Ever since she reported that Pakistan had lost 130 to 170 terrorists including 11 trainers in the Balakot strike conducted by India last year, Francesca Marino earned herself a new position of respect in the power corridors of India. Of course, the Italian journalist was already being watched closely in intelligence circles after she wrote Apocalypse Pakistan: An Anatomy of ‘the World’s Most Dangerous Nation.
The 2014 book, for which she also interviewed Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafeez Saeed, led to her being detained by the Federal Intelligence Authorities in Pakistan overnight in a cell without a lawyer, and then deported back to Italy. She is now on Pakistan’s list of unwelcome journalists.
India, however, is both welcoming and a welcome destination for Francesca, who is an Indophile inside out. From rubbing shoulders with Indian politicians, to collecting saris, to adopting an orphan girl from Banaras as a soul sister and taking her to Rome, she’s more Indian than many who have lived here all their lives.
Having studied economics and management in Rome just because she wanted to show her father she could do what was perceived as a ‘male’ career, Francesca even worked in his law and accountancy firm, but finally left to pursue cultural anthropology, art and literature. Now an independent journalist writing for prestigious publications in Italy and around the world, she specialises in terrorism and politics with a focus on South Asia.
We talk to her about her exciting life and career.
What was your childhood like, and what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was born and raised in Cosenza, a small town in Calabria. My father was an avid traveller and reader, and mine was an upper-class privileged family. I’m conscious I’ve been a privileged child in terms of exposure to art and culture. My father would take me in winter for the opening of the season at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome or at La Scala in Milan, and in summer at Arena Verona. He helped me develop a love for music, art and for other cultures and countries.
Growing up I started hating my town and the backward mentality of the society there. I felt a citizen of the world. Strangely enough, I wanted to be exactly what I’ve become: A journalist and a writer. The Plan B, as a child, was being a ballet dancer. I even trained in ballet for 10 years, but then gave up on it.
When did you start your writing career? What was the first big break for you?
I started writing on culture and anthropology. My first big break and my debut in press was when a religious sect in the USA committed mass suicide. My interview with a scholar was published by one of Italy’s main newspapers then. I had only written essays before that, and I was terrified. Nobody gave me tips and it was my first real article. But it went well, they liked my style, so I started writing regularly for a news agency and other publications.
What do you find most fascinating about India?
My fascination with India started as a child, reading Emilio Salgari’s books. Then, as soon as I could, I bought an open ticket and landed in Delhi. It was like falling in love. The first few years, I did nothing but travel. Everywhere, with no real direction or purpose. Real journeys, the slow ones made with trains and buses, often with two dusty baskets under my feet, a sack of onions stuck under the seat and a couple of children in my arms. Wanderings that left you physically exhausted, but with a heart full of light.
My India, more than a geographical place, is the sum of the faces and voices of the people I met.
What’s your most memorable experience of living in India?
Selling bangles and prasad at the Durga temple in Banaras. I went there often and stayed for months.
Tell us about your love for fashion and your lovely sari collection. What are your favourite brands?
I was seven the first time I tried to wrap myself in a sari. Back then Italian film director Roberto Rossellini’s wife, Sonali Dasgupta, had a famous shop in Rome and was featured in many publications, even in a kids’ magazine where they gave tips on how to wear a sari. I took a tablecloth and tried doing it. Buying a sari was more or less the first thing I did when I arrived in India, and spent hours in Assi Ghat watching the pilgrim ladies, trying to understand how they tied it correctly. I thank all the women who, over the years, have shared tips and tricks to help me master the art and taught me about fabrics and handicrafts.
I do prefer traditional saris, and in summer mainly Bengali cottons, but I love Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Raw Mango. I treasure also my Ritu Kumars. I style saris with Western accessories, mainly Prada or Miu Miu. I take care to always be impeccable because, as Coco Chanel said: “Be shabby and they’ll remember the dress; be impeccable and they’ll remember the woman.”
How do you ensure your own personal safety while reporting from the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan?
I never bothered too much about my personal safety, but I guess I’ve been lucky. Many people I knew ended up killed or kidnapped. I’ve been detained in Pakistan, found myself in potentially very dangerous situations but there’s not that much you can do to ensure your safety if you want to do your job.
What inspires you?
What compelled me to be a journalist was reading, when I was 12, the books of an Italian journalist called Oriana Fallaci. She had reported from Vietnam during the war. On the book cover was a picture of her wearing protection plates and a helmet and I thought: “God, I want to be her.”
What inspires me every day professionally is something Albert Londres said once: “There’s only one line a journalist should follow: the railway line.”
What inspires me as a human being is what a great judge called Paolo Borsellino, who was killed by the mafia, replied to journalists asking him whether he was afraid to die or not: “If you live in fear, you die every day. If you are fearless, you die just once.”First published in eShe magazine