I prefer wearing jeans to a saree, though I haven’t even tried one. I have never put sindoor (red vermillion powder) into my hair partition or worn red dot of bindi between the eyebrows like Indian wives do. Tall and fair, grey-eyed with curls cascading over shoulders or loosely gathered into a bun, I hardly look Indian. Leaving my looks untouched, six years in India have passed changing me unnoticeably but profoundly.
Born in a middle-class family at the time of Perestroika, I was raised without indulgences. After Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, my parents’ world as they knew it was blown away. Factories were shut down with a domino effect. The military enterprise, where my father had worked for forty years, was no exception. Both my parents had suddenly lost their jobs and savings. There was no currency, no constitution, no decent products on the shelves, no educational standards. A new country was born. In a way, I guess, we were growing up together.
The next ten years were tough for all of us. Being the head of the electronics department not so long ago, my dad was job hopping to provide for our family. Mom started growing fruits and vegetables in the garden. Loving but strict, my parents were trying to shape the best possible future for me. “Study well, so you can live better than we did”, my mom nudged. And I did. Graduated with a gold medal from high school, I got a seat and stipend at the government university. My Bachelor’s and Master’s degree diplomas with excellence marks were the trophies that I handed to my parents. It was time to begin independent life.
After getting a full-time job at a digital marketing firm in Kyiv, I rented a tiny apartment on the other side of the city and moved out from the parental home. I had grown to be completely self-sufficient. However humble it was, I managed monthly finances in a way that my basic needs were covered. Like a boy in a skirt, I was the leader in a small circle of relationships I had built. First one to advise and help my friends, I could never ask for or accept help myself. Though the man I thought I would marry was a journalist seven years elder to me, I wanted to be his equal partner. We equally contributed to our budget, shared the same duties at home, loved reading books of a similar kind. It took me five years to realize that clinging to each other as we were wouldn’t lead to creating a family. He was not a person who would take responsibility was the truth I finally had the courage to admit to myself. Back to square one, I had to feel the ground under my feet again. By this time I was practicing meditation on heart, or raja yoga, with a group, called Sahaj Marg for almost two years.
I traveled to India for the first time in the quest for spirituality. Far away from home, meditating in the crowd of strangers, I was looking for the reasons of my life. I stumbled upon peace inside myself instead. Walking barefoot on the red soil of Tirupur, eating with my hands, getting soaked to the skin in monsoon showers that hit unexpectedly, were my first experiences of India. Amidst noisy streets and honking vehicles, chaotic movement, and heartily Indian smiles I felt unfamiliar warmth inside my heart. Like the puddle beginning to run down the side of a hill in a very small trickle, it was love I had never known before. Unconditional gratitude for being alive. There was another strange feeling haunting me – I didn’t know why, but I knew I’d be back.
Ironically, my husband is Indian. Successful designer and entrepreneur, much elder to me, Sudhir drew me like a magnet. His past was lengthier than mine, of course, but from the moment we met, I felt I had always known him. This was the man for whom I left my Ukrainian life behind and, facing the unknown, moved to India.
We worked together for a few years and then got married. The two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Pune, where I then lived on my own, felt like a palace compared to the tiny place I had in Kyiv. Throwing curve balls at me, mundane India turned out to be not as romantic, as it appears to a traveler. Buying vegetables at
Joining Sudhir’s brand design consulting firm in Pune intrigued me professionally and personally. Along with the opportunity to leverage my knowledge in marketing and design, it was a great chance to adjust to a new culture as well. Accustomed to a very competitive business environment in Ukraine, learning the way Indian teams worked was challenging. I asked too many whys. Why there were more people working on design requiring the effort of only one? Why didn’t meetings happen on time? Why was everyone so relaxed? This was the office where I had not seen colleagues argue even when the deadlines were tight. They would team up instead, take the pressure together, and savor pizza in the late working hours. A loner by nature, I had to deal with many people daily to get my work done. Lucky to observe and experience Indian culture in a friendly environment, I have learnt to let things take their course rather than pressurize the outcome. This approach came in handy in family life, too.
Becoming a wife was a pivotal moment which brought out the feminine angle of my personality. Something I was desperately trying to seek through books and meditation has happened so effortlessly with the right partner at the right time. Sudhir’s leadership, and our age difference, naturally led to mutual respect and care. Finally relaxed, I feel myself a woman. To support is as important for a happy relationship as to lead, I now realize. There is no need to prove my importance with making decisions or earning more. I have intuitively stepped into a complementary role. My mother-in-law became my role model of being a woman. She demonstrates femininity as being able to think of others first, creating a loving atmosphere at home, responding to crankiness with patience. Non-judgmental and inclusive, this sacred energy is like fertile soil that fosters growth and keeps families together.
My husband believes all these years have made me Indian in disguise. I’ve only learnt that happiness is not about you, it’s about making others happy.
This article was originally published in Holl & Lane Magazine.