Carlo Pizzati came to India as a ‘yoga-person’, and stayed on. He married a woman who proposed to him in the course of their relationship. “I think you should marry me. Hello? I’m a caaatch!” she said, and he agreed. Many locals thought he wouldn’t last but, so far so good, he has. It can’t be easy because even the gated communities named Bella Rive and Calm Waters are ridden with mice and snakes, and when the tsunami comes it will wipe away your foundations.
This book is partly biographical, an account of the author’s life in India in a beach house with the woman he loves and their large family of stray dogs. His love for his wife, respect for her family, and admiration for her very cool chemical-engineer father are refrains so persistent that I wondered what exactly he was trying to sell. But Carlo also claims to grow luscious tomatoes and splendid roses on inhospitable beach sand so perhaps it was only good energy manifesting.
Besides a little about his earlier life, and what happens to him in village Paramankeni and environs, this book is also about Carlo Pizzati’s conclusions about all kinds of things in a complex land. While he stoutly claims not to be Wendy Doniger, William Dalrymple, Patrick French, – or even Megasthenes, Xuanzang, Al Biruni (and so on) and therefore this cannot be ‘an India book’, he does have his own engaging theories about the way things work here. Arriving in ‘the watershed year of 2008’ he embraced ‘Mamma India’ in a period of exceptional cyclones, of Tata Nano, Premier League, an Indian winning the Booker Prize and 8 per cent economic growth. Through his journey as a ‘yoga-person’, someone who made exceptional choices and landed up as a mappillai (Tamil for ‘son-in-law’) of Gujarati Jain in-laws in Besant Nagar, Chennai, Carlo’s narrative is strewn with interesting data and contextual information. He well understands the importance of the mango and its role in parochialism and identity across India. He has observed women staying married to violent mummy-spoiled brutish husbands, surrounded by friends and family members who may gossip but never intervene. He marvels at how Indian law allows a person named in a suicide note as psychologically responsible for the suicide, to be arrested, tried and at times convicted. When he muses on the auntie-uncle cultural nomenclature, it is to spot the auntie concealed within the hottie, the uncle germinating in the stud; to appreciate the stud nature in an aged uncle with a wild streak and the charming seduction of the hottie quietly inhabiting the auntie. Carlo Pizzati experiences India’s synthesis of religion, politics and commerce, and highlights one of the exceptional icons of this nexus: the best dressed poor people in the globe, with their multifarious saris, striped lungis and wrap-around turbans. In his relatively rare setting for ‘an India book’, he approaches the ‘marvellous human experiment called India’ – from its outskirts, a location of limitless sea and sky where open defecation abounds. And the brave, sporting Carlo attempted open defecation too, but sadly found himself unable to perform.
In slow, contemplative sentences and in rapid exclamatory ones, his prose and his theme switch rapidly. Perhaps this is just a modern book, aimed at the sophisticated short-attention-span reader. But it is rather effervescent at times (like a stereotypical Italian?) Not surprisingly, Carlo has mastered and neatly documented Indian hand gestures. Fingers pointing inwards and then, suddenly swinging out an open hand to say ‘all!’.
The insight that most impressed me was the truth about why natives consider vellais (Tamil for ‘whiteys’) better than them. It’s not the scars of colonialism but because they are – SPOILER ALERT – mentally freer, with fewer social obligations to succeed, to marry and behave as required.
And the claim that most annoyed me was that “Indian women are like Italian men”, indicating that the entire population of Indian women tends to encircle men, sniffing to select the delicacy they might savour. Was this supposed to be a compliment? I don’t think so.