Open Conversation

‘It is an Indo-Italian love story’

Rohit Chawla
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Lorenzo Angeloni, the ambassador of Italy to India and Maria Elettra Verrone, an Italian diplomat and Indophile

There’s Something in the Air: 70 Life Stories from India & Italy | Edited by Lorenzo Angeloni and Maria Elettra Verrone | Juggernaut

ON THE MORNING of May 3rd, his 60th birthday, Lorenzo Angeloni, the Italian ambassador to India and Nepal, welcomes me with a smile into his plush 1 Satya Marg office. He exudes the warmth of a successful diplomat, dapper and charming, after having endured a long chill in ties between India and Italy over the death of Kerala fishermen at the hands of two Italian marines in early 2012. He was posted to Delhi three years earlier, on his 57th birthday, which he spent on a flight to the city from Vietnam where he had been posted previously. Indo-Italian relations were frosty when he arrived in the blistering summer heat of the capital, but now all is back on track, affirms Angeloni, who says he has learnt more about India through Hindi movies than any other medium. A novelist and an essayist, besides being a career diplomat, he has also served in Uruguay, Germany, Algeria and Sudan. He concedes that the ‘marines case’ and flawed defence deals have taken a toll on bilateral ties between Rome and New Delhi, but the past won’t impinge on the future, he assures. “We have to now run to make up for lost time,” he avers, massaging a cigar that he doesn’t light. Recently, Angeloni, a wine buff who vows to turn Indians into oenophiles, tied up with his Delhi-based colleague, the Florence-born Indophile Maria Elettra Verrone, to edit a book comprising 70 stories (some of them with photographs) to mark 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Italy. They describe these as tales of romance between two ancient civilisations that have a lot in common, including an abiding respect for family values that also happen to drive businesses. The Indian names in this 355-plus-page volume include Anand Mahindra, Kabir Bedi and Amitav Ghosh. Most others are household names either in India or Italy, or both. With its title, There’s Something in the Air: 70 Life Stories from India & Italy (Juggernaut, Rs 999), inspired by the Karan Johar movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the book hopes to gain a wide readership. The broad idea of this ‘product’ is to familiarise Indians and Italians with their strong bonds and latest trends in both countries, they say. Among the essays in it, one even throws new light on an Italian inspiration in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo. Edited excerpts from an interview.

How did this project come into being?

Angeloni: Let me start from the beginning. The idea initially was to come up with a publication—we call it a product—to celebrate the 70 years of diplomatic relations between India and Italy. It was meant to be a study on Italian presence in India in various fields. There was some confusion when we started off and soon we decided that the best way to celebrate the event was to get people who are familiar with both cultures to write for this. We agreed to focus on people and Elettra (Verrone herself has contributed to it) got herself involved in this venture. We began to explore what kind of contributions we could get for this, and to my great surprise, 95 per cent of those we contacted said they would write about their experiences. I don’t claim this is a comprehensive list—and such a list would be impossible. Our second aim is to familiarise India with Italy and vice-versa. In spite of all the romance (between the two countries), many people in Italy don’t know much about India. The perception is different from reality. The dramatic change of India in the past decade is not much known in Italy. In that sense, this is not merely a coffee table book, but one that captured what was going on and perhaps prophecies what could go on between our two nations.

Verrone: We wish to continue efforts in this direction. We already have an e-book launched in mid-February in Italy (which is bilingual; the original write-ups in Italian and English were published without translation), and this one is targeted at people of both countries.

What has been the response in Italy so far?

Verrone: It is something new and people are excited about it. Back in Italy, the type of books we have from India are more or less specific: on religion, philosophy, economy, etcetera. This is very different. This is more intimate, in line with what we had suggested to writers when we asked them to share a piece of their life. These are the voices that bridge our two cultures.

“Let’s not forget there are things more common than mere history and heritage that connected Indians and Italians. The way we live and family values we uphold also bind us together” - Lorenzo Angeloni

Angeloni: The title of this book is very interesting. We had in mind the title of the Bollywood movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. We discussed the subject with our publishers. We finally arrived at There’s Something in the Air (Qualcosa e’ accaduto in Italian) , which I feel reflects the romance between India and Italy. This is therefore a book on the Indo-Italian love story.

What are the main reasons for this love affair?

Angeloni: The main reason for this romance is that people of both countries see the other as a source for inspiration on many counts. We are two countries with a lot of history on our shoulders; both are reservoirs of wisdom, both have a rich heritage and all this explains why there is great engagement between the two. Then, of course, there have been efforts by institutions to promote these relations. Even so, there has been a gap in our knowledge of each other. This is where this book comes in, to bridge it.

Why didn’t you get the most famous person of Italian-origin in India, Sonia Gandhi, to write for this book?

Angeloni: Well, Sonia Gandhi is not Italian. She is an Indian citizen. She made a clear choice when she came here. It is out of respect for her choice that we didn’t think of including her on this list of contributors.

This book puts the spotlight on relations between various thinkers and leaders of both countries. For instance, one article is on the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini’s influence on Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo (Gandhi was born three years before his death and Aurobindo was born the year of his passing away). How did this happen in a world that was much less connected than it is now?

Angeloni: We now live in a world linked through the internet. That time you are talking about was certainly vastly different. Here’s where you must locate the evolution of intellectual history. Mazzini’s thoughts were predominantly about liberty and India was fighting for independence. It was therefore only natural that a political figure of Italy ended up inspiring Indian leaders who were fighting for freedom. The Mahatma himself was an extremely influential figure later for Italian politicians, including someone like Mussolini. We are talking about people who could inspire anybody. Besides, both Mazzini and the Mahatma had spent time in London, which was a place that connected revolutionary and freedom movements around the world. These were universal thinkers. Let’s also not forget that there are things more common than mere history and heritage that connected Indians and Italians. The way we live and family values we uphold also bind us together.

Verrone: One of the stories in this book is about a joint venture involving six people—two Italian brothers and two Indian brothers from two families (the Secci brothers, Andrea and Alessio & the Sekhri brothers, Kapil and Gaurav, and the Mohite-Patil brothers, Ranjitsinh and Arjunsinh)—who came together out of their sheer love for wine to make a home- grown wine company that is now one of the best brands here, Fratelli. That perhaps exemplifies how families tend to bond in our two cultures.

Angeloni: We also have something similar to jugaad in Italy, and we call it arrangiarsi, to try to find a solution and it doesn’t matter how. We both are therefore very creative people in overcoming hurdles. We share a lot of interests… Frankly, my mission here is also to convert a number of Indians to wine lovers (laughs). Wine, for us, is not just an alcoholic beverage. For us, it is also a companion for food.

As people from a country that has spawned high-quality movements in movies, what is your impression of the Hindi film industry, which mostly focuses on scale?

Verrone: I think Bollywood is a very interesting form of cultural expression. We cannot judge its output as mere blockbuster films. In the end, it is a platform for many arts: dance, music and various other forms of art. Thanks to the Bombay film industry, Indian films have now become mainstream for the world. It has given a worldwide platform for several types of Indian art. Of course, Bollywood is different from Satyajit Ray movies. Ray was fascinated by Neo-realism of Italy.

Angeloni: I arrived in India in an emergency situation and I had no time to read and familirise myself with the country. My mission in Vietnam finished on the third of May 2015 and my mission in India started the next day. I just had a break of six hours, which I spent on the flight from Vietnam to India. A friend of mine from Italy who had been to India (he worked with Tata Sky) sent me a selection of 20 Bollywood movies and told me that I could learn more about India through them than 40 books. My family had not arrived and I spent the nights at my hotel after a hard day’s work watching these films. Queen, starring Kangana Ranaut, is one I remember vividly.

How did you manage to overcome strained ties between India and Italy following what became infamous as the ‘Italian marines case’?

Angeloni: The incident happened on February 15th, 2012, and it dragged on for four years (after India charged two marines on board Italian oil tanker MV Enrica Lexie with killing unarmed fishermen off Kerala’s coast). Once you restore trust, relations improve very fast… I didn’t solve the problem. I only gave my contribution to the efforts. What we did was to bring the issue to the arbitration track. India accepted, and from that moment, we were able to restore trust and rebuild relations. All the gods of India and Italy helped us! We lost a lot of time and now we have to run faster to make up for it. One of the sectors where we want to offer our expertise is in restoring crafts that will be lost if the Government doesn’t promote small and medium enterprises.

Verrone: Design is not a destination, it is a process. And many Indian students want to study in Italian institutes to add value to their education in design. Artisans in Italy create products of the highest quality.

Angeloni: The problem that artisans face is that they often work in isolation. How do we create connect between the artisan and the world? That is the challenge. We have been successful in that and we can share our learnings with India where more artisans are in the unorganised sector. Our companies too can help a lot. We are working towards this and are excited about each opportunity that comes up.