A. Aneesh is Hindu and Indian. Erica Bornstein is Jewish and American. They met when they were graduate students at the University of California in Irvine in 1994. “We were attracted to each other from the beginning,” says Erica. “But there were mixed signals.” Erica was chatting up Aneesh at a graduate student party, but suddenly he moved away to talk to another girl. “That put me off,” says Erica.
Aneesh defends himself by saying, “My mind was in a daze. I had just come from Delhi and was suffering from culture shock.” Anyway, it took them a year to start dating and they finally got married on March 9, 1998. Today, Aneesh is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin, while Erica is Associate Professor of anthropology in the same college.
Both were spotted, along with their 11-year-old son Elijah, at the exhibition centre during the recent Bharatiya Pravasi Devas at Kochi. Asked how difficult it was to bridge the gap between two ancient cultures, Erica says, “It is an ongoing adventure. Jewish culture, like the Indian one, is 5000 years old. We are merging the two. So, we celebrate Passover, and Diwali. Our son Elijah is growing up with two sets of festivals and is happy about that.”
When Elijah was asked whether he was confused he shook his head. “He is enjoying 10,000 years of history,” says Erica. But how does Elijah tackle the fact that Hinduism has 33 crore Gods, while Judaism has one? Erica smiles and says, “That is the challenge for my son's generation,” she says. “He is a Hinjew and will find his way.”
And contrary to assumptions, that it must be boring, when two spouses are in similar professions, and are intellectual and academic, at the same time, Aneesh says, “Yes, even I thought it would be nice if my wife was in a different profession. But I find that we are enjoying ourselves more because we are in similar jobs. We enjoy a mental wavelength and can talk shop all the time.”
Erica adds, “We are the most adjusted among the people we know because we knew there would be problems, so we worked hard at our marriage and never took anything for granted. As academics we analyse everything to death, and the problem goes away.”
Aneesh says that his siblings have all married Indian women. “But I don't think it is easier for them,” he says. “Marriage is never an easy thing.”
Aneesh remembers the time when Elijah was two years old. “I am vegetarian, and Erica was feeding him chicken soup,” says Aneesh. “I said no. There was a fight, but I eventually gave in.”
But, sometimes, Erica makes adjustments too. She cooks vegetarian dishes for Aneesh, including rice and lentils, while she makes Indian-style chicken curry for herself. “Sometimes I cook for Erica,” says Aneesh. “In fact, both of us are so busy we need a wife.” And they burst out laughing.
For Erica, the first time she came to India, in April, 1999, was her most memorable experience. “When I walked out of the door at Delhi airport I saw more people in one minute than I have seen in my entire life,” she says. “I realised this is a different world. I had lived in Africa and Latin America, but the population density of India was unbelievable.”
And, not surprisingly, the men have put her off repeatedly. “There is a lot of male aggression in the north,” she says. “In Delhi, men have made vulgar, obscene gestures at me. So, it is nice to be in a place [Kochi] where the men are decent and well-behaved.”
Asked to compare the people in India and America, Aneesh says, “In India people know how to relate to each other. I just met a friend, A.P. Singh, after 20 years. We hugged each other and it seemed as if I had known him forever.”
In contrast, there is more warmth among strangers in America. “If you are dying by the side of the road, people who don't know you will come and help,” says Aneesh. “There is a great respect for individuals. You are given a lot of space. As a result, you might feel alienated. Because they show courtesy to the people, they will not throw rubbish on the streets, as they do here. They like to respect the collective public space.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)