INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
Such an Enchanted Journey

The long journey of the Maino girl who dreamt of becoming a flight attendant but kept her tryst with destiny in India

There is a proverb in Veneto-once a poor region of peasants in northeast Italy and today a wealthy region made up of big and small industries with immigrants who make them work-that says how a great wife should be: "La piasa, la tasa e la sia dona de casa", which means "Please me, keep quiet and be a good housewife". Sonia Maino is born to Stefano Maino and Paola Predebon at Lusiana in Veneto on December 9, 1946. She is the middle child, between Anuska and Nadia. The names of at least his first two daughters are chosen by Stefano in memory of the Russian campaign, the bloodiest invasion that the Italian military had to face during World War II while it was allied with the Nazis.

FAMILY MATTERS: (From left) Sonia's parents Stefano and Paola; Sonia in Italy at uncle Mario's funeral

When soldier Stefano returns home from the war, he embraces his wife and "dedicates" his daughters to the lucky star that saved his life. Veneto is still a poor land but the people want to and know how to work, so the Maino household moves west, to the outskirts of Turin. It is the 1950s, the Italian economic boom has begun, people buy automobiles made by Fiat in Turin and they build houses all around the city. Stefano knows how to build houses and isn't afraid of the hard work. In a few years, he hires more masons and builds his own home, a simple detached one with a garden in Orbassano, a town of peasants and workers. Sonia grows up there, goes to the nursery school, then to another institution run by the Salesian nuns 30 km away. At that time, public schools don't exist everywhere and mostly parents choose Catholic schools because they are more "secure" and "severe".

The Mainos don't make an exception. Ninety per cent of Italians are Catholic, at least by birth, and even today in small towns the elderly go to Mass every morning. The Catholic interpretation of Christianity is strict: no indulgences, strict rules especially for women, and rituals that, until a few years ago, were celebrated in Latin, the ancient Roman language that only the most educated know and the believers usually do not understand. Sister Maria, who manages the school that Sonia went to, remembers her as "a diligent little girl, that studied as much as was necessary". At age 13, when middle school ends, Sonia receives her final report card, which is meant to help the student and the family decide on the high school. It says, word for word, "Sonia is intelligent, diligent, committed ... would succeed well at the high school for teachers." In short, Sonia would be a great teacher.

AT HOME IN INDIA: Sonia holding Priyanka, Sanjay, Rajiv, Indira and Rahul

But she has other ideas. To begin with, she is a great dancer and wins a few competitions in twist, the popular dance of the 1960s that originated in England. Then at 17, she does something that is not very easy in those days, which is to convince father Stefano and mum Paola to pay for a trip to a foreign country for her to learn English. Her dream is to become a flight attendant in the national airline Alitalia. Tough and stubborn, as everyone always knew her to be, she succeeds in getting a "Yes", and a flight to Cambridge.

Sonia won't get into the prestigious Trinity College where her future husband Rajiv Gandhi is studying engineering. She becomes an au pair and studies English in her free time at an anonymous school. She meets Rajiv in a cheap Greek restaurant frequented by students. Rajiv is with his cousin, and Sonia with a friend. And it is love at first sight: the tall, dark and handsome first son of Indira Gandhi with dreams of becoming a pilot, and an attractive, brown-haired girl who wants to be a flight attendant exchange glances and begin dating. The published photo of the couple with two friends sitting at a wooden table outside a pub in Cambridge is a rare historical document, which Sonia herself gave to an Italian journalist years ago. It was a picture that Sonia kept in her wallet for more than 20 years.

But the summer and the English courses end, and the young Italian girl has to return to Orbassano after two months of romantic boat rides on the river Cam, evenings looking at the stars and making professions of love. Rajiv is serious and Sonia, the practical girl from Veneto, understands him. In the beginning, she immediately telephones home, "Mum, Dad, I met an Indian prince ...". This emphatic definition isn't far from the truth, and it is how 4,000 miles from India, Rajiv helped a girl his own age understand who he was and his complex political story. At the Maino home, Sonia's parents are inundated with international phone calls and letters. Stefano is irritated, Paola worried. Sonia meanwhile works as an assistant at the Tradeshow Centre of Turin.

Almost a year goes by. In November 1966, Rajiv swoops into Orbassano in a Jaguar. In the town of about 20,000 people, nobody talks about anything else. The Mainos grit their teeth and invite the kind and educated boy in, but pretend not to understand the reason for this "surprise visit". Until one evening, in the living room-an average living room of a middle-class Italian family, with a sofa, leather armchairs, a cupboard with the more attractive glasses well in view and the television set, the centre of attention-Rajiv stands up and addresses Stefano, "I did not come here to see Italy. I have serious intentions and I want to marry your daughter."

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