As a young girl in St. Peter, Minn., in the 1930s, Marianne Colberg would often trek to the local market to hear the shopkeeper read the newspaper aloud. The stories from faraway places the world over enthralled her.
Soon enough, Keswani would work in a world-renowned laboratory at the Mayo Clinic before happily uprooting her life to marry an Indian doctor in New Delhi, becoming Marianne Keswani. She would return 22 years later to St. Peter, where she worked at Gustavus Adolphus College, retiring as a foreign student adviser after a quarter-century.
“She was a learner; she knew there was more to the world than being in a small place,” said her daughter, Amyanne Cope of Lake Forest, Ill.
Keswani, 87, of Mahtomedi, died Oct. 7 of natural causes.
Born Dec. 3, 1931, Marianne Colberg grew up on a farm in St. Peter in a Lutheran family of Swedish descent. Known as whip-smart, she graduated from St. Peter High School at 16 and later from Gustavus with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology and minors in mathematics and philosophy. “She was kind of a whiz kid,” said her son, Ashwini Keswani of White Bear Lake.
She accepted a job at the Mayo Clinic as a biochemist, where she met a physician, Nandkumar Hemraj Keswani, who the family believes was the only Indian doctor in Rochester at the time and whom she eventually married.
But first, she had to travel to what was is now Kolkata on a Dutch cargo ship to join her fiancé, taking a circuitous route in late 1956 because the ship couldn’t go through the Suez Canal amid unrest in the Middle East. After an arduous 44-day voyage, Marianne Keswani later recalled in a brief memoir, “a handsome young man with his arms full of roses” waved to her from the dock.
When the couple wed, they became the first to do so under India’s Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, which legalized marriage between people of different faiths. They remained married for 54 years, until he died in 2011.
While in India, her husband served as head of the anatomy department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Four children followed, and Keswani also worked at the U.S. Embassy. She embraced India’s culture, learning to speak, read and write Hindi, as well as Sanskrit. She often donned a sari, taking a brave step of wearing a white one for her wedding — dress typically reserved for Hindu widows. “Father had a special sari made for her,” daughter Amyanne said.
“For a Minnesota girl, she got quite an experience,” said her brother, the Rev. Charles Colberg of Minneapolis.
Her daughter recently discovered boxes of letters her mother wrote to family in St. Peter detailing life in India. In them, she “always asked about the Vikings.”
After more than two decades in India, the family moved to Minnesota in the early 1970s. Keswani began her career at Gustavus — an institution with longstanding ties to her family — by working in the bookstore. By the time she retired, she was an international student coordinator and foreign student adviser.
Described as humble and quiet, “she was beloved,” her daughter said. “She was always looking to lighten someone’s load and make a difference.” Her Lutheran faith sustained her over the years, Cope added. “She lived her faith, but she respected all people and saw good in everyone.”
In addition to her brother, her daughter Amyanne Cope and son Ashwini Keswani, Keswani is survived by sons Rajan Keswani of Eden Prairie and Sushil Keswani of Sycamore, Ill.; seven grandchildren, and one great-grandson.
Services have been held.