In pursuit of the Italian connection, a trip to a tiny, dusty industrial town on the suburbs of Torino where Sonia Gandhi grew up.
THE car hurtles down the dangerous and ageing motorway between Milan and Turin at 170 km an hour. The motorway, Italy's first, was converted from a two-lane road to a three-lane highway to cope with the ever-increasing traffic between the country's two largest industrial cities. The third lane was created by carving out a certain width each from the security lane and the two existing lanes, with the result that the width of the lanes now do not conform to European Union norms. So when an agitated and reckless driver overtakes me, horn blaring, at some 190 kmph on the right (wrong) side, I begin mentally saying my adieux.
It is a big car, a powerful Alfa Romeo 155 Turbo 2.5, 16V injection, loaned to me by a friend (how else will you get to that godforsaken place, he had said rhetorically, tossing me the keys), and it eats up the kilometres effortlessly. The cherry trees are in bloom and the paddyfields that make up the flat monotonous landcape of the plains of the Po river are thirsting for water after a mild but very dry winter.
This is my third foray into the land of Sonia Mainoputri. Late for a "photo appointment" with Avtar Singh Rana, the director of design and development of Fiat's Lancia cars, who is also a municipal councillor for Orbassano, I step on the accelerator pedal.
The first time I went to the tiny, dusty industrial suburb on the outskirts of Torino where Sonia Gandhi grew up was just after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991. The town of 22,000 inhabitants then talked of nothing but the "tragic end of the fable of our local Cenerentola" (Cinderella). Now that Sonia has seized the reins of the Congress party, the comments are more caustic, especially from people who knew her as a child and as a young girl.
In the small unpretentious first-floor office of Orbassano's Mayor Graziano Dell'Acqua, an overly pink picture of Rajiv Gandhi smiles down from the wall that he shares with a silver crucifix and a photo of Italy's President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. The bespectacled, mild-mannered man who sits at the functional but cluttered desk gives a faint smile. "Yes, I know that photograph looks like one of the holy pictures of the saints issued by the Church. It seems apt here somehow, for in India you do tend, don't you, to give a divine aura to your defunct political leaders," says Dell'Acqua. "Sonia's mother Paola Predebon came to see me after the assassination with a message from Sonia asking if we would honour the memory of her husband. I was very happy to oblige."
The municipal building sits cheek-by-jowl with the church in Orbassano's main square, a small crossroads with a bar at either end where the locals meet to raise a glass or two after Mass. Most of Orbassano's inhabitants either work at nearby Fiat factories or are in some way dependent on the automobile giant. With the exception of the church square which has a certain distinction, albeit dubious, Orbassano is a muddle of ill-constructed apartment blocks and individual houses, hurriedly slapped together in the early 1950s when industrial suburbs mushroomed overnight in the wake of the post-War boom in northern Italy. There is no beauty and little charm. Orbassano is resolutely low brow, resolutely middle class.
"This is not a rich town despite the fact that it has always been at a crossroads. When I came here in 1961 there were only 6,000 inhabitants. We have had three successive waves of "immigration" - first from Calabria, then Sicily and then Sardinia. Sonia's father came here even before that, in the 1950s. I remember Sonia as a young girl. She was like any other teenager enjoying dancing, dressing up and going out. She hasn't been back since I have been Mayor, or if she has, we haven't known of it. Just as well, it would present a serious security problem we wouldn't be able to handle. We are proud of her for she is the daughter of the soil who has made good. We have two celebrities from Orbassano. The first is Cardinal Martini, the Archbishop of Milan, and the second is Sonia Gandhi. I know she has renounced her Italian nationality, but I would gladly make her an honorary citizen of Orbassano. I don't know what she's like now, but I think if he chose her," says Dell'Acqua, throwing an arch look at the picture of Rajiv Gandhi, "then she must be a very special person."
"Even so, I wonder if we in Italy would accept a foreigner, and a woman at that, to take over a party which has symbolised the country's struggle against foreign rule and which continues to enjoy great, if diminished, support across the land. That a certain section of Indians have trusted her with their destiny speaks volumes for the tolerance of India," concludes Dell'Acqua.
IN the church square, the sun is shining. It is a hot, brilliant day, unusual for this time of the year. A funeral is in progress. A 67-year-old man has died and almost all the mourners are above 50 years of age. Many of them know the Maino family. Paola Predebon is a devout Catholic and a regular churchgoer. "She wasn't like this when her husband was alive. She had too much on her hands in the house; there were her three girls to bring up; and then Eugenio was a demanding husband, an authoritarian man. Now with Nadia and Sonia away and only Anushka here, she has a lot of time for herself. Although she does go away quite a lot to visit her daughters, especially the younger one whose diplomat husband is now posted in London, I believe," says a silver-haired woman, who, with a coquettish and conspiratorial glance at her companion, a shocking bottle blonde, identifies herself as Giuseppina. She refuses to give her family name, and says she cannot tell me more. "I haven't seen Paola in a while, you know," she confides.
The old gentleman carrying a cane and downing a glass of Fernet Branca in the bar around the corner from the municipal office is loquacious. "I knew Stephano, or Eugenio Maino as he liked to be called, quite well. He has been dead these past ten years or more. Came here penniless as a mason and made good. Started a small construction business. Brought up his daughters in the old traditional way - church, confirmation, communion. Suspicious of foreigners, he was. I don't think Sonia's marriage pleased him very much. He certainly didn't go for it and the girl was given away by her maternal uncle Mario Predebon."
I ask him about Eugenio Maino's alleged Fascist sympathies. "That shouldn't surprise you. He came from Asiago not far from Vicenza in the Veneto region where nationalism was strong. He fought in the Russian campaign alongside the Germans and remained true to Fascist Nationalist ideology all his life. I have even heard it said that he belonged to the Salo Republic that Mussolini set up in 1943 after he was ousted by his son-in-law. That is what people say but I have no confirmation of it. He even gave his three daughters Russian names in honour of the campaign in which he fought. He venerated the Duce. Many still do," says Giovanni, referring to Italy's war-time Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
I set off for the Maino residence. The last time I visited, it was closed and shuttered. Now the windows are open and there is a large metal blue car parked in the driveway behind the high gate with its prominently displayed "Beware of Dog" sign. Number 14 Via Bellini is a large two-storey house painted a dull, dark ochre with chocolate brown shutters. In a generally poor and run-down area, the house is conspicuous by its neat and well-kept appearance. The neighbourhood is a mixture of Sardinian, Sicilian and Calabrese with a sprinkling of north Italian names: Podda, Eroe, Bertorino, Gallino.
There are three names on the interphone outside. Maino A., Maino N. and Maino Predebon. I know that Anushka, Sonia's elder sister, is in town. I ring the bell."Who is it?" a querulous voice answers.
"An Indian journalist. I would like to speak to someone from the family," I answer.
The voice immediately becomes tough, aggressive. "There is no one here. Go away," it says peremptorily."When will they be back?" I persist.
"I don't know, not for a while. I am just the maid. I can't tell you anymore." I know that voice. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Sonia Gandhi's. The reaction does not surprise me.
As I walk away from the house I bump into two teenage girls, Serena and Sylvia. "Do you know who lives there?" I ask.
"Oh, that's the Maino residence," they say in unison. "Our mothers both know Sonia very well. They were in class together. Why don't you come with us?" Serena is 18, pimply, bespectacled and jolly. Sylvia is blonde, 21, serious and intellectual-looking. They are both studying at the local agricultural university.
Serena's house, at 36 Via Gramsci, is within a stone's throw of the Maino residence. I step out of the lift and into a virtual menagerie; there is a cat, a dog, a fish bowl, a canary cage, a hamster and a singing blackbird. "He's called Biagio, named after the Saint Protector of Throats," says Serena's mother, Innocenza Nocentini. She is a warm, ample woman with a heaving bosom and a ready smile. As if on cue, the bird first imitates my cough, then politely says good morning and follows it up with a most convincingly warbled version of "O Sole Mio", a perennial Italian favourite.
"He never does this for outsiders. He seems to trust and like you," Innocenza tells me. I am touched and flattered. "My son is getting married and I am making lace doilies for the wedding," she tells me proudly. "I was not well off like the Maino girls. I had to leave school and start working at the age of fourteen. I was at school with Sonia until the age of 12. After that she went to the more fashionable college of Maria Ausiliatrice in Giaveno, 15 km away, run by the nuns. Sonia was a year older than I - I was born in 1947, she in 1946. She was nice but always aware of her social superiority. But Anushka, her sister, is not nice. She is a nasty piece of work, that one. We were very upset by Sonia's husband's death. We were touched by her dignity and admired her for it. I think age and the tragedy have made her kinder. It shows in her face. Her son is the best-liked in the family. He seems to be a real gentleman. And so goodlooking! But the daughter takes after her aunt - tough, arrogant and stubborn. I remember the tantrums Priyanka threw when she came visiting with her mother - a typically rich, spoilt brat. We were all very disappointed when Sonia decided to enter politics. I'm sure she did it for her daughter. They also say there are corruption charges against the family, that Rajiv took a lot of money. But somehow I cannot believe he did it for himself. He was such a prince of a man. In any case no one who enters politics remains or emerges unscathed. Even the most honest person becomes a thief. So it was inevitable, I suppose. Whatever happens, I wish her well."
The Nocentini household in extremely modest. Innocenza's husband Nino has not studied beyond the third standard. He is now out of work and earns a living making metal pins for car headlights. "Each pin requires three different manipulations," he explains. "I get a pittance for making a thousand. This is how our black economy works."
"How many do you manage to make per day?" I ask.
"Oh thousands," he replies with a nonchalant shrug. "It's habit. I work at it for about eight hours a day."
Innocenza gives me a final hug. She presses a book into my hands as a parting gift. It is a political memoir by Giulio Andreotti, seven times Italy's Prime Minister and one of its longest-serving post-War Ministers who now stands charged with having links with the mafia. "See what politics does to you," she laments as she closes the door.
Serena and Sylvia take me to Anushka's shop in Gerbola di Rivolta. They want to be photographed among the Indian artefacts there and I am happy to oblige. I remember my last trip to Orbassano. "Try Anushka's shop at the Pyramid commercial centre down at Rivolta. It's just a couple of kilometres away," a helpful neighbour had advised me.
The shop called Etnica is located in a lonely and depressing commercial complex a couple of km from Orbassano. It is a monstrous concrete structure topped by five scalloped wooden pyramids painted green. The shop itself is an oasis of good taste in a desert of semi-urban kitsch. There are some rare old pichwais. A couple of exquisite silver pieces from Bikaner. The display is an intelligent mix of old and new, antique objects and recent Indian artefacts. The prices are astoundingly high. I noticed goods like Shatoosh shawls, the export and sale of which is banned.
"I can't tell you the exact price of the Shatoosh. I received it a few days ago and the price has not been finalised. But it will certainly be between four and six million lire (between $2,000 and $3,000)," the shop assistant had told me on my last trip. A wooden cupboard from Kerala was selling for three million lire - $1,500 - while the pichwais were priced even higher.
I had found the horsey-looking young woman minding the shop a little bizzare. She boasted about her trips to India to buy stuff for the shop but denied she or the shop had any connection with the Nehru-Gandhi family. "I'm told Sonia comes from somewhere around here," she said, trying to look vague, "but the shop has nothing to do with her. The owner is someone from Torino." I had persisted and she had once more vehemently denied any connection. I had found it strange that a shop assistant out in the Italian boondocks should speak fluent English and be so knowledgeable about Indian antiques. She must have a very generous employer indeed, I had mused, pondering over the mystery.
Now seeing me in the company of Serena and Sylvia, she blanches. We have walked into the shop and I have my camera ready. They turn around to greet her but she is already throwing us out unceremoniously. The shop assistant is none other than Aruna, Anushka's daughter and Sonia Gandhi's niece. The girls apologise profusely for her rudeness. "We knew she was arrogant and nasty, but not this nasty," they say.
Aruna and I exchange knowing looks. I am tempted to challenge her earlier claims. Then, feeling sorry for her, I take a picture of the shop from the outside and leave.
The shop continues to nibble at the edge of my consciousness like a buzzing bee that won't go away. There is something not quite right about it. It is incongruous, like a strange, exotic orchid blooming in the desert. It is miles away from anywhere, for to go to Orbassano one has to get off the motorway and drive a good 20 km or so up the road to Vicenza. And then who in Orbassano has the money to buy such very expensive things which, in any case do not appeal to an average Italian. A shop like this would do well in Rome or Milano. But Orbassano? Its like setting up an expensive store selling Swedish furniture on the outskirts of Faizabad.
Sylvia and Serena in tow, I drive up to the Convent of Maria Ausiliatrice in Giaveno, some 15 km from Orbassano. The school, a large, austere building with pale yellow shutters, is located on an incline on the Giaveno hill. This is a very special occasion for Sylvia whose mother, a classmate of Sonia's, studied here. We are received by a plump, ageing nun with gold fillings in her mouth who identifies herself as Sister Domenica. "I was only an assistant when Sonia studied here, but I remember her well. She was vivacious, but not particularly exuberant or effervescent. She studied just enough to get by. What mattered was, above all, having a good time, I think. How can a teacher ever divine the destiny God has in store for her pupils?" sighs Sister Domenica.
Sister Anna Maria is more forthright, blunt, ironical. She is a thin, austere looking nun. I imagine her to be a demanding and passionate teacher. We are standing in the entrance hall that leads into the upper courtyard. "I remember it like it was yesterday. Sonia was 20 years old. We were having a school reunion and she had come here with some old pupils. Dinner was being served when she suddenly announced she had to leave. "Why," one of us asked, "you've been away in England and we haven't seen much of you. Why don't you stay for dinner?"
"No," she said, "I can't stay. I have a special guest coming to dinner tonight." When we asked her who it was that was so special, she said with a peculiar toss of the head: "It's the son of Indira Gandhi, India's Prime Minister." I can still see her standing there. A little later she went to India. She had turned 21 by then. And then one day we opened our newspapers and saw the headlines. She had married Rajiv Gandhi. She had sent a telegram home to her father from India informing him of her decision as soon as she turned 21. She was always a little manipulative. She should do well in politics," adds Sister Anna Maria with a wry twist to her lips.
I visit the chapel with its murals and air of quiet repose. Sylvia can no longer contain her tears. "Can you imagine," she says, "my mother passed so many years of her life here. In a certain sense a part of me lurks in these walls." Sister Domenica puts a comforting arm around her shoulders.
Shyly Sister Domenica asks me if I would mind carrying a little memento for Sonia to India. She gives me a small olive wood carving of Santo Spirito, a representation of the Holy Spirit, that can be worn around the neck like an amulet.
My attempts to look into the Maino family fortunes draw a blank. Italians love showing off their cars, furs, jewels and clothes but they hate to tell you how much they earn or where their income comes from. Enquiries at the chamber of commerce lead nowhere.
Understandably, Sonia Gandhi has become something of a heroine in her home town. Gianlucca Gobbi who works for Radio Flash, an independent radio station in Turin says: "Of course people here have heard of the financial scandals surrounding Rajiv Gandhi. But Italians are so used to corrupt politicians that they tend not to hold that against her. And then the amount involved is not very big. Billions of dollars were stolen by Italian politicians as the Clean Hands investigation revealed. We all know about the links between the mafia and politicians. So all that talk about corruption does not bother us. However, I am surprised at what they told you at the shop. Why should they deny links with the Gandhi family, with Sonia? What do they have to hide?"