| Carnival on the Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona, May 2004
Barcelona football club’s campaign for the Catalan language is one more reason why homage should be paid to Catalonia not only for its indomitable courage in the past. The present is equally inspiring. Although socialist democracy was wiped out in blood in the civil war that broke out this month 68 years ago, the argument of whether a multicultural country is a state of many nations or a nation of many states has been resolved here in harmony.
That achievement outweighs the failure that darkened a generation’s horizon. “It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten,” Camus wrote, “that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.” True, perhaps, but Spain also promises new life to thousands of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Friends on the La Vanguardia newspaper in Barcelona, one of Spain’s oldest, suggest the city might have as many as 200,000 south Asians.
Barcelona has endured what Calcutta’s fashionable parlour pinks degraded to self-serving rhetoric. It is a city that lived revolution, suffered war, experienced hardship and practiced brotherhood. “One had breathed the air of equality,” George Orwell wrote as a volunteer fighter against fascism.
Today, it is the centre of a proud region that blazes another trail. Driving from Port Vendres in France to Portbou in Spain or taking the train from Figueres in Spain to Cerberes in France has even greater relevance for Asia’s fractured unity. The vision behind the comment, “Henceforth there are no Pyrenees”, apocryphally attributed to Louis XIV when his grandson’s assumption of the Spanish crown plunged Europe into war, has at last been realized. Customs and immigration checks have vanished; so has duty-free shopping. The seamless robe of European unity holds the message that the dream of Charlemagne and Napoleon can be realized without violence.
Intrigued by the scimitar nose of the only other occupant of the hotel lift in Tarragona, an elderly man with snow-white hair and rose-pink cheeks, I asked if he was Spanish. “Catalan,” he replied, recalling an encounter in Kiev airport as twilight descended on the old Soviet Union. The man next to me wanted to buy the elastic-sided English boots I was wearing. Was he Russian' No, Uk- rainian. Placing both his hands together, palms downwards, on the left, he said “Ukrainian!” and repeated the same gesture on the right, saying “Russian!” I gathered he meant that they were two different peoples living side by side.
The nose could have been a relic of the Romans, whose splendid ruins dominate Tarragona, of Moorish conquerors who were not finally driven out till the 13th century or of the 70,000 Moroccan and Algerian soldiers General Francisco Franco imported to crush the elected republic. Tourist literature calls Catalonia “a European country” of 31,980 sq km and six million inhabitants. Oriol Serva, a local racing driver, participates in international events as a Catalan, not a Spaniard, and sports Catalonia’s red and yellow stripes. Barcelona FC’s slogan, “Fent Pais”, means Making the Country. “We are not trying to be political” says the club president, Joan Laporta, “our aim is to simply make a country, to stand up for the country’s right. Hence the slogan”.
But the Esquerra Republicana Catalonia is political. It has threatened to oppose the European constitution, which will be submitted to a referendum, unless the European Union explicitly addresses Catalonia’s social, economic, democratic and environmental concerns. The party chief, Josep Lluis Carrod-Rovera, wants a meeting with the president to discuss terms. Gazing into the crystal ball of the future, will the leaders of Kashmir, Tibet, Tamil Eeelam, the Shan, Kachin and Karen states, Aceh and Moro — or any other restive Asian minority with a territorial definition — ever be able to stake a similar claim' Rebels or nationalists, these groups have each proclaimed a version of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy. Each is clamouring for some form of autodeterminacio. Each awaits its own ruptura pactada — pragmatic arrangement — with central authority.
The Asian nation that comes most vividly to mind in Barcelona is Bangla- desh, and not merely because of its physical presence along the broad road called Passeig de Gracia, where jaunty lads from Barisal and Faridpur sell scarves, belts and sunglasses under the shadow of Antoni Gaudi’s architectural fantasies. My instant rapport with them evokes Catalonia’s linguistic ties with Valencia, the Balearic Islands and France’s Roussillon district. The Catalan language was banned, first by the Bourbons in 1714 and then by Franco in 1936. Oblivious of historical similarities with the nation that has given them refuge, the boys urge me to stay on, laughing aloud when I plead a 30-day visa. Their own visas expired many months ago. Some never had one. Their families sold everything to raise enough money to send them to Morocco from where they made their way to Spain. One youth who spent a month in an island jail — he knows it only as mahasagarey dweep — speaks warmly of the Spanish police for helping his rehabilitation. They have promised him his “papers”.
A more canny spirit dominates the Ramblas, the wide promenade that sweeps down from the mountains to the sea and is Barcelona’s main artery, where loudspeakers once bellowed revolutionary songs night and day. The Ramblas is now crowded with cafés, kiosks, jugglers and entertainers. Its pavements are lined by souvenir shops whose street-smart Indian owners sell 52-cent stamps (needed for postcards within Europe) for 60 cents. Who sponsored me, asked one youth only to be answered by a colleague, “He doesn’t have to be sponsored. He can get a visa. Can’t you see he’s aged'”
They, too, have no knowledge of history, but their Spain is not somewhere to get lost in. For Indians, it is a country of robust opportunity at a higher level. I remember the embarrassment of my old friend, Pilu Roy Chowdhury of Santosh, for many years Spain’s honourary consul in Calcutta, over reports of coal and old Centurion tanks being exported from India to apartheid South Africa with misleading end-user certificates from rich Indians in Spain. Even the Pakistani selling roses as we dined off the Ronda San Perre feels comfortable in Barcelona. Catalans might traditionally resent the xarnego, as migrants from other parts of Spain are called, and “Negroes, No” was scrawled in a telephone kiosk. But south Asians don’t stand out physically as in Britain, and that is a major step towards integration.
Is the Catalanism that so easily accepts foreigners a matter of race, residence, culture or a mix of all three' Is a Malaysian boomiputra (literally son of the soil, borrowed from the country’s Hindu past) born or created' Most are indisputably ethnic Malays, but Muslim settlers who subscribe to Malay culture and values, which have never been defined, also qualify for inclusion. Such flexibility saves a nation’s soul from atrophy.
Of the many manifestations of Catalan assertiveness, the most poignant for Asia lies in a memorandum to King Alfonso XII promising not to weaken or attack “the glorious unity of the Spanish fatherland”, but also warning against trying “to stifle and destroy regional life in order to substitute that of the centre”. Stumbling on the Pyrenees of the mind as a Spaniard takes over as president of the European parliament with its 732 members representing 25 countries and 20 languages, Asians have to remember that although they gave Europe algebra and gunpowder, Europe leads the world in political evolution. Its recent history confirms that regionalism reinforces larger unity. Visiting the shrine in Figueres of one of Catalonia’s most distinguished sons, albeit a fanatical Franco supporter, I read the message of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks, “Time is fluid, not rigid.” So are constitutions that survive with strength.