Mamma Mia! Italy is really a part of South Asia!!

At Fontana Di Trevi: Guess which tourist escaped from a formal meeting?

At Fontana Di Trevi: Guess which tourist escaped from a formal meeting?

I’ve just spent a week in Rome, and felt entirely at home enjoying the hot and humid summer days and clear blue skies. The latest experience has reaffirmed my impression – formed on several visits over two decades – that Italy isn’t a part of Europe at all. It’s really an extension of South Asia.

Hanuman, the super-monkey who features prominently in the Indian epic Ramayana, is said to have carried whole chunks of the Himalayas and dropping them off in far away places. Perhaps, unknown to the chroniclers, Hanuman did some freelance transplanting in the Mediterranean.

The similarities are uncanny: Italians and South Asians have too much in common. Generalisations are dangerous, I know, but then, I’m a South Asian – we do it all the time (and get it right about half the time). So here goes…

For a start, we are both expressive people, and we have no compunction in being loud in public places. Understatement is for the polite (and dull) British; we prefer to exclaim and exaggerate. We also gesticulate wildly when we speak – there is probably an extra nerve linking our mouth with our arms.

We are opinionated and argumentative, often passionately (and needlessly) so. We can rarely agree on any matters of private or public interest, yet, almost miraculously, we manage to get by without coming to blows. Well, at least most of the time…

Heirs to rich and diverse culinary traditions, we South Asians love and cherish our food – as do the Italians. We have our rice, chapatti and roti. They have their infinite array of pastas, pizzas and lasagnas. Our youngsters may fancy an occasional hamburger, but no American fast food can ever compete with our myriad aromas and flavours perfected literally over millennia. We take pride and joy in our food, and break bread with family, friends and strangers. Given a chance, we’ll spend half our waking hours eating.

Blending old and new with ease: average Roman doesn't the burden of history

Blending old and new with ease: average Roman doesn't the burden of history

Next to food, we have an abundance of laws, rules and regulations – too many, if you ask me. But we take our laws with a pinch of salt, or more. We happily and frequently bend them that they sometimes actually snap. Then we’d say Mamma Mia or Aiyo, and just move on.

Just look at the roads, and Italy’s similarity with South Asia is immediately clear. No other western European country comes close to Italy for the sheer chaos factor. We all drive as much with our horns as with the accelerators. We curse and yell at others on the road. Our streets are crowded, noisy and messy. We ignore traffic lights, speed limits and zebra crossings. Cyclists and pedestrians move at their peril.

This completely stuns the more orderly nationals like the Japanese and Swiss, who are puzzled how we don’t have more accidents on our roads (it puzzles us too). Partly because we all try to drive like James Bond, but more because too many of us are using privately owned two, three or four wheel vehicles, we often end up going nowhere at all. Some of our big cities now have traffic almost 24/7. Ancient Romans would be impressed by how much time we spend on our roads, an invention they perfected.

Dreary babudom failed to dampen her spirit

Dreary babudom failed to dampen her spirit

It’s not just Fiats, Ferraris and Marutis that move ever so slowly as we march towards progress. If anything, the wheels of our governments are even slower. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes chronicles her frustrations with the local bureaucracy when she bought and renovated an abandoned villa in the Tuscany Valley. Any South Asian who has tried to engage their own governments – on property, taxes or anything else – can well and truly empathise with her experience. In these days of global warming, glaciers probably move (recede) faster than our bureaucracies.

No wonder, then, that we just love to hate our governments in Italy and South Asia – we never tire of complaining about our politicians and bureaucrats. Strangely, however, we do little to overhaul the sick system. We often put up with our bungling, lying and sometimes stealing public officials. Worse, we idolise some of the biggest offenders despite their staggering lapses or excesses, and keep re-electing them!

Ah yes, we love our elections too. Until recently, Italians used to change their governments with such regularity – it has had 62 governments in the 64 years since the Second World War ended. While no South Asian country can match this record, thank goodness, few elected governments in South Asia complete their full term. And we share with Italians a fondness for coalition governments in all their variations and vicissitudes.

Come to think of it, is there anything surprising that Italian-born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino, better known as Sonia Gandhi, is today the most powerful woman in South Asian politics? As head of both Indian National Congress and the ruling coalition, she manages a menagerie of political animals.

Our obsession with politics is amplified (and some say exploited) by our cacophonous media. Our newspapers, radio and TV titillate, enthrall and occasionally inform their audiences. Many follow their own peculiar definitions of the public interest — which includes gleefully venturing into private lives of public figures. If Italians originated the term paparazzi, the South Asian media have turned it into a fine art. Our modern pantheons include a motley collection of show biz and sporting personalities, a few of who fall from grace frequently enough to keep our industrial gos mills turning day and night.

This same nosy media somehow manage to miss out or actively avoid probing the conduct of many public officials controlling very large amounts of public funds. It’s perhaps too simplistic to say corruption, cronyism and nepotism have become deep rooted in our countries. We have institutionalised these processes so much that they have become part of our political and business landscapes. The correct euphamism for these practices is public-private partnerships.

If you think all this makes us a sleazy, unethical and uncaring lot, you’re sadly mistaken. Please be informed that Italians and South Asians are both very religious. In fact, we take our faiths very seriously indeed, and practise it with such passion that some spoilsports might call us fanatical.

It doesn’t matter in the least that we worship at different altars – Italians at their soccer stadiums, and we at our cricket grounds. Our faith is equally intense and unwavering. When you make fun of our history, governments, laws and mannerisms, we’ll laugh heartily with you. But if you dare to criticise the performance of our national sporting teams, you will immediately find what fundamentalists we really are.

Every nation must have its sacred cows, no?

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10 Responses to “Mamma Mia! Italy is really a part of South Asia!!”

  1. DAVID DAMARIO Says:

    Thank you Nalaka for the insights just in time. My wife and I are planning a trip to Italy and we will be in the same place where you were.
    We are looking forward to this experience so much…the people…the food…the adventure….and we have always noticed how similar it was to Asia……a small world indeed.
    Dave Damario
    Canada

  2. Narayani Ganesh Says:

    Well, you’ve said it all and as your partner in crime — playing hooky for a bit to go see the Fontana di Trevi — I can only agree with you a 100 per cent! The Fontana area was so crowded that I was too scared to open my purse to fling that coin into the waters. Next time, maybe, if there is one.
    Narayani Ganesh
    Delhi, India

  3. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Narayani,
    Many thanks for your comment – and for taking my photos at Fontana de Trevi! I’m glad you agree with my take on South Asia and Italy….perhaps that explains why the street of Rome are full of South Asians peddling everything from fruit and sunglasses to handbags and souvenirs.

  4. Ayesha Says:

    One notable difference between Italians and South Asians is our attitude to love and sex. Despite everything, we in South Asia remain prudish, very conservative and orthodox when it comes to public display of affection. NO such inhibitions among Italians! So whatever Hanuma did has evolved since then…

  5. beenasarwar Says:

    Agree with Ayesha re PDAs (public displays of affection). But anyone who doubted the religious fervour re attitudes to national sports should have been in Pakistan when we won the T20!

  6. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Beena, Thanks for that comment – and congrats to Pakistan for winning the T20 in cricket (for the less initiated, see: http://www.cricinfo.com/wt202009/engine/current/match/356017.html).

    I shouldn’t say this too loud, but being the good secular humanist that I am, I slept through the whole match and found out the results only the next morning! Does that make me a lesser South Asian? I’d just say I’m in the minority of non-believers!

  7. Jonathan Anthony Manickam Says:

    I tottaly agree with the outburst, but please be specific its India or Indian not south asian…I think historically there was much fusion between India,Rome,and Greece than India with the rest of south asia….of course there are much differences between the dark and tanned skin people of India and the yellow people of Asia.

  8. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Hey Jonathan,
    Relax – the whole piece was written tongue in cheek! It’s not meant to be a scientific or scholarly analysis, which I don’t do anyway. And it’s not an outburst either, just a few bemused observations.

    Coming from the third smallest country in South Asia (i.e. Sri Lanka), I know that South Asia is not India, and vice versa. But the Italian-like mannerisms are shared not just by Indians, but many of us other peoples who make up the delightfully messy and chaotic melting pot called South Asia. It defies definition, falters all attempts to box us into demographic or ethnographic frameworks, and I just love it.

  9. Pat.R Says:

    You are such a great writer, and i love the way you have expressed the many correlations, I want to to show it to all my Italian friends

  10. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    My Pakistani friend Huma Beg, who has just read the article, wrote back today saying:

    “Fantastic article. Very well written. I really enjoyed it and smiled throughout. A lot of what has been in mind for ages has been aptly articulated by you.

    “I would add to your list of commonalities here that our relationships with our mothers are equally strong or passionate…you may be a mafioso or a musharaf…your mama is your mamma!”


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