After chatting online with Tuzla-based Vesna Pericevic for six months, and having spent a few weeks with her in Bosnia, Anurag Jacob invited her over to his hometown, Delhi, to see if she could settle here. “He told me, ‘If you don’t like India on first sight, you’ll never be truly happy here. You’ll hate me, the country and everything else’,” recalls Vesna, now nearly 10 years into their marriage. “But it was love at first sight for me and Delhi. I felt this was where I needed to be.” And so she put in her resignation as a translator for a peacekeeping mission of the US Army in Bosnia, told her parents she was getting married, and moved to India to be with the man she loved.
Now the mother of five-year-old Danielle, Vesna Pericevic Jacob lives in a joint-family system that she finds very supportive: “It’s not something I expected, but Anurag is an only child and so I decided to give it a shot.” And she stuck on with her ‘open-minded’ in-laws, while turning her passion for fitness into a career in Delhi. “Family values in India and Bosnia are not very different. Elders take major decisions in the family, and we’re both conservative societies, so in that sense, I find the culture here more familiar than unfamiliar,” says the 30-something fitness consultant and author, whose second book, a self-defence manual, will be out this Janaury. Both Vesna and Anurag are Christians, which helped when it came to deciding on the wedding service in church and court. Soon after their wedding, Anurag began working as a freelance consultant from home so that he could help Vesna settle into her new life in Delhi. And settle she did.
“What are the odds,” says Vesna, who is now a fixture in Delhi’s page-three circuit, “that I’d find an Indian man with educated, modern parents, an only child, and a Christian to boot, from all the men around the world? This was a space just my size, waiting for me. And I came and settled right in.”
For expat wives settling into their own space, India – with its mysteries and multitudes – serves as the third very significant member of marriage. They aren’t just required to fall in love with one man, but his entire family, community and country, too. Dealing with its cultural codes, rituals and relationship rules is often a challenge for even modern, globalised Indians, all the more so for a woman coming in from another cultural milieu altogether. And yet, these women have done it.
For Michelle Cloud, born and brought up in upstate New York, the very first impression of India was confronting Delhi’s heat at the height of summer. Born to a Vietnamese mother and Moroccan father (“We’re an all-American family,” she says), Michelle completed her Master’s in primary education before moving to the Maldives as a teacher and later to Sri Lanka to assist in relief work after the country was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. That’s where she met Mayur Sharma, travel addict and outward-bound instructor. After a couple of globetrotting years, they moved to Delhi in 2006 where she began teaching at the British School. In 2008, Michelle, a Methodist Christian, and Mayur, a Buddhist, had a Hindu wedding ceremony at an Arya Samaj temple with 30 close family and friends.
“The best thing I love about India is being able to raise kids along with other women,” says Michelle, now mother to a five-year-old girl and two-year-old boy. “My parents-in-law live upstairs, and we have lunch together every day. My closest friends are also my neighbours and we all raise our kids together, filling in for each other when someone is busy or unwell. My sister-in-law lives close by and our kids are always over at each other’s homes. They’re never lonely. In the US, families are very spread out and you really have to find those niches for yourself. In India, there’s all this love, care, connection and network right at your doorstep,” she opines.
Though Michelle, who converted to Hinduism after marriage, was brought up with Asian values of parents caring for children as long as required and children caring for aged parents, she does feel that parental involvement is far greater in India than in the US. “Many decisions that couples take are based on what their parents think, and decisions have a ripple effect on just about everyone in the family,” says the 37-year-old, contrasting it with life in the US where families live ‘in a bit of a capsule’.
Though she says it is hard adjusting to a way of life where men and women have their roles carved out, she is lucky that Mayur – anchor for the popular TV show Highway on My Plate and cookbook author – is a ‘progressive’ husband. “He takes care of the kids and involves me in his work. But even so, we live in a community where there are expectations. It’s never been like that for me. Women’s liberation has to be innate; here women seem to believe in their ‘place’,” says Michelle, who gave up her teaching job to be home with the kids, a role she deeply cherishes. She has ‘tried out’ certain Indian rituals like touching the feet of her in-laws too; “It’s important to me because it’s important to them,” she explains. And while she can understand spoken Hindi well, she also speaks common words in both Punjabi and Hindi – she and her kids say ‘haanji’ like pukka Dilliwalas.
Language, in fact, played a key role in the coming together of Pondicherry-based Jacqueline and Dilip Kapur over two decades ago as well. Germany-born Jacqueline had been a student of the Japanese language when, on a visit to India in the late 1980s, she met Dilip at a party in a friend’s home in Pondicherry. Serendipitously, the Punjabi businessman and owner of the Hidesign label of handbags had some Japanese buyers coming in the next day and needed a translator. “That was the first and last time that Dilip ever had Japanese buyers,” laughs Jacqueline, now the enterprising owner of the Casablanca multi-brand department store in Pondicherry and the all-India chain of accessories stores, Ayesha, named after their actor-daughter.
Brought up in an ashram, having studied in the US, having built his own leather brand from scratch, and a father of two sons from a previous marriage, Dilip’s outlook on life was ‘different’ in any case, and Jacqueline took easily to life in the Boho clime of Auroville. After living together for several years, even having a child together, they finally decided to seal the relationship. “Don’t ask me the date I got married,” she warns, “because I don’t remember. Dilip was always busy and we kept missing our court appointment. I had to drag him out of a meeting with foreign buyers to finally go do the deed.” A passionate equestrian, she set up a riding school, which has now grown to 30 horses and even hosts national competitions. Their two children now both study abroad, and Jacqueline is busy expanding her own and her husband’s businesses. An accomplished linguist, she speaks fluent Tamil and Hindi besides various European languages, and has adopted India as her very own.
Other couples such as Olya Milentis and Jaf Jafri, however, end up adopting both countries. St Petersburg-born Olya met Lucknow-born Jaf in 2008 at a photography exhibition in France. They talked on the phone and over email, sharing their dreams for the future, mostly to do with photography, styling and ‘finding themselves’. Eventually they decided to go into business together, which was soon followed by marriage in 2010. They now spend equal amounts of time in India and Russia. “It’s not actually very difficult to adjust in an Indian home,” grins 35-year-old Olya, “except for the language barrier. I don’t know Hindi so there are these strange silences in my conversations with my in-laws, where everyone just smiles and says nothing.” They travel to Jaf’s hometown three times a year, and for Olya, whose only sister is married to a Sri Lankan and whose parents are no more, India is as easy or difficult to live in as her own country.
“There’s a lot of tension in Russia at present; citizens are disappointed with their government. There’s a lot of suppressed anger in people which is eating them up from the inside. I wanted to leave; had I stayed, I would have become like them,” says Olya, who is now a PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) card-holder. The couple maintain an apartment with three cats and a caretaker in St Petersburg and another with a dog in Delhi. “People in Europe are more independent-minded; here, in India, there’s no sense of personal space. My husband, for instance, is always open to guests, ready to welcome anyone in, any day! But I’ve got used to that,” she says, adding that friends in Russia tell her she’s become ‘Indian’.
Though Jaf, 30, did not face any opposition to his marriage from his own parents as they are a ‘cosmopolitan family’, Olya admits that his relatives do gossip and this may inadvertently hurt his parents. “So we try not to create any hype,” she says, joking that when anyone asks the typical Indian question about when they’ll have kids, she pretends not to understand and leaves Jaf to face the music.
It’s the difference in cultural perceptions and daily tradition that, in fact, has seen the burgeoning of several expat clubs around Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, besides other cities with a larger population of foreign or mixed couples. Patricia Schoubber, co-founder of the NGO Expat Wives Pune, has been in India for two years, and feels that connecting with other expats helps tide over logistical and day-to-day issues of living in India. “We connect about practical things, like where you can buy certain food ingredients or where to rent an apartment or about domestic help or schools,” says the physical therapist and mother of two adolescents. The NGO, which now has over a hundred members from 25 countries of origin, also hosts charity events regularly. “When you’re in a totally different country, you need interaction with someone who understands your background and needs,” she avers.
Whatever their backgrounds, what all expat wives agree on is that Indian men are far more committed to family than men elsewhere. “They value their families so much that they feel it’s their duty to rise in life in order to be there for the parents, grandparents, wife or children,” marvels Michelle, adding, “Indian men will always consider their family’s welfare above individual ambition. Mayur loves my parents as his own; you don’t see that in the US. Out there, people complain about in-laws.” The other value that these wives appreciate in their Indian husbands is the unequivocal reverence for the elders in the family. “It’s amazing for Europeans to see how much respect young Indian men have for their elders. It’s important and precious. In Europe, young people feel equally entitled,” says Olya.
For those who are open to its colour and magic, India has even deeper values to add. Admiring the various festivals that Indians celebrate, Michelle explains that everything in the US is very scientific; there’s no belief in simple joys and beauty, or for things that can’t be quantified. “India brought back my faith in God,” she says. A testimony, perhaps, that marriages are truly made in heaven.
First published in Issue 3 of Eat Stay Love magazine