Meet the Punjabis of Rome

This is a story I would tell anyone I meet as soon as the topic veers off to travel and Europe. You cannot blame me, for it is the most interesting tidbit I learnt or rather I cared to learn when I was travelling in Rome for a week. It is the tale of Punjabis in Rome.

The chances of you figuring this out is less unless you talk to tour guides who wait on you at the entrance of every tourist spot and small shops that sell souvenirs. It sure is surprising to learn about thousands of Punjabis who have made Rome their home decades ago. (Punjabis are an ethno-linguistic group associated with the Punjab, who speak Punjabi, an Indo-Aryan language.) 

Let me start with an owner of a small shop that sells souvenirs in Vatican, Rome. My sister and I were waiting in the queue to enter the famous St. Peter’s Basilica. As soon as the queue started moving, a gentleman was kind enough to inform us that we were supposed to cover our legs and arms before we enter the Basilica. While I was wearing a white knee-length one-piece, my sister was wearing a short jump suit. “Let us just buy a shawl from one of the roadside vendors,” I said.

We went to the closest one and got a flimsy brown coloured shawl that had the word ‘Rome’ written all over it for 2 Euro. It was not that great-looking but it served its purpose throughout the trip.

As we were buying, the owner, who happened to be an Indian, started talking.

“Are you from India?’ he asked.

“Yes. Which part of India are you from?” I asked.

“I’m from Punjab. Been running this shop for over a decade,” he replied.

As soon as my sister was done paying we took our leave. He wished us a good stay in Rome. That was all there was to our conversation. If I had I not met another Punjabi near Vatican museum, Colosseum or any other tourist spot for that matter I would never have thought too much about it.

We were waiting in the long queue that leads to Sistine Chapel and Vatican museum. The queue moving at snail’s pace and we realised the mistake of not buying tickets beforehand. We were not sure if we would be able to make it in time. This was when another tour guide, an Indian again, approached us and promised two tickets to visit both places. My sister complied. I was skeptical. But we followed him.

Though he did not give his name, he said he was a Punjabi and been a tour guide for quite some time. “You are from India na?” he asked. We just nodded. “I used to do tour guides for Vatican before,” he explained. We had reached a small office, where there were three people sitting in front of computers.

The Punjabi told his colleague, probably his supervisor, about the two tickets we needed.

“It would be 26 Euro each,” she said. When we checked online, the cost of the ticket was 12 Euro for Sistine Chapel and Vatican. I strongly felt that we should not waste so much on a ticket considering we were short of money already. So we left there and proceeded to our hostel in the Roman city centre.

I felt a little bad for the Punjabi, for this is how they make money. For every ticket sold, they get a commission of 5 to 10 per cent. Well that is how business works and sometimes it is not as fruitful.

On the way we met few people who wanted us to buy tickets, again. Instead of them asking me, I asked them if they were Punjabis. Most said yes. My journalist instinct kicked in and I wanted to dig more about why there were so many Punjabis in Rome.

The answer to the puzzle was with Sukhwinder Singh, a tour guide in Colosseum, Rome. I met him after our visit to the monumental Colosseum and was looking for someone to click a picture of both of us. He volunteered. I did not want to let go of the opportunity.

Sukhwinder came to Rome, Italy on a tourist visa two decades ago, a few years after Operation Blue Star, where many Sikhs were targeted and killed on the order of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was assassinated four months after the operation by her own Sikh guards. Anti-Sikh riots ensued and many Punjabis fled the country after that. Sukhwinder’s circumstance was one such case.

He travelled to Rome when he was in his early twenties and realised that people are more than willing to spend money on guided tours. He felt he could eek out a living by acting as one. He joined an agency, polished his skill and became a full fledged guide.  When his visa expired, he came to know that for people with invalid visa there is an opportunity to get permanent residence in Italy. “Italian immigration office sets up a kiosk twice every year and grants permanent residence for immigrants. I got my PR through them and later citizenship,” he said.

Soon after he got his PR, he brought his wife, children, brother, cousins and any relative you could think of to Italy. You can take a guess about how so many of them managed to make a home here. The result, there is a huge Punjabi community in Rome and most of them are in tourism business. Sukhwinder said, “We used to make 100 Euro per day couple of years ago. But it has come down a lot. It is enough for us to get by.” He lives with his wife and two sons in a small one-room apartment in a narrow alley in Rome. Most of his relatives occupy the houses in the area. “There are more of us spread across Rome,” he said.

It was interesting to learn more about how Punjabis have settled in Rome a long time ago. I only wish that I had more information about their life here. But I will just have to save that for another trip!

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