BEFORE COMING TO Delhi, I wasn’t aware that the famous film Slumdog Millionaire (beautiful, by the way) was based on a novel, Q&A, written in 2005 by an Indian diplomat—a colleague who played, when I first met him, a role of high responsibility at the Ministry of External Affairs. It didn’t take me long to discover that several other Indian diplomats had ventured into publishing novels, a kind of writing that is not common among diplomats in Italy. Discovering that India boasted of illustrious examples of how diplomacy and literature can coexist ‘under one roof’ immediately made me feel at ease.
A ‘cohabitation’ that, in my case, stirred intrigue and some raised eyebrows. The job of a diplomat is a full-time profession, in the literal sense of the word. There is almost no demarcation between public and private, and the so-called free time is reduced to a minimum. The job of a writer, on the other hand, can be defined as an exclusive activity (Vargas Llosa says that writing involves 10 per cent inspiration and the rest is... perspiration)—such is the research, the involvement, the work that it requires. The questions, the perplexities were after all legitimate: How do you reconcile the two?
We diplomats, during our tenure at a posting, are required to carry out an intense activity of reporting on a vast range of issues. With time, not only knowledge and ability to interpret are formed within us that we pour into communications to our capitals of origin, but also a reservoir of sensations, fed by the curiosity that this profession sharpens in order to assimilate, better understand events that take place around us. In that reservoir flows life, neatly placing stories of people we meet and know, or simply observe while traveling. As any writer of fiction would know, the novel is the most suitable tool to transfer that world of sensations, which reflect the composite, often luxuriant reality that flows before our eyes, towards others. A novel, the story that it tells and is read, is in fact often, despite the fiction category it belongs to, a powerful point of observation of the reality of the human condition.
Come to think of it, it is well-known that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the embassies, the staff working there move within the framework of international relations. So, the word ‘relation’ is already a part of the broader definition of my professional environment. Obviously, we are talking about relations between states and institutions. However, it is also true that institutions are made up of people and that often in history, important decisions were influenced by personal relations that had been established between leaders. Again in the diplomatic field, we realise the importance of knowing how to interpret the moods and perceptions of our interlocutors, understanding that is essential especially in countries where expressive and communicative manner differs radically. We are therefore often required to move and reason in a purely relational context, which implies not only the use of protocol and knowledge of international law, but a specific and appropriate capacity, essentially that of reading and interpreting aspects in our interlocutors such as fear (for example, that of trust), conditioning, resistance. And these are aspects connected to the variegated world of feelings. History, stories and feelings often end up intertwined… and here the circle closes.
Coming to the idea of India, and giving precedence to those expressed by some masters of the narrative of my country, I like to remember the book dedicated to your wonderful country by Alberto Moravia which was titled exactly that, An Idea of India
Coming to the idea of India, and giving precedence to those expressed by some masters of the narrative of my country, I like to remember the book dedicated to your wonderful country by Alberto Moravia which was titled exactly that, An Idea of India. The book begins with this imaginary dialogue:
‘So you were in India. Did you have fun?
Did you get bored?
Not even that.
What happened to you in India?
I had an experience.
The experience of India.
And what is the experience of India all
I feel it, that's all. You should feel it too.’
Moravia, who came to India accompanied by his partner and equally well- known writer Elsa Morante, referred to his ideas of India in various interviews. One of the things I immediately noticed was this: “There is alacrity and a compositional diligence of an ancient craftsman.” It strikes me now, after having spent four years in India, why it matches so well with one of my ideas of India, so far from the hasty stereotypes that unfortunately still exist. The alacrity and diligence that I encountered so many times, sometimes in the capital and at many others elsewhere, in observing people performing simple acts, even in executing tasks that we define modest, yet so present in the everyday life of the wealthiest of people.
Discovering that India boasted of illustrious examples of how diplomacy and literature can coexist 'under one roof' immediately made me feel at ease
On that trip, Moravia was accompanied by another great Italian writer, Pier Paolo Pasolini. The book he published on returning to Italy is titled, not surprisingly, The Smell of India. For him, knowledge passed through his nostrils, he used his senses; hence the title of the book. And with his senses, Pasolini noticed: ‘Gentle people, of great willingness and generosity.’ Exactly. if I were to close my eyes, listen to the senses and then describe, I would also say something similar. I would speak of the goodness, of how a common simple phrase like ‘Thank you’ can touch a chord, of how I have never heard it anywhere uttered with such earnestness.
Even Dacia Maraini, another well-known Italian writer, has dedicated writings and thoughts to India. Like many Western travellers, she was struck by the spirituality of India: ‘A place where the Westerner, used to monotheism, meets a widespread spirituality, not only vertical but almost horizontal, where the same deities represent good and evil. Good contains evil and vice versa. Hence the naturalness in dealing with the subject of death; the relationship with death, with mystery, is simpler than ours.’ Maraini, in a piece that she was kind enough to subsequently let us publish in the collection I edited to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations between Italy and India (Something’s in the Air; 2018; Juggernaut), juggles with a theme (beside underlining the humility of people) which has attracted my attention since my youth: ‘the great strength of Mahatma Gandhi, naked in front of the powerful to represent poverty, freedom of thought. You can change the world without using violence and weapons.’ It may perhaps seem obvious to recall how much the action and thought of the Mahatma influenced ranks of young Westerners, but it is not. Ahimsa is a universal, powerful concept that, however, is struggling to find its way into the clutter of human, political, ideological, state, commercial and all kinds of conflicts that currently dominate relations on the planet. Ahimsa is a value that Gandhi gave to humanity, which needs not only to be remembered, but to be practiced, practiced and practiced.
The idea of India expressed by Italian writers that I most loved is maybe that of Giorgio Manganelli, who after his journey through the subcontinent published Experiment with India. Manganelli masterfully recounts the emotion, even the anxiety one feels while approaching this great country, ‘the Motherland of the Absolute’. India, writes Manganelli, ‘strips the traveler of his natural sovereignty and distance. In a manner that every presence in India is first and foremost an experiment with oneself, a complete surrender to a place where gods still exist, incarnated everywhere, a place where the smiles of Buddha or Shiva never fade, soft and incomprehensible, ecstatic and mortal.’
I have also had the privilege to travel through India. A diplomatic and existential journey which began four years back, but which will not end with the completion of my tenure here as the ambassador of Italy. When I started my duties, with the ritual of presenting my letters of credence to the then President Pranab Mukherjee, like other colleagues, I had the opportunity to interact with him briefly. I prepared a speech. The President listened to me hieratic and composed. When I reached the end of the formal part of my speech, I added that I considered myself fortunate to be able to spend part of my life in a country like India, from where a long tradition of wisdom and coexistence of diversity emerged, and for a moment, I noticed a slight smile cross his face from the impassive expression that the formality of the ritual demanded.
Wisdom. Encompassed, for example, in a word as short and widespread in the world as ‘yoga’ that just crossing its threshold opens up an infinite path that leads back to distant eras. And the diversity that one lives, breathes and absorbs through one’s stay in India. My ideas of India, or I could say, my experiment with India, through the understanding gained with the passage of time, both in measurement and in expectations; a valued time that brings together senses and reason and reunites us with a profoundly human dimension.