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     Volume 6 Issue 41 | October 26, 2007 |

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A Roman Column

In the Name of Woman

Neeman Sobhan

Madonna!" or rather the long drawn 'ma-DONN-a!' with its inherent eye-roll is the popular Italian exclamation of exasperation whose effect equals "Oh! For God's sake!" and is about as reverent! Secularized from its original invocation of the Virgin Mary, the present ejaculation emphasizes just 'donna' or woman.

Calling out to the mother under emotional situations is an almost universal instinct, and with their 'Madonna!' and 'Mamma Mia!' the Italians are no different. In fact, unlike us Bangalis who sometimes holler 'Baap rey Baap' or 'Arrey Baba-rey', the Italians hardly have any exclamations involving the father. They do invoke the Divine Father, but the earthly and familial padre? 'O! Dio Mio!' that hardly ever!

Surely this proves that in our hearts we all recognise that next to God it is Woman, the maternal sex, which is the ultimate symbol of kindness, generosity, wisdom, compassion…..what else did I leave out……spiritual grace, humanity, womanity, whatever. Please indulge me, because I have a personal anecdote to share and the above is only a piccolo preamble to my tribute at the altar of THE WOMAN; and in particular the Woman Police; or to be particularly particular, the Italian Police Woman!

I have always thought that women are wonderful creatures, rightfully deserving of the Nobel Prize (Doris Lessing at last!) and the Booker (Anne Enright? Never mind!) and any other awards, but since last week I have become a devotee of a very special specimen of the Second Sex and of Italian womanhood: the Madonna in Uniform. I salute the Virgin of the Vigil force in general and a special Lady in White-helmet-and-jacket in particular who was my saviour recently.

Let my little story begin. Last Saturday in Rome was the day after Eid and there was to be a gathering at my house for Eid dinner. Imagine me since morning knee-deep in preparation for the feast, with everything half-done and guests invited to show up at seven. I had ordered a dish for twenty people from a Bangladeshi restaurant in town, near Piazza Vittorio, close to the University of Rome where I teach and next to the Railway Terminal. It is considered, if not the heart of the city, a pulse point.

The restaurant advised me to pick up my order by 2. I agreed and left everything as it was----the onions half-peeled, the cutlery unpolished, the Chapli Kababs unfried, the living room floors unswept, and the hostess herself unkempt. I had a comfortable 5 hours left in which to transform the chaos into a party. Shouting to my family a cheery 'Be back in an hour!' I was in the car and off to Piazza Vittorio.

Within the hour I had taken delivery of my 'degchi' and was already heading back humming a tune. Ten minutes out of the area I saw a roadblock ahead. Diverted towards the Colosseo I took the matter philosophically and joined the traffic crammed into the only route available. At a certain point the line stalled; there was another police cordon ahead forcing us all to turn back. With no options I was back where I started and near the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest church to the Madonna. When another yellow ribbon of a police cordon fluttered in front of my car I let out a "Madonna! What the hell is happening?" A policeman threw at me the word "Manifestazione." My heart sank to my knees. A political demonstration! Normally they are not rowdy but a nuisance, paralyzing traffic around the area for hours. My throat dry, I asked the useless question: when would it end? The polizziotto shrugged and moved away. "Please, tell me at least what road I should take to get back to my part of Roma?" I pleaded but he was busy shooing away another driver.

I sneaked a look at the time. It was already four o'clock. My heart was sinking into my shoes by now. I tried another route, while calling home and warning my husband and sons that we might have to postpone the dinner by an extra hour. Slow centipedes of traffic were creeping through every possible street and alley coming out at the inevitable roadblock. I understood what a mouse in a maze feels like, and shuddering at the thought of the many last minute chores still left to do, I called up home again and started to delegate responsibilities. "Peel the cucumbers… sliver the almonds…vacuum the living room….bring out the plates….chop the corriander…...iron the table cloth……". The men countered with: "Where is the peeler, the vacuum cleaner, the knife? Where do you hide the table linen, the plates, the iron? What do you mean by 'sliver'?" I said a little prayer as I tried to walk my obliging and by now equally nervous family through my domestic kingdom by remote control, while another cordoned off street loomed ahead. The car clock now registered 5:10 and my heart was thudding against my brake pedals. Was this nightmare happening? Was I crawling around the same area for the last 3 hours while twenty guests were ready to descend on my doorsteps in an hour and a half? Would I actually have to call off the Eid party?

I nosed up to the policeman, rolled down my window to ask him about some alternate routes to take. ''Signora! Are you blind? Don't you see you can't go through here?" I bit my lips in frustration. "I can see that but would you at least tell me how to….." The policeman barked: "Did you hear what I said? YOU CAN'T GO. That's all!" I looked around me at the lines of traffic blindly following each other to roads that led nowhere today. It was now 5:20 and at this rate I wouldn't even be home for my own party! I had never felt so helpless and sorry for myself. My eyes were beginning to smart when a woman police came up to my car and seeing me leaning my head against my car window, said surprisingly gently. "Signora, I'm sorry but you have to go." I started to say," I have been going round and round for 3 hours and I just want to go home.." when to my horror I burst into tears!

"Oh! Signora, don't cry!" The policewoman touched my arm. "Listen, I'll tell you exactly how to get out of here, but first, look at me." I turned my bleary eyes at her. Through my tears I saw not a white cap or uniform but a woman's kind face smiling at me. "Now give me a smile!" It was a surreal situation. I tried a weak smile and she told me in detail how to get myself back to my neck of the wood. I thanked her hurriedly and started to back out, when she stopped me: 'First, dammi un sorriso! Give me a smile." This time I laughed out and felt all the stress of the past 3 hours vanish. She laughed and waved me off. I looked back at her in the mirror. Her scowling male counterpart was still ticking off other drivers, doing his duty mechanically, blindly, brutally, solving no ones problem; while the angel by his side, using her feminine intuition and emotional intelligence had risen to the situation and spending only an extra two minutes found not only a solution to a problem but assessing the frayed psyche of another woman, gone beyond her duties to make her feel whole and human again.

More than my dinner party, my faith in myself and in the compassion of fellow human beings was saved, and I have only another woman to thank for it. If my words can reach her, this article is dedicated to my Angel in uniform and to all women who know that kindness and empathy are some of the qualities that transform any ordinary woman into a goddess, creates a Madonna out of any 'donna'.


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