This article was first published as in The Times of Israel.
Author Anne Cherian is a collection of contradictions. She is Jewish, yet she wears a crooked cross, the symbol of the Jacobite Syrian Christians, on a chain around her neck. She is a descendant of an American rabbi and his wife — who, according to family lore, cooked “the best borscht anyone has ever made.” But she also grew up attending Catholic school and living among Hindu friends and neighbors in Jamshedpur, a planned industrial city in the northeastern part of India. And now, she is married to a Japanese-American man from a Buddhist family.
It’s not surprising that someone constantly juggling the various strands of a complex ethnic identity would choose to think — and in Cherian’s case, write — about it.
The author’s Jewish background is not immediately apparent from her novels, “A Good Indian Wife” (2008) and “The Invitation” (2012), both primarily about the Indian-American experience. But once one learns her personal story, there’s no ignoring the keen sense of otherness that permeates her narratives, or the very Jewish place it seems to come from. Cherian’s Jewish heritage also finds expression in her more recent novel, which includes a Jacobite Syrian Christian Indian woman unsure of how to respond when her husband, a Jewish cardiologist, gets interested in reconnecting with his roots.
Promoted as a speaker by the Jewish Book Council, the friendly and frank Cherian, 54, recently talked to The Times of Israel by phone from her home in Los Angeles, discussing her highly unusual background and reflecting on how being multi-ethnic can be simultaneously enriching and alienating.
Cherian’s father, Thonipurackal Varkey Cherian (Thoni, for short), was a Jacobite Syrian Christian from a tiny Indian village with no electricity. The eldest son of “a family with a good name,” he realized that the way out of farming and a rural life was education.
“He had to walk miles to school through cobra-infested land,” Cherian recounted. “His drive and intelligence brought him all the way for graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley on a Tata Scholarship in the 1940s.”
There, the elder Cherian was befriended by Albert Paul Krueger, a Jewish medical doctor and bacteriologist who welcomed foreign students into his home. Upon learning that the Indian student had previously studied chemistry, he asked him to tutor his teenage daughter, Elsie, who was struggling in the subject at school.
“Well, a lot of chemistry went on. It just wasn’t the kind that APK [as the professor was called] had in mind,” Cherian joked.
The pair fell in love despite their different backgrounds and the 10-year age difference between them.
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© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.