Today I’m going to tell you a love story that is layered deep and covers many years. It started in 1997 and continues strong to this day. It involves numerous people, institutions, families, organizations, and two dominant world cultures.
In 1997 I was selected by Rotary International to lead a group of 4 other young adults on a Rotary-sponsored one-month trip to India. During that trip we would go to the northwestern state of Gujarat on the Arabian Sea. We visited Rajkot, Porabunder, Bhavnagar, Baroda, Ankleshwar, Surat, Vapi, and ended up flying back home from Mumbai (Bombay). Each of us had a separate host family in each of those cities. 16 years later I still remember them all.
In the city of Ankleshwar I was hosted by Rotarian Chetan Shah, his wife Daksha, and their boys, Bihag (17) and Anuj (13). While it is difficult to pick a favorite in such a loving family, Anuj stuck out. He was so darned cute and he was bubbly and enthusiastic. He loved playing sports and played the harmonium (similar to our accordions in the US).
Enthralled with India I came back in August of that same year and spent more time with the Shah family. At that time Chetan and I agreed that it would be beneficial if Anuj could come to Winona to be a Rotary Exchange student for a year. Entirely thanks to my Sister-in-Law, Sandie Axelsen, whose personal relationships at the American Embassy in Delhi made his VISA possible, Anuj’s dream came true and he arrived in Winona in July of 2000. Since that time I have called Anuj “Son” and to this day he calls me “Dad.”
When he arrived in Minnesota the now 16 year-old Anuj wasn’t nearly as “cute and cuddly” as he had been 3 years earlier, but Deb, who had just become an empty nester, absolutely fell in love with Anuj. She bought him “Tommy” clothes, right down to the underwear! While Anuj was hosted by the Welke, Manrique, and Karnick families when in Winona, he came to church with us every Sunday and he was Deb’s pride and joy! The Kierlin family paid Anuj’s tuition to Cotter High School, for which Anuj will always be grateful.
Anuj was schooled in the Gujarati language, while his brother was enrolled in an English language school. English proficiency was (and still is) an absolute requirement for young Indians who desire to rise up in professional and technical fields in their home country. From a professional standpoint, Anuj’s time in the United States gave him the English proficiency that he needed to enter an undergraduate business school in India and later to obtain an MBA in Marketing and Finance.
Now 29 years old, Anuj has worked hard at his schooling and career. He is currently employed as a business development manager in Hyderabad with Cognizant Technology Solutions. His wife, Bhawna, works for DeLoitte here in Hyderabad. Both are earning good salaries and they rent a nice house here in Hyderabad, where they have hosted me for several days. They are a solid, middle-class young Indian couple that enjoys a material lifestyle that most people in the world would envy.
Anuj’s wife Bhawna is another story altogether; an absolutely fantastic young lady. She and Anuj met at a firm where they were both previously employed. This was a “love marriage” as the Indians call it, but both pairs of parents approved, as is standard protocol in most Indian marriages.
You really get to know someone when you live in their home for several days. This is my first time meeting Bhawna, but I’ll tell you something…Anuj got himself a very special young lady. She is bright, ambitious, loving, friendly…she is goodness inside and out. As Anuj says on his accomplishment in marrying Bhawana…”I was the crow that found the pearl”.
Three years ago Anuj wanted to come to Deb’s bedside when she was diagnosed with cancer but the US bureaucrats at the American Embassy in Chennai prevented him from getting a VISA, not even looking at the notarized documents he had obtained from physicians and administrators at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
So on this Sunday morning, my Hyderabad love story ends for now. It is the story of the love between parents and children, the love between two cultures, love that Rotarians share throughout the world, and the love between an American Mother and her Indian Son. For Anuj and me the love will continue even after I am gone. When that day comes my children will send some of my ashes to Anuj and he will scatter them in several places in Gujarat, as well as along one of India’s most holy rivers, the Narmada River. The Narmada is considered by Hindus to be so holy that you need not touch the water, but are spiritually cleansed by simply looking at it. That’s way good enough for a kid from Wyoming!