engineering or marketing jobs. IT had not become as indispensable to work then as it is today. There were no PCs though there must have been an EDP (Electronic Data Processing) department. There were Indian women too. As was to be expected, there was an Indian Association. And with an Indian Association, can factionalism be far behind? I got to know of their bickering from Mr Prabhu. Most of the Indians were from Bengal. I think Punjabis preferred UK for migration and Bengalis chose Switzerland.

There were no Bangladeshis there at that time. The new nation, born in 1971, could still be finding its feet. There were a few Pakistanis though. In fact, the first South Asian face we saw in Brown Boveri on our first day was a Pakistani, Mr Malik, from Karachi. We were in the canteen at lunch time. I wished him and he reciprocated and introduced himself. Later, we met a few times on our way to Brown Boveri offices from bus stand. I asked him in Hindi “Aap Pakistan se kab aaye?”(when did you come here from Pakistan?). He was surprised and said “Arre, aap Urdu jaante hain?” (Oh, you speak Urdu?). I said “Haan, lekin ham ise Hindi kehte hain”(Yes, but we call it Hindi). Malik’s wife was a Swiss girl working as a Kindergarten teacher.

There were some chance meetings with other nationalities. Once I was waiting for a bus when a slightly obese, teenaged boy asked me where I was from. “India”, I said.

“Is India Communist?”

I wondered why he was asking such a question. Maybe it had something to do with our close relations with Soviet Union.

“No, we are a democracy”

“What democracy, you have Indira Gandhi and her emergency”

It was 1978.

“No, she is not the Prime Minister now. There is a new Government after elections in 1977”

Then I asked, “Where are you from?”. His English did not sound like that of a Swiss or a German.

“I am from USA”, was his reply.

Later, Peter told me that it was kind of a fashion for rich US parents to send their children to Switzerland for schooling. And the rich Swiss parents returned the favour by sending their children to USA. The readiness of Americans to engage in conversation was again brought out by another incident. I and Jagdish were once returning to Baden from Zurich by train. There were two American girls in our coach. Looking at our brown faces, they must have made out that we were from South Asia and would be able to speak English. One of them waved her copy of Time before me and said “Would you like to read it?”. “Yes, thanks”, I replied. That was the starting point and we talked for next half an hour, the duration of the journey.

(All names have been changed to protect identities)

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