Dr Jay Dubashi
ONCE a tortoise and a scorpion had to ford a swollen river. The scorpion was clever and suggested to his friend that he (scorpion) should ride piggy-back on him, and they would both reach the other side safely. The tortoise, poor fellow, was in a hurry to get to the other bank, and said yes. “but what if you bit me half-way?” he asked, “we shall both drown.” The scorpion, a clever chap, said he would never do such a thing to his friend. And they both jumped into the river.
Half-way through the trip, the scorpion duly bit the tortoise. “I should have known,” said the tortoise, as they both drowned. “But why did you do it?” he asked. “But I am like that,” said the scorpion to his poor friend as they disappeared under the waters.
Italians have not changed since that fable by Aesop. They have actually improved on it. They can go to our Supreme Court and swear on the Bible that they would never go back on their word, but as soon as the Court’s back is turned, they do precisely that, as the scorpion did, for treachery is in their blood.
This is because Italian blood is the blood of its Mafia. Italy is ruled by the Mafia, not one but scores of them, whether it is the political Mafia running or trying to run the country, or the well-entrenched bureaucratic Mafia, which runs it for the politicians. The corporates form another powerful Mafia in their own right and run businesses in their own way and brook no interference from anyone. Only Italians know how to get round them. There are Mafias all over the place, large and small, and between them they run the country, while even ambassadors tell lies in court and try to make deals, Italy is not a country but a conglomerate of Mafias, one independent of the other, and all firmly intent on maximising their own benefits.
The Vatican is also a Mafia, perhaps bigger and more powerful than all of them. There are hundreds of books on the Vatican and how it runs the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican is a big corporation, like Unilever or Samsung, modeled, of course, on the traditional Mafia, with the so-called “Curia”, or the central administration, at the top. They have been running the profitable show for centuries, two hundred centuries in fact, beginning with someone called St. Peter, the first Pope, and what a spectacular show it has been!
There are hundreds of stories about large-scale laundering of illicit money through the Vatican banks, and equally large-scale misappropriation of funds. The Vatican is a sovereign state, which has an observer status at the United Nations and its own diplomatic corps, that is, ambassadors, including one in New Delhi, just opposite Ashoka Hotel in Chanakyapuri. There are Vatican ambassadors everywhere, and God alone knows what they do. There have been numerous cases of defalcation of large amounts of illicit cash, including cases which involved the private butler of the last Pope, but the Vatican is its own judge and never allows outsiders to look into its affairs.
I have been to Rome a number of times, including at least thrice as a guest of the Italian government. I was actually a guest of the European Union, and was visiting some of its countries including Britain, France and Germany, and, of course, Italy. In Rome, they didn’t know what to do with me, so I asked to visit some of their famous companies which, at that time, were doing business with India, including a company called Ansaldo.
Whenever I went, I was surprised to find the same people in charge, whether in the government secretariat or the companies I was visiting. Some people seemed to be everywhere—all Italians look alike! — and among them was a man called Ottavio Quattrochi, a familiar face in Delhi at the time, at if he was following me wherever I went, which probably he did. I had met him in Delhi at an Italian diplomat’s house, but that was long before he became a famous or infamous name. At one time I thought he was a civil servant, for he was very much present when I was being taken round ministries. He was also present, along with others, when I was visiting companies — powerful companies like ENI, where he was completely at home. But since all these companies belonged to their own Mafias, it made sense. It then struck me that Italy was not so much a unified nation, like, say India, but a federation of Mafias, maybe scores of them, like trade unions, each one faithful to its own bosses, and doing their own work. It seemed to me at the time that Ottavio Quattrochi was one such under boss, keeping an eye on the goings-on and probably reporting to his Mafia boss every night over a glass of Chianti.
In the Vatican, I had a very bad experience. Vatican is a holy place, more like a stupendous Math, and its main showpiece, St. Peter’s Basilica, is a very magnificent piece of work, designed by Michelangelo, or maybe Leonardo da Vinci, where you can get lost for days, unless you take a guide or follow the crowds.
I was staying in a small hotel close to the Basilica, surrounded by what seemed to be small hostels for monks. They would get up early in the mornings, as early as four or five, and conduct their various rituals, including singing and praying. I could see them every morning through my bedroom window, most of them old men going through their exercises at the unearthly hour of dawn. I was terribly impressed and later told them so.
One morning, I decided to take a walk to St. Peter’s from my hotel in the dark, a fatal thing to do in a dangerous place like Rome early in the morning. But I had no idea things were that bad. When I entered the colonnade that marks the entrance to the basilica, I was accosted by two young men who aksed me whether I would permit them to take me round the place inside the cathedral. I was not sure what they were up to that early in the morning, but in Rome, you are always chased by people offering this and that, and I said yes, though I had been inside the cathedral on a number of times, and knew it backwards.
Within minutes, I sensed something was afoot, though I had no idea what it was. When I arrived at the main gate, said to have been carved by Michelangelo himself, I discovered I had lost my passport as well as travellers’ cheques, and my hotel keys and other things. I sat on the floor inside for a while to calm my nerves – I never expected to be robbed, that is what it was, of all places right in the Vatican – and walked up to a priest or monk to complain.
“Wait a minute” the man said, and disappeared. I waited for half an hour, during which time I went as close to the altar as I could and remained there. The altar, a magnificient piece of work, all gold and marble, is where the Pope himself worships and conducts mass, and is shown on TV. For a while, I forgot I was without my passport, and, of course, without a cent in my pocket, not to speak of keys to the hotel room. I could be arrested any time!
But I was lucky. The priest I had talked to returned after about an hour, and to and behold, there was my passport and my cheques and, of course, the hotel keys. The cash was missing but I didn’t care. I didn’t ask him how he had managed to retrieve all these precious things within an hour, but I had no doubt that the priest, which means the Vatican itself, had been able to get the police to go after the boys and get them to disgorge the loot. I thought it wise not to go into such Byzantine matters, thanked the good priest, and departed from the basilica with a lighter purse than I had arrived, totally impressed by the miraculous powers of the papal clergy at the very heart of the great and ancient city of Rome.
I have been to Rome only once since then, but have scrupulously avoided the Vatican. Once bitten, I thought, twice shy. Now there is a new Pope in the Vatican, and soon there will be a new Curia, meaning a new secretariat, but the new Pope is also from Italy, his Italian parents having emigrated to Argentina before he was born. But, of course, the more things change in Rome, the more they remain the same, and the same boys in black shirts must be operating in the Vatican quadrangle looking for likely innocents like me.
I feel sorry for our judges in the Supreme Court. It seems they have never been to Rome, nor have they heard of the story of the tortoise and the scorpion. Perhaps the distinguished gentlemen could get hold of a copy of Aesop’s Fables, though it is now too late for that!