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An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny
By Rani Singh
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Rani Singh
All rights reserved.
FROM ITALY TO BRITAIN
It was very soon evident to both of us that we would spend our lives together.
Sonia Gandhi was born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino to Stefano and Paola Maino on December 9, 1946, in Lusiana, a tiny town of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants nestled quietly in the crisp air of the verdant lower Alps of northeast Italy. A smoker, Stefano Maino had a strong personality as deeply etched as the lines around his mouth and as defined as his square jaw. Along with many who fought for Mussolini's Italy with the Axis powers in the Second World War, he had been taken prisoner during the German invasion of Russia. Having been helped by natives of that country before returning home, he apparently decided to give his daughters Russian pet names after three women who had aided him—Sonia has an elder sister Anouchka, originally named Alessandra, and a younger sister called Nadia. Stefano became quite enamored of Russian culture, heritage, and language, which Sonia learned to speak at an early age. Known simply as Signor Maino, he owned a successful building firm, and the postwar construction industry was booming. Sonia described him in her first photo- memoir, Rajiv, as a "blunt" and "straightforward" man who worked hard; she clearly inherited his grit and no-nonsense approach to life. Like many provincial Italian fathers, he was strict and traditional, but he was self-made and progressive enough to want Sonia to have an education.
The quarter of Lusiana where the family lived—in a gray- fronted house with wooden shutters at the windows—was called Maini; people with the Maino surname had been there for several generations. When Sonia was around the age of nine, Stefano and Paola (her maiden name was Predebon) decided to move their family to Orbassano in Piedmont, around nine miles southwest of the Fiat automobile capital of Turin. Orbassano was a typically neat, medium-sized town with a population of some 25,000, whose narrow sidewalks are punctuated with metal benches and iron lampposts. The Mainos lived in a detached two-story villa, proudly built by Stefano, with high iron gates and a sloping tiled roof. It remains the family home.
The Mainos had ambitions for their daughters. In those days, there was no scuola media (middle school) in many of the smaller towns, so young girls were sent to the Salesian boarding school, the Convent of Maria Ausiliatrice, some nine miles from Orbassano, in Giaveno. There, they could either take a special course of study to join the order or follow a separate curriculum. The Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, or Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, were founded in 1872 to work alongside St. John Bosco in his education projects in Turin, Italy. Essentially a teaching order, today they run youth clubs and boarding and primary schools for girls all over Italy and on five continents. Their constitution describes their spiritual heritage inspired by the charity of Christ and a "strong missionary impulse."
Sonia attended the school from around the age of 9 to 14, wearing the uniform of black overalls with white collars, black stockings, and a black coat for outdoors. Many of those who taught Sonia have passed on, but a few contemporaries who chose to join the order at an early age do remember the Maino girls. Two types of three-year educational tracks were available when the girls attended school there—one was vocational and did not require an entrance exam, covering courses useful for working in an office as a secretary, for instance. The other, designed for those girls who would go on to study further, required an entrance test and was more academic, with subjects such as Latin and Italian literature. Sonia's older sister, Alessandra, was in the vocational training course while Sonia took the academic path. Sister Maria Angela Gribaudo, who still teaches in Turin, said that the choices would have been made by their parents based on personality and parental ambition. To prepare for the exam, Sonia was sent to Giaveno for the fifth elementary form (the last year of primary school), where she, along with another three or four girls, had daily private lessons with a retired teacher.
Though Sonia was a year younger than Alessandra, Paola and Stefano decided that the girls should both start at the same time. Sister Maura Reissent, a contemporary, comments that Sonia "was not homesick firstly because there was her sister Alessandra with her and secondly because of the joyful atmosphere." Sister Domenica Macario, also now in her late sixties, knew the late Sister Adelaide Carle, who was one of Sonia's assistenti (an assistente in the Salesian order was a sister who took care of the girls outside school hours). Sister Adelaide was "intelligent, practical, intuitive, ... able to sort out the personality of each of the girls entrusted to her. She was very understanding and had a lovely and maternal way of dealing with them." Sonia, according to the sisters' accounts, responded and was an affectionate child, very fond of her assistente. Sister Maura Reissent explains that Sonia's parents chose the boarding school "to avoid her traveling every day from Orbassano to Giaveno, above all in wintertime as she suffered from asthma."
There was a simplicity about this time; neither home nor school was ostentatious. The boarders had everything they needed in the large, modern dormitories—but no luxuries. The relationship between assistenti and pupils was caring but disciplined; after tea and "playful recreation" in the evenings, the girls settled down to homework in the study, supervised by teaching assistenti. All the sisters talk of a family ambience, a peaceful coexistence among different personalities. Sister Maura Reissent recalls Sonia being a bit more reticent, and definitely calmer, than her older, taller sister Alessandra, but not really shy. In fact, most remember Sonia as lively, cheerful, and talkative. Sister Maura remembers that Sonia liked acting and taking part in the frequently staged plays, seen by the school as a useful means of personal expression and education. Later on, only those close to Sonia would see this uninhibited side to her. And despite her asthmatic condition, the sisters do not remember her ever complaining: She was willing to take part in all the school activities, ball games, theater, and singing.
Although the Maino family did not live very far away, their daughters did not go home every weekend. The sisters say there would have been little reason to make an exception to the general practice of remaining at school seven days a week. Boarders went home mainly for major holidays: Christmas, Easter, and in the summer. The Maino parents, and perhaps other relations, visited the girls and brought them special treats every other weekend. Sister Reissent described Paola and Stefano as "simple people ... all our families wanted the best education for their children. Most of them made sacrifices with the purpose of finding a good, serious school for them." A notion that Sonia's asthma was worsened by the living conditions at the school was indignantly dismissed by the sisters as stuff and nonsense. Sister Domenica Macario says that the assistente was always careful and would not have allowed the girls to be exposed to any harmful conditions. In fact, Sister Adelaide was highly protective of Sonia. She worried at night if "Sonia was coughing more than usual because of her asthma ... and went near her bed to make Sonia feel safe and cared for." Once, when Sonia was not too well, all the students and the assistente did a novena for her recovery.
Sonia learned the value of honesty and community with the sisters. She grew up knowing what it was like to be on the receiving end of compassion, so it placed her in a strong position to show it when needed. It helped her form an inner core of stability. And though her parents had reared her in a middle-class environment, she was not cocooned, for she was made aware of the plight of those less fortunate than herself, the many who were suffering in postwar Italy, at quite an early stage. Later on she would tell an interviewer, "In Italy there is a lot of poverty," and when asked on television how she first came to be concerned about those on the margins of society, she replied: "This was something I learned through my parents."
As good as her education was, it was narrow: "At school, I learned of the Risorgimento, of Mazzini and Garibaldi, and the unification of Italy. But of India, its great history, and its emergence as a modern nation-state, I was taught nothing." When her time with the Salesian Sisters was over, Sonia took a three-year course in English and French at a Berlitz Language School (at the Istituto Santa Teresa, on the Via Santa Teresa in Turin), which she finished in 1964. English was viewed as useful for the job market at the time. Although language schools were springing up in Italy, those who could afford to do so sent their progeny to England, her next destination.
On January 7, 1965, Sonia arrived in Cambridge, the vibrant, historic university town—popular with those from abroad as it was cleaner and safer than London—and enrolled at one of the two main language schools, which also assigned her a family to stay with. The Lennox Cook School, based in an attractive residential house at 75 Barton Road, had a relaxed family atmosphere, dynamic teaching methods, and was the cheaper and (by all accounts) better of the two institutions. It also had an impressive success rate for helping students achieve international qualifications in English as a foreign language. Sonia's English was still far from perfect, and, separated from her homeland for the first time in her life, she found Cambridge depressing. "I had never eaten boiled cabbage and gooey spaghetti on toast, nor had I ever had to pay to have a bath every day.... I missed home terribly." Nevertheless, it was in England that Sonia met the love of her life, Rajiv Gandhi, while he was studying at Trinity College, Cambridge University, just as his grandfather had done.
Rajiv (his name means lotus flower) was born in 1944 at Belle Vue Nursing Home in Bombay (now Mumbai), India's noisiest and most populous city. His education, though he also boarded in a single-sex school, was wide and cosmopolitan. His grandfather was the aristocrat Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who had played a leading role in India's fight for independence from the British, so the boy was exposed to world leaders and international travel from an early age. In 1953, Rajiv, along with his brother, Sanjay, attended the Ecole d'Humanité in Goldern, Switzerland, for a short while as part of a trip to Europe with Indira for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. Before coming to Cambridge, Rajiv had attended the exclusive Doon boarding school for boys in the Himalayan foothills. Upper-class parents from all over India, particularly those from Delhi and the north, strove to have their boys admitted into this establishment. In this fairly egalitarian environment (given that nearly all were from the upper strata), the boys placed academics and community spirit in high esteem. Doon alumni, known as Doscos, are found at the highest level in most professions across India. Some of Rajiv's school friends were among his inner circle in later years.
Nestled in the Doon valley, an ideal location for exploring the mountains, rivers, and forests on its doorstep, the school had a great deal of sports and trekking in its curriculum. But once Rajiv got to Cambridge, he was a lot freer to do as he pleased. He shared a house in Derwent Close with friends and was fully occupied with English life. He was interested in but not committed to his Engineering Tripos course, and he certainly did not appear to be using the university to develop any kind of political career as many others were doing. Kenneth Clarke, later British secretary of state for justice, for instance, was busy being president of the Cambridge Union, but, he states, "Rajiv—I do not recall doing anything political at Cambridge."
Sonia's presence in Cambridge altered her life, for there her future was sealed in an instant. "I missed Italian cooking. I found out that the only place in Cambridge you could have something close to home food was a Greek restaurant called Varsity...." The eatery, owned by a Greek Cypriot, the late Charles Antoni, was popular as it served meals at student-friendly prices, and Sonia started to dine there on a regular basis. Rajiv, too, often went there with his friends, and it was in the Varsity that she first noticed Rajiv's striking looks and manners. He was quieter and less unruly than the others. One day, Sonia was having lunch when Christian Von Stieglitz, an Italian-speaking friend of hers, entered with Rajiv. "We greeted each other, and, as far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight. It was for him, too, as he later told me; he had in fact asked Christian earlier to introduce us."
Rajiv's family enjoyed a tradition of letter-writing, a vital communication method during lengthy periods of separation. Jawaharlal and Indira exchanged letters throughout their lives, as did Indira and Rajiv. Rajiv wrote to his mother describing new experiences such as learning how to dance the Twist, attending concerts, being a traditional Cambridge student, punting and rowing, and enjoying life away from the attention and maelstrom of being the grandson of a prime minister—he was also getting used to living on a restricted allowance. Sonia soon started to feature in his letters. It was 1965, and the young couple was exploring a new, freer existence. Rajiv would cycle over to see his girlfriend every day. He had an old Volkswagen, and on holidays they would share the gas costs with friends and go for a drive.
One of Sonia's housemates was Karma Topden, who was from the kingdom of Sikkim, later annexed by India. His girlfriend, Cherry Yorke, who lived across the road, vividly remembers seeing Sonia in a ball gown and Rajiv in a dinner jacket seated in a red open-topped car, ready to go to the college's traditional May ball, which is held in June. The gala was the biggest social event of the calendar, and Kenneth Clarke attended every year: "We all used to dress up, ... you stayed up all night and saw the dawn and went on a punt," he recalls with nostalgia. But the "swinging sixties" had not quite arrived for this couple; the atmosphere was still quite strict. Rajiv would wait for his girlfriend in the communal family sitting room at her host family's house, 55 Tenison Road. The location was respectable but not particularly fashionable. On one side, where Sonia was living, there were large houses; on the other, there were two-story terraced buildings, mainly rooming houses. But it was near the station and very safe. The brick house had a small kitchen with a table, and its landlady was a lively, buxom, bottle-blonde Italian named Puccina Norris, who lived there with her daughter and son. Sonia shared a room with a Swiss girl, Ruth, and a common language—French.
Indians were not allowed to take much money out of the country, and foreign exchange was quite tight, so international students often took temporary jobs during school holidays. Karma Topden had finished university by this time, but he worked at the Cooperative bakery with Rajiv—Karma on cakes; Rajiv in the bread section. A contemporary remembers Rajiv also selling ice cream—and not charging children. Besides Karma, Ruth, and Sonia, the tenants of 55 Tenison Road were mostly language students, and others were at Cambridge University. At different periods, they included a South Asian mathematician, a young Cambridge-area girl named Christine, a German fellow called Thilo Dilthey, and Hans Loeser, a German at the university who stayed for three months one summer. Loeser did not socialize with Sonia and Rajiv outside the house, but he did observe that Sonia was quite active: "Very often she was out of the house, she was not very sedentary ... all of us were young and going out in the evenings." He remembers that various guests of different tenants, including young language teachers, would visit at Tenison Road, too. There was always something going on; Thilo Dilthey recalls going to Silverstone with Sonia and Rajiv to watch some car racing. In Cambridge, just as in Giaveno, Sonia was not remembered as being at all retiring; that was a side to her character that would emerge later on in India. "I wouldn't describe her as being shy. Definitely not! She was very open-minded!" Loeser declares.
Excerpted from Sonia Gandhi by Rani Singh. Copyright © 2011 Rani Singh. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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