THE sparkling white colonnades of 10, Janpath are a long way in distance, time and the trappings of power from 14, Via Bellini, a nondescript house in a slushy lane of Orbassano, a grey industrial town on the outskirts of Turin, the city which exports Fiat cars and machines. That house was proudly built by the rough-hewn hands of Stefano Maino, a building worker who after years of effort had established a small construction business by the 1960s.
He took special pride in his work-worn hands and in the dignity of labour which had motivated him to build a bungalow for his wife and three daughters, Sonia, Nadia and Anoushka. He waved those hands before me some 20 years ago in Orbassano to illustrate that he was a self-made man who had created all that he owned with his own labour. He wished to disprove the allegations made even then that the Maino family had grown rich due to its Gandhi connection.
At that time, in the autumn of 1977, shortly after the Emergency, Maino was not too happy about his daughter Sonia's Indian connections. He resignedly noted: "After Sonia's marriage everyone thinks we have got rich and made free trips to India. But we have paid for everything ourselves. Sonia's marriage has been an expensive thing for us." He also mentioned that Sonia, her husband and children and their ayah, too, used to descend on Orbassano during the summer holidays, causing considerable expense. On the other hand, he claimed he had helped India's foreign exchange position by encouraging several of his friends to visit India as tourists.
Maino had absolute faith in the integrity of his son-in-law Rajiv. He was confident "that Rajiv has no connections in the Boeing or any other deal. Rajiv is not in the least interested in such matters". As for the corruption charges then being made against Sanjay Gandhi, "he is just a boy and businessmen and politicians may have used him.... Sanjay is a young politician and not very experienced. That is why he has not been successful."
Indira Gandhi's arrest in 1977 on the orders of the then home minister, Charan Singh, had worried Maino, but not much. He was mainly worried about the future of his grandchildren, Priyanka and Rahul. He glanced at the silver-framed portrait of Indira Gandhi with Priyanka and Rahul and declared: "Mrs Gandhi is the only person in India who can do good things for India."
Apart from the portrait, the other prominent feature of the dimly-lit front room of Maino's house was the collection of leather-bound speeches and writings of Benito Mussolini. I looked pointedly at them. Without batting an eyelid, Maino declared his unwavering loyalty to Mussolini and Italy's 'admirable' fascist past. The words streamed forth. The current Italian government was composed of a bunch of traitors who had betrayed Mussolini and the Fatherland. All the modern Italian political parties were hopeless, except the neo-fascist front. What Italians needed was compulsory sterilisation. Indira Gandhi smiled benignly out of the silver-frame. Nadia, Sonia's petite and pretty younger sister, sitting beside her father, looked decidedly embarrassed.
That did not stop Stefano Maino's frank and forthright expression of his views on life and politics. After all, he had proudly fought against the Russian Reds alongside Hitler's Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in World War II. The bold and direct manner of the soldier remained with him. I felt a tinge of sadness when this blunt and straightforward man died a few years ago. Perhaps, he is up there somewhere, directing his daughter to shed her self-imposed solitude and sophistry, and to launch a bold electoral blitzkrieg on the Indian people.