Saturday, January 07, 2012

Living in Italy and writing in Malayalam

Legia Bonetti, who is married to an Italian, has just won a Malayalam short story competition

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Legia Bonetti was on a short visit to Kerala, from Italy, she saw an advertisement in the prestigious web site, asking for entries for a short story competition. So, she sat and wrote a 2300 word story, titled ‘Avasanathe Uruppadi ’ (The Last Piece).

It is about a woman, in her mid-fifties, who lives in a posh house, but is all alone. The house is being put up for sale, while the daughter is keen that her mother goes and stays in the empty family tharavad. “It is a relevant theme,” says Legia. “Many elderly people in Kerala are being abandoned by their children.”

The web site received 150 entries. But what came as a shock to Legia was when she won the first prize. “I never dreamt it would happen,” she says. Recently, the award ceremony took place at a function in Changampuzha Park and the top 10 entries have been published in a book.

The judges included a former professor C.R. Omanakuttan and well-known novelists M.K. Chandrasekharan, editor of, and K.L. Mohana Varma. “Legia wrote the story in a touching manner, yet, at the same time, she kept up the suspense,” says Mohana Varma. “She could become a new breed of a global writer, whose writings could have a readership abroad, provided she works very hard.”

Legia has had an unusual life. She grew up in Thoppumpady, but tied the knot with an Italian, Guido Bonetti, on June 13, 1983. It was an arranged marriage. Guido was a friend of Legia’s brother, who worked abroad, and he was very interested in Indian culture. During a visit,
Guido formally proposed, and, unusually, Legia’s parents agreed. Her late father, K.R. John, was a well-known Communist trade union leader in Mattancherry.

Thanks to Guido, a civil engineer, Legia has lived in Nigeria, Ghana, Djibouti, Brazil, Libya, Greece, Switzerland, and Guido’s ancestral village of Gromo, which has a population of only 1100 people. “There are mountains and skiing facilities,” says Legia. “It is very beautiful, but I like it more at my home in Thoppumpady.”

In a foreign country, despite being a wife of a local, Legia always felt that she did not belong. “Nobody has insulted me, because I am an Indian or a coloured person,” she says. “But they always look at me, like a foreigner. Even in a highly modern city like Milan, people
still discriminate. For them I will always remain an Indian, even though I speak Italian, mix with them, have lunches and dinners and go out shopping. All foreigners are treated like that. I am not saying that they are bad, but their attitude is always, ‘we and you’.”

She remembers an incident of a Sri Lankan, who was working as a cleaning man in the railways in Switzerland. One day, he was beaten up by a group of young men, who said, “You coloured people are stealing our jobs.” Petrol was sprinkled on the Sri Lankan, and he was about to be burnt, when the police arrived in the nick of time.

And during all these tense moments, Legia would be steadily writing her short stories in Malayalam, her heart and soul always in Kerala. Guido has been the force behind her creative endeavours, says Lejia, although he took some time to understand the Malayali culture. “If
there is a marriage ceremony and I go with my relatives to buy the gold and the jewellery, he will ask me why I should go. ‘That is none of your business,’ he will say. ‘You are interfering too much.’ Europeans will never intrude.”

And this lack of interference is evident in their married life. “Whenever I say, ‘Can I go out?’ he will reply, ‘Why are you asking silly questions like that? You have your freedom. You are an
independent person. There is no need to ask me.’ So I have learned to do that. Nowadays, I say, ‘I am going out, bye.’”

Meanwhile, boosted by the award, Legia is busy working on her first book of short stories, which she hopes to bring out within a year.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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