She traveled from Italy. He from Delhi. Their destination: The University of Cambridge, UK. She was there to learn English, he, to study mechanical engineering. Though they were at the same university, their paths might never have crossed if they had not been at the same restaurant at the same time one memorable day.
Yet, at first, it seemed only Charles Antoni, the Greek restaurant owner, at whose restaurant Rajiv Gandhi first set eyes on her, predicted what would inevitably happen. When he saw the doe-eyed, shy girl from Italy, Rajiv had persuaded Antoni to make room for him to sit next to her, so that he could get to know her a bit more. Antoni had agreed, provided Rajiv paid double for making the arrangement. As Antoni remarked later in a film on Rajiv by Simi Garewal: Rajiv might not have known it at the time, but he, Antoni, knew. “I had never seen anybody so much in love. It was like in a book.”
The Italian girl who captured Rajiv Gandhi’s heart so totally was Sonia Maino.
Born on December 9, 1947, in the small village of Orbassano, just outside Turin, Italy, Sonia was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic household, and her parents, Stefano and Paolo, were working class people. Stefano was a building contractor who owned his own medium-sized construction business; Paolo took care of the family’s three daughters. When Sonia was eighteen years old, her father sent her to Cambridge, England, to study English. He did not know that his oldest daughter’s life was about to change forever.
According to Sonia, she fell in love with Rajiv the moment she saw him. The courtship, however, lasted three years, perhaps because Rajiv was from one of the most famous families in India, if not the world.
However, Sonia’s father was not particularly keen on Sonia marrying Rajiv, not because he did not like Rajiv, but his daughter going to a distant land and culture worried him no end.
Indira Gandhi too had had her own doubts about this union. When Rajiv had introduced Sonia to her when she went to London in 1965 for the Nehru Exhibition, Indira Gandhi felt that Sonia should come to India for a few months to see things for herself before taking the final decision.
Sonia thus waited to complete her 21st birthday in December 1967 and arrived in Delhi in early January 1968. She was put up with the Bachchans at their Willingdon Crescent house, though she spent the day at 1 Safdarjang Road, with the Gandhis. After a week or two, Mrs. Gandhi realized that both were very serious and there was not much point in waiting; their going around would only encourage gossip. Towards the end of January, their engagement took place and the wedding was fixed for February 25th, that same year.
Sonia and Rajiv were married in a simple ceremony; Sonia wore the same pink sari her mother-in-law had worn at her own wedding many years before, woven by Jawaharlal Nehru while he was in prison.
It was an Indian wedding with a difference, simple and yet, gorgeous. The two exchanged garlands, vows and signed the legal papers while the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and mother of the groom, looked on. Among the invitees were the then President Zakir Hussin and the groom’s aunt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. As well as Rajiv’s brother Sanjay Gandhi and Sonia’s family. Sonia’s father did not come but her mother, sister, and maternal uncle arrived a day or two before the wedding. A reception was held the next day at Hyderabad House.
The love story continued till the very end. Rajiv would constantly praise his wife in public and call her “the most beautiful woman I know”. And there seems little doubt that Sonia was the only woman in his life, although he could be charmingly flirtatious with pretty women even in Sonia’s presence. She would look at him from the corner of her eye in playful reproach.
Once when asked, Baldev Kapoor, the photographer who had been with them ever so many times, if he thought they were in love, said, “Oh yes, “ and smiled, “obviously”.