A feature story by Savita Joshi
How two people from two different cultures built a life revolved around love and acceptance.
It was a bright, crisp morning in 1978, and the sunlight slanted through the windows of Maya and Gary’s Oakland home, illuminating the richness of its many wooden cabinets and stairs. It was in those early morning hours that a comfortable stillness could be felt in the rooms and hallways. This sense of quiet would soon dissipate when Maya and her sister Mira were both awake and had fallen into their comfortable rhythm of bickering and nagging, which for them was the ultimate gesture of love. It’s not completely clear what inspired Maya and Gary that morning, but the couple awoke in the bed that they shared together and decided that it was the day they were going to get married.
My great aunt and uncle are two of the most practical people you will ever encounter. They eat the same nutritional breakfast every morning of fruit and yogurt (prepared by Gary), and they attend yoga classes together to maintain their flexibility into their old age. When I was twelve and they dropped me off at summer camp, forlorn and extremely homesick, Maya could not understand my sadness. How could I be so glum when I was going to an island for three weeks to play and have fun? Why was I acting like I would never see my parents again? For a woman who had left her country at a young age, saying goodbye to all she had ever known, I can understand how my teenage American angst seemed unreasonable to her. Her favorite thing to tell me, back then and sometimes now, is how she was so broke when she first immigrated here that she couldn’t ride the bus and get ice cream in the same week. And I bet you can guess which decision she made.
It was this practicality that led to Maya and Gary’s small and sensible wedding, which took place in the family room. Only seven people were in attendance, which is one of the drawbacks to planning and throwing your wedding on the same day. But for Maya and Gary it was perfect. Their close friend, who was a Lutheran minister, married the two of them later in the evening. It was a very casual affair, not at all like the Western or Indian weddings that Maya and Gary were used to. “We didn’t even take pictures!”, says Maya. “We didn’t own a camera back then.”
Maya and Gary were born in two different countries, to two very different families. Maya in Mumbai, India, surrounded by banyan and mango trees, to a family of eight. Gary in sunny Palo Alto, California, to a family of six. The two grew up in very different environments, but in 1968 they both found themselves on the same continent, in the same town to be exact. It was at the University of California Berkeley where their two contrasting paths crossed.
What came to follow could easily be romanticized, two people from different cultures who found their soulmates in a way that neither of them could have dreamt of. However, Gary and Maya’s story is not a fairy tale, at least not in their eyes. Instead it is a story that is deeply rooted in the tangible, in patience and commitment, and in a strong devotion to family. Although their love defies boundaries of race and culture, they don’t see this as something special. This is because according to them, they are just two people who fell in love and continually decided to put love first.
I can attest to the fact that having a loving and supportive family, especially one that is open-minded, makes dealing with societal standards and expectations much easier. Luckily, both Maya and Gary were blessed with families like this. Maya’s parents, my great grandparents, were very forward-thinking for their time. As freedom fighters, who were a part of Gandhi’s movement (we even have letters written between my great grandfather and Ghandi), they were accepting and progressive. They would even let my grandmother and her sisters have boys over to the house, which was not that norm for that time. They pushed their children to leave India, see the world, and fully immerse themselves in new cultures.
Part of this immersion was befriending and, in Maya’s case, dating people that were different from her. “My father taught us that a good relationship is more about the partners themselves, not the cultures that they come from.” While Gary’s parents were not quite freedom fighters, they did not let their preconceived notions of race and culture get in the way of their connection to their son. “They expected me to marry a white person, so they were a little bit surprised, but they always trusted my judgment.”
Maybe it was the fact that their love was born out of a progressive and accepting place like Berkeley, or maybe it was just luck, but Maya and Gary were able to navigate their many years together without experiencing much discrimination or harassment. Besides the odd neighbor who didn’t like the look of a white man moving into the house next door with two brown women (Maya and her sister), or the people in small towns who gave them strange looks during their cross-country road trips, they didn’t face much bigotry. I believe that it is this lack of adversity and hatred that has helped them cultivate such a deep and resilient bond.
Marrying into an Indian family meant that Gary was suddenly surrounded by a large extended family, which was very different from his small nuclear American family. “My family was close, but we didn’t want to bother each other. On the other hand, Maya and her siblings call each other every day. That’s how they show their care for each other.” I can see vividly what Gary is referring to here. Whenever I would stay with them during the summers, I would often come downstairs in the morning to be greeted by one of my other great aunts or uncles via Maya’s phone. And despite the many technical difficulties they have, which were most obvious during 2020 when we had numerous zoom birthday gatherings, they keep in touch even though they are miles and sometimes oceans apart.
While Maya brought a tight knit family structure into Gary’s life, Gary provided Maya with a partnership that was different from what most Indian men could offer her. “I always knew that I didn’t want to marry an Indian guy”, recalls Maya. “I knew that I was different from other Indian women. I wouldn’t bend to cultural or familial restrictions.” This statement could not be more true. Maya is an extremely embodied, fiery, and often quite loud (and I mean this in the best way) woman who is guaranteed to chat your ear off. I have always been inspired by how confident and genuinely herself she is, and I cannot imagine her playing the role of a traditional dutiful Indian wife. By choosing Gary, Maya was able to maintain a sense of autonomy and freedom throughout her marriage.
For many American families, Christmas is the biggest holiday. However, for my family, our most important holiday has always been Thanksgiving. It is on Thanksgiving that everyone gets together to eat, drink, and be very very loud. Even before my time, Thanksgiving was an important moment where Maya and Gary’s two cultures and two families came together to share space. It was a true melting pot, as the Indian guests (who were vegetarian and therefore didn’t eat turkey) would bring dishes of their own to be eaten alongside the more traditional Thanksgiving food. “We would have up to 50 people at our Thanksgiving for many years, and that was where the cultures blended”, remembers Maya. To this day there are often Indian side dishes accompanying the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.
Maya and Gary’s family grew in 1985 when they adopted their son Ethan. Having battled breast cancer and undergone numerous rounds of chemotherapy, Maya was unable to have children of her own, and so they decided to adopt. Once Ethan arrived on the scene, Maya and Gary were even more cemented together, through their dedication to their son. “We knew that we couldn’t be the best parents on our own, that we needed each other”, says Maya. “We knew we needed to be strong for him”. The presence of their son (who in many family photos can be easily spotted due to his prominent bowl-cut and thick round glasses) acted as a sort of anchor for the couple, keeping them upright and steadfast.
I know that it seems a bit cheesy, but as a millennial who grew up with divorce being not only accepted but normal, I had to ask the question: What is your secret to a long lasting and strong relationship? “Tolerance, allowing space, and accepting the other person”, says Maya. “Everyone has an idea of their partner in their head, and usually at some point they realize that they are different from that image. If you can accept the person as they are, then life gets easier and this strengthens your relationship.” For Gary, it’s also about the give-and-take between the two of them. “We depend on each other in different ways. Maya does so much for us. She handles all the money, all the problems with our credit cards, orders our medicines, things like that. And I make her tea in the morning. So it’s sort of an even trade”, he jokes. But in all seriousness, you can sense that the two of them have found a rhythm in their lives that is smooth and steady.
This isn’t to say that Maya and Gary don’t bicker. They snap at each other sometimes, I mean after 44 years of companionship to not have conflict would feel more like a problem than a gift. But I have always been amazed by their ability to ride the waves of their emotions together, always coming back to the love and stability that they share.
The only complaint that Maya currently has about her relationship is that Gary doesn’t like to play boardgames with her. “He doesn’t want to play games with me because he always wants to win. If I lose I don’t have a problem because I know I can always win again another time but he throws a fit if he loses”. However, even these words, which were the only negative ones that she said about Gary during our interview, were said with a smile, a laugh, and a look of mischief in her eyes.