Journeying Into Communion 1
Dr. Kalpesh Gajiwala Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala
Kalpesh: My family knew me as a shy and introverted boy, undemanding throughout my growing years, always respecting the wishes of my elders. Suddenly I shocked them by taking the unimaginable step of choosing a wife from outside the community.
As Hindus our knowledge of Christianity was limited. What we were well aware of, however, was the Christians' zeal for conversion. It created among us a suspicion that was difficult to erase. As for Christian girls, they belonged to a different world with their highly westernized outlook. It was only natural then, that my family's first reaction was a point blank "No".
On my part, I had not really realized the implications of entering into such a marriage. Only as I began discussing the issues involved with Astrid, did I gradually begin to realized the extent and gravity of our problems.
Astrid: Our marriage seemed doomed from the start. Two different religions, two different cultures - the odds were heavy against us. Well-wishers cautioned us. My mother predicted it wouldn't last a year. Marriage in the best of circumstances is a risk, and when one has to contend with religious and social differences, the stress mounts. To make matters worse, every moment was clouded by the hostility of my family, and the censure of my Church followed us like a shadow.
Although I loved Kalpesh, it was not easy making the decision to marry him. I had so many fears, so many questions to which there were no readymade answers. No guarantees. Would I fit into a culture that I had been brought up to believe was inferior? Was I willing to accept the joint family and the loss of self it entailed? How would I cope in a community where women were mostly confined to the home? I couldn't even understand the language!
Then there were the religious expectations. My Church insisted on Baptism of the children, How could I work that out? Despite reassurances, practice of my own religion was in question. I kept imagining being marginalised in a Hindu majority. Perhaps, Sunday Mass would become a mere inconvenience. Maybe, I would have to down play religious celebration. As the first "bahu" in a household without daughters. I would have certain religious responsibilities. Would that effect my religious affiliation? Brought up on a diet of the family rosary, daily prayers, and grace before meals, what kind of family prayer could I look forward to?
Kalpesh: Astrid's priest friends gave us a long list of reasons why our marriage would not work and substantiated it with examples of failures. The very Catholic priests and friends who do not believe in divorce, suggested we get married under the Special Marriage Act2 - so that we could easily avail of a civil divorce, should things go wrong. Religion was their main concern. "Will you get converted? What will you do about your children?"
Astrid: The decision-making process was for us, a time of darkness. Like Arjun in the battle of Kurukshetra, it was a moment of truth. A clash of the head and the heart. A choice between the familiar and the unknown. A journey of faith.
Fortunately, we were not alone. For the first time I truly understood what it meant to belong to a community.
Priest friends dialogued with us, helped us to anticipate areas of possible conflict, and opened up channels of communication with my disapproving family. They may not have been happy with my decision to marry outside the Church, but they respected it, and more important they respected us. On the wedding day they were there in full strength, thirteen of them concelebrating the nuptial mass. It is a memory that moves me even today.
My women's group, "Satyashodhak", embraced us with their strength and understanding. They sheltered me when I needed it, prayed with me in my despair, and bolstered my sometimes failing courage. They too, helped me build bridges, and in the end, together with my friends in the parish, gave us the gift of a wedding ceremony my husband and I will never forget.
Kalpesh: My friend Kirit, became a bridge between me and my family. In our attempt to face reality, we also spoke to Kamini, an American Catholic married to a Gujarati Indian for over 20 years. She helped us anticipate some of the problems we could face. She and her husband, Kiran, shared with us some of their own early struggles and how they had pulled through. They were our first sign of hope.
Then there was Astrid's parish priest, Msgr. Cordeiro, whom I was asked to see to clear certain doubts about my integrity. He cleared me of all charges. What touched me was his defence of me. It was true gesture of Christian fair play and a great relief too!
Astrid: I was fortunate to count among my close friends, Fr. Fabregat, Jesuit Marriage Counselor who not only helped us evaluate the situation objectively, but inspired us to love as Christ did-without prejudice. With his wisdom and deep insight, he helped us preserve our wholeness. We also consulted Fr. Felix Machado, a Catholic theologian who helped me discern the "Hindu" face of God and I wrote to Samuel Ryan, S.J.. who put me in touch with the transcendent and humanizing love of the gospels. Above all both of us in our own way, prayed and reflected as we sought the will of God in our lives.
In retrospect, I think this trial by fire was what forged our relationship. Already we had begun to lay the foundation of our lifetime partnership. Faith in God, trust in each other, and a determination to search for the truth, these are what guide us even today.
For me, as a Catholic, one of the biggest
hurdles I had to cross was my Church's insistence on the baptism of my
children. Again and again, I had been taught that faith was a gift; that Christ
chooses us through no merit of our own.
giants whose vision of God encompassed and transcended the Christ of the gospels. How could I not but be touched by the mystical experience of these holy women and men? My own image of God underwent a transformation. Hinduism affirmed my yearning for a Mother God who had been denied to me for so long. It put me in contact with the Universal God whose revelation cannot be limited; the Cosmic God that links the past, the present and the future, the God of Creation that unites the human and the earth. Despite the restrictions of my Catholic conditioning, my understanding of God had been enriched. Could I, then, in conscience, deny my children the freedom to imbibe religious truth whatever its origin? Did it really make a difference what path my children chose, so long as they remained open to the Spirit and lived in loving kinship with other human beings?
Kalpesh: When Astrid told me that her church expected us to promise to baptize our children, I was upset. This was the first time that religion very explicitly threatened to impose itself upon us. It was also the first time we were separated in our line of thinking, threatening the very possibility of our marriage. Astrid was very much willing to fall in line with her church's demand. I strongly opposed it.
For me, baptizing the child who doesn't even know what is happening is giving a label to the child. Religious labels are like names. They stick with one throughout life. As one loves one's name and completely identifies with it, so does one accept religion. This makes our growth limited and we are unable to expand beyond the prevailing mind-set of the religion of our birth. A wall of division always exists and it is difficult to break.
It was Fr. Felix Machado whose theology class, I was allowed to attend, who gave Astrid and me a wider perspective of Hinduism and enlightened us on interfaith dialogue. He helped us make an informed decision in freedom from guilt and fear. We were ready to walk upon a new path.
Astrid: In the end, it was for me, a choice between being true to deeply held convictions rooted in Jesus' embrace of the human person and obeying an institutional law of the Church that, understandably, was safeguarding its own interests. And so, despite the misgivings of the hierarchy, I agreed to bring up my children in two religious traditions, leaving them free to choose their own response to God. In doing so, I accepted the grave responsibility of being an instrument of Christ outside the security of church structures. By my words and actions I would have to prepare them to recognise and answer the Master's call.
for us, on the practical front, housing at least, was not an immediate
problem. As Astrid was working at the
With so many its and buts, we fixed the date of our wedding. Our wedding was a classic example of unity in tension. Everyone had to be kept happy. So we repeated our marriage vows three times over in Court, in church and at a Hindu ceremony! Since family tensions still existed, all the arrangements for the church wedding had to be made surreptitiously and without family support.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Help came from various quarters. "Satyashodhak" took over the liturgy, adapting it to suit both our religions. The ceremony started with the lighting of a "diya" (lamp), the symbol of fire sacred to both our traditions. Rabindranath Tagore's hymms set the mood and excerpts from the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita were read. The entire service was conducted in a mixture of English and Gujarati so as to include both our families. Fortunately, Astrid's Jesuit cousin was fluent in Gujarati and preached a beautiful sermon on "Love." All in all it was a moving experience for all those present.
Kalpesh: The Hindu ceremony followed the next day. Once again the response was astounding from Astrid's friends and relatives. Even Astrid's mother who considered all Hindu rites as "pagan" not only attended, but came up and participated when called. And leading all of them was Fr. Fabregat, S.J., his very presence authenticating the sacredness of the ceremony.
On our return from our honeymoon, the first obstacle we had to face was my family. I am the eldest and in the Indian joint family system, it was my duty to stay with my parents and look after them. My parents home, however, is a small one and Astrid was convinced that she would never be able to integrate herself into such an intimate lifestyle. Her religious, cultural and social differences were so vast that she felt our marriage would not survive the strain. Thus, Astrid made it mandatory for us to stay separate. Although I ultimately agreed, I felt very guilty and selfish. And so to compensate for my "desertion", as it were, we spent the first month of our marriage with my family.
For Astrid, all her fears were justified. The total change of atmosphere was a shock. From a girl who was used to having freedom it was a restrictive atmosphere. Though overtly no one restricted her, she was expected to conform to certain traditions. To add to this was the lack of privacy and the alien lifestyle. Above all, however, it was my own attitude which shocked her. Before marriage I would come home, have dinner, watch TV, have a chat with my family, read till late at night and go to bed. After marriage I didn't change this schedule one bit. Astrid was hurt as she felt neglected. On my part I was surprised, as I couldn't see how this harmless routine offended her. It was sometime later that I realised her isolation as she could not even converse with us in Gujarati and we didn't make any special efforts to make her part of our family. My mother still did everything for me, and I did nothing to show that my status had changed from son to husband.
Once we moved to our house things improved. We got the breathing space we badly needed, and could make our mistakes without fear. We also grew more intimate and started evolving a lifestyle that accommodated our different upbringings. For the first two years though, we still had to maneuver carefully.
So that my parents did not feel alienated and insecure, we made it a point to have dinner with them once a week. Fortunately my medical practice is in the same area, so I am able, even today to drop in on them everyday.
Our problem with my mother-in-law is not over. She had her reasons to feel hurt. She and her husband had struggled to give their five children a head-start in life. The best English medium schools, expensive clothes, good food, a meticulous lifestyle and a good Catholic upbringing. After her husband's death at the young age of 54 years, she had brought up her five children almost single-handedly. Astrid owes her much.
For her, her daughter's marriage to a middle class Hindu, whose only qualification was his medical degree, was unthinkable. It was heartbreaking for her that her daughter whom she was proud of, was marrying a Hindu, a Gujarati (whom she looked down upon as "Banias"), someone who had a totally ethnic lifestyle, was economically not sound and a vegetarian. To her I had no culture, as with her western outlook, anything Indian was inferior. It was almost as if I had charmed and tricked her daughter into this marriage, God knows - probably even for her money. Over and above, her daughter could not baptize her children.
We could very well understand her anguish and frustration. Hopefully time would dispel her doubts and misgivings. On our part, we decided on a non-confrontational policy. We would visit her regularly. She would have preferred that her daughter come alone, but Astrid made it clear that both of us must be accepted as a couple. The hostile attitude continued even after our child Gayatri was born. What pained her most was that I didn't allow Gayatri to be baptized.
Even though Astrid was unhappy with my decision, it was she who reasoned with her mother on my behalf and tried to make her understand our decision. Till today, though, she cannot understand that my aim was not to deprive her grand children of Christianity or make them absolute Hindus, but to enable them to get at the essence of religion without getting entangled in dogma, rituals etc.
My mother-in-law's second grouse was against my not allowing her daughter to cook non-vegetarian food at home. Once again, though Astrid privately disagreed with our decision, she became my spokesperson with her mother. This was later to become our strategy everytime people tried to interfere in our lives and fit us into traditional patterns. We would discuss the issue threadbare privately, arrive at a consensus and then present a united front. Each of us handled our own families. That way things said in a heated moment did not snowball into another misunderstanding.
Astrid: As a new bride, I was aghast when Kalpesh's family happily set about choosing a name for me. "Astrid" was to be relegated to the past. I had to take on a new identity. Dresses had to give away to sarees. My forehead was to be marked forever with a "tikka", sign of a Hindu wife. My westernised lifestyle would have to be exchanged for an Indian one,
my favourite foods would have to left behind, and my independence was to be smothered in the love of a joint family. In short, a meat-eating, westernised, Catholic South Indian was to be transformed into a vegetarian, Gujarati "bahu"!
Sitting across the table as I wrote this paragraph was Kalpesh. As usual I read out what I had written to him. And we both laughed. "You have changed about 5%, he said. How true. Five years into marriage and I wear midis in my father-in-law's house with my younger sister-in-law following suit and my mother-in-law congratulating herself for setting a good example of tolerance to Kalpesh's more orthodox aunts! A "tikka" is reserved for "outsiders.' I have become 90% vegetarian but have kept the option to eat non-vegetarian food. And most important, I have retained not only my name, but even my surname! Now both my daughters want to be "Lobo Gajiwalas"!
Reaching this stage, however took patience and dialogue on both sides, and would never have been possible without Kalpesh. On the one hand he understood the cultural conditioning that drove his family and on the other he realised how drastic the transition was for me. It was not just that things were "different". I had to overcome cultural prejudices: A "tikka" and a saree were only worn by Hindu women; even today my mother dislikes me to wear them; people who didn't speak English were socially inferior; eating with one's fingers was bad manners. My western life style has alienated me from my Indian roots, and I had to undergo an inner conversion. I had to learn to accept the differences without labeling them as "inferior" or "superior".
In this rite of passage, Kalpesh became my channel of communication. He defended my rights in my absence so that I was spared confrontations. Never was I forced to perform any pujas, for instances, and all talk of changing my name abruptly ceased. At the same time, while representing his family to me, he distilled out the emotion so that demands became reasonable requests. Confident that my love for him would prevail over temporary disharmony, he took on the unpleasant arguments on both sides. In the process, we all learnt the futility of imposing customs on another. I was left free to be myself even if it was a self that had changed tremendously. Today I proudly flaunt my crimson "tikka" as a sign of my "shakti" (power) (despite my mother's disapproval) and delight in being mistaken for a Gujarathi when I don a saree. I have learnt to appreciate and even cook vegetarian food. But with regret, I must admit, that the Gujarati language still eludes me. There is work to be done yet.
Certainly sensitive areas also remain. Food habits, for instance, continue to be done of contention. Even before marriage, we had agreed that at home we would be strictly vegetarian. Not being fussy about food, I never anticipated any trouble. In fact, when I had informed my mother about my decision to marry Kalpesh, her first comment was "But he's vegetarian!" And I thought, "how trivial". But she proved to be prophetic.
Kalpesh: At home, Astrid struggled to cater to my limited vegetarian tastes. It was bad enough that she had to cook, worse still that all her mother's well tried recipes had to be relegated to the dustbin. Over a period of time, however, I have learnt to enjoy purely vegetarian "Chicken" curries, richly flavoured biryani's and vegetarian "fish" pies, which she assures me contain no fish! Now even my family enjoys her food heartily.
Astrid: For the first few months everything was okay. Then I got pregnant, and suddenly I started longing for my mother's food. It became so bad, I even began dreaming about my favourite foods. Unfortunately, since the situation was still tense in my mother's home, I could not walk in for a meal. Kalpesh could see my plight, and without warning, one night he brings home grilled chicken winglets. I was touched. He had broken a rule to answer my need. He was to do this frequently during all my three pregnancies. By the time my third child was on the way, he was encouraging me to eat non-vegetarian food as often as I wanted, even driving me to my mother's place so I could enjoy her cooking. Knowing his aversion for meat, this was for me a visible sign of his love and concern.
So what was the problem? Something a little more complicated. Being typical Catholic Mangaloreans, my family members are one hundred percent meat and fish eaters. Vegetables are reserved for days of fasting. Initially, eager to accommodate Kalpesh and his family, our family celebration meals were vegetarian. My family gracefully accepted this, but I could see through their politeness. I was well aware of the kind of food they looked forward to on these special occasions. Furthermore, my vegetarian culinary skills being limited, I had to depend on my mother-in-law to rescue me. Subtly, I found my family becomes guests in my own home. To make matters worse, with my own family I too began feeling the odd one out. When everyone pooled in for a meal at my mother's place I was asked to bring the vegetarian food, which no one ate, except my husband.
So for now, occasionally, we order food from out and call our families over on different days. Kalpesh is still not quite comfortable with this arrangement, and food from out is not the same as home cooked favourites. To add to this is the fear of my in-law's disapproval. Will they stop coming over if they knew? An unhappy situation, one we have yet to work out.
Maybe our children will show us the way. Already Kalpesh has been reduced to feeding his daughters chicken on occasion, and Gayatn has made it clear that when she grows up she will marry some-one who allows her to cook fish in her home! As for the vegetarian grandparents, they have been forced to cope with their grandchildren describing with great relish, how they like to chew chicken bones:
Kalpesh: Setting up home was our first experience as a couple. Our house was a simple one, furnished with second hand furniture as that was all we could afford on our shoe-string budget. We toiled together searching for good buys, putting up curtains, setting up a kitchen. With both our books filling the shelves, brightly coloured Indian patchwork cushions and mirror work wall hangings, our four blank walls finally began to look like home.
On the economic front the pressure had just began. In the beginning I could barely manage to buy my equipment and pay my rentals and transport. The first time I asked Astrid to take care of household expenses I was greatly embarrassed and hesitant. My manly ego was hurt. Astrid could see through my difficulty. "Why are you hesitant?" she asked. "Now it is our money, not mine or yours," she said matter of faculty. This was an important lesson in companionship. From that day onwards, everything became "ours" - a true partnership began.
With both of us on an equal footing, decision-making became a joint effort. Nothing was too small to be discussed - the events of the day, something interesting we read or even impressions of people we had met. We argued about religion, Church and our personal philosophies,
sometimes holding diametrically opposite views. Often we just agreed to disagree. We learnt to talk freely about our dreams and our feelings whether of joy or hurt or anger. And over the years we learnt to handle our anger. A blow-up was better than an accusing silence. No personal attacks and no negative comments about each other's families. Nothing that would linger on and fester. Instead, in a calmer moment, we talked things over and tried to identify the root of our frustration. In this way, we planned how to meet each other's needs and minimize future conflicts.
Initially, our careers occupied a good
deal of our time. For me, it was important that my wife worked. A working
person comes across people of diverse nature, culture and ideas. These
interactions always keep us in touch with the world around us and make us
active participants. Astrid who is well qualified would have stagnated at home.
She had an exciting job. She was a Scientific Officer in charge of a Tissue
Bank, a project sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency,
Astrid: On a day-to-day basis, perhaps what has called for the most adjustment on our parts is our two careers. During the first year of marriage what this really meant was the sharing of household responsibilities. Since we lived on our own, it was really quite simple. I drew up a list of duties, and gave Kalpesh first choice. Between us, we managed to work on a fairly balanced deal keeping in mind that as a Plastic Surgeon he worked longer and more tiring hours. Thus the heavier jobs like cooking and washing dishes were mine, though Kalpesh did help sometimes. Answering the doorbell in the morning was his job, so was the marketing. But we tried not to be too rigid on our division of labour. Ironing clothes, watering the plants, sewing on buttons, these were jobs we both took on.
Kalpesh: Washing the dishes was to stand me in good stead much later, when four-year-old Gayatn was having one of her feminist conversations with her mother, and confronted me with: "Mr. Maggs (a character from her book) washes the dishes, why you don't wash the dishes? " At least I could say, "I used to, before you were born"!
Astrid: My girlhood dreams, however, of a long, peaceful evening with my husband, crashed. The evenings together at a film or play, and the weekends out, never materialized. Instead, Kalpesh often got home at and if we ever went to bed before it was an "early" night! Fortunately, my life too was full, so this turned out to be quite and advantage. I got involved in parish activities, continued my studies in
Theology, attended women's meetings, and even joined a choir. Since I couldn't change my situation I had learnt to change my attitude. As a result, I not only had the benefit of Kalpesh's companionship, but I also made a number of friends. What's more, I was doing what I enjoyed.
As usual, once the children arrived, things changed. We were fortunate to get additional domestic help so we could continue with our jobs and still give Gayatri our attention. But now I was staying home more, and any activity that took me away from my daughter had to be carefully weighed. Still, I managed to edit the parish bulletin, serve on the parish pastoral team, continue my commitment to Satya Shodhak" and even fulfill my role as Secretary of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. By this time Kalpesh's practice too was picking up and he sometimes came home close to . I went on the warpath! The upshot was Kalpesh changed his clinic timings so he was home at least by That still meant that he didn't get much time with our daughter. So that he didn't miss out on the joys of babyhood, I would share with him the baby's latest antics. From time to time he would read the diary I kept for her, and make his own additions. He was a natural father, crazy about his daughter and she about him.
Kalpesh: Every night when I came home, Gayatri would be there eagerly waiting for me to pick her up. I never knew that dancing to music just to see her laughing and giggling in my arms would become such a pleasant habit. It continues even today, only now there are two more to dance with.
Gayatri as a baby was an absolute delight to be with. Always full of joy and laughter, her enthusiasm for life overflowed into our lives. The first grandchild, she was an instant hit with my family. Her grandmother doted on her and was possessive of her as if she was her own daughter. The old hostilities disappeared but new ones appeared on the horizon. Astrid felt threatened by Gayatri's attachment to my mother. She began to feel afraid that Gayatri may relegate her to the role of a nursemaid and give her cherished role of mother to her mother-in-law. It is a conflict that has considerably reduced with the birth of our younger two children, but it still remains.
Gayatri's innocence and unconditional love united our two families. Children are truly God's messengers of love. She took away the hostilities with her smiles and as early as 0-2 1/2 years she initiated an inter-religious dialogue. At Astrid's nephew's first holy communion, she brought her Gujarati grandmother into the church, and made her bow to the Cross and say "Jai-Jai". Next it was the turn of her grandfather and finally my brother and his wife. Who could refuse her magnetic charm?
Our second child was conceived unexpectedly just after Gayatri's first birthday. Though we were advised by our friends to get sex determination tests done, we refused the temptation. We were willing to accept the baby whatever its sex. Secretly we hoped for a boy, so much so that we didn't even think of a girl's name. Since we had decided to have only two children, a child of each sex would make for a nice balanced family.
When Nivedita was born, initially I was depressed. I was deeply in love with Gayatri and did not want any competitor. Where was I going to get that extra drop of love without reducing Gayatri's share? Somehow, I thought a boy would demand a different kind of love. But God was infinitely wiser than me. The moment I held Nivedita in my hands there was another uninterrupted spring of love-rather a giant river - which I never thought existed in my being. For the first time I realised love never gets divided, it only multiplies.
Astrid: By the time our second daughter arrived, I was beginning to feel the strain. I could barely get out of the house with a clear conscience. All my outside activities grounded to a halt. I had to turn down the offer of a second term as Secretary of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. Worse, I had to refuse the nomination for what could have been the first female President of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. I minded, I minded very much. Life seemed to be passing me by.
Kalpesh: Now that we had our family of two, we concentrated on saving for a home of our own. A house in the area where I practice may cost anything up to $100,000. Whatever we saved in a year was wiped off by inflation.
Amidst this tension, Astrid conceived again. It was a shock, as we were sure we were within the safe limits of Natural Family Planning.
Astrid's not so good health, following previous caesarian sections made this a risky, pregnancy. Over and above this our problems of housing, Astrid's career, our two small children and future financial burden put a lot of apprehension in our minds. Will we be able to do justice to all the three children? Will we have time? What about Astrid's career - a full stop? Suppose something goes wrong during surgery? Should any thing happen to Astrid - how will I look after the kids?
With all these questions in our mind, we decided to go ahead and welcome the third entrant. Apart from the Church's teaching against abortion, our hearts too were not in favour of extinguishing what gynecologists call 'a speck of life. Our gynecologist friends laughed at our predicament, "Even Catholics undergo abortion", one said to my wife. Yet we took our chances, relying on God's infinite wisdom.
All went well, and to our pleasant surprise it was a boy. "A son and her heir", my friend Dr. Kiran said. Once again we had refused to get prior sex - determination tests done. We believe that sex determination is the beginning of sex-discrimination. A third daughter would have been as welcomes as our son. If anything Astrid would have been delighted, as she insists that girls are less trouble! I am glad. At last I had an ally in my feminist household.
Slowly, the children have become almost my total responsibility. With the birth
of our third child, I sometimes feel as if there is no escape. I have been
missing meetings of my women's group. Courses of any kind are out of the
question. Books and articles I want to read, keep
pilling up. I have to turn down speaking engagements and have even had to
regretfully pass up attending a workshop in
Through all this, Kalpesh has been a constant source of support. He saw to it that I had adequate help at home so I could continue with my job. Long ago he gave up his dream of having his wife cook for him and has learnt to eat food he wouldn't touch in his mother's home. He encourages my writing, and is proud of the work I do, not only in the Tissue Bank, but also in the Church. He has attended theology classes with me, devours our local diocesan newspaper and is more knowledgeable about Church matters than the average Catholic in the pew!
Kalpesh: Astrid's activity in the Church and her writing in Catholic magazines became an interesting point of interaction for us. She was very keen on raising the status of women in the Church. I appreciated her ability to analyse, reach the roots of problems, and to look at issues from different angles.
In her Church she is respected for her balanced and well-researched articles. These have earned her many admirers and friends including some well-known theologians, and I was proud of her achievements. Through her I got drawn into Church circles and as a couple in an inter-faith marriage, we became an object of interest.
Astrid: Few of my co-workers are aware of Kaplesh's contribution to our efforts at community
building. Despite his aversion to "conversion", he is the invisible
partner in my endeavour to give meaning to my
Christianity. He encourages me and is proud of the work I do. While my parish
editorial board meets in the hall, he keeps our children entertained in the
bedroom; when I rush off on a Sunday morning for a Parish Council Meeting, he
is at home bathing and feeding the kids. When I sit writing late at night, he
puts them to sleep with "Manku-monkey"
stories. All the papers I present are tested on him first, and he's the first
to grab the magazines which have my articles in them. We live in a remote
Another tower of strength has been my friend Rita, a member of "Satya Shodhak". Married for over 25 years, she too has three children, loves to write, and gave up her career to look after her family. Everytime I moan at having to sacrifice my own aspirations for the sake of the children, she reassures me of long term rewards. "Opportunities to create deep human relationships do not come again. Invested in wisely, they return lasting happiness," she advises me. "The experience you are getting will enrich your life more than any courses of seminars", she adds. When I miss meetings and workshops she keeps me abreast of what is happening. From time to time she sends me interesting material to read. She shares various speaking engagements with me, easing my burden of preparation and sometimes even helps to keep my children occupied while I am presenting a paper. Often she includes me in programmes she is conducting giving me topics she knows I am familiar with. When I feel guilty about not pulling enough weight in my women's group or the C.B.C.I.'s "Women's Desk", she affirms my priority to be with my children.
Everytime I have a decision to make, I call her up. I know she will understand, because as a woman she has had to face the same odds-like choosing between my children and my job.
Three pregnancies in four years have not exactly enhanced my image at work. This time round I have exhausted my leave. For the past month I am a non-earning member of the family. It is not a happy situation. Even though there has never been a demarcation in our earnings, I will miss operating "my" bank account. I will also feel more tied down to the house. After all, since I am not earning I have to contribute by looking after the children. Somehow all my feminist theories collapsed. Even now I am considering giving up my job to be with my children. There's no doubt that for the time being they need one of us around. We will have to play it by ear, revising our decision as the situation changes.
Kalpesh: Our decision to remain true to our own religious identities was for us a constant challenge. Trivialities took on dangerous overtones and forced us to tread cautiously.
Astrid: I, for one was amazed at how easy it is to betray one's convictions. Never being one for veneration of religious pictures and statues, even before we set up home, I had decided that my worship of God would dispense with all these non-essentials. I preferred instead, to welcome God present in the majestic hill outside our window.
Shepherds with grazing goats, little children enjoying some sport, birds in flight, even a body being cremated, and of course, the inevitable villager answering Nature's call - these were changing scenes that brought home to us life in all its fullness. And as a reminder of my commitment to Christ, I settled for a simple cross in our bedroom, a handmade wedding present from one of Kalpesh's Hindu friends.
Then suddenly, all this changed. We began
receiving a deluge of holy pictures and statues from Kalpesh's
well-meaning family. Perhaps it was their way of ensuring the Hindu tradition
of their progeny. It made me nervous. I began thinking: maybe I should get a
picture of Jesus. Gayatn, my daughter, can then
identify with God as a person, the way she does with the portrait of
Fortunately, better sense prevailed. We talked things over and decided to set limits to the religious articles that would adorn our home, even at the risk of offending relatives. As for Gayatn, barely over a year old, she chose her own path. The cross was "Jesus" whether it was atop the Church or struck on her doctor father's windshield. And her daily ritual was a gay "morning Jesus" or "Om Shanti, Jesus", to the cross beside our bed.
But just so that I didn't take her for
granted, an occasional "where's Jesus"? would
have her pointing to the picture of Radha and
Kalpesh: Since I am not a temple goer, I am not particularly interested in external worship. Sometimes , however, I feel threatened when my children want to talk only of Jesus Christ. Obviously their visits to the Church with Astrid have made some impact. I live, respect and admire Jesus Christ, but I do not identify Christ with my Christian Church or Church teaching. I feel these limit God's fullness. Christ is always projected as the property of Christians. Hence, I believe, that if my children only identify them-selves with Christianity, a rare opportunity will be lost to them. They will fail to dip into the treasure trove of spiritual knowledge that is our Indian heritage. It is my prayer, therefore, that rather than be bound by any particular dogma or philosophy, my children may dynamically understand and reach the fullness of God.
Astrid: Our peace is disturbed from time to time. Like when Kalpesh, feels threatened by Gayatri's rejection. Our eldest, she is now all of four years old, with a mind that never ceases to question and assimilate and now, it seems, discard.
"I don't want to hear stories about
Kalpesh looks at me accusingly. I search for words. "But we celebrate Diwali. You got presents, a new dress..." "I didn't get presents, only money".
I am at a loss. I want to laugh, but I see Kalpesh's hurt look and stop. He wants so much that his children should reap the full benefit of two religions. His dreams for them are true religious freedom.
Maybe I'm not exposing them sufficiently to Hinduism", he introspects.
Maybe. Or maybe it is one of the payoffs of 'mothering,
'the sacrifice of the self and immersion in the other. Or maybe it is just Gayatn's insistence that Jesus understands only English
(her "mother" tongue) and
"You know I would never say anything against Hinduism to the children. And I wouldn't use the time I have with them to brainwash them about Christianity".
But is that enough, I silently wonder. If
I curb my Christian spirit for fear of offending my husband, will I not be
depriving my children of a precious part of me? Must I match his neglect with
mine, or challenge him to do his bit? In any event, I must exude more warmth
for and knowledge of the Spirit that guides my husband if I am to prevent
religious freedom from degenerating into religious bankruptcy. Like tailoring our simple customs to buy our children's devotion.
With the passage of time, one thing has become clear. Bringing up children in two different religions is definitely an invitation to creativity. It means tuning into the revealing voice of God in a strange tradition. It requires consciously sidestepping the pit- falls of comparisons ("mine is the only way") and judgements ("your religion is full of superstition", "you all are obsessed with conversion", "Idol worshiper"). It calls for a sensitivity that allows a child the freedom to be, trusting in the child's inherent wisdom.
It makes a sense of humour imperative, a laughter that is an echo of the laughter of the "Gods" as they watch us ignorant mortals try to unravel the Divine mystery. Most important, it forces us to move beyond the obvious. When two traditions, two cultures, and two belief systems are involved, every gesture and every explanation must be carefully thought out to avoid offense. Every "truth" must be re-examined by going back to the Source. Respect for the human person must be our guiding principle. Our purpose must reflect the Divine purpose of fostering a loving and united communion.
Kalpesh: Unexpectedly, despite our diverse backgrounds, prayer occupies a very central place in our family. I say "unexpectedly," because we know many "mixed" couples who have held their peace by segregating their religious practices. Religion is a private affair, and care is taken not to intrude on the other's religious beliefs for fear of causing discord.
From the start, Astrid and I opted for a more intimate sharing. The first year of marriage had us reflecting on the "Bhagavad Geeta" and the New Testament. Our reflections were personal rather than scholarly, though we did use commentaries. Occasionally we argued about the practicality of a particular teaching, and there were times when we even had a good laugh. But by and large we sought deeper insights into our own scriptures and at east a basic understanding of each other's. In the process, our love and respect for each other grew.
Slowly we began to construct our own religious framework. It encompassed
Moved by the Spirit, my Hindu husband and I created a common platform for the exchange of our views, a common language that dispensed with explanatory foot notes and a common experience that strengthened our union.
Kalpesh: On this foundation we built the prayer life of our subsequent years. Although we experimented with a number or formal prayers, and made any number of resolutions, however, as a couple somehow we never succeeded in saying "daily" prayers together. Spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving as we look at our children, intense "letting go" as we struggle to make far reaching "decisions, petition prayers, prayers of repentance, these have been our invitation to God in our lives.
Matters got a bit complicated when the children arrived. As they grew a little older we felt the need to demonstrate a unity in our prayer life, especially if we were to give truth to what we were teaching them about the One Universal God. So now every night our family sits down to pray in a happy mix of English and Sanskrit including the prayers our children have learnt at school.
Astrid: In all this as a mother, I am expected to play a crucial role matching my husband's reverent attitude, leading the "Hindu" prayers. And what brings the biggest smile is Kalpesh's description of us as "Hindu-Catholics"!
Despite this openness, however, we have
our limitations. Our joint prayers do not call on a personal God and we
studiously avoid erecting an altar. While I have no inhibitions about my
children worshipping the Hindu pantheon, I balk at doing the same and my
in-law's "tutoring" of my children I see as an unwelcome intrusion.
Even the traditional Hindu greeting, "Jai Shree
Krishna", makes me hesitate, and I settle for the more universal "Om Shanti". With much
regret, I also make Jesus take backseat, restraining myself with the children
lest Kalpesh feels threatened. Sometimes I find it
awkward praying before the picture of
Fortunately, rituals are not an important
part of our lives. Hindu festivals are celebrated with Kalpesh
performing the pujas with me at his side, and
Christian feasts are celebrated with all of us attending
Long ago I gave up expecting my husband to join me as he is not a temple goer or a church goer. Experience has taught us that unity sometimes requires diversity. And so we go our own ways leaving the other free to participate or not. After all, what is the value of a ritual if it does not make God present?
In time we have come to realise that more important than rituals was our oneness as we searched for God. It freed us from religious constraints, making this "difference" an occasion to demonstrate our respect for each other and grow in our knowledge of God.
Kalpesh: Our efforts at reconciling two religious traditions have borne some fruit. My daughters have no difficulty accepting that different people call God by different names and have their own style of worship. What sometimes becomes difficult to explain, however, are the inevitable parallels: "Ganapati baba's Mama and Papa are Gods. Why are Jesus' "Mama and Papa not Gods? ".
Astrid: Strangely enough, what ties me up in theological knots are the intricacies of my own religion. How does one explain the Trinity to a four year old? Even the simple Christmas story precipitates perplexing questions: Mama Mary made Jesus, or Jesus made Mama Mary?" or "Before Jesus was born there was no God?" And to keep the balance: "Why only Hail Mary? Why not 'Hail Joseph'?' and what about "A-(Wo)men!"
The priesthood, too poses problems. "Are you going to say your morning prayers?" I asked Gayatri when she was two years old. "No, I'll say Mass!" she replied.
Two years later as she munches unblessed hosts on the way home, she reassures me: "Mummy you also can call Jesus into the host. Yes Mummy, he'll come if you call him". I'm not prepared to deny that, whatever my Church says.
Our experience with prayer taught us some very valuable lessons, not the least of which was that "differences" can provide occasions for growth. What started out as stress ended up as strength. All it took was conscious effort, love, perseverance and a willingness to understand the other's feelings. Facing challenges and resolving conflicts helped us to grow as persons. It also made for a closer and more caring marital relationship. We learnt to be sensitive to each other's feelings, to be creative in working out alternatives which were acceptable to us (if not to the religious authorities), to be flexible in our demands, and often to just be silently patient.
Within the wider community, our marriage has found a place in the new generation of "mixed" couples. Both in my professional and social lives, I have been interacting with couples who have crossed the barriers of caste, culture and religion. In the parish community, however, my marriage is still a matter of regret, and the unbaptised state of our children a sensitive issue.
To my dismay, I also discovered that my children are excluded from the Catholic quota that is guaranteed the much-coveted admission in our Catholic schools. Even the State has not updated its machinery to accommodate inter-faith marriages. What, for instance do we write as our children's religion when filling up their school admission applications? So far, we have settled for "Hindu-Catholic".
Sadly, my Church too is lacking in its
pastoral approach to inter-faith marriages. It would rather such marriages did
not exist. Unfortunately, not only do they exist, but they are on the increase.
It is time we moved beyond our Christian confines to help "mixed" couples seek unity, using as a point of reference, their image and likeness of God. Through Christ who gathers all things unto Himself, we must help them focus on God whose revelation knows no religious boundaries. It is one way of expanding our definition of community.
Kalpesh: Looking back over the past five years of our marriage, it is clear, that communication has been one of the most essential elements of our communion. Not just verbalizing our feelings, but also listening to each other with empathy. This has meant trusting one another with our most intimate selves, and caring for each other enough to bring about changes.
"Tolerance" is a word we have had to erase from our vocabulary. It reeks of superiority. It seems to say "I dislike you and your ways, but I'll put up with it because I don't have a choice". Instead we have searched for ways to affirm each other's uniqueness. By appreciating our differences and allowing each other space to grow, we hope to bring a richness and variety into our lives. We have come to realise that when we let go of our prejudices there is much we can learn from each other. To put it in Gayatri's words, "We are not English, We are not Gujarati, We are not Hindu, We are not Kannada, We are everything!".
1. A projection of slides of their Wedding and Family made this presentation by Astrid and Kalpesh lively and interesting.
2. The Special Marriage Act has "mutual consent" as one of the grounds of divorce. Christian Personal Law does not have such a provision. Further men can avail of a divorce by proving adultery. Women on the other hand have to prove their husband guilty of adultery plus some other condition like incest or a change of religion.