The cover of Rani Singh's "Sonia Gandhi" shows the leader, smiling in a red sari, actually touching a grey mass of humanity, humble in black and white tones. None of them are smiling, perhaps because they experience a lifestyle not fully congruent with the UPA chairperson's. There is desperation in their faces, in seven decades of "freedom", that has willed them to believe that a darshan of Sonia Gandhi may take away their poverty. Rani Singh does not tell us if indeed this has been the case, or if they have merely been herded back to their hovels after the encounter from a person who may as well have come from another planet, so complete is the disconnect between their lives and hers.
Although others have placed the trajectory towards wealth of the Maino family as having begun in the 1980s period after Sanjay Gandhi died, when a grieving Indira Gandhi presided over a flow of nearly six dozen orders to Snamprogetti, Rani Singh implies that the family was prosperous from the start, staying in a commodious villa in Lusiana. Despite his affluence, Stefano Maino sent his younger daughter to the UK to work at odd jobs after dropping out of school at 14, perhaps to better understand working class life. There, as Rani Singh recounts, Sonia was a free spirit, naturally popular with others, very "open-minded", in the view of her buddy Hans Loeser. She was clearly "one of the most beautiful women" in Cambridge, a location known for a goodly share of shapely forms. It was clear from the start that Rajiv Ratan Birjees Gandhi was smitten by her, travelling to Italy in 1966 to meet her parents, who asked Sonia to wait a year, during which she "took on occasional interpreting assignments at conferences". Ms Singh does not mention the languages involved in these assignments. Aware of the high cost of paper, she is understandably parsimonious on details.
It is to Rani Singh that we owe the knowledge that the present Congress president is an excellent cook, and that she took care of the Nehru family household single-handedly, if we exclude a dozen-odd servants. "Sonia, the most domesticated lady in the home, used to do all of the housework and the cooking." Life must have been hard, but despite backbreaking toil, she became an expert in "fabric texture and design", and in personal diplomacy at the highest level, helping Indira Gandhi to make a good impression on other heads of government. Almost from the start, beginning in the 1970s, Edwige Antonia Albina Maino Gandhi "displayed a clear awareness of national and international events". She was "docile, accommodating and quietly affectionate", qualities not recounted by Congress functionaries to their own confidants in private. Most importantly, she "severed all contacts with Italy" soon after her marriage in 1968, although she retained her Italian passport, perhaps out of sentiment.
"It is to Rani Singh that we owe the knowledge that the present Congress president is an excellent cook, and that she took care of the Nehru family household single-handedly, if we exclude a dozen-odd servants. “Sonia, the most domesticated lady in the home, used to do all of the housework and the cooking.” Life must have been hard, but despite backbreaking toil, she became an expert in “fabric tex"
Vinod Mehta, a celebrated authority on Sonia Gandhi, informs us that "the speaking of Hindi was encouraged" in the household. Which means that the gossip that Sonia, Rajiv and their children spoke to each other only in Italian must be a vicious slander on a quintessentially Indian family. The other daughter-in-law, Maneka, has only a bit part in Rani Singh's book, which is certain to be made into a Bollywood film before the 2014 elections. As for Sanjay Gandhi, "any reforms that took place during the Emergency were neutralised by Sanjay and his coterie", who "exercised their authority without restraint", in contrast to the docile bride of Rajiv Gandhi.
We owe to Rani Singh the insight that Jawaharlal Nehru was not "dynastically driven". It must therefore have been torture for him to have appointed his daughter as Congress president, and propelled her into prominence. Fortunately for Indira Gandhi, her eldest son married a woman who not only cooked and cleaned, but "started several centres where illiterate women were helped to become independent". Her "deep knowledge of Indian textiles" must have been invaluable in such selfless effort. And as for the canard that Rajiv as PM allowed Sikhs to be butchered in 1984, Rani Singh corrects the record. "He spoke to officers that this should be controlled." He could hardly be blamed if the officers did not listen to his entreaties. For Sonia, her husband becoming the PM was a horror. She would have much preferred to go off with him to a village in UP, speaking in the Avdi dialect that she knew so well, as the book tells us.
Although a scholar, Sonia could be a lady of few words, as Wajahat Habibullah found out after giving her a rambling dissertation on the beauty of Lakshwadeep. Her reply was succinct "Yes". Perhaps she was eager to get away from the loquacious official and be with her Italian family who then, as now, cluster around her on every occasion, strengthening her in the immense nation-building tasks that Sonia Gandhi is daily fulfilling. It helps that she, in Rani Singh's words, is "much better than some odd-looking male figures from the past", perhaps alluding to Lal Bahadur Shastri or P.V. Narasimha Rao, both of whom would have been out of place on Sloane Street.
Rani Singh is clearly a fearless investigative journalist, completely free of bias. She has given the world an honest, unbiased portrait of a saint. Hopefully, the Nobel Committee in Stockholm will take note of this valuable addition to the efforts of other Nehru family aficionados, when they award the 2012 Peace Prize.