My mother fell ill in Rome. We put it down to exhaustion. We had left India, abandoned the bone and flesh of our familiar world to begin a new life in a country shaped like a boot and it was taking its toll on her. She wasn’t always like this. In the days leading to our departure, mother was a lightening flash in her blue cotton sari, rushing around, her face perspiring in the Delhi summer heat, a red pencil tucked behind her left ear and a clipboard with a to-do list in her hand. She was busy tying up any loose ends that she could before we boarded the Air India flight 434 to Rome. Mother’s hands were busy packing, storing, selling and distributing stuff that we couldn’t carry over to our new life. She engaged K.P Sinha & Sons, Delhi’s premier relocation specialists who promised to swaddle her sitar like a baby. ‘Not one string will be stirred,’ Mr Sinha promised, adding that he preferred payment in US dollars and cash if possible. Ten days before we left, mother summoned all her female cousins and nieces home and pointing to her brown Godrej almirah said, ‘help yourself. I don’t think I’ll be wearing many Kanjeevaram saris in Rome.’ She terminated the utility bills and informed my school that since we were moving to a bright new world I no longer needed my grey pleated skirt and maroon blazer and tie. They along with my textbooks could be sold in the second-hand uniform sale that was held in the school canteen the last Friday of every month.
My father could have helped but he retreated into his office, hiding behind a pile of files, mumbling occasionally about how difficult it was for my mother but once we were in the land of pasta and pizza life would be much easier. Our relatives chose not to help either, instead they descended on our house every evening, settled on our sofas and proceeded to drink innumerable cups of tea, eat through entire packets of Glaxo biscuits and shake their heads, slack jawed with envy that we were escaping to a better life. Arms folded, they read out the list of benefits we were going to enjoy in our new home in the West.
- Higher salary for my father. (Paid in US dollars not rupees, since he was joining an American organization)
- A dust and reptile free house. We lived at that time in one of those white stucco colonial bungalows left behind by the British. The rooms were large, the ceilings high, but the paint was cracked and the red tiled roof leaked. A patina of dust covered everything like golden flour. Our servant Babu inspected the rooms each morning, broom in hand, shaking his head and declaring he couldn’t cope with the sirocco wind that blew in the dust from the desert plains of Rajasthan. There was also the small matter of monsoon rains, which forced snakes, frogs and lizards to flee their respective hideouts and take shelter in the veranda, quivering in the alcoves or underneath the coir doormats.
- Guaranteed access to air-conditioned supermarkets filled to the brim with fruit, vegetable and meat 365 days a year. We would no longer have to buy strawberries on the black market or have chicken curry only on Sundays. This was non-stop happiness on tap.
My mother listened to these benefits, her eyes distracted. A faint smile played on her mouth as she poured the relatives some more Assam tea and opened another packet of biscuits. She glanced at us and said,
‘We’re moving abroad only for our girls.’ She ran her fingers through my hair and continued, ‘We want them to have a superior life, get better education and who knows one day they will become accountants and doctors and settle in America and we can come back home, our job done.’ America was the golden dream ticket and Italy was just the stepping-stone to it. Mother had a cousin who lived in California. He bombarded us with postcards every summer. I gushed over the spotless beaches and his open top silver Cadillac parked on highways that stretched right to heaven without a single cow or beggar in sight.
My mother came to pick me up on my last day at school. ‘We’re going to Italy,’ she confided to Sister Pereira, the headmistress of Convent of Jesus and Mary, the Irish catholic school where Indian bureaucrats and businessmen sent their children to get a proper English education. Mrs Pereira nodded, her eyes skimmed over my face, I wasn’t sure if she remembered my name. Her expression was wistful as she fingered her glass-beaded rosary and I felt a sudden stab of sadness for her. What was she doing here, thousands of miles away from her home? There she sat, in her tight black Nun’s habit in the stifling pre-monsoon Delhi heat, her pink cheeks turning ashen in the tropical dust. Was she secretly pining for the emerald forests and lakes of her homeland?
Sister Pereira leaned forward and patted my mother’s hand. ‘You must be brave,’ she said. ‘It will be the start of something new. But it won’t be easy.’
‘It’ll be very easy,’ I interrupted her rudely. ‘There will be pizza and pasta and lots of ice-cream, that’s what my dad says.’ The adults smiled at my foolishness but said nothing.
Our last night in India was spent in tearful goodbyes and much hand clasping and hugs and cries of ‘Don’t forget us’ from our relatives. We stood in the shiny airport terminal, clutching plastic bags of various shapes and sizes, our feet itching in our brand new Bata shoes, our skin scratchy with the feel of unfamiliar woollen coats that my mother had bought from the Tibetan market in old Delhi.
Father found us a furnished flat to rent in an apartment block that stood in a quiet, crumbling part of Rome. ‘We will save and buy somewhere better soon,’ he promised my mother as she walked into the kitchen, opened the empty fridge and burst into tears. The pent up energy of the past months seemed to leave her, like a balloon that deflates. Her face grew small and her mouth trembled as she moved from room to room, touching the heavy rosewood furniture that was too big for the size of the rooms. She patted the blue velvet sofa and she stroked the fringed lampshades with their print of pink naked cherubs. ‘How will I be happy here?’ she asked.
Our first dinner in Rome was dried chappatis and mangoes pickles that my mother had smuggled inside her handbag. The next morning she unpacked her beloved sitar and found its strings had snapped in the journey. ‘You can always play the piano,’ my father said, pointing to the stiff looking upright piano that was wedged in the narrow hallway between two marble-topped gilt legged console tables. ‘The girls can learn. I’m too old to take up new things,’ my mother said, slamming the bedroom door behind her. She decided that the best way of dealing with her new life was to spend as much time as she could in bed. ‘I’m ill,’ she told my father, defiance in her voice. ‘And no Italian doctor is going to cure me. I must rest, that’s all.’
This was the Seventies. There were no direct International telephone lines, WhatsApp or emails. In order to speak to my grandparents in India, my mother had to ring the operator, wait for the buzzing and hissing noise to subside before the line crackled into life and my grandfather’s thin voice asking how she was, poured into her ear. Sometimes the connection was lost, mid-sentence and my mother would sit, a baffled look in her eyes, the chunky black telephone receiver pressed against her cheek, staring into the distance.
‘You can always write to them,’ I advised my mother with all the self-absorption of my eleven years. ‘You waste too much time saying how are you baba, how is grandma, there’s no time for other more important stuff.’ I was young and couldn’t understand why she would want to ring her parents every week or lie alone in the bedroom, her arm folded across her forehead, her face turned away from us.
The apartment block with its peeling yellow plaster and discoloured cream shuttered windows was encircled by a leafy, overgrown garden. Rome still felt like a developing city not very different to what we had left behind. On our cab ride from the airport we tried to spot shiny skyscrapers and four lane highways, but instead saw only rust-bricked houses and cobble stoned alleys. The city was reeling from the aftereffects of a global recession, the kidnapping and assassination of an ex-prime minister, Aldo Moro and the menace of Briggate Rosse, the Red Brigades whose ugly graffiti defaced every shop front and wall. Time had stopped still in the garden that carried the scent of crushed lemon leaves, orange flowers and the faint smell of the sea. Crickets chirped dreamily and butterflied fluttered among the dense tangle of umbrella pine trees, plump rose bushes and a marble fountain where a cracked alabaster horse’s torso rose through the centre, spewing water through its open mouth.
‘Looks like the fountain is gargling,’ my little sister said as we tiptoed near it and dipped one hesitant hand and then another into the water, splashing each other’s faces and yelling with delight. It all seemed a grand, big adventure. It was summer in Rome, and most people had abandoned the city for the beaches. Those left behind were at work, so my sister and I were free to loiter and explore. School would not start until September; there was no homework to complete or notes to be crammed for exams. We were free.
And mother didn’t seem to mind when every morning we told her we would be downstairs, playing in the garden. ‘Just don’t talk to strangers or accept any gifts,’ was her only advice as she handed us a thousand lira for our lunch. Lunch was a sandwich that we bought from a nearby alimentari that stocked fresh fruit and vegetables and sold sandwiches at lunchtime. We pointed to the glass display cabinet where the sandwiches lay piled high like a snowy mountain range. The alimentari owner, a kind old lady who always wore a black crochet dress, sometimes slipped in a little lollipop or chocolate bar in the brown bag. ‘A little sweets from me to you,’ she said in her broken English.
‘People are so nice here,’ I told mother. ‘They’re all so fair and well dressed and they wave to us and ask us where we’re from. They love Gandhi and they say we have beautiful smiles. In India they would just stare and point and laugh if they saw a foreigner.’ She narrowed her eyes and listened. ‘But how come our neighbours haven’t knocked on our door and invited us over for dinner. How come nobody rings to ask how we are?’ she asked.
Our father left for work every morning, picked up by a colleague who lived nearby. He was busy learning the ropes of his new job, setting up new bank accounts and filling forms that would help him build our new life in Rome brick by brick. Upstairs our mother lay in bed pining for the life she had left behind. In the evening, our father would bring back three big boxes of Margherita pizza and a bunch of roses for my mother. He would tiptoe into their bedroom, a guilty look on his face, tenderly squeeze her hands, tell us to be quiet and declare mother would feel better soon.
‘But she’s not moved all day, just eaten a slice of toast that’s all,’ I yelled at him. I was almost a teenager and my hormones were raging like a jet engine, ready for take-off. ‘Why can’t she be happy like us? We’ve left behind all that noise and dirt and beggars.’ I pressed my hands against my ears to block out the imaginary noise from the trucks, scooters and cyclists who clogged the Delhi streets. ‘It’s not that easy to build a home, but one day your mother will get up and decide that this is it and she’ll be fine,’ my father explained as he sprinkled chilli powder on the pizzas.
A week passed and then a second. My sister and I had by then picked up a few words of Italian, ‘Ciao bella,’ we said to our mother as she brushed her teeth in the morning, prepared our cornflakes and then chose another fresh nightie to slip back into bed, her cassette player by her bed side. A pile of cassettes lay next to it, mostly old film songs from Bollywood but also recordings of her father reciting Persian poetry. My grandfather was an accomplished poet and an engineer. He was one of the few Indians who had worked alongside the British and helped construct bridges across the major Indian rivers.
‘Ciao bella?’ My mother repeated one morning. ‘What does Ciao Bella mean girls?’
‘It means, hello beautiful,’ I told my mother patting her cheek affectionately. ‘That’s what it means, silly mummy. When are you going to learn Italian? Nobody speaks English or Hindi here.’
In the transition from India to Italy, our roles were reversed. My mother had changed from a competent figure who ran our household with military precision to this sad eyed woman who moped around the rooms declaring she was sick of pizza and why couldn’t my father find a decent Indian restaurant in the whole city. ‘Where is the ginger, the coriander and the ghee,’ she wailed as she cooked chicken curry with olive oil and oregano and declared it tasted rubbish, before emptying the whole pot into the bin.
‘Who called you Ciao Bella,’ my mother persisted that day. ‘Who called you beautiful?’ A new look of alertness entered her eyes and she studied my face intently, waiting for my response. I kept quiet but my younger sister piped up.
‘Mummy, it’s the gardener downstairs. He buys us ice-cream.’ She stopped and corrected herself. ‘He buys us a gelato or two every day and…’ She pointed to me, ‘He tells her she is beautiful. He pats her hair, says it’s long and beautiful and one day he will give us a ride on his Vespa scooter.’ She stopped, breathless, a triumphant look on her small face.
‘How dare you tell tales,’ I glared at my sister, lunged and pulled her ponytail. My mother grabbed my arm. ‘Is that so? Have you been eating this gelato every day bought by a stranger with his own money?’ I lowered my eyes in shame. The truth was that I quite enjoyed the attention of Marco-that was his name. Marco had come one day to water the rhododendrons and was taken aback to see us splashing our bare feet in the fountain. He was young and to my naïve eyes, incredibly handsome with his blue Levis jeans, slicked back brown hair and a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses that he never took off. He couldn’t have been more different to our gardener back in India, a wizened sixty year old who squatted on the floor and chewed betelnut constantly, spitting out the red phlegm on the footpath while he pulled out the weeds and beheaded the occasional cobra hiding in the dahlia flower beds.
Mother let go of my arm and instead of slipping back into bed, she went to the wardrobe and pulled out her blue sari. The same sari she wore when she haggled with vegetable hawkers over the price of onions or went to the local utility offices to question our electricity bills. Her blue sari was her going-into-action sari. ‘Aren’t you going back to bed?’ I asked her, a little bit disappointed that I was going to lose my freedom. ‘I think I will come into the garden with you today,’ my mother replied, tucking the pleats of her sari into her petticoat.
‘As you wish,’ I shrugged and bit my bottom lip. I had started daydreaming about Marco. How we would get married one day, set up home together, have lovely brown haired, blue eyed children and here was mother spoiling it all by coming downstairs and sitting on the bench by the fountain, arms folded, waiting for Marco to materialise.
Marco appeared at midday, holding two cones of gelato for my sister and me. His face fell when he saw my mother. He stood there, the cones melting into his hand-a slow river of cream and ice as mother skewered him with her penetrating stare.
‘I am the mamma of these little girls,’ she told him. ‘No more gelato for my girls, capisce. No Ciao Bella. Now get lost.’ She clapped her hands as though chasing away a dog and Marco slunk away, without even throwing me one backward glance.
‘Right. That’s that,’ my mother said, standing up and smoothing the folds of her sari with her hand. ‘Enough wasting time inside this stupid garden. Who wants to come with me to see the Colosseum?’
Towards the end of that summer just before schools reopened, we moved to a modern new apartment in EUR, the suburb designed by Mussolini to showcase Italian progress and innovation. There were wide avenues and parks and apartments built of chrome and glass. My parents lived here until my father retired from his job. My mother learnt Italian and drove like a native, jumping red lights and ignoring parking tickets. She also got a part-time job at Vatican Radio broadcasting news in Hindi and English to the Indian subcontinent. As for Marco, we saw him maybe once or twice again. It turned out that he was only doing that job to earn some extra pocket money and the original gardener, an old, gap toothed man with serious dandruff on his shoulders soon came back. My sister and I lost interest in the garden. I never fulfilled my parents’ dream of moving to America to become a doctor, instead I came to England to study political science at university and became a writer, but that is another story.
The conversations in the book all come from the author’s recollections, though they are not written to represent word-for-word transcripts. Rather, the author has retold them in a way that evokes the feeling and meaning what was said and in all instances, the essence of the dialogue is accurate.
Reshma Ruia was born in India and brought up in Rome. She is an award winning writer and poet. Her first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ Her short stories and poems have appeared in various British and International anthologies and journals and commissioned for BBC Radio. Her debut collection of poetry, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ is out now. www.reshmaruia.com
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