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The curious explorer

Elena Tommaseo, a trained designer from Venice, wears many hats. She has made Delhi her home and found her own unique ways to discover India. A glimpse into her life in Delhi

She hails from Venice and worked for 22 years in Milan as a graphic designer before she settling in India some 10 years ago. There’s so much in Delhi, her journey of discovery never fails to throw up surprises. Elena Tommaseo’s engagement with the city is profound. “I found my balance here which was not the case back in Italy. I don’t know the reason for it, (perhaps) because I like doing different things. It’s a country where all the action is. I like the positive energy, and rediscovered my childhood here,” she explains about what Delhi has done to her.

If someone asks Tommaseo are you lonely or homesick here, her prompt response is: “I don’t feel lonely (for she has so many things to do and many interesting friends). This is my home,” she asserts. She has been a witness to the city in fast transition; so much has changed in Delhi in the last two decades. She’s already nostalgic about the city that was. “I like to explore, and there’s so much to find in Delhi.” she says.

Destiny had a special plan for Tommaseo. In 1997, she came to India backpacking with two friends and a cousin, traveled to Rajasthan, Orchha, Khajuraho, Agra, among other places. She met a man in this trip who she’d meet again the following year when she returned to India with some other friends. Romance ensued, four years later they were married and stayed together for 17 years.

The first year in India, which was spent in Madhya Pradesh, was also the first year in her adult life when she was not working. Soon she started conducting guided tours, and was made the “group leader”,  mostly handling Italian speaking tourists.

She shifted to Delhi in 2011 and did some odd designing projects — logo design is something she likes doing – and also started guided city walks here. She “got attracted” to textiles, fabric printing, colours, patterns and clothing. Intuitive, driven by curiosity to understand, she started stitching clothes for herself and friends, artistic fusion of Indian clothing, prints, colour with a European sensibility.  It was years before she would heed to the advice of her friends and make this hobby a source of income.

Her curiosity took the better of her. The exploratory zeal took her to various nooks and corners of the city, to witness historical buildings hidden in the concrete jungle, to make sense of the complex city of Delhi by exploring it in person: Nizamuddin Basti, Delhi-6, Mehrauli, the list is long. There was so much of a hue and cry about Delhi not being safe for women, not without a reason, but Tommaseo was unperturbed. She uses public transport, auto rickshaws to explore the city she treats as home. When Mehrauli Archaeological Park was opened, she was one of the first few to explore it. “Nobody used to be there, only nature, reminiscent of my past,” she recollects.

A voracious reader, she has educated herself about the history of Delhi. Tommaseo knows more about Delhi than many of the native experts, and could give them a run for their money. An 18th-century map of Delhi is framed and hanging prominently in her living room. One of the things she explained in detail was that a part of Salimgarh fort that was an island on Yamuna river was used as a prison during the Aurangzeb’s reign. The map is indicative of the fact that Delhi’s unbridled urbanisation has pushed the Yamuna eastwards. A visit to her house enhances the understanding of your own city.

Tommaseo loves to acquire knowledge of the place she resides in, but the desire to share her knowledge is even stronger than her curiosity. “I love to share what I know,” she says.  She conducts guided tours for Europeans, especially Italian speakers and introduces the city a very organic way. She makes them comfortable and never gets perturbed by the complaining tourists who are overwhelmed travelling India. She sort of dissipates calm energy and that makes her very famous with people she works with.

A year and a half ago, she shifted to a new apartment. It’s her den, an open space punctuated with beautiful wooden furniture. The placement of warm and mellow lights is just appropriate, making it very cozy. With her fine eye for detail and design, beautiful objects make house soothing to the senses; just about everything from cutlery, plates, to books seem to endorse good  choices she’s made in life.

She is an excellent cook, treating her guest with fusion food. Aloo-methi is her favourite in winters, the spices are mild and each ingredient tastes distinctive.  The experience of sampling food cooked by her is like having something familiar in a new avatar. Her love for coffee is quintessentially Italian. An early riser, she starts her day drinking coffee and indulging in a leisurely breakfast. She works from home unless she has to meet someone outside.

Tommaseo is one person who enjoys her own company a lot but that hasn’t prevented her from making some interesting friends in the city. She hasn’t hired any help, and is solely responsible for her sparkling clean and orderly house to the extent that, I’m sure, she can make her way around it  blindfolded.  In the room designated for her work, she stitches textiles into interesting attire, mostly  dresses for herself and her friends. It was her friends who saw in her an exceptional talent, and prodded her to make her hobby a source of income.

“It started as a joke initially. Now I make many products which are sold mainly in Italy,” she says. After much persuasion she started mailing her designs and samples to her friends and former clients. She has a big mailing list of Italians who she took for guided tours accross India.  Her clothes, accessories and artefacts are a big hit for she educates her prospective buyers about the fabric, where it has come from, how it was printed. “People value the story behind the product,” she says and as a result gets many orders and the necessary encouragement.

Lately, she organises an annual sales exhibition in Venice in a big hall with walls adorned with frescos in her family home. Tommaseo  doesn’t advertise her product, her reputation has been built by word of mouth. “Many people came to the exhibition and they brought along many more,” she recollects, “shocked” by the overwhelming response.

Spending an evening with her reminds me of writer Anthony Burgess’s famous sentence, “Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.”