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Sonia Gandhi And Me: A Tale Of Two Namesakes

28/04/2015 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Indian Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi gestures as she addresses a rally held by the All Indian Women Congress in New Delhi on August 20, 2014. The congress is to hold a women's rally to mark former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's 70th birth anniversary. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN (Photo credit should read RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The mehendi on my mother's hands had barely faded when she discovered she was pregnant with me. My parents had moved from Amritsar to Calcutta to seek a better life.

My lonely mother was very dependent on the kindness of our neighbours, an elderly British couple.

When I was born, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, my parents asked them to name me. I was called Dorina, which is derived from Dora meaning "gift". The problem was that nobody could say it correctly.

My parents searched for a new name.

One day, my aunt came to visit. As she waited for the maid to serve her tea, she glanced at the newspaper.

On the front page was Sonia Gandhi, dressed in a long skirt and boots, her hair falling over her shoulders. Inspired, she suggested my parents call me "Sonia", and they agreed.

Every time when I played in the living room and Sonia came on television, I left my toys and ran to see her. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Her marble-like features, her dimples, her straight long brown hair held by a clip, her pearl earrings and her erect, regal posture.

Because I knew I was her namesake, I watched Sonia throughout my life. I was always struck by her elegance, her classy fashion choices, her beauty, grace and her dignified demeanour.

"Every time when I played in the living room and Sonia came on television, I left my toys and ran to see her. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world."

I read all I could about her. I cut out all the articles and saved all the photographs of her. My friends who collected pictures of Zeenat Aman, Sharmila Tagore and other actresses thought I was really strange.

I couldn't help it. I was fascinated by her story. An ordinary girl who had an extraordinary life. She was Cinderella, a carefree happy girl who met her Prince Charming, who just happened to be from one of the most powerful political dynasties of India.

When I grew up, I dressed just like Sonia. I did the pearls, the hair pulled up from my face and when I went abroad I did the whole boots thing.

I was 22 when I immigrated to America. Then too, I thought of her. A woman who left her home and made another country her own.

Being away from India made me question who I really was. I have a Hindu mother, a Sikh father and I married a Roman Catholic. I was Indian, just like Sonia was.

I grew up seeing her as a loving wife, devoted daughter-in-law, protective mother, reluctant politician, determined leader and now the president of the Congress party. The first half I observed in India the other half I watched from the US.

Sonia's personal fortunes were tied up in the rise and fall of the Gandhi family as they fought for survival in politics. She nurtured and supported the family as Indira was repeatedly arrested, persecuted and publicly humiliated. She ran the household in the same manner as the family moved to a smaller house.

"[S]he watched her mother-in-law, her brother-in-law and her husband die tragically and yet she led the Congress party. She believed it was her duty to serve the country that she had made her own."

A reserved woman, who spoke Hindi haltingly, she watched her mother-in-law, her brother-in-law and her husband die tragically and yet she led the Congress party. She believed it was her duty to serve the country that she had made her own.

I was horrified at Indira Gandhi's assassination and I was briefly caught in the madness of the Sikh riots as I was returning from school but that's a story for another day.

I was saddened at the sight of Sonia mourning at Rajiv's funeral pyre. I was shocked at the personal attacks made by the members of the opposition as she stepped into the murky, dangerous world of Indian politics.

Sonia Gandhi and I came face to face on one occasion. I was in Calcutta, when Mother Teresa passed away. I covered the funeral for Newsday, an American newspaper.

I was in the front row of the section reserved for journalists. Everyone was standing in prayer and as I looked down at the notepad, I was suddenly aware of a movement. I looked up as Sonia walked in and took her place among the leaders of the world.

For a brief moment we made eye contact. Then the funeral mass began.

We have never spoken but I feel like I know Sonia. I have watched her spectacular rise from obscurity to popularity to notoriety.

"Italians are very similar to Indians. They are very strongly protective of their daughters and they believe in a close knit, united family."

The iconic moment in which Sonia, a Roman Catholic is standing next to Dr Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, being sworn in as prime minister, with the oath of office being administered by a Muslim president, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was a historical iconic image beamed all over the world.

It's a deeply symbolic gesture and a gift that Sonia gave to India. History should always remember that she was perhaps the only Indian politician to have refused prime ministership.

"That's how diverse India is?" my American friends asked me.

"That's my country," I told them proudly.

Politicians and people routinely criticise Sonia for not being born in India but they don't realise this: Italians are very similar to Indians. They are very strongly protective of their daughters and they believe in a close knit, united family. Sonia's father worked hard while her mother nurtured the family. Her humble beginnings prepared her for hardships. She is a determined fighter and she does not give up.

They say she is finished now. I laugh. And wait for the day when once again in the streets they will call out the name "Sonia" and ask her to play a bigger role in Indian politics because she's earned it. And she deserves it.

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