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Virtually Yours: A chat room love story

An American woman overcame geography and social taboo to fall in love with a man 20 years younger – and move to India, writes Naomi Canton.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2009 11:57 IST
Naomi Canton

He was a guitarist with a Mumbai rock band. She was a dinosaur tour guide in a New York museum. They met in a science fiction chat room.

And then tumbled headlong into something far more mind-boggling and fascinating than science fiction – love.

Despite coming from different countries and meeting in an Internet chat room 12 years ago -- and despite American Kathleen Ferrara being 20 years older than her Indian partner Akshay Singh Jamwal, they are living together in an extended family in Juhu, in Mumbai.

It is a perfect saga of how love overcomes all -- a relationship that transcended geography, ethnicity, and age.

Ferrara, now a professional dog sitter, and Jamwal, a freelance photographer, are still not married but plan to tie the knot one day. They don't plan to have children either. They decline to discuss their ages, saying they are irrelevant.

"When it's an older man and a younger woman, people say 'nice one' but when it's a younger man and older woman you are branded a cradle snatcher. As far as I am concerned age is irrelevant to a relationship. It's just a number," Ferrara said, relaxing over a cappuccino and stroking a fox terrier at the apartment of actress Smilie Suri, where she is pet sitting her two dogs.

For an unconventional relationship like theirs, neither of them can think of any cross cultural barriers they have faced. But they do find a severe lack of public places for companionship.

"There are not enough places to go for couples in Mumbai, there are very few museums and there is not a lot to do and it's very difficult to plan a weekend," said Ferrara. "How many times can you go to the Jehangir Art Gallery? And the parks are not well kept … Akshay is one of the very few Indians who will not throw garbage on the ground."

Both admit that the city is also not open to couples displaying their affection in public because of the moral taboos.
"You feel like you are breaking rules if you show affection. People are worried about the public and the moral police,"
Ferrara said.

When they met in cyber space, in 1997, Ferrara, a divorcee, was working as a tour guide with the American Museum of Natural History. Jamwal was studying at the RD National College in Bandra, Mumbai.

"Neither of us was interested in a relationship. When you go into these chat rooms it's mostly to have fun. We just found we had lots in common," Ferrara aid.

Her two-year marriage to an Italian-origin American, who she described as having been "married to his mother", had ended several years earlier.

Apart from Jamwal, there were 40 to 50 other virtual people in the Outpost chat room from across the world. The Internet was not established then and most were online to meet people from different countries.

"We were supposed to talk about science fiction but no one did. Most of what people talked about was nonsense," Ferrara recalled.

"Some people even had virtual weddings. I remember carrying a toaster to one. We would make jokes and tease each other and people interacted really well."

Despite having been raised 8,000 miles apart, the two discovered they had plenty in common , not least an interest in science, and their online friendship blossomed.

Jamwal and her talked about everything - books, movies, music, her job, his band. Soon it became addictive.

Ferrara would rush home from work to be online when India was awake, late at night and early morning. Increasingly the couple met in private chat rather than in the open chat channel. They became close friends and then it gradually progressed into a love affair. Neither of them can remember when that happened, it just did.

"The attraction just kept growing and growing even though neither of us was looking for a relationship," said Ferrara.

"We fell in love before we had a physical relationship."

"It's only because she likes to dominate, she's territorial," Ferrara said, moving the pedigree away from the adopted stray, as the two started to fight.

Next Jamwal, dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, threw the dogs a ball to calm them down. The couple seemed to know what each other was thinking.

They share many common interests – one of which was a love for animals. They both volunteer for the Welfare of Stray Dogs and Jamwal helps with the pet sitting service.

"Intelligence and a sense of humour are the most important things. Once you get down to it what else is there?" Ferrara explained.

"I also think any relationship needs to be built on a friendship," she added.

On June 6th 1998, a year after the chat room meeting, Ferrara , despite having never met Jamwal, plucked up the courage to tell him that she loved him - -and he reciprocated.

"I suspected it. There was a lot more going on between us than the other online relationships," she said.

The following year, she flew to India to meet him in person.

"As I approached Mumbai I had all kinds of misgivings. I was thinking 'What if I don't recognise him?'

"What if he sees me and he walks away? What if I am making a mistake?" she said.

She had sent him a Harley-Davidson T shirt to wear so she could recognise him.

As she walked out of Mumbai airport she felt like she was greeted by millions of faces. Then right at the end of the path, she found her Jamwal, wearing the T shirt, waiting with a huge smile on his face.

"All those years we had spent online together were there between us and is was so easy and the all the 'what if''s just went by the side," Ferrara said.

She stayed in his family home and met his mother, who she said welcomed her with open arms.

"You would have thought when he told his mum he was dating an older woman, she would have thrown a fit, but she didn't.

"I even visited his grandmother and she welcomed me into the family and kept her personal feelings in check," Ferrara
added.

"I guess the India we know is the progressive cosmopolitan one. Most of the Indians that we know are cut from the same kind of cloth," Ferrara said.

"I don't worry about Mumbai society and whether I am welcome in it or not. I think I am always welcome. If they have an issue with it it's their problem. I would not be friends with anyone that has a narrow point of view. We like people who are open to new ideas and what is actually going on in the world. Akshay is a non stereotypical Indian man."

"My friends were inquisitive," Jamwal said. "When you have been in a relationship online it seems quite bizarre to some people. But they were supportive and none of them told me not to go ahead.

"And quite frankly I don't care what anyone says," he added, throwing the dogs' rubber ball into the air.

"My whole family knew about the relationship with Kat and so there wasn't any great surprise when I told them she was coming to visit.

"She was very insecure about the whole thing," he said. "Not me."

"My whole family loved Kat," he said. "Who wouldn't?"

After travelling backwards and forwards to India several times, in 2001 the 9/11 tragedy unfolded. It made Ferrara realise how short life was. So she rang Jamwal and said she was moving to India.

Ferrara then moved to Mumbai permanently and Jamwal's family happily accepted her.

Jamwal might be Hindu-born and Kat Christian-born, but both are agnostic.

"Yes there are some obvious differences, like we have different skin colour and are from different religions but none of them matter to us," Jamwal said. "None of them ever come up in our relationship."

His mother is a Mumbai-borm social worker and father, Jammu-born and in the merchant navy. "I guess I come from a modern, cosmopolitan family," he continued.

"We may have had personal differences, but no cross cultural ones," he said.

The fact they were friends first and dealt with "everything online" before even meeting, also helped, he said.

Ferrara added: "I guess you would say it was karma."