Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 14 July 2013
My column last week, about the various slow movements that counter our fast paced modern life, elicited several responses. Many agreed that it’s an ideal worth pursuing in our frenzied lives. A few considered it ‘a luxury best suited for pampered Europeans’.
Although the slow movement is a loose network of like-minded people with no corporate style organisational structure, Italy has long been its spiritual epicentre. This, apparently, prompted some readers to presume Italians are laid back lotus eaters.
Well, they are not. Having been visiting Italy at regular intervals for nearly 25 years, I can confirm that Italians are a very colourful and energetic people.
By coincidence, I was back in Rome this week, on a fleeting visit, and felt quite at home once again. It reaffirmed my cumulative impression that Italy is really an extension of South Asia – and Italians, our long lost cousins!
Hanuman, the super-monkey who features prominently in the Indian epic Ramayana, is said to have carried chunks of the Himalayas, dropping them off in far away places (In Sri Lanka, legend links this to at least two places: Ritigala and Rumassala). Maybe Hanuman did some freelance transplanting in the Mediterranean as well…
When we reflect, Italians and South Asians have much in common. Generalisations are dangerous, I know, but hey, I’m a South Asian – and we do that all the time!
Noisy and colourful
For a start, we are all very expressive. We have no qualms in being loud in private and public. Soft tones and understatement are for the polite (and dull?) Brits; we exclaim and exaggerate. We gesticulate wildly when we talk – probably due to an extra nerve linking our mouths to the arms.
We are very opinionated and argumentative — sometimes needlessly so. We barely agree on any matters of private or public interest. Yet, we somehow manage our everyday affairs without actually coming to blows. Well, at least most of the time…
Heirs to rich and diverse culinary traditions, we South Asians cherish our food; ditto the Italians. We have our rice, chapatti and roti, washed down with an infinite array of spices. They have their pastas, pizzas and lasagne, mixed with lots of condiments and oils.
The Mediterranean diet, by the way, is medically considered to be healthier than our own.
Our youngsters may fancy occasional hamburgers, but no American fast food type can compete with our aromas and flavours perfected over the millennia. We take pride and joy in our food. We break bread with family, friends or perfect strangers. Given a chance, we’ll spend half our waking hours eating (so no wonder Italians triggered the slow food movement).
And our sons spend all their lives deferring to their moms. As a Pakistani friend put it, “Our relationships with our mothers are equally strong or passionate: you may be a Mafioso or a Musharraf, but your mama is your mamma!”
Another area with much common ground is the state of our roads. No other western European country comes closer to South Asia for sheer chaos. Our streets are crowded, noisy and messy. We routinely ignore traffic lights, speed limits and zebra crossings. We drive as much with our horns as with gas pedals. We yell and curse at others on the road.
This behaviour stuns more orderly nationals like the Japanese and the Swiss. They are also puzzled why we don’t have even more traffic accidents than we already do. Maybe because too many of us are using private vehicles — on two, three or four wheels – and our roads are too congested that we often end up going nowhere at all.
Many of our cities now have extended rush hours with snail-paced movement. Ancient Romans should be impressed by how much time we spend on the roads, an innovation they perfected.
It’s not just the Fiats, Ferraris and Marutis that move ever so slowly on the road to ‘progress’. The wheels of our governments are even slower.
We have an oversupply of laws and regulations – too numerous, and breached too often. But hey, no worries – we’d just say Mamma Mia or Aiyo, shrug our shoulders, and just move on…
In her delightful 1996 memoir Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, American author Frances Mayes chronicles her frustrations with the obdurate Italian bureaucracy as she bought and renovated an abandoned villa in the Tuscany Valley. Any South Asian who has tried to transact with her own government machinery – on property, registrations, taxes or anything else – can relate to this experience.
In these days of global warming, glaciers probably recede faster than our bureaucracies. That might explain why we love to hate our governments in both Italy and South Asia! We never tire of complaining about our politicians and bureaucrats.
Strangely, though, we do little to overhaul the system. We put up with our inefficient, hypocritical and sometimes sleazy elected officials. Worse, we idolise some of the biggest offenders despite their glaring lapses or excesses, and keep re-electing them! How come?
Oh, we love elections – where we try to vote early and vote often! Change of governments rare fixes our problems, but we always live in hope.
Italy has had over 60 (yes, sixty!) governments in the 68 years since the Second World War ended. While no South Asian country can match this record, thank goodness, not all governments in South Asia complete their full term. And we share a fondness (weakness?) for coalition governments with all their horse-trading and compromises.
Is it surprising, then, that Italian-born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino — better known as Sonia Gandhi — is one of the most powerful women in South Asian politics? As head of both the Indian National Congress and the ruling coalition, she manages a menagerie of political animals.
Nosy media and sacred cows
Our obsession with politics is amplified (and well exploited) by our cacophonous media. Our newspapers, radio and TV channels titillate, enthrall and occasionally even inform their audiences. Many follow their own peculiar definitions of the public interest — which includes gleefully venturing into private lives of public figures.
While Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini originated the term paparazzi (in La Dolce Vita, 1960), we South Asians have refined that art form for half a century. Our modern pantheons include a motley collection of show biz and sporting personalities: some deities fall from grace frequently enough to keep our industrial gossip mills (a.k.a. media) turning.
This same nosy media manage to miss out – most of the time — the conduct of public officials controlling vast sums of public funds. It’s too simplistic to say corruption, cronyism and nepotism have become deep rooted. We have institutionalised these processes so much that they have become part of our political and business landscapes. The correct euphemism, as one wag put it, is ‘public-private partnerships’.
If you think all this makes us an unethical and uncaring lot, you’re mistaken. Please note that Italians and South Asians are all devoutly religious. In fact, we take our religions too seriously, and practise it with such fervour 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.
You may make fun of our history, culture, food or sloth babus — and we’ll laugh with you. But if you dare criticise our national sporting teams, you’ll quickly find out what fundamentalists we really are.
Every nation must have its sacred cows, no?