|Urmilla Khanna at home in Annandale.|
The Annandale resident’s remarkable journey is told in a memoir, Boundaries of the Wind, available on Amazon, Sept. 15.
At a time and place when girls weren’t supposed to have career ambitions, Khanna was exceptional. Her father, an engineer working on irrigation and road projects for the government when India was ruled by Britain, wanted his daughters to have an education.
The family moved to a town, Jabalpur, so Urmilla and her sister, Pramilla, could go to go an English school. Urmilla went on to college to study medicine, then earned a doctorate from the Nagpur Medical College.
When the girls reached their 20s, however, traditional attitudes persisted, and their parents insisted the girls be subjected to arranged marriages.
Pramilla, an engineer, rebelled and chose her own husband, but Urmilla decided not to go against her parents’ wishes, although she says, it was an “emotional struggle.” After a series of meetings with potential suitors, recounted in her book, she agreed to marry Krishnan Khanna. They had met only once at her family’s house before the wedding. Happily, it turned out to be a successful marriage.
The couple lived in Storrs, Conn., while Krishnan, known in the U.S. as Kris, was pursuing a doctorate in pharmacology at the University of Connecticut. “Loneliness hit me something fierce,” Urmilla recalls. She missed her family, and at that time, the 1960s, “Indian culture and food was unknown in the United States.” She was the only one in the community wearing a sari, and although people were nice, she found it hard to form deep friendships.
They moved back to India for a while, then to Ann Arbor, Mich. They relocated to Annandale in 1975, where they raised two sons. Urmilla had meanwhile earned a license to practice medicine in the United States and opened a pediatrics practice in Fairfax.
Kris eventually developed Parkinson’s, and Urmilla retired in 2000 to take care of him. After he died, she started taking creative writing classes from Fairfax County’s adult education program.
Her teacher, Joanne Glenn, was very encouraging. “She said I had potential and pushed me quite a bit,” Urmilla says. She joined the World Bank Family Network’s Virtual Dining Table Writers’ Group, which provided further support. Two of her short stories are published in Patchwork: Stories from the Dining Table.
Boundaries of the Wind, Khanna’s first full-length book, covers her early years as she struggled to balance traditional values, her quest for a career in medicine, and her own growing family.