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.
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.
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?