Erudite charmer

An Italian scholar who has made Delhi her home. Her association with India is deep and rewarding. she has made many friends…

Young Italian scholar Elena Valdameri did her PhD on Mahatma Gandhi’s political guru Ram Krishna Gokhale from the University of Milan. She’s currently pursuing her post-doctoral research on modern Indian history with ETH in Zurich that requires her to learn the Marathi language. She’s already fluent in Hindi, if you were wondering.

She stayed mostly in Lajpat Nagar, for some time with her husband Davide Tadiello, who was a martial arts trainer and gym instructor of great skill and a certain repute. Most of her research and the writing of her thesis — which will soon be a book — happened at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in the capital.

The above description might suggest a studious, bespectacled lady sifting through wads of prosaic text. That would be a mistake. She does all that work, faster than most of her contemporaries, but in style. For she is focused and effective, but academia is just one part of her multifarious personality.

Elena, slender and tall, loving and considerate, friendly and proficient in yoga, a health freak, is in control of her life. She’s benign by temperament but with an iron resolve. She is a role model for her extended family, particularly her sister. Like the hummingbirds tattooed on her chest, she’s is a free bird but with a sense of responsibility. If you ask her to define herself, she’ll greet you with a long silence. “It’s a difficult question,” she says, and then thinks aloud, “I’m curious, a social animal.” That she is, for she has many friends. And those who know her have one word for her: Admiration!
Fitness is an obsession. An accomplished yoga practitioner, she could give many yoga teachers in the capital a run for their money. She doesn’t agree that yoga is synonymous with India, as some in the establishment would like to believe.

She isn’t appropriating a legacy, either. She has a point to make: Yoga in the last century or so has been practised vigorously all over the world. A sort of fusion and metamorphosis has taken place. Yoga, as practised in the West (there are many disciplines) is more physical in nature, a fitness regime, rather than a spiritual quest. She follows a rigorous yoga regime that’s more about body than mind, never forgetting that mind and body are both integral to a healthy spirit.

She’s critical of the way yoga is practised in the West, as just another factor of production, a tool to pursue material goals by enhancing the body’s ability to deal with greater stress and demanding lifestyles. “It’s this kind of bio-politics I don’t like,” she says and adds, “To me, yoga is a tool of self- awareness.”

Her association with India, that proved life-changing, started some eight years ago. She has spent at least half of the time since then in India, her base being Delhi. She is one of half-a-dozen Italian women researchers, all of them fairly independent and outgoing, and far more educated, with fluency in English, than the rest of the folks in their extended family. Most of them married, they made a conscious decision to live in a difficult city like Delhi and pursue a career. They became the most beautiful ambassadors of their country as they imbibed the Indian culture. They won many Indian hearts via Italian cuisine and wine — and you can trust Elena for serving some of the nicest coffee in town when you visit her Delhi home.

Elena is kind and perceptive of challenges in the lives of people who come in contact with her. She knows what struggle entails. This aspect is highlighted by her deep association and the way she interacts with her domestic help as if they are her best friends. Proficiency in Hindi enables her to empathise with their daily struggles. “They are strong women,” she says, not just physically, but also due to their tenacity to deal with adversity, which is almost aspirational. For instance, she sent a Bengali help of hers a set of expensive bras from Italy!

Her house in Delhi, though not a mansion, is beautifully done up. There’s nothing ostentatious, just spotlessly clean, well organised, bright fabrics here and there. Her quintessential den is a welcoming place.

She has more women friends than men in Delhi, she has no qualms about acknowledging this simple fact. Not that she’s averse, but men’s attitudes bother her. She is quick to snub men on social media, has little tolerance for unpalatable comments laced with patriarchy.

But she isn’t a bleeding heart feminist. She deals with situations on merit of it, and her judgement is not clouded by preconceived notions of things — this approach to life has stood her in good stead. “I never felt hindered about doing certain things because I’m a woman,” she says with conviction.

Elena is acutely aware that there are times when she’s stared at, judged, stereotyped as a ‘white woman’. There was an instance when a man trailed her all the way home, and rather unabashedly expressed his desire for her. “Do I look like a whore?” she retorted. Men here tend to get wrong messages about a ‘white woman’ having a friendly disposition, behaviour that’s absolutely innocent in her home country.

But she isn’t paranoid about it. “It’s generally tough to be a woman, in Delhi it’s particularly difficult,” she minces no words. But, having said that, she asserts, “I don’t feel unsafe. Unsafe would be too strong a word, though it may sound contradictory.” But one thing is for sure: She doesn’t allow fear to cloud her life, has special relationships with people who come in contact with her, whether it’s her Hindi teacher, domestic help, academicians, flatmates, journalists or writers. She’s a friend’s friend.

Currently, she’s in Delhi for six months to further her research. One of the better informed scholars on India in Italy, she’s hooked on to political and social issues as well. Academia in Italy is stagnating, and there’s little room for new talent as the self-entrenched yet ageing intelligentsia is fairly status quoist. Elena too was affected. Obviously she has, time and again, converted adversity into an opportunity.

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