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A Saturday of 1965, at Greek Resto: The Lore of Rajiv And Sonia Gandhi's Love at First Sight in Cambridge

File photo of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi

File photo of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi

Funnily, for quite a while, Sonia had only a hazy idea of Rajiv’s political links and the premier position that the Gandhis enjoyed in India. It was only when, one day, a friend of Sonia’s showed her a photograph of the visiting Indian prime minister that she realised that the Gandhis were into the politics of India.

It was in the city of Cambridge, some 80 kilometres North of London, that Rajiv and Sonia met for the first time in 1965. Sonia, a girl of 18 then, had come from Orbassano, near Turin in Italy, to study English at the Lennox Cook School of Languages, the most expensive and reputed school in Cambridge, which offered proficiency courses to non-English speaking students.

Homesick and miserable, one Saturday, Sonia went to a Greek restaurant called Varsity on St Andrew Road, which was famous for its moussaka. She was greeted by Charles, the tall, handsome owner of Varsity. Sonia wanted a table by the window, but all the tables by the ground floor windows were occupied.

It was lunchtime. Rajiv was sitting at the round table (table number 11) when Sonia walked in while Rajiv was sitting with some friends. As Sonia walked past, Rajiv glanced at her and was smitten. For Sonia, too, it was love at first sight. The sense was that both were mesmerized by each other’s presence.

According to Tahir Jahangir, who was present at the Varsity restaurant, when Sonia passed by their table all conversations were halted. Jahangir said, “Soon the conversation resumed, but I noticed that Rajiv was lost in thought and did not participate. He had a dazed expression on his face.

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He got hold of a paper napkin and a biro and carefully began to write out a poem on the napkin. He then called Charles over and asked him to get the best bottle of wine the Varsity had. Rajiv then requested Charles to personally go up to the girls, present the bottle of wine, pour it out, and then present the napkin with the poem to the girl who was introduced as Sonia Maino and, to top it all, belt out an aria!’

In her book ‘Rajiv,’ published in 1992, Sonia has given a shorter account recalling, “Our eyes met for the first time directly at a close distance. I could hear my heart pounding. As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight. He later told me that it was for him too.”

Life in Cambridge was easy and fun loving. Rajiv shared an apartment at 28 Derwent Close with Arun Singh and Deep Kaul, son of former diplomat T.N. Kaul, Pakistani national Mehmood and Anderson, who is running a successful publishing business in Amsterdam and London these days. The roommates contributed money to buy a beat-up Beatles Volkswagen.

Sonia had a local host, an Italian woman called Patina, in Cambridge, who was then 50-years old. Patina, who lived with her boyfriend Saleem, owned several bed and breakfast houses that she offered to students.

Sonia stayed at 59 Tennison Row near the station. She also stayed for a short duration at 65 Lensfield Road, next to a pub called Spread Eagle.

During their Cambridge days, Rajiv and Sonia frequently saw films at the three cinema theatres of which Cambridge boasted.

The first movie they saw together was Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. Rajiv often took Sonia out on the River Cam, their destination to some riverside county famous for its teas. The couple was fond of dancing, but shared a dislike for alcoholic beverages. Funnily, for quite a while, Sonia had only a hazy idea of Rajiv’s political links and the premier position that the Gandhis enjoyed in India. It was only when, one day, a friend of Sonia’s showed her a photograph of the visiting Indian prime minister that she realised that the Gandhis were into the politics of India. And she realised that the name Gandhi was almost synonymous with Indian politics.

Disclaimer:The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

first published:February 14, 2021, 08:56 IST
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