When asked what he wanted to be once he grew up, Scottish poet John Burnside would answer: "An Italian."

Being an Italian, in his Celtic eyes, meant having a light-hearted lifestyle, easing through existence like hot milk in a cappuccino.

A 2013 Eurostat survey shows that we Italians are the self-declared third-unhappiest nationality in Western Europe, followed only by the troubled Greeks and the melancholic Portuguese. We now have something more to worry about: the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Earlier this week, a minister in the Modi government once again attacked the Congress Party for having allowed an Italian-born woman to lead them for so long. (Along the way.the minister managed also to insult the entire Nigerian nation.)

When many Indians first learn I am from Italy, the most common, immediate response is something that I first thought was an ingratiating Sanskrit mantra. It goes like this: "sonyagandhiberluskoneeboongaboonga!" It took me a couple of times to decipher that it meant "Sonia Gandhi", "Berlusconi", and his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties.

Excellent country!

Aside from the occasional "Ferrari"and "Serie A" and my learned friend Pankaj wanting to discuss Leopardi, only once have I heard the exclamation, "Excellent country!" But since this came from the cashier of my local mini-market where I stock up on linguine pasta, Arrabbiata sauce and fine imported Arabica coffee, I fear there might have been a slight business interest behind the convinced assertion about Italy.

I know we deserve it. I know we earned it. As one elderly and wise Tam Bram I met once at a concert in Chennai told me, I come from a rich culture, but from a violent people. Mafia and Fascism are Italian words. (Though to be precise, one is Sicilian.) We did export machine-gun toting Al Capone and jaw-jutting Mussolini as national trademarks. Mario Puzo, The Godfather and the Sopranos didn't help. Yes I know they are only one rotten side of the Sicilian-American community, but who else does?

In India, I'm regularly asked if I'm a good cook and if I'm a good singer. I think I am, although my wife doesn't. So, yes, dear BJP, Italy has the most corrupt public administration in Europe, ranking at the bottom rung of the international scale.

But shouldn't that make us closer?

Are we destined to carry the cross of our national clichés?


I'd like to be able to avoid it, though.

Fighting stereotypes

Recently, the Italian government released a video fighting this stereotype. Italians as mandolin players? No, excellent scientists. Simple pizza cooks? No, innovative designers and mechanical engineers. It was a good try, but it won't stick. Not abroad and not in India.

Here, we're always those Latin Lovers, my great-uncle wrote about in his novel of the same title, documenting his six years as a Prisoner of War in a British camp north of Bangalore. The Indian officer in charge told him that the German and the British were real warriors, good fighters, but Italians..."Italians, no, they're only good Latin lovers." (As you can see this issue predates the BJP.)  To prove them all wrong, my great uncle Ottone kept escaping from the camp, risking his life ‒ and getting regularly recaptured.

But that is really the point, for us. The stereotype, easily manipulated by some BJP politicians who  want to raise suspicions about Sonia Gandhi's honesty because she was born in Italy, could actually backfire. Because, as far as corruption goes, we can say that we are sister cultures, can't we? And the nepotism that put Sonia where she is started before the arrival of "the Italian", and is another anti-meritocracy defect we share (along with Nigeria, for that matter).

A sign of strength

That's why it pays more to look at points in common, rather than incite divisions, feeding ignorance based on generalisations. To me, allowing a foreign-born woman to become such a powerful leader in your country doesn't mean you have a "fair skin" inferiority complex. It says that, within the mindset of a widely accepted and encouraged nepotism, you have the greatness to include a foreigner up to the highest level. It means, to my naive Italian mind, that this great mix of races, cultures, religions has as its central strength the embracing of diversity. This is the winning point, even globally, right now. In this we should be similar, in the Italian peninsula's Renaissance openness, not in a nationalistic Fascism (another point we could have in common unfortunately) that leads to riots.

India is a culture so strong that it can encapsulate everything, it can welcome and Indianise everyone ‒ naturally, without forcing anything.

But just in case, now, when I'm asked, "Where are you from?" I've chosen to be more specific and I simply answer: "Venice" while starting to row my imaginary gondola and sing  O Sole Mio! When my wife's not around, of course.