Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Roman Diary (Blood Brothers)

Byline by M J Akbar: A Roman Diary

India is the world’s latest quotation mark. Nepal has become a question mark, Sri Lanka an oversized exclamation mark; and Bangladesh is imprisoned between brackets, the space for leeway decreasing by the day. Pakistan is teetering towards a full stop.

China has turned into yesterday’s paragraph: still impressive, but with the contradictions becoming evident through cracks separating sentences.

What a wonderful feeling to be an Indian at that moment in history when the world begins to applaud as India comes within reach of that long-promised tryst with destiny, and shifts imperceptibly towards the centre of the stage. The auditorium is packed with distinguished Roman faces and eager journalists. The launch of the Italian Edition of my book Blood Brothers (published by Neri Pozza as Fratelli di sangue) is the excuse. They have come for another glimpse of the Indian story. The book is a portrait of the heart of India, pumping blood to its veins through valves distinct in faith but united in purpose. Italy is waking up to a question that has been asked and answered in India for a thousand years, that runs through three generations of blood brothers: how can different faiths live together? There are many convoluted answers. Here is a short one.

It takes two sides to make war. It also takes two sides to make peace.

The weights on the panel for the discussion about the book are heavy: Sandro Gozi, president of the Italian-Indian Association; Dr Roberto Colaninno, president of Gruppo Piaggio; Dr Guidalberto Guidi, president of Ducati Energia and Dr Giuseppe Marra, president of GMC. Italy’s businessmen are more interested in India than Italy’s politicians. That is the good news. The future is bright.

Businessmen succeed because they can read a balance sheet with bifocals. They also use night vision. They will not rev up the engines without foreknowledge of roadblocks in the night. I was asked direct questions. Let me mention two. What could sabotage India’s growth? And whatever happened to Gandhi?

Honesty demanded candour. Growth would be sabotaged only if there was continued neglect of the undergrowth. Growth was incompatible with poverty, or that corrosive, besetting sin, communal violence. The reason is not virtue. Morality is important, but pragmatism is more effective. Conflict is injurious to economic growth. Mumbai can have either riots or a booming stock exchange, not both.

As for non-violence: it was a brilliant strategy against an "invincible" empire. It is a hopeless glue for a nation state. The state cannot turn the other cheek against secession or terrorism.

One should have expected the favourite question of TV, print and radio journalists. What is common between Italy and India? I can think of two attributes immediately. Both Italian and Indian men are in love with, and in awe of, their mothers. And both drive cars in the heart of the city with the imperious impatience of maniacs. The Italians have an advantage though. Don’t bother if you are hit by most cars in a city like Torino. The car will get hurt. The small car is not only alive and well in Italy, but has all the impishness of a brat.

One could also suggest a unique sense of logic common to elements of both societies. The room service waiter at the friendly, gracious and very pretty Hotel Locarno in the heart of Rome, once a boutique residence of filmstars on a Roman holiday or on Hollywood business, was irrefutable. Twice he responded to my request for a bucket of ice and soda by saying that he could not take my order because his phone was not working. The third conversation was at his initiative. He, considerately, made the call. The phone was working now, he said, with more than a hint of triumph. I wanted to check how we had managed to communicate on a variety of subjects on the two previous occasions when his phone was not working, but decided that the dialectic might be in contravention of some labour law. I decided to let sleeping telephones lie.

Every human being has a friend. But only a few are privileged to have a friend like Dr Pippo Marra, the large-hearted baron of a flourishing media empire. Roman doors never remain closed before him. He had the imagination to start an Arabic news service that has become a hit across the Mediterranean: Italy is divided from the Arab world by a calm sea. His company shot to international fame when Al Qaeda chose to deliver its last message through his Arabic service. A cynosure of the media, he was the architect of the generous attention that Blood Brothers received. He offered me the ultimate hospitality, the liberal gift of his time. The highlight of his programme for me was a football match, AS Roma versus Torino FC, at the famous Roma ground, in the second of the two encounters between the teams in the knockout Italy Cup.

If news had spread that I was going to see Romano Prodi, it might have provoked a yawn or two. When people learnt I was going to see Totti, even friends could not disguise their envy. Prodi is a mere Prime Minister. Totti is a genius, star of Roma and sun of Italian football.

And how that sun dazzled! He did not come on to the field till about ten minutes after half time. Roma were still two goals in deficit from the previous game. The scoresheet was as blank as an accountant’s face. Play was stopped. Totti arrived. A thunderclap from Zeus roared down from the stands. Suddenly, touch, weave and thrust shifted the dynamic of a game that had plodded down narrow furrows. Totti flicked the ball, darted across, changed position. The field became wider side-to-side and shorter goalpost-to-goalpost. The Roma midfield and front line became touched with mercury. They found the net thrice in quick succession before Torino could understand what was going on, and then banged the ball into the net a fourth time after Torino lost their will. Totti scored his 200th goal in Italian football and received a standing ovation. I expect a standing ovation from my son when I eventually receive the signed Totti shirt that Dr Marra has promised to parcel.

It is mildly reassuring to be addressed correctly. Italians call people of the Islamic faith "Mussalmano" rather than the inelegant British "Moslem" or the absurd "Saracen". Crusaders used Saracen because they thought Arabs were children of Sarah, Abraham's wife. Mecca owes its origins however to Hajr, Abraham’s second wife. In such a fragment of language lies history. Arabs ruled Sicily till the 11th century.

Thoughts on a literary festival in Torino. The last temptation of an author, creator of characters, is to become a character actor in front of peers. Authors tend to write from the head and speak from the imagination. Perhaps it should be the other way around, but that would be far less interesting a spectacle. A literary festival is the space between ego and alter ego. Give an author a stage and watch a peacock dance. Some do it elegantly enough. Those with borrowed plumes never stop short of the Bhangra. The best, a rare few, sit on a stone in the corner of the stage, either waiting for Godot or chuckling at themselves.

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