Surprises come in quanta. And these quanta came bunched together this time while I was traveling to my hometown for the Diwali vacations. As I gathered to seat myself on the carefully apriori chosen window seat, a wrinkled skin old lady asked me whether I would exchange the seat wither so that she could take the window seat. An elder citizen is hard to be denied such a request given the Good Samaritan I am. Soon she was calling her folks back describing how a ‘gentleman’ had just allowed her the window seat and now she would be able to enjoy the view outside.
The surprises were yet to come. The grand old lady was wearing a cotton saree and had prayer beads adorning her like a necklace. However, her fair skin and accented English intrigued me; that is quite uncommon for an Indian granny. I asked her, “Are you Indian?” And she replied, “Yes, but I was Italian”.
Well, that explained a fair bit. Soon afterwards the small talk ensued about who I am, where I am heading to, why I am heading there. I answered and then asked the same questions to her. The quanta kept firing from this point onwards. She had come to India in 1965 to pursue her PhD in Hindu religious studies from the Banaras Hindu University. And she neither knew English nor Hindi when she arrived here.
Her PhD guide advised her to choose a language to learn for communication. It would have been a tough call, but she chose English. Over the years, she not only completed her PhD but also found her love in an Indian student. She married here and then got settled in Varanasi. She had kids and they had their own kids and she is now actually a granny of many kids. That’s one happy ending Bollywood would be proud of.
She told me that she no longer likes it back in Italy when she visits her relatives. 40 years of India, Hinduism, Varanasi and family have changed the way she looks at life. Her peers in Italy are unable to reconcile her views. I asked her, “Were you a Catholic?” She answered, “Yes, I was. But, now I more Hindu than anything else.” Her PhD had been on the Brahmanic aspect of Hinduism. Varanasi being a prime seat of the Tantric aspect as well, I inquired whether her research touched on it as well. She hadn’t looked into those details but said that some of her friends had worked in that area. However, she said, any mainstream literature is hard to come by as it does not adequate academic support.
A quick calculation ran through my mind about her age and I could not stop myself from asking, “Did you witness the War?”. And yes she had. She was 7 years old when World War II got over. She had seen the friendly German occupation of Italy, the entry of Poles towards the end of the war, the departure of Germans and the entry of British. For the first time I was meeting a person who could give firsthand account of the War which has never stopped fascinating me. This was also the first time that I was getting to hear out somebody from the Axis side. She was quite affectionate about the Germans. They, she said, treated them very well and helped them in garrisoning food for the coming conflict with the Allies. The Germans would help them in digging bunkers and showing them safe hide-outs in case of a bomb raid. In fact, she hated the Poles for entering their country. The Germans left their town when the Polish army started assembling on the borders. The Poles would then use Italian women and children as cover to pursue the retreating German soldiers. The granny was bitter that the Poles used them as covers to kill the friendly Germans. And she hated the British more, because they used the Poles as a cover to follow the Germans. She gave graphic account of bombing raids and how she had twice narrowly escaped the Allied rocket-launcher bombs. That was some conversation.
The conversation drifted towards sports. The granny had more aces her sleeves. Soon she was describing her fandom for Francisco Totti. She regularly follows Italian league and went on to discuss the dynamics between various clubs and why Totti should keep playing for AS Roma instead of selling himself to Juventus. I was feeling seriously handicapped to deal with the topic at hand and all the more surprised since all of it was coming so naturally to the granny. She went to proclaim her love for hockey and how beautiful a game ice-hockey is. Cricket certainly did not figure in the list of her admired sports.
I suppose she would have thrown more surprises my way but for the flight descent into Varanasi airport. It was the most interesting journey I had in a long time. World War II to AC Roma, way to go!