New Delhi, Feb 14 (IANS) He is a rare Spaniard to be honoured with a Padma Shri, but the name Rafael Iruzubieta Fernandez is only too well known to Indian students and academics who visit Spain. A noted lawyer and Indologist, he says India fascinates him for its ‘culture of coexistence’, its ‘constitution’ and, of course, ‘chicken curry’!
‘I find everything in India fascinating. You have been able to create a nation through a pluralist constitution that guarantees freedom and coexistence. I often say it is a work of art,’ Iruzubieta, 70, who was awarded the Padma Shri – the nation’s coveted civilian honours – this year for public affairs, told IANS in an e-mail interview from Madrid.
The Institute of Indology, a non-profit organisation that he founded in 1995 along with several others, has worked ceaselessly to spread awareness about India in his country.
To many newly arrived Indian students in Spain, he comes across as a warm Spaniard who often throws open his home and hearth to them. Perhaps this large-heartedness springs from his great love for all things Indian.
‘The great difference between India, as opposed to Greece and Rome, is that India not only studies its ancient culture but also lives it,’ says Iruzubieta.
‘The Spanish people see India and the Indians from this point of view because it teaches us to live that great culture. We must not forget that India, despite all past and present problems between Hinduism and Islam, is an example of coexistence to all of us.’
Iruzubieta’s association with India began through the late Spanish academic giant Antonio Binimelis, who moved to India in the 1960s to improve his Sanskrit.
Today Iruzubieta has a bagful of anecdotes about his tryst with India.
‘In 1969, I was visited by this Indian who was studying Spanish. My five children were young at the time and thought he was a Sioux Indian from the US and actually asked him where he kept his feathers!
‘From then on, my family and I became great friends with this Indian professor (who has now retired from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University). We soon befriended many academics from JNU.’
Elaborating on the work done by the Institute of Indology, Iruzubieta said it disseminates Indian culture across Spain ‘in the broadest sense of the term’, including economic matters.
‘So far we have organised courses on India at the Complutense University of Madrid, at the Indian embassy in Spain and many more courses in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce of Madrid.’
Iruzubieta also gives out annual awards in JNU. ‘We aim to foster Spanish studies by awarding prizes to the two best students with a degree in Spanish Philology,’ he says.
Over the years, he has come to be seen a friend in need, especially by students and academics from India. ‘I’ve been honoured with the presence at my home of many Spanish scholars from JNU. Thanks to them, we now have a great family made up of the students – many of them are now teachers – and my own family of 21 members, me, my wife Irene, our five children and their own husbands and wives, and our nine grandchildren!
‘Each and every one of us is very fond of our Indian friends. My eldest granddaughter, also called Irene, has travelled with us twice to India and is looking forward to our next visit for the Padma Shri ceremony.’
He believes getting one of India’s highest civilian honours will help ‘reinforce his bonds with the country’.
Since his first visit in 1990, Iruzubieta has undoubtedly seen India change. ‘In the 1980s, I remember, the Spanish government didn’t show much interest in India, but all this has changed and it is now signing agreements to boost cooperation.
‘Our economic relationship is still stronger with China, but I believe that will change. The important thing is to value the great significance of India’s democracy as opposed to China, which does not enjoy such a privilege.
‘The country must still work, of course, to spread wealth across all social classes, but I am aware that it is one of the Indian government’s greatest concerns.’
A typical Spaniard who loves to wine and dine, Iruzubieta is very fond of ‘chicken curry’ and ‘Indian vegetarian dishes’. He says his ‘wife is exceptionally good at cooking Indian dishes and we often enjoy them at home’.
‘Also, my wife often wears Indian clothes, although she hasn’t yet mastered draping the sari.’
(Paloma Ganguly can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)