November 16, 2011

In Italian Town, Celery More Celebrated Than Sonia

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Orbassano is likely one of the few Italian towns that has a road named after Rajiv Gandhi.

ORBASSANO, Italy – On first impressions, there is not much going for Orbassano. Once a rural village, it’s now crowded with modern housing blocks and surrounded by a flat industrial landscape. It seamlessly spills into Turin, the largest city of Italy’s wealthy Piedmont region, to which many commute for school or work. More of a provincial outskirt than anything else, Orbassano would never make it on any tourist itinerary.

It probably doesn’t look anything like it did when Sonia Gandhi grew up here. A lot of it was likely built after she left–in the late 1960s, perhaps– and it retains few traces of its past. The one timeless constant are the snowcapped Alpine mountains in the distance, which you can still see on clear days. It is this backdrop that gives the region its name: Piedmont, which, derives from the Latin for at the foot of the mountains.

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Italian flag bunting hangs over a street in the historical center of Orbassano.
Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Sonia Gandhi makes it in Orbassano’s Hall of Fame along with a string of rather obscure characters.

For Indians, the only reason Orbassano is on the map is that it is here that the Congress party president was raised. But that’s not the case for locals. In Orbassano, a town of roughly 23,000 people, Sonia Gandhi is far from a household name. Indeed, while her foreign origins have been a major political handicap for her in India, many of those living where she originated haven’t even heard of her.

The older generation remembers a little bit about her from the days when she left Orbassano, her life taking an extraordinary turn. She was in Cambridge, enrolled in language school, when she met future Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the two were soon married. She was only 21 at the time and that was big news in this small provincial town. Since then, however, interest in Ms. Gandhi has waned.

“She married an Indian politician, didn’t she?” said Emilio Pisu, 73, on a recent afternoon. That’s all he could remember about her. Mr. Pisu’s friends, all men in their 70s, have similarly fragmented memories of Ms. Gandhi and her life story. They are aware that she is – or was –involved in Indian politics, but no one seemed to know that today Ms. Gandhi is by far the most powerful Italian-born woman in the world. Some remember seeing her around town as a teenager, or meeting her father, a building contractor, whom 70-year old Giovanni Pereson described as “a very good man.”

Ms. Gandhi’s name seems to mean even less to the local youth. “I heard her name before but I can’t quite place it,” said Elena Nicita, a 17-year old student who was born and raised in Orbassano.

Ms. Gandhi’s virtual anonymity in her hometown is partly of her own making. Her senior role in Indian politics has meant that she has long played down her Italian roots. She gave up her Italian citizenship years ago and isn’t seen in public speaking in Italian, her mother tongue. Ms. Gandhi, who is fiercely secretive about her private life, has kept her ties with the country of her birth very much under the radar.

As a result, the woman regarded as India’s most powerful politician is barely known in Italy. She has built up a strong reputation abroad, and this has trickled down to Italy, but only up to a point. In educated circles, most people are aware that Mrs. Gandhi plays an influential role in Indian politics, but few, even in her hometown, really see her as one of their own.

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
This bus stop takes its name from Via Rajiv Gandhi.

Orbassano’s Hall of Fame makes a valiant effort at removing Mrs. Gandhi from obscurity, but it can only go so far. A large, painted tile work hangs on a side street off the town’s central square, depicting Ms. Gandhi wearing a sari on a pink backdrop (she’s also the only woman featured in it.) Among the 14 famous Orbassano notables featured are also a cardinal, several Catholic priests and an obscure mathematician. Here, she is identified by her maiden name, Sonia Maino, and is described as Rajiv Gandhi’s widow and president of the ruling Congress party.

There are other traces of Ms. Gandhi’s local roots scattered around town: a road, as well as a bus stop, named after her late husband. Via Rajiv Gandhi cannot be called charming – it’s a dead end road, more of a parking lot, really, but at least it recalls the late Mr. Gandhi. There’s nothing similar named after his Italian wife—not even an Indian restaurant. For that matter, there doesn’t appear to be a single Indian restaurant in this town.

On the day we visited, the town was more cheerful than usual. It was the weekend, and a crowd of people, including Mr. Pisu and his friends, had gathered in Orbassano’s main square for a routine late afternoon stroll. Italian flags and tricolored bunting hung from balconies and over alleys, in celebration of 150 years since Italy’s unification.

A discolored Italian flag could be seen on the balcony of an unassuming apricot-colored house that locals said was Ms. Gandhi’s Italian home. Three people with Mainos as their surnames were listed on the intercom next to the gate. The three-storied house seems to date to the 1970s, like most of what surrounds it. Locals say Ms. Gandhi’s relatives, like the house they inhabit, have a very low profile in town.

Ms. Gandhi and her family originally moved to the Turin area from Lusiana, a village in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region, when she was very young. Their path is similar to that of many families who moved there from Italy’s poorer regions in the aftermath of the Second World War.

For many locals, Orbassano’s real claim to fame is a particular variety of celery- a red celery. The harvest of the celery, a major event in Orbassano’s calendar, is celebrated with an annual fair as well as a marathon. (Click here for a video of it – and for a glimpse of Orbassano)

We are unlikely to ever see any event here celebrating Ms. Gandhi’s ties to the Italian town. If anything, her impression on the population is likely to diminish further as the years go by. Even in the town of her origin, it is clear that Ms. Gandhi’s Indian identity has long ago papered over her Italian one.

You can follow Ms. Stancati on Twitter @margheritamvs.

Follow India Real Time on Twitter @indiarealtime.


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