Indian characters but a Jewish sensibility

Author Anne Cherian is a collection of contradictions. She is Jewish, yet she wears a crooked cross, the symbol of the Jacobite Syrian Christians, on a chain around her neck. She is a descendant of an American rabbi and his wife — who, according to family lore, cooked “the best borscht anyone has ever made.” But she also grew up attending Catholic school and living among Hindu friends and neighbors in Jamshedpur, a planned industrial city in the northeastern part of India. And now, she is married to a Japanese-American man from a Buddhist family.

It’s not surprising that someone constantly juggling the various strands of a complex ethnic identity would choose to think — and in Cherian’s case, write — about it.

The author’s Jewish background is not immediately apparent from her novels, “A Good Indian Wife” (2008) and “The Invitation” (2012), both primarily about the Indian-American experience. But once one learns her personal story, there’s no ignoring the keen sense of otherness that permeates her narratives, or the very Jewish place it seems to come from. Cherian’s Jewish heritage also finds expression in her more recent novel, which includes a Jacobite Syrian Christian Indian woman unsure of how to respond when her husband, a Jewish cardiologist, gets interested in reconnecting with his roots.

Promoted as a speaker by the Jewish Book Council, the friendly and frank Cherian, 54, recently talked to The Times of Israel by phone from her home in Los Angeles, discussing her highly unusual background and reflecting on how being multi-ethnic can be simultaneously enriching and alienating.

Cherian’s father, Thonipurackal Varkey Cherian (Thoni, for short), was a Jacobite Syrian Christian from a tiny Indian village with no electricity. The eldest son of “a family with a good name,” he realized that the way out of farming and a rural life was education.

“He had to walk miles to school through cobra-infested land,” Cherian recounted. “His drive and intelligence brought him all the way for graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley on a Tata Scholarship in the 1940s.”

There, the elder Cherian was befriended by Albert Paul Krueger, a Jewish medical doctor and bacteriologist who welcomed foreign students into his home. Upon learning that the Indian student had previously studied chemistry, he asked him to tutor his teenage daughter, Elsie, who was struggling in the subject at school.

“Well, a lot of chemistry went on. It just wasn’t the kind that APK [as the professor was called] had in mind,” Cherian joked.

The pair fell in love despite their different backgrounds and the 10-year age difference between them.

Thoni and Elsie married in 1949, against the wishes of both sets of parents. Although APK, born to Jewish parents, had been baptized a Catholic, and he and his wife, Rose, the daughter of a rabbi, had not raised their children Jewish, they thought differently about things when it came to their daughter’s marriage.

“My grandmother embraced my father until they discovered he wanted to marry my mother,” Anne Cherian said. “She had already picked out a nice Jewish boy for her.”

From Thoni’s perspective, the marriage was preordained. A palm reader had once come to his family’s house and read his future, predicting that he would marry a woman from across great waters with no dowry.

Despite her parents’ complicated relationship with Judaism, Cherian’s mother was aware of her heritage from interactions with her mother’s family in San Francisco. Crucially, she took this knowledge and identity with her when she moved permanently to India with her husband and gave birth to a son in 1952, a time when mixed marriages were not widely accepted.

“My father loved my mother very, very much. And she loved him. She never once, in all her life, made us feel that she regretted marrying him and leaving her life to come live in India,” Cherian said.

The couple went on to have five children, of whom the author is the youngest. “I grew up knowing my mother was Jewish and we were Jewish, but there was no place for that in our small town,” Cherian recalled.

No religion was practiced at home, and the children went to Catholic school solely for the quality of the education. But, Cherian recalls, her mother, who did charity work with lepers and impoverished villagers in the countryside, made her read many books written by Jews, and about the Holocaust.

“We knew we had Jewish relatives in America, but it seemed like the moon, really. Anything in America seemed so far away,” she said.

Consequently, the relationships her mother developed with two Indian Jewish women were of the utmost importance. “Auntie” Ruby was a Jew of Iraqi background, and “Auntie” Lily was a member of India’s Bene Israel community. “She was so starved for friendship,” Cherian said of her mother, “that she would travel long distances by bus to see these women.”

These aunts and their families were the only Jews Cherian encountered during her years growing up in India. “They were Jewish, and they had a mezuzah, as we did, but none of us celebrated any Jewish holidays or life-cycle events,” she said. “Being Jewish was just who we were.”

But did Elsie, a 5-foot-10, blue-eyed, blonde Ashkenazi American Jew, really have had anything culturally in common with Jewish women descended from communities that had settled on the subcontinent centuries earlier?

“They were Jews. That’s all I can tell you,” Cherian explained. “They were Jews — not Hindus, not Muslims. They recognized something familiar in one another because they were different. Having a Western name already differentiates you from other people, and you’re not looked at as completely Indian.”

In 1982, when Cherian herself came to Berkeley to pursue graduate studies after earning degrees at Bangalore and Bombay Universities, she was again made to feel as though she did not fit in. It was ironic that while in India, she had never been viewed as a full Indian; now, “in America, no one ever thought I was anything other than Indian,” she said of racism she experienced in the journalism department.

Cherian ultimately chose fiction over journalism. So far, she has written in a perceptive and nuanced way about arranged marriages and the intense competition among Indians to succeed in American society. She doesn’t believe her Jewish experience is rich enough to spawn an entire book, but her novels, about the challenges and choices facing Indian immigrants, are nonetheless imbued with a Jewish voice, perhaps like that of her mother.

Elsie, Cherian said, was “a quintessential American Jew. . . She talks a lot. She tells you what’s on her mind. She’s incredibly funny and smart.” The author believes she’s very much like her mother, and based on her books, most readers would agree.

Ultimately, Cherian’s books are about embracing who you are and celebrating your identity. Hers is complex, and those of her two Indian-Jewish-Japanese-American teenage sons’ are even more so. She hopes to help them navigate and integrate their multiple ethnicities just as her late father (who gave her the crooked cross she wears in his memory) and her mother (who still lives in India, even though most of her children now live in the US) did for her.

With friends who are mostly Jewish and a comfortable life in a largely Jewish area of Los Angeles, Cherian is confident she has a place in the Jewish community. But her sense of otherness lingers. Is there anywhere she feels she truly belongs?

“I think I belong in my family,” she said. “I am a wife, a mother and a sister. And I am my mother’s daughter.”

TAGS (Identity, Indian, Jewish)

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