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In a bustling village in the Hindi heartland of India Sanjay was born. The superstitious servants tied a black thread on the baby to ward off evil spirits and there was great rejoicing in the home. A man child had been born to carry on the family name.
His mother Sita was a nurse. When an elderly doctor in town had lost his wife of many years to cancer, relatives looked around for a suitable match to care for him and help him in his practice. They discovered Sita, and after negotiating with Sita’s parents it was agreed she and the doctor would be married.
For a while after the birth of her child Sita basked in the comforts of a middle class home. The doctor was preoccupied with this work, but she had her son and the whole world revolved around her Sanjay.
But as Sanjay reached early teens the doctor died and Sita suddenly found herself a young widow. They’d adequate resources to survive, but the doctor’s relatives looked for ways to make those resources theirs and Sita fled south with her son and the modest assets the doctor had left to them to escape family pressure.
Sanjay was placed for his high school studies in an academic community which employed a number of foreign professors and their families. He blossomed academically in this environment and enjoyed contacts with the multinational group of teenagers. There were no barriers, and lasting friendships were established which would later serve him in good stead professionally.
As he moved from high school to the nearby university for further study he continued to associate with his high school friends, and through them found an opportunity on graduation to obtain work in another country where English was taught as a second language. He and his mother Sita left India to seek their fortune.
Bernadette was born in one of those quaint medieval villages in Scandinavia well after the ravages of the Second World War. She’d never experienced the hardships her parents had during that dark period of earth’s history, and as an only child had never experienced the give and take of a multi child family. Her family were conservative and protective, but Bernadette in her interaction with the children of the village caught some of the spirit of those times.
This was the beginning of a mass migration to Europe by the people of the East and Africa who were seeking to better themselves by chasing the accelerating economic prosperity of Europe. Bernadette increasingly came face to face with cultures which were in stark contrast to her own, and she dreamed of exotic places and discoveries. The key to achieving her dreams seemed to be the English language, which she reasoned could open many doors she’d like to go through and experience.
So after months of persuasion her parents agreed to her going to England to further her education. There she devoted herself to learning and perfecting use of the English language. Through contacts she made in those years of English studies she became aware of the thirst for that language in emerging economies of Asia, and of the numerous English as a Second Language schools being set up there. After graduation she sought and obtained a two year contract to teach in one of those Asian schools.
Sanjay and Bernadette
So it was that Sanjay and Bernadette were destined to meet in a foreign Language School. The school they taught was largely staffed by newly graduated students of approximately the same age. They were young, eager to learn and ready to conquer the world. In spite of being drawn from different cultural environments they’d one thing in common, and that was a spirit of adventure. It mattered none that they ranged from brown to white skin, they were adventurers of the world, and they were one in spirit.
During that two year contract period the young teachers explored the world around them and learned to grasp the beauties of their host culture. They tried new foods, celebrated new events and learned local languages. There was no romantic attachment for there was little time to drink in a new environment , teach, and devote to only one person at the same time. Beside that, each knew their sojourn at the school would come to an end, and eventually each would return to their own culture, enriched but still culturally unique.
Sanjay was the first to leave. He’d been approached by one of his former western friends now working as a software engineer in Singapore. Would he be prepared to come with his mother to Singapore and work assisting his friend in software production? Sanjay saw this as an opportunity so he and Sita departed for Singapore as soon as work visas could be arranged.
In the bustle of this clinically clean city state Sanjay suddenly discovered an empty space in his heart. He was enthralled with this vibrant new culture with its mix of East and West, and delighted in the challenges of a new job which he quickly mastered. But something was missing! Then it dawned on him the missing element in his life was Bernadette. The softness of her accent, the smell of her, the milky whiteness of her skin, the way she used her hands and body when expressing herself had been part of his life, but he hadn’t recognized how important this had been to his daily enjoyment of life until they parted.
Sanjay wrote to Bernadette, and slowly over time there was mutual discovery each one felt the same. Something was missing in their lives that only the presence of the other could fill. So Sanjay plucked up courage and addressed that lingering question. Could they bridge their cultural differences and enjoy each other’s company for life? Would Bernadette marry Sanjay? Yes, she would!
East is East and West is West
After marriage they returned to Singapore. Sita now had a daughter in law, and in her mind the relationship between Mother in Law and Daughter in Law was clearly established. It had been that way in India for millennia; it would be that way now. They would live happily together in harmony with these traditions to guide them.
But the ways of western women are quite different. In her religious upbringing Bernadette had heard the quote from Holy Writings indicating on marriage a husband would leave Father and Mother and establish a new family entity in which the husband would be king and the wife queen.
Bernadette had known and liked Sita, and been a regular visitor to her home at the Foreign Language School. But that had been a different time and a different place. The thought of two queens in the house was unthinkable, and in subtle ways the rift between the two began to develop and widen.
In Sanjay’s cultural orientation it would be unthinkable to live apart from the mother who’d nurtured and supported him on the death of his Father. Sanjay was torn between the love of his Bernadette and the love of his Mother. His attempts to placate and heal relationships by showering lavish gifts on each was interpreted by each woman as favouritism to the other and Sanjay wrung his hands daily looking for a way out of this impossible situation.
Then a possible solution surfaced. He would migrate to a western country where his wife could easily get a job of her choice instead of the restrictions they now encountered under a work permit situation. There she’d busy herself in the occupation of her choice and appreciate the fact there was someone in the evenings who’d looked after the house during the day and cooked the evening meal for Bernadette’s enjoyment. In this way Sanjay reasoned each could find fulfilment in the company of the other.
Initially Bernadette saw this as a solution. The little family rejoiced when they received word their application to migrate had been accepted, and the necessary papers issued. They were citizens of a new country with unlimited possibilities for employment.
Sanjay was by now a rising star in the telecommunications industry and his work often took him outside his newly adopted country to travel the world. His citizenship was established, his career on a steep upward path. But his two beloved women renewed their rivalry for attention whenever he returned home and each harboured a spirit of jealousy when they did not receive his undivided love. A tsunami of jealousy would soon sweep over this household and destroy it.
Then one day Sanjay returned from an overseas trip to be confronted by Bernadette on arrival. He must make a choice. Either his mother or his wife would have to leave the family in order to keep peace. Sanjay was distraught and pleaded with Bernadette, but to no avail. How could he send his Mother away to live alone when she’d devoted her life to his nurture and care in his growing up years? Where would he send her? He was paying off his first owned home and could not afford support of two separate households! It would be unthinkable for him to send his Mother away and he pled with Bernadette to understand that. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Too much had been said and done between the two women to have them reconciled.
So Bernadette quietly packed her things and collected enough money from Sanjay to get to her home in Scandinavia and set up household there by herself. Sanjay wrote frequently in the hopes that the woman he still loved desperately would find it in her heart to adapt and come back to him, but after a year living with that illusion something arrived in the mail which dashed all his hopes. It was an application for divorce. Soon after he granted Bernadette her freedom he heard she’d married again.
As Sanjay thought about the happy inter-cultural relationships of the past, and how easily these relationships had changed each of the participants into more understanding human beings, he realized this interaction can only change superficially. There are some core cultural attributes people grow up with which can never be discarded.
“© Ian Grice 2012 – all rights reserved”