If his life had not changed forever, Mandeep Singh would have been a Punjab Police officer. But he works as a mason in Italy, and says he is happy.
Shortly after being selected to join the police force in 1996, he decided to take his chance at a life abroad, undertaking a dangerous journey to Italy that ended in the mid-sea Malta boat tragedy that killed some 300 people.
Despite nearly getting killed and losing his police job, Singh and the other survivors of the Malta tragedy never gave up their dream of living abroad. Most of them now live overseas.
Two years ago, Singh finally got to go to Italy. He says he went legally, and shows off his driving license from Reggio Calabria, the history-rich southern Italian city. Singh, currently visiting his home, works there as a mason, making 35 Euros (Rs 2,200) a day. “We are exploited there. I have to work for up to 12 hours at one go. We are not doing well,” Mandeep Singh said of Indians he knows in Italy. Still, he wants to take his wife and son to Italy one day.
“I love pizza, Italian coffee, and wine. I like wine with roti,” said Singh, wearing a red T-shirt and a pair of denim jeans as he sat at his village home, a small house with blackened utensils in one corner and clothes hanging on a nylon string. “That is an Italian underwear,” his father pointed out, beaming.
Singh hasn’t heard of French President Nicolas Sarkozy – or his famous romance and wedding with Italian supermodel Carla Bruni. But he knows the Italian language well enough to understand TV shows and road signs and buy grocery by himself.
More than a decade ago, Singh was bedazzled by visiting NRIs. “When people came from abroad, they seemed very lavish — they had gold chains, expensive cars, new shoes, clothes and deodorants. I was mesmerised,” Singh said, as his father laughed gently behind him. “And some of my relatives are in England, they never called us there. So we said, ‘Fine, we will make it on our own’.” His father mortgaged part of the family’s land and paid Rs 1 lakh to an illegal agent. They flew to Turkey and were put on a ship which had more than 550 starving South Asian men seeking work and a new life in Italy. The ship circled for three months, waiting to land. On Christmas Day, the boat in which they had been transferred smashed into the ship in stormy waters, killing nearly all.
“The others all drowned in front of my eyes. They were screaming, ‘Save us! Save us!” Singh said, as he looked away. He got a second life, and in eight years, Singh will be eligible to apply for Italian citizenship. He is warming up: as he sees off the reporter, Singh thanks him in Italian: “Grazie.”