Usha Ram has always felt prepared to stand on her own two feet. That’s why, she tells us one blustery February afternoon in the living room of her Bloomfield Hills home, the 75-year-old OB-GYN didn’t think twice before shoveling her own driveway the night before.
It’s the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism that was instilled in her by her father when Ram was young. “I wanted to go into either music or literature. My dad one day made me sit down and he said, ‘Just think about it. If something happens in your life’ — those days, divorces we had not heard of — ‘if you have to stand on your own feet and support yourself and your kids, music and literature will not give you that much strength.’ He said it was his dream to make his daughter a physician. In those days we did not argue with parents.”
“It’s good to listen to your parents sometimes, because their experience makes them wiser. Not all the time. But sometimes.” Her father’s advice, if sobering, was prescient. After graduating from Mumbai’s Grant Medical College, Ram married a fellow physician and the couple moved to the U.S. in 1968 to complete their internships and residency. But in 1972, when their son was two years old, Ram’s husband left her and the marriage ended in divorce.
So there she was, standing on her own two feet. “Those days I used to cry. I would constantly cry, cry, cry.” When an arranged marriage proposal came nine years later, Ram was unsure she could ever marry again. “I still believe that love doesn’t die. True love doesn’t die. If you don’t have respect, you may not live together. But love doesn’t die. And I still say that it will never die.”
It was Ram’s father who convinced her to give marriage a second try, even though she believed she could never love anyone other than her first husband. “You will love him but it will be a different kind of love,” her father told her. “If you say yes,” he said, “we will die peacefully thinking that you are not alone.”
“On that one sentence, I said yes,” Ram says. “I listened to my dad again.”
Ram is part romantic, part realist, the sort of woman who sees the importance of tradition but isn’t afraid to push back against it. When her granddaughter broached the possibility of attending film school, Ram cautioned against it for the same reasons her father offered. But she’s also frustrated by what she sees as Indian-Americans’ reticence to be open about their private lives and struggles. “When your generation is still not coming out, we have a problem,” she says. “I feel very sorry that you are carrying our baggage.”
Though her own difficulties have toughened her, Ram says she’s careful not to let them overpower her. “That’s what America taught me. They said we have known you as a good person, so be a better person and not a bitter person.”
Ram has acted on that instinct through service to the community; she volunteers with a number of local organizations and says she believes that “hope for well-being of others, to me, is an incredible motivator.” After seeing other Indian-American women endure hardships in her early years in the U.S., Ram was instrumental in the founding of Mai Family Services, a domestic violence and mental health assistance organization for South Asian families in metro-Detroit. At St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital, where she practices, she recently began a free clinic for patients without health insurance.
“Everybody says that I’m crazy. I just turned 75 in December and they say, ‘Why are you still delivering babies?’ But to me, as I see that baby, I believe in supreme God, that only He can create this thing. It really keeps me humble. Just seeing a baby being delivered makes me believe in a supreme being.”
With that, Ram springs from her chair, leads us into her plant-filled kitchen and fires up a griddle. “Let’s eat some dosa.”
As she pours out batter from a green plastic container, she brings up a baby shower she recently attended for a family member in a same-sex relationship. Who would come for the baby shower? a relative lamented to her. “I said, ‘Oh, I’ll come!’”
“People who can laugh can last much longer,” she says, ladling sambar into small bowls. “We need to be open and accept the fact that it’s OK. You don’t want to give up on your children.”
She still struggles, she says, to reconcile the values of her generation with her own curiosity and restlessness. “I believe in a supreme being,” she says. “But sometimes I fight with God. If you are there, why don’t you treat anyone equally? A person we haven’t even seen, we are afraid of. Who is he? We don’t even know him.”
“I still feel my religion is humanity,” Ram says. “I think I see good in everybody, even when I get hurt.”