Couple’s love story inspires Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival

Published: June 25, 2013
Indian Summer Festival

Sirish Rao and his wife Laura Byspalko created the Indian Summer Festival three years ago. Jenelle Schneider/PNG


This is a classic story of boy meets girl — almost.

“We met the first day on the job and since we’ve known each other we’ve worked every single day together,” Laura Byspalko said of her seemingly destined love story with husband Sirish Rao.

But it’s not quite the classic North American tale — they met in 2008 in Chennai, India, working for the same publishing firm.

Laura was completing an internship for her master’s degree from Simon Fraser University. She was the only one of about 16 students in her program to take an internship outside of Toronto or B.C.

Sirish played tour guide, helping her get acquainted to the new city.

Today, Laura can be considered the tour guide, as the couple spearhead Vancouver’s Indian Summer Arts Society, currently organizing the city’s third annual Indian Summer Festival, running July 4 to 13.

But the path that led them here took some time and adjustment.

It was after one year in Chennai that Laura’s visa ran out and Sirish, born in Bangalore, India, followed her to Vancouver — a city in a country that was never on his radar.

“It was so far away,” said Sirish. “Canada is really far from India geographically (and) culturally — I just had no engagement with it at all. I just knew it as a wide open space and I knew a few people here. Really, it was, ‘I’m going to follow this woman back.’”

Although it was his first trip to North America, their transition into a western life and relationship was a “very natural cultural exchange,” said Laura.

They were married by October 2009.

Now time is divided between their homes on opposite ends of the globe, nine months in Vancouver and three months in India.

However, they differ on what they’d like to call home permanently— Sirish voting for Canada, Laura for India.

“What we actually have going on right now is the best of both worlds,” Laura said.

With most of their time spent in Canada, they remain in touch with family, friends and various festivals and events in India, such as the Jaipur Literary Festival.

“We were doing this living between Canada and India lifestyle and the festival just came to be,” Laura said of their upcoming Indian Summer Festival.

Happily married three-and-a-half years and into their third year of event planning, cultural differences still exist between the two — but they’re not interested in adapting.

“The beauty is, it’s different — the world would be a boring place if we were all the same,” said Sirish. “The nice thing is to learn and love that difference, be comfortable with it.”

“(There are) little things that are so different,” Sirish said as he sat next to his partner in a lounge near their downtown Vancouver Harbour Centre office. “The sense of space, for example.”

When he speaks to his partner he leans in, puts his hand on her shoulder — otherwise, it could appear as if he’s “talking to anybody,” he said. But his close-talking habits are often greeted by a “back up,” he said with a laugh.

“Just the acreage that most Canadians need around them — whereas I’m used to it, we could fit another two people in,” he said gesturing to the small two-seater couch where he and Laura are seated side by side.

Indian Summer Festival

Sirish Rao and Laura Byspalko. Jenelle Schneider/PNG

But it’s the greater contrasts, like the couple’s “completely different approaches,” that create the magic of Indian Summer Festival.

“In India people are very good at sort of just making things work, whereas here it’s much more organized, we have processes and steps that we go through,” said Laura. “I like to be very organized with the festival, I believe in spread sheets.”

“Whereas the Indian way is a bit more fun, because that’s not fun being organized.”

Naturally, that’s where Sirish steps in.

“I love flying by the seat of my pants — it’s always great when there’s a problem and you need to solve it,” he said. “Every day (in India) you don’t know if there’s going to be electricity, or water, or what’s going to happen between here and work.

“So as soon as someone says, ‘Oh, the musicians didn’t get their visa,’ I’m like, ‘Now you’re talking. Now, what do you do about it? How do you solve this?’”

And therein lies the perfect balance.

“If it was one without the other it wouldn’t be as rich,” said Sirish. “Things only work at the festival because of Laura.”

“The damn thing wouldn’t take off if it was left to me — I’d be having a lot of fun, then I’d be like, ‘Oh, did I invite people?’”

It’s this merging of habits, talent and approaches — a “cross-pollination,” as they both put it — that they’re hoping to achieve with the annual festival.

“It’s an extension of our relationship — we’re always sharing cultures, explaining to each other the whys and the hows of what happens,” said Sirish. “We can get two very different worlds to meet.”

But it doesn’t come as easily in Vancouver as it does with their relationship.

“It’s either we go out with our Indian friends and I’m the only white person or we go out with our white friends and he’s the only Indian person,” Laura said. “Vancouver is very multicultural, but it’s very segregated also.”

“What we’ve been trying to do with the festival is bring these groups together … that cross-pollination of audiences.”

“We need to merge more,” added Sirish. “Step a little bit outside what you know and then a whole new world opens up for you.”

Hence the festival’s tag line this year: “Where worlds meet.”

And if this “cross-pollination” can be even half as successful as their loving relationship and marriage, it’s definitely worth a try.

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