February 14, 2001


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On the occasion of Valentine's Day, Aseem Chhabra gets four New York-based couples to speak about their lives, their relationships, and the choices and sacrifices they have had to make to keep the marriage and their commitments to each other alive.

Romita Shetty and Nasser Ahmad
During the Kargil war, Romita Shetty met an acquaintance in New York. She wanted to know how Romita -- a Hindu from India -- could be married to a Pakistani, when their countries were at war.

"She was pretty flabbergasted and said, 'Oh you know Pakistanis are very different.' To which I responded there are Indians who are equally different," recalls Romita. "I said there are tons of Indians I feel completely uncomfortable with and wouldn't be friends with. You don't identify with people because they happen to be of a particular nationality."

Romita and her husband Nasser Ahmad (both in their mid-thirties) were married in 1997 in a civil ceremony in Manhattan. They later traveled to Islamabad and New Delhi for separate family events celebrating their marriage. In fact, the most difficult part of an inter-cultural marriage was the number of events they had to attend. "It was the most tiring wedding I have been to," says Romita.

The two attribute their tolerance for each other's background to a liberal upbringing. Nasser adds that for some inexplicable reason, several of his friends at his undergraduate college (MIT), were Indians. That washed away any "Indian-phobia" that he may have developed growing up in Karachi. "It's also partly a function of living in New York," Ahmad said. "Here you are in a universal sort of a culture and it doesn't really matter whether you are an Indian or Pakistani."

They might discuss the India-Pakistan dispute at an intellectual level, but it never goes beyond that. "None of our fights are ever about cultural or political issues, " says Romita.

The two have discouraged their families from bringing up issues related to their differences. But on the contrary, family members try and see similarities in the two even when they do not exist. For instance Romita noticed that at her sister's wedding recently, family members were almost trying to "appropriate" Nasser.

"My mother's Mangalorean relatives said Nasser looked like a nice Mangalorean Brahmin boy," she says. "They decided they like a person as an individual, but in their own minds, they were not comfortable with the fact that they can like someone who is very different. They were appropriating the person, saying 'Oh he is just like us.' "

"I guess they were trying to make me feel comfortable, but at the same time trying to ease their own discomfort," adds Nasser. The only time Romita had a concern about her marriage to a Pakistani national was when it occurred to her that she was "shutting out" the prospect of ever living in India. "But then I realized that I had probably shut it out for lots of other reasons, even before I got into this relationship," she says.

Phoebe Eng and Zubin Shroff

In 1997, Zubin Shroff, a New York-based professional photographer, was on a shoot for Travel & Leisure magazine on a small remote island in the Atlantic Ocean called Fogo, part of the Cape Verde archipelago. On the last day of shoot, Shroff met with an accident that would dramatically change his life and that of his Asian-American wife, Phoebe Eng.

When Zubin fell into a dormant volcano on Fogo, his first reaction was to tell his colleagues to call Eng in New York. Eng immediately arranged for his evacuation to a hospital in London, and worked her way through the bureaucratic maze put up by their medical insurance company.

"That was from a practical level," Shroff said recently from his home in Long Island. "I knew Phoebe was capable of handling that very well." But when Shroff went in for major surgery in London, he asked Phoebe to inform his loved ones around the world to think of him.

"I know I couldn't have gotten through without the love of everyone close to me," he says. "Not just that she was strong herself, but she got other people to join in as well. And I know that had a huge impact on me getting through the surgery and on the road to recovery."

For Phoebe it was a trying time too. When Shroff's accident happened, she was New York, with a deadline to finish her first book (Warrior Lessons: An Asian American Woman's Journey Into Power, published by Pocket Books in 1999). She was finally able to extend her deadline to be with her husband in London.

"What I am struck by, after a couple of years have passed, is that just by the sheer force of loving somebody, I was able to find strength and resources that I never really thought I had," she says.

"That was really at the beginning of our marriage (the two were married in 1994), and it is difficult to fathom what two people want from a marriage in general," she adds. "We were going through a period of questioning -- what this quality of being together means. And in the middle of that kind of questioning, this thing happened. And it made everything so crystal clear." In fact, that accident cemented their relationship like "nothing else could," agrees Zubin.

This brush with mortality at a young age (Shroff is 35 and Eng is 38) made the two look at each other differently. For one, they do not let small things and difference bother them much.

"After all said and done, even though it was quite painful and Zubin probably still has to deal with it, it seems like we almost got a gift," says Phoebe. "It may sound strange. Not only does the marriage have an eternal meaning in a grounded sense..."

"...I think it makes me see my whole life in a way that I do not have time to waste," says Zubin completing his wife's sentence.

Mita Hosali and Christian Clarke

In 1994, when Christian Clarke got a United Nations assignment in civil war-torn Somalia, his wife Mita Hosali may have been able to secure a UN posting there as well. Instead, she choose to stay back to pursue her career in the UN's public information department.

"It was a great opportunity for Christian," says Mita. "And even though it was fraught with danger and real risk, the nature of the job was so challenging that it would have been selfish for me to say 'no, don't go.' "

Christian returned to New York in February 1995, but was soon was recruited for a UNICEF position in Kathmandu. The two describe the Kathmandu posting as a dream job, which incorporated Christian's past experiences in animation and writing for television (prior to his UN stints, Christian, a Canadian national, had worked for a few years at the Children's Television Workshop).

"Jobs like these do not come up often in the UN system," Mita adds. "It was also in a part of the world he loved. He had been to Nepal as a teen. Again, it seemed like how can I say no. It seemed for him a natural thing to give it a shot."

Initially, the separation seemed appealing to the two. At first they felt as if they had "grown up" and now were single again. But then loneliness set in, more so for Christian, since he was in an unfamiliar environment.

"I would be lying if I said it did not impose tremendous stresses and strains on the relationship," says Mita. But working for the UN system did enable her to take longer vacations to Kathmandu and to her home in India.

In the long run, Mita feels despite the pain, the separation did give the two a chance to appreciate the core things that had brought them together (the two have known each other for 18 years, and were married in 1989).

"I think it is clear to the two of us that quite apart from the career, it is that unit, whether with a child or without (their son Max is 16 months old), is really important," she says. "These sacrifices you can make, but then you can't sustain a relationship."

A couple of years ago, she took a sabbatical -- a year off without pay -- to spend time with Christian in Nepal.

"We made a pact that after a year I would come back to New York," says Christian. "Having a kid added another dimension, but even without the child, it was not worth being apart... The next move we make, we will decide for the future, what's best for the family, not for either one of us."

Mallika Dutt and Daniel Sumit Ghosal

When Mallika Dutt and Daniel Ghosal got married in New York in 1992, they took two different vows. Ghosal promised to support his wife's interests in women's rights issues, while she agreed let him pursue his dream of becoming a concert level tabla player.

Four years ago, Mallika, who worked on women's rights at Rutgers University in East Brunswick, NJ, was recruited by the Ford Foundation for a vacancy at its New Delhi office. Both she and her husband Daniel, an investment banker, were reluctant to take on the complications of moving to India.

But she eventually accepted the human rights and social justice position with Ford, while Daniel decided to join her in New Delhi. One advantage of the temporary shift to India -- he would have the opportunity to pursue his interest in the tabla.

In India, Mallika , 39, continued a busy schedule of traveling and examining women's human rights issues, while Daniel's job search eventually landed him a position in Mumbai. "He might as well have been in New York at this stage," Mallika says of their separation.

A few months later Daniel quit his job in Mumbai and moved to New Delhi. When the Delhi job too didn't work, recalls Daniel, the strains in the marriage began to show. However, "it helped us that we talked through the situation and face the problem head on," says Mallika.

Daniel, 34, feels that going to India was a growing up process for both of them.

"At an individual level, dealing with family, people and a very different and incestuous society, was a growing up experience," he says. "That struggle itself made our relationship stronger."

During a vacation to New York, Daniel was interviewed by Morgan Stanley and was made a job offer. "We had made a deal to support each other's careers," says Mallika, adding that she too planned to return to New York at the end of her Delhi tenure.

Then another turn of events took place. Last year, while a Ford employee, Dutt launched her own non-profit venture in India -- Breakthrough, a organization dedicated to raising social awareness on human rights issues through the use of popular media. As Breakthrough and its maiden venture, a music album Mann Ke Manjeere, took off (it recently won the 2000 Videocon Screen Award for the best music video), it was time for her to return to New York. "I really missed Daniel," she recalls. "Our phone bills were exorbitant. You know e-mails just don't do it."

Now back in New York, the two have set up home in the same apartment they left four years ago. "I don't believe in fate, but if the Ford job hadn't come through we would have gone through some other sort of process to sort our issues out," says Daniel "I think the Ford Foundation was a catalyst, probably made it happen sooner and made us grow up and take responsibility for our actions. This gave a chance to respect the other person's ambitions and to know what a career means to the other person's life."

Design: Rajesh Karkera

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