Mille Miglia 2005

Mille Miglia 2005Butter chicken in BresciaBSM / Brescia 3 14, 2005, 07:45 IST

Mille Miglia 2005 Butter chicken in Brescia BSM / Brescia March 25, 2009, 19:45 IST  

The other Indian diaspora, the MilleMiglia and an Alfa 156. A whistle-stop tour of Lombardy in Italy

Poor, rich Milan. Rome is eternal, Venice from another universe, Naples has the sea and Mt Vesuvius, and little Turin, the shroud. For a millennium now, this city, founded by Celtic tribes in the 7th century BC, has been doing the dirty job of making mundane, earthly money, thus bankrolling early Christianity, cranky, ambitious emperors, the Renaissance and fascism. 

Milan the maligned, they call it, which occasionally throws the city, seething at the indignity, into a sulk. It was on one such drizzly morning that I got there and the view from and in and around the ash grey Stazione Centrale was depressing.  A couple of fashionable dogs were being walked by their fashionable owners, behind me was the multilingual gabble of Milanese waiting to catch their trains, and the Diors and Guccis bided their time in the comfort of their haute couture apparel.

It was an irritating, indecisive drizzle which fell over Milan’s suburbs, with its pastel-coloured, closely-set 19th-century apartments with tall windows and wrought iron balconies with potted flowers.
I decided to spend the half a day I had in Milan by paying a visit to the Duomo. But for that to happen, I waited like everybody else for the sun to come out, and in the meanwhile, watched the Milanese go about their work and life from the dry confines of a cafeteria. The sun emerged a little later, bathing the city in lager light as I was walking along the crowded streets, passing fashionable shopping malls, trams and parking lots filled with Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes. Office-goers were lunching at road-side cafes, while tourists hovered around the memento stalls and the chain of chic shops on the lanes that led to the world’s third largest cathedral, ringed in by the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, a glass-and-iron-covered fashion plaza opened as far back in 1867. 

The pale yellow Duomo blended in with the sunlight. The tallest of its 135 spires poked the blue sky, while noble, sculpted heads with rippling Roman torsos contemplated the scene below. A thousand people stood in the square admiring the cathedral that took over 500 years to build. Work on the Duomo started in the 13th century and ended somewhere in the late 17th. I sat there for an hour taking notes, listening to musicians perform on the saxophone and watching artists paint portraits, soaking in the surprisingly idyllic environs of a square in the heart of one of the world’s most important commercial centres.

An amateur pop band sang a Scorpion number as I floated a prayer to the Madonina inside the cathedral to ensure that I wouldn’t get lost on the way to Brescia for the Mille Miglia next day in my Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD.The next morning I realised that there were greater concerns on Mother Mary’s mind as I was caught in a vicious cycle involving a terrible sense of direction, little knowledge of Italian, and a maze of flyovers and lanes that I never got the hang of.

“Brescia, destra, sinistra, primo avanti, capisce?” they said. But I failed to understand, circumnavigating the city a couple of times. The Alfa’s tacho hung flaccid at around 1500 rpm as my right foot diffidently dabbed the pedal. The 31 kgm of torque that comes in early at 2000 rpm was a great help, especially at traffic signals, when you have to stop and bleat out requests for directions and then move on again.
Ultimately it took a trans-continental effort to get me on the way to Brescia, two hours away. An Indian put me on the right track through Milan’s outlying suburbs, an Italian showed me the exit route out of the city and then I followed a group of Algerians who were off to Brescia via the carriageway.
I didn’t miss the autostrada much. The snow-capped pre-Alpine ranges hung around in the distance, the Orobic hills were chlorophyll green and little towns such as Bergamo and Rovato, full of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, slid under the 156’s broad tyres.

With not too much traffic around, I let the Alfa’s 136 horses loose, herding them toward the mid-range. The front-heavy diesel responded, and I was pushing over 150 kph on the straights, watching clock towers and tall churches flip by, while the in-car Bose system played an incongruous, sombre operatic number.
I reached Brescia’s town centre in the evening, where a Pakistani from Gujranwalla helped me find a parking lot and my search for decent accommodation was aided by an Indian I encountered hanging out at a street corner.

There were more of the species sub-continenticus all over Brescia, chatting in Punjabi or Bengali, owning grocery shops and ISD centres. It wasn’t like Southall is supposed to be, but then seeing so many of them taking their evening stroll in the cobblestone streets of a former Roman town was a stunner.Gongs from the 11th century bell tower woke me up the next morning and later on in the day I visited the remains of a Capitoline temple, and the Piazza della Loggia – a square full of Renaissance buildings. It was damp and cold, and I walked around the piazzas and the communes in search of blotches of sunshine, with the green and white new Duomo’s presence filling up Brescia’s skyline.

“Hello. Indian?” I heard a group of guys my age call out. I nodded. “Take our snap,” one of them said striking a macho pose. Goldie, Happy and Tony were from north India, the former from Jalandhar and the latter two from Kurukshetra. Typical Punjabi names and typically Punjabi gauche, but straight forward and fun loving.
I told them about myself and the purpose of my visit as we chatted at a cafetaria where I was  bombarded with questions about India, about the BJP, the Congress, Sachin Tendulkar and Aishwarya Rai. My new-found friends spoke fluent Italian but very little English and the conversation was mainly in Hindi. We got my Alfa from the parking lot and as we headed home, they invited me to stay over at their place. “Why are you wasting money at that hotel? Come right over. We’ll cook paranthas and have beer-sheer. Stay with us until you leave.” said Goldie, the most outgoing of the lot. 

I initially  viewed the offer with circumspection, but then the thought of my rapidly disappearing euros made me change my mind. In half an hour, I was following them up through a big wooden door into their rented three-bedroom apartment in a light orange coloured building with a red-tiled roof. 

The apartment was filled with used international calling cards which lay nearly everywhere and every room had at least one portrait of all the Sikh saints.  The beer-sheer was bought in, while another among the group prepared paranthas and chicken. A Punjabi pop video kept playing right through. Over dinner, the guys told me about their life in little towns in India, their wives back home and the loneliness and indifference of an alien country.

“Which is why whenever we see a nice guy from India, we go out of their way to help him. Otherwise, there is no zindagi here,” said Happy who was onto his fourth bottle of beer.Work for them was at a pasta factory a couple of miles away from Brescia and the only thing that kept them in cold Brescia was the pay and the fact that they would be much worse off in India. Brescia and its surroundings played host to over 70,000 people from the sub-continent. Some of them were illegal immigrants who would later get their work permits made once they settled down, while the others were those whose fathers and brothers had set the precedent around two decades back. As one of my good friends says, human beings are India’s largest export commodity. The morning of 2nd May at the Piazza del Vittoria was enlivened by a riot of pristine paintwork as the scrutiny for the Mille Miglia got underway. The plain curiosity of the crowds mingled with expensive perfumes of the terribly rich and the exhaust fumes of their glorious cars. Little red Mille Miglia flags fluttered all around Brescia. Boris Becker came surrounded by a zillion bodyguards, somebody said Jarno Trulli’s flight was delayed. Becker was supposed to be driving a Mercedes-Benz SSK while the gossip was that Luca de Montezomelo could possibly turn up.

A Lancia Lambda, a Ferrari Testarossa, an Alfa Romeo Targa Florio, a Porsche Spyder and six Mercedes Gullwings were among the over 200 cars that went into my basic Nikon SLR.
There were excited participants taking part for the first time and then there were the others, like this gent from Japan, the owner of five classic Alfas, who had seen three previous Mille Miglias. Almost all the teams wore period costumes – bulging plastic driving goggles, basic open face helmets. 

For the first time in my life, I wanted to be stinking rich, rich enough to own a car worthy of the Mille Miglia, to pay the Rs 2,00,000 entry fee and dough enough to prepare and transport the car from Japan, the USA, or Germany like most of the participants had done. In the afternoon, I sat at a disused chapel right opposite the scrutiny area watching the marshals go about their work, listening to the inconsistent burble of six, eight and twelve cylinders and watching the stately bearing of a 1934 Invicta, the menace of a swoopy Testarossa, the dignified charm of a Cisetallia and the grace of a Jaguar XK120.

Under that high-ceilinged Gothic structure, I drove through the Mille Miglia route in my mind – from Brescia through the plains of Montechiari, to the Ducal palace of Mantua, past the famous churches and mosaics of Ravenna, up the snowing mountain passes into the medieval city of Assisi, onto eternal Roma and then back via historical Siena’s Chianti countryside. The Italians call the Mille Miglia the most beautiful race in the world and that night as the cars drove out of Brescia, I realised it was no exaggeration.

A day later, just as the Mille Miglia rumbled through the heart of Italy, I took leave of my hosts who’d arranged another friend of theirs to guide me back to Milan. Bear hugs were followed by threats to keep in touch and attend Happy’s marriage  and promises were made to meet again someday in India. I got into the car and pointed its acquiline nose towards Milan. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and my Alfa was red.

MEMORY CAPSULE

WHAT?
Mille Miglia 2002
WHEN?
June 2002
HOW?
Don’t ask, it just happened. Murali waved a magic wand and organised an Alfa Romeo 2.4J TD, his Italian visa, the funds, the air tickets and simply landed at Milan. He took off to Brescia the next day, and hey presto, we have the first ever Indian motoring journalist covering ‘the most beautiful race in the world.’  The surprising bit was finding a big bunch of desi immigrants eking out an existence in those medieval Italian surroundings.
WHY?
Exotic machines, exotic location, exotic race, exotic people and our very own
Murali Menon.
WHAT WE THINK OF IT NOW
Not enough cars featured, not enough pages. Looks like Murali was busy shacking up with the Indians there rather than covering the Mille.