Thirty years back I had for the first time looked at the over-abundance of wealth as I stood atop the EmpireState overlooking the Fifth Avenue. It was a glimpse into an unknown world that the Wall Street partially facilitated to create, later I knew that such opulence was a world wide phenomenon, not entirely to be assigned to any speculative vehicle; risk and appetite for risk did play a role however in shaping this grand city.

As a student of history I was curious to understand how wealth could be made to concentrate into the royal coffers through absolute subjugation and was more than sorry to witness the wasteful display in the likes of the VersaillesPalace or the Concorde, which later on symbolized the restoration of equity through violence. But wealth did assume permanence in these structures of destructive creation in and around Paris, to create a remembrance that wealth could really be everlasting, whether or not it created value in the long term is another question. Paris vibrates with passion, but it still failed to create an image so full of peaceful coexistence that I was seeking.

My Zurich experience is somewhat different with no Royal display of onerous possessions or creation of an aura of shameless audacity to mark a difference. Institutions have been created here, both for business and for Education and Arts, humanity has been served, rightfully; the rich poor divide albeit existing, is in moderation. Humility as opposed to exhibitionism is lauded here.

Zurich tops every survey as the world’s most admired city in terms of the quality of life. Wealth unfortunately cannot create the quality that we seek so much in life and undeniably Zurich proves this point in a subtle way. Remember Marx saying, ‘Human wealth resides in the relationships of human beings’, in a world torn apart in the aberrations of the human mind to concentrate more wealth in the hands of a few, no small realization, this. The speculative world of business as it has now assumed its new form, perhaps we are reminded of a common human wish, ‘Can it be a little more peaceful, this existence?’

The conflicts of the world keeps moving around scarcity of oil, food and water, but perhaps the underlying propensity of the human industry to arrogate more than what is prompted by fair play, assumes far greater importance. While solution to this cannot be sought through retribution, endeavors to create a social symmetry are exemplified in the Swiss traditions, so much in evidence in Zurich.

I couldn’t help notice the manner in which the city embraces its inhabitants and how its inhabitants cope to create a difference, which makes Zurich what it is. If for a moment we discount the price to be paid (there is a price for everything, at the end) for a life in this city, the life is undeniably the most peaceful. But the question is what makes this, the city or the people of the city? After careful thought I chose the latter, because in the final analysis the people have something intrinsic within them that distinguish them from the rest.

If there was one seat left for two, the Swiss would prefer to stand, almost voluntarily regardless of age. If there was anything close to fair play, it is here that one can witness it. Responsibilities, not rights are what are taught from an early age; no wonder there hadn’t been any strikes or work stoppages in many decades.

Care for the community and the environment, (which can however only come when one reaches that point on the hierarchy of self-fulfillment processes) is very high on the city’s mind. I have some extreme examples in the nature of caring for the birds that live and the swans that swim on the lake. Caring for them as if they were like children of the city dwellers takes me to some incidents with dogs, where they actually behaved like human beings in front of traffic lights without any instruction or aids. I do not want to delve into the habitat of animals that the Swiss manage differently, may be with a little more compassion than what I have known.

Quality of life is a reflection of one’s own desire to embrace an existence that creates benefits for the others around us. When this desire multiplies, the denouement is a state of peaceful co-existence. The children are taught to be self sufficient from an early age, they are told that they must earn their right to better education; it does not come from natural birth. The children learn the need for conservation far too early in their lives and the need to sacrifice for the society. I think these simple words of wisdom bestowed very early into the minds of children create a framework that cannot be withered away by other influences stemming from the materialistic traditions that the rest of the Western world chooses to attract; my fifth grader daughter was just taught Fair Play, something that even management schools will falter to teach. The School sports event is a group event, every race won add to points for the group; there are no prizes for individual excellence.

The church in every neighborhood and the Bishop, who assumes the role of a listener and advisor, is a little different from many other communities that I know. Perhaps the Bishop is handsomely paid for what he does to create, bedrock of human camaraderie, which is fast receding from many other social gatherings. The teacher in school is also paid handsomely, because these professions need the right knowledge, skills and aptitude, the combination of which is almost entirely missing in other societies and are cared for less perhaps.

What is quality in life without the right yearning for knowledge and application of that knowledge? The Swiss know this a shade better, because they fortunately have inherited the best of many worlds; Zurich does this even better because of its long list of distinguished residents, the number in any category or field would surpass any other city, from Wagner to Einstein and Lenin; the world’s highest number of Nobel Prize winners lived in this city at some point in their lives.

Nature’s beauty is without a blemish, anywhere on earth till man tarnishes it by desecration. The Swiss in particular are may be more than endowed with God’s gifts of nature. But they have taken pains to understand that what is given can be taken like many other examples on earth. Zurich in particular takes a special care to keep the second century old city as new and refreshing and enchanting as possible. They do not overlook what has been created by the ancestors as well; some of the oldest buildings that are a millennium old look like very recent ones waiting for a ceremonious inauguration. I salute the efforts of one and all in this city to keep the city clean and always clean, which is not just a cleaner’s effort but everyone’s combined effort. The strength and unity in this aspect is beyond comparison.

The trains and buses and S-bahns and ferries are never late and people come to these stops seconds before, not even minutes, so the stops are almost always empty. What a sheer wastage this is in other parts of the globe. The gatherings at the centre of the city at Bellevue or Bahnofplatz take place without a major upheaval; the discipline of sticking to rules is in the lifeblood. Some of the rules are very stringent like the traffic rules and the enforcement is as religious as possible; Zurich has more cameras detecting infringements than any other city. So lawfulness has also got do with strictness and penalties; some of the fines I paid on my first month ran into hundreds of francs.

Zurich touches me and I have tried to capture it in these lines of poetry:

I look for settling dust on the streets
And find none, not even on parking spaces
And I remember an earlier deluge

The lake is silent barring the passing cars
And some chirping performer
Gets the act with admiring children

No one weeps, or misses a life
A promise, a hope lost, or an act of great loss,
Only good things move on here.


Procyon Mukherjee

30th June, 2008


Zurich, Quality of Life, et al
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