Last Monday, when a note from my friend Lem arrived in my inbox with the subject line, “Help two runaway lovers– pls forward,” the drawing from Udaipur came immediately to mind. The note read as follows:
Tejal and James, who are in love and on the run with nothing but four suitcases to their name, need your help. Tejal’s parents are traditional Southern Indians who want to arrange a marriage for her; she has decided to run away from Chicago and try to start a new life. If you believe in love, help them. Please call James at (312) 2**-**** or e-mail me; they desperately need a place to stay in NYC and there isn’t enough room in my inn– Robert’s parents are coming to stay here in 48 hours.
(They would also like to find jobs– any kind of job. Crazy, right?)
Beyond that picture on our wall, I had personal reasons to want to help. Like most American marriages, mine was a “love match,” to use the Indian term. But unlike most Americans, I grew up partly within a traditional culture (or at least a contemporary fabrication of one), and I lived for many years with the fear that if I met a non-Jewish woman I wanted to marry, I might be forced to choose between that woman and my own family. In high school, I kept my non-Jewish girlfriends a secret (or at least tried to), and it wasn’t until my relationship with T — which lasted four years and involved her moving in with me while I lived with my maternal grandparents, who are not religious — that I fully admitted to a romantic entanglement.
By the time Jenny and I got engaged, I had in some sense broken my parents in, gotten them used to the idea, and gotten past much of my own fear. They didn’t disown me over T, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t disown me over my marriage to Jenny. Still, they objected at first, as I knew they would, and it was a challenge to get them to come to the wedding. (To be fair, it was a challenge for them to come.)
Now that we’re married, they’ve accepted Jenny. It helps that they genuinely like her, and that she genuinely likes them. We all get along well enough that we’re going to go backpacking together for a week this summer. I think my parents may even harbor a secret fantasy that Jenny, with her interest in languages and cultures, will one day convert to Orthodox Judaism.
It was this background of conflict and reconciliation that made me feel like I had to help James and Tejal.
They came to our apartment on Wednesday night: a small Gujarati Indian woman and her boyfriend, a rail-thin African-American whom she’d met at art school in Chicago, where they were both doing video design. (Tejal worked for Lem at the documentary center there.) Tejal was the talker, and she unfolded her story for us.
Tejal is not the first daughter in her family to stir up this kind of Bollywood-melodrama-style trouble. One of her sisters had a Palestinian boyfriend. When her parents found out, they were furious, and they secretly bought a plane ticket to send their daughter back to India. The daughter found out because she happened to pick up the phone when the travel agent called, and she decided then and there to run off with her Palestinian beaux. Over the next several weeks, there were recurring threats of fainting from her mother, declarations of symbolic death by her father, pleading and weeping from various friends and relatives, until the daughter at last returned home. She remained insistent, however, and is now married to the Palestinian.
Tejal, too, was subject to a campaign of elaborate pleadings. Her parents and sisters — including the one with the Palestinian husband — called repeatedly to convince her to come back home. Lem got a message on his cell phone that was, in its entirety, “Hello? This is India calling. Please tell Tejal to call India.” That, Tejal explained, must have been her brother. And Lem also had a bit of a chat with Tejal’s Indian neighbor.
I’m not sure where James stands on all of this. He’s a quiet guy to begin with, and he spent much of his time at our place suffering from a sinus infection. As far as I can tell, though, he was already leaning toward coming to New York. He’s an animation designer of considerable talent (see his website here) who seems to have outgrown the Chicago scene.
When we heard about this couple coming to New York and trying to make it, we had our doubts: getting on your feet in NYC is hard, as we learned when we got back in the summer of 2003. But in the few days James was at our place, he sent out his website URL to about 15 companies and got a one-third response, an astonishing result in a very competitive industry. He’s already got a couple of solid freelance gigs lined up. Still, if you know of more gigs, or a full-time job, for a video designer, please let me know. Likewise, Tejal is looking for administrative or video work, though she’s less experienced than James. And they are in dire need of an apartment, not to mention all the things one puts in an apartment. Any leads would be appreciated.
Living spaces in New York are small, so having house guests for days at a time can be trying, but James and Tejal were about as mellow and pleasant as you can get. It felt good to be part of helping them out, and to see the way that our circle of friends has come together to lend these people a hand. I’ll keep you posted on the James-and-Tejal saga as it unfolds.