The espresso machine pours the coffee into the cup as steamy as the pizza coming out of the oven. Two boys at the counter await their picanha and kebab, undecided about which dessert to choose from the myriad of curious Indian sweets. In the background, you can hear the butcher’s cleaver at work, while a line of customers with products in hand stretches to the cash register.
Coffee shop, pizzeria, barbecue, kebab, butcher, and grocery store – everything everywhere and at the same time, like in this year’s Oscar-winning film. A multiverse of services available to the Lisbon resident who crosses number 284 on Rua da Palma on their way to Intendente, not found in a market or shopping center but concentrated in a single store: Sher-e-Punjab.
A store that is also a world.
A world that Indian Tarundeep Kaur, or Tanu, sees passing before her eyes every day, from her observation point at the café counter.
From there, she watches Indian girls in traditional attire pulling whiny children by the hand, men in turbans with serious expressions, workmen in overalls splattered with paint and a mini in hand, ladies in black dresses, faces covered in wrinkles and eternal mourning, and tourists, hundreds of them, stocking up for another day of exploring Lisbon.
Above the counter, on the television with the volume turned up one or two notches, a stylishly coiffed rapper in an extravagant jacket dances and sings in Hindi, the soundtrack to everything.
Since December 2021, when she decided to swap Punjab for Lisbon, that has been Tanu’s world. A world where she feels happy. “Portugal has good weather and good people,” summarizes the 29-year-old Indian in fluent Portuguese, a language she learned in record time, right there at the Sher-e-Punjab counter, which is a coffee shop, pizzeria, barbecue, butcher, and grocery store.
And now, for Tanu, it’s also a school.
The Netflix documentary that inspired the move to Lisbon
It’s comforting for Tanu to think of her workplace as a school. As an English teacher for adults in Punjab, the classroom was her habitat until one day Lisbon appeared alluring, with its colours and vibrancy, on the television screen. “The truth is, I decided to come to Portugal because of a Netflix documentary,” she reveals with a laugh.
At that time, the idea of migration was already on Tanu’s mind.
“I was looking for a better future, better opportunities than I had in Punjab. I was willing to go to Canada, but when I saw Lisbon on TV, I changed my plans,” she says while arranging trays of jalebis, barfis, laddus, and other Indian sweets on the counter.
From there, the usual script followed: a tourist trip to Lisbon, the first contact with the city and the Indian community, especially immigrants from Punjab.
Two months later, Tanu was certain that the Netflix documentary had been a good sign. All that was left was to find a job.
That’s where Sher-e-Punjab comes in.
“This was the first place I looked for a job. I knocked on the door, spoke to the boss, and the next day I was working,” remembers Tanu, who, less than two years after landing, changed her status from tourist to resident. She’s now one more Lisbon resident who, like many others, has found a place to live in Barreiro on the south bank of the river.
The difficulty in finding a house, however, is one of the few complaints Tanu has about the Netflix documentary.
“Today, I realize that the film spoke 80% of the truth. It didn’t mention the difficulties of finding a home or the high inflation,” she says, with an attentive gaze. “With the rising rent and rising prices, the minimum wage is not enough.”
Tanu only managed to escape the routine of living in a single room and have a house when her father and brother arrived, determined to follow her steps and migrate to Lisbon. They contribute to the family’s budget by working as app-based drivers and share a two-bedroom apartment.
The “buts” concerning what was shown in the documentary, however, don’t diminish the luster of the decision to live in Lisbon. Tanu says that adding the walk to the Barreiro station, crossing the river, and the metro ride, it usually takes less than half an hour to reach the restaurant.
Woman, Indian, and professional
She also learned the new language quite well, especially considering her background as an English teacher. To communicate with Portuguese and Brazilian customers, whether at the café counter, in the grocery store, or at the butcher, Tanu did her daily lessons. In less than two years, she became almost fluent in Portuguese.
Interestingly, the biggest adaptation challenge was more about “numbers” than words. “I couldn’t understand or say ‘catorze’ or ‘quinze’ at first”, says the Indian woman who, after more than a year of learning the new language by ear at the Sher-e-Punjab counter, is now so familiar with numbers in Portuguese that she pronounces “treze” with a Portuguese accent.
More challenging than communicating was mastering the world of Portuguese cafés and their nuances. “One customer would order ‘um café’, and the next would ask for ‘uma bica’. I didn’t understand anything until a woman had the patience to explain to me that they were the same thing”, she laughs. Today, Tanu serves “cafés” (and “bicas”) and doesn’t get confused between “garotos”, “pingados”, and “abatanados“, with the “um sem princípio”.
Confident and proactive, Tanu has gradually become a kind of right-hand person to the boss. From the café counter, with the catchy rapper on the television, she manages the café, takes orders for pizzas, kebabs, and chicken and steaks prepared in the compact panoramic kitchen, which can be seen through a window.
The only exception is cutting the meat because despite the Sikh and Hindu religious orientation of Sher-e-Punjab, as the name suggests, the slaughter in the establishment follows the Muslim halal method. However, that’s not an obstacle for Tanu to assist the butcher with serving when the line in front of the counter starts to get longer.
“Here, everyone does a bit of everything,” Tanu summarizes. She’s been asked many times by surprised customers whether it’s allowed for an Indian woman to work like this, with lipstick on her lips, colourful earrings, so independent, almost as if managing a business.
“This is a view from the past. Maybe in one or two provinces of India, female participation might be limited, or if the woman herself accepts and behaves that way. But in Punjab, women already work in commerce, schools, in the same places where everyone else works,” she explains.
The small bell rung by the Bengali pizza maker signals that another pizza is ready. “He was trained by Italians in Italy,” warns Tanu about the resume of the man with a friendly smile, holding the curious kebab-flavoured pizza on the metal tray, which quickly passes into Tanu’s hands to serve the couple of tourists sitting on the terrace.
The Punjab tiger roaring in Intendente
Tanu’s new world opened its doors in 2021. The idea of concentrating so many service options in one place came from trader Gurpreet Singh Saran, or simply Bittu, as indicated by the golden plate hanging on the equally golden cord around the neck of the 39-year-old Indian, a compatriot of Tanu.
Sher-e-Punjab is the result of Bittu’s years of experience in small businesses: a fruit shop, a butcher shop, a spice market, and a grocery store that he managed since 2012 when he arrived in Lisbon, after working in construction in England. “Since I had already had various businesses, I decided to bring everything together in one place,” the boss explains.
The size of the 340-square-meter store motivated the idea. “When I bought the store, I looked at the size and thought, ‘Wow, this is a big store.’ So I decided to open a butcher and a restaurant along with the grocery store. Then, since there was still space, I had the idea of the café.”
The slightly chaotic but functional environment is divided between the café counter and the grocery store cash register right at the entrance, as well as a small space with four additional tables. Then, there are the grocery store shelves and gondolas, flanked by stacks of twenty-kilogram bags of basmati rice. At the back of the store is the butcher shop.
The halal butcher shop, by the way, seems to stand out from the Sikh and Hindu vegetarian culture. Bittu justifies it with an argument as old as religion itself and even more powerful: the commercial one.
“There are many Muslims in the neighborhood, and the Portuguese come because the prices are good. If halal works for both, all the better”, he explains.
The different types of businesses naturally require management effort. Literally. Starting at 10 PM, when the license requires the grocery store to close, the employees unfold a massive white screen and close off part of the space, which then operates only with the restaurant until midnight.
Some of the Sher-e-Punjab‘s decoration is painted in bright Bahian colours of green, yellow, and orange. “It was an idea from a Brazilian,” says Bittu. “He was a painter from Bahia. When he came to paint the store, he asked what colour would be, and I couldn’t say. He said that in Brazil, everything is colourful. I agreed, and it turned out beautiful.”
On the walls painted in festive Bahian shades, reigns the effigy of a fierce tiger, the store’s logo. “It’s the Tiger of Punjab,” explains Bittu, or Sher-e-Punjab in Hindi, a tribute to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, also called the “Lion of Punjab,” who founded the Sikh Empire in the 18th century.
With 14 employees from India, Bangladesh and Nepal, the Punjab tiger roaring in Intendente, which once seemed like a big store, appears to need more space. Bittu’s plans include opening an even larger branch in Odivelas. “The community is very large there,” explains the trader, again stroking his stylish rapper-like haircut.
Safe and Welcome in Lisbon
Tanu takes a few minutes of her work break to pose for the photographs in this piece. Her open and affable smile, however, can’t hide her tiredness. “The work is different from teaching at school,” explains the teacher. “There, it was more mentally exhausting. Here, it’s physically tiring. It’s a lot of hours on your feet.”
The fatigue and the desire to distance herself from the idea of returning to teaching one day don’t discourage Tanu, who reinforces her smile for the camera. Despite the Netflix documentary not mentioning the minimum wage and the difficulties of finding housing, she emphasizes that even if she had known everything beforehand, she would still come to Portugal.
A certainty reinforced by the way she has been welcomed in Lisbon.
“The Portuguese people don’t make a difference if a person is Indian or not. I feel safe and welcome here”, Tanu assures, before returning to her observation point behind the café counter, just as a Portuguese customer enters the store and greets her with a “good afternoon, neighbour”.
And neighbour Tanu smiles again, happy in her world, accompanied by the chorus of the rapper with the extravagant jacket singing on the screen.
Jornalista e escritor brasileiro, 50 anos, há sete em Lisboa. Foi repórter, colunista e editor no Jornal do Commercio, correspondente da Folha de S. Paulo, comentador desportivo no SporTV e na rádio CBN, além de escrever para O Corvo e o Diário de Notícias. Cobriu Mundiais, Olimpíadas, eleições, protestos – num projeto de “mobile journalism” chamado Repórtatil – e, agora, chegou a vez de cobrir e, principalmente, descobrir Lisboa.
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