Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled our member, Putul Chanda, a senior from Bangladesh and our center in Jamaica, known as the Desi Senior Center. In the article she tells the history, not just of our senior’s life, but that of Bangladesh’s protracted and traumatic fight for freedom. Putul Chanda is not the only one of our seniors who has been through the travails of war and displacement – several of the elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The second and last installment of Bakshi’s article is reproduced. To read Part 1, click here. Both installments have been edited for length and clarity.
Putul Chanda, a senior at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, recounted her story of resistance and escape during the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971
Putul Chanda once told me that she was the only Hindu at the Desi Senior Center, and everyone else was Muslim. Aunty’s assertion of her Hindu identity made sense. She had come so close to forsaking her religious beliefs in order to protect her life that it was natural for her, so many decades later, to feel proud of the fact that she had managed to retain the faith she had grown up with.
“You Hindu or Muslim?”, she asked me. On learning that I too was a Hindu, her eyes lit up and she happily agreed to let me take a picture of her.
I never noticed any animosity between her and the other members of the Center. On the contrary, it seemed that Putul Aunty was very well liked and respected among her peers at the Center, and she treated them with equal respect. None of them could forget the genocide of ’71, but forty-five years later in a different country, their common Bengali identity united them more than their different religious identities divided them.
Putul felt relieved leaving her ancestral village. Once again, the journey proved treacherous. As they waded through the Ichchamati river, the river that, in Bengali literature, is said to grant wishes to passersby, Putul’s wish was to make it safely into India. The route was notorious for bandits and murderers who would rob not just money and jewelry, but also abduct women. The family was wealthy, so they were traveling with a darwan, a bodyguard, who swore that as long as he was alive, nothing would happen to any of them. They hardly slept, but on the rare occasions when they did, they had to sleep wherever they found open space; on a verandah, in a jungle, even in the marshes, always keeping an ear open for gunshots that would cause them to scatter.
Refugees from Bangladesh riding in a bullock cart. Photograph (c) by Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only
They survived on the fruits and wild berries they picked from the fields and forests they crossed along their journey. Sometimes, while crossing towns, they would manage to procure roti, dal, and vegetables, but towns also meant that there would be more soldiers. On these rare instances when they sat down to eat a proper meal, they would be interrupted by sounds of soldiers approaching, accompanied by gunshots and screams. Putul would discard her uneaten meal, and run as fast as she could to find a hiding spot.
By surviving off of the land this way, they managed to make it to Jessore, a town that bordered India on the west. India would only be a few days now, Putul told herself. From Jessore they afforded themselves the small luxury of setting out again in a bullock cart. Riding in the cart did not do any favors to Putul’s back, which had developed a constant pain. Traveling through rocky inner routes and rickety passageways to avoid the highway which would have considerable army presence, they soon had to abandon the cart and set off on foot once again.
Family members carrying an elder as they walk across the border from Bangladesh to India during the 1971 war. Photograph (c) Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only
As she made her way towards India, Putul, her stomach churning, saw the discarded babies and children that had died due to starvation and exhaustion, their bodies reeking of death, flies and vultures preying upon them. Old women and men that had been abandoned by their families because they were too weak to complete the grueling journey sat on the edges of paths, hoping for and awaiting their own deaths. “There is no Bangladeshi family in which at least one or two people didn’t go missing”, Putul said.
Mr. Hussain, who had been listening intently, nodded vigorously. He once told me that the reason he couldn’t talk freely at the Center was because he believed a particular staff member to be hailing from Pakistan. On being told that the staff member in question was actually from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, he opened up a great deal. He had been the Agricultural Secretary of the district of Dinaspur in Bangladesh, and considered himself an expert on the topic of the ’71 War, having fought in it himself.
Putul continued. She was thankful that dada’s (her elder brother) resolve to get the entire family across the border was firmer than a rock. Her mother was too old and feeble to carry out the exhausting journey on her own, so dada and Putul’s uncle broke off a branch from a bamboo tree, tore their clothes to create strips that they used to bind Putul’s mother’s arms and legs onto it, and then carried one side of the pole on each of their shoulders.
The exhausted family finally reached a small canal, that was, as they found out, close to the Indian border. Any glimmer of hope they had preserved instantly vanished when they were told that there were no boats to take them across. Hundreds of fleeing Bangladeshis had crossed that canal, and once the army found out, they stole all the boats that were being used to transport people across the water.
The banks of the small canal were not safe by nightfall because the soldiers would plunder camps and kidnap girls to rape and then kill them. Dada’s legs were painfully swollen and he, like Putul, was developing a painful and consistent back pain, but he vowed that he would only rest after reaching India.Putul had reached a stage of utter exhaustion and hopelessness, and was beginning to give up her inner resolve. Then they noticed the banana trees that lined the shores. Desperate to finish their trek to safe shores, Putul, dada, and the rest of their family feverishly broke off branches of banana trees and tied them together to make a raft.
They used any energy they had left to row to the opposite bank, but once they reached, they found that their struggle wasn’t over yet. Disembarking from the raft, Putul put her feet on the ground. As she tried to take the next step, she found her foot stuck; the more she would try to free it, the more it would sink. She was stuck in five feet of quicksand, and all she could see for miles and miles was more of the sucking mud. Putul wondered if the gods were playing with them, using them as mere pawns in a sadistic game.
At her vivid description, Shakhwat Hussain gasped, his eyes enlarged. Leaning in slightly, he admitted that his struggle was nowhere close to being as arduous as Putul’s, simply because he hailed from Dinaspur, a district very close to the Indian border. So, when the time came for him to flee Bangladesh, he simply crossed over into India, aided by his status as a student muktijhhoda.
Putul Aunty continued. They battled the kalamatti (black mud) for what seemed like a lifetime, Putul’s mother still being carried on a pole. Dehydrated and ravenous, they were all looking death in the eye, using their desperation to will themselves forward. Their bodies gave up, but their minds didn’t.
It was 10 PM when the kalamatti finally lessened. Putul no longer felt anything after overcoming an obstacle except an anticipation of the next hurdle. She could see little huts scattered around. She approached one of the huts and asked the man inside for a glass of water, the first she would have in days. She asked him, “India kauto door? How far is India?” The man waved his arms, demonstrating, “My kitchen is in Bangladesh, but the rest of the house is in India.” Pointing to a pillar that ran across his living room, he said, “That’s the border demarcation pillar right there. You’re safe now.”
Putul had never been more elated in her life.
She noticed a muktijhhoda camp nearby, and knew that she would be safe now. They reached the camp where they changed their damp clothes, and collapsed onto the bare ground, devoid of meals or mattress. When they woke up after what felt like days, they were greeted by sunshine and the beaming face of Putul’s younger brother, her chhotu dada.Chhotu dada had fled to India during the partition of ’47. He had met no one in the family since then, but they had been in correspondence through occasional letters and rare phone calls. When he heard that the rest of his family were trying to flee Bangladesh, he had searched all the mukti bahini camps in the area, until he saw the sleeping shapes of his family members in the camp at Boira, recognizable to him even after 25 years.
Gasping at this positive turn of events, Putul Aunty’s enthralled little audience cheered. Beaming, she rushed through the rest of her story.
Putul’s family went with chhotu dada to Krishnanagar in the Indian state of West Bengal, where the stashes of cash they had somehow managed to travel with were declared invalid. However, the Indian government gave them rations. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had decided that India would intervene in Pakistan’s civil war, supporting the Bangladeshi mukti bahini’s demands to create a new nation-state comprising of ethnic Bengalis.
Putul Aunty paused, and looked at me. “Thanks god to India, to Indira Gandhi. Because of India’s kindness so many people are alive today. Indira Gandhi’s name will be chiseled onto my heart till the day I die.”
Shakhwat affirmed this dramatic statement, “If it wasn’t for the alliance with India, with Indira Gandhi, we wouldn’t have gotten independence so fast, and crores more people would have died.” Like Putul, he said he would always be eternally grateful to India.
The Liberation Times announces the news of Pakistani surrender to Indian forces in Dacca on 15th December, 1972
The Pakistani forces had two territories to defend; West Pakistan from the Indian forces, and East Pakistan from Bengali rebels. Unable to match up to the combined forces of the Indians and the Bangladeshi rebels, on December 16, 1971, Pakistan officially surrendered, making East Pakistan the country that is now called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Putul stayed with her family in Krishnanagar until the war was over. After the war, dada decided that it was time for her to finally finish her education. So, he went back to Bangladesh with her, and after she finished her education, arranged a marriage for her to a Hindu Bangladeshi freedom fighter. Her husband, like Hussain, was recognized by the Government of Bangladesh as a freedom fighter. After his death in 2004, the pension he received annually for his services to the country went to Putul, who will continue receiving it her entire life.
Having finished her story, Putul became silent, a satisfied look on her face, the cup beside her conspicuous due to the lack of tea inside it. Putul Aunty had gone through more life threatening adventures in the course of a few months than most people I knew had encountered in their entire lives. I felt humbled by her complete lack of self-awareness – she didn’t seem to think that what she had gone through was unusual in any way- as well as honored that she had decided to share her story with me.
I felt like I had to say something. “So, what made you shift to New York?”, I asked both Shakhwat and Putul. Hussain, currently residing with his son and his family in Queens, is here with his wife for lung therapy. He had severe lung and kidney problems, and was told that the best treatment would be available in New York. He might go back once he has fully recovered, but he loves New York and the lifestyle it affords, so he might stay on here with his family. Putul Aunty came to New York in 2012, to live with her daughter.
Currently, she is considered a refugee in India, a muktijhhoda in Bangladesh, and an immigrant in New York. She likes it here, but it’s just not like home.
New York University’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH) held a community health forum at our Desi Senior Center on Tuesday, September 26th. The forum celebrated the advances in the health of our seniors thanks to our partnership with CSAAH. MD Taher is the Project Coordinator for NYU’s Department of Population Health and a Community Health Worker with CSAAH. He has, for the past several months, helped to coordinate impactful health projects at the Desi Senior Center in Jamaica. “We wanted to share our results with the community, celebrate their health,” he said. Also being celebrated was our successful partnership with New York University’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH), which is the leading institute in the US set up to study Asian American health. Our collaboration with the institute has helped facilitate and advance several health projects.
We wanted to tell the community what our findings were, and thank the seniors from India Home, MD Taher, Project Coordinator, NYU Department of Population Health, said.
These projects fill a necessary void in care because as MD Taher said: “There are serious health concerns in the community.” One in four Bangladeshis have diabetes. One in five suffer from hypertension.
One of these projects, titled Keep On Track / Reach Far trained 26 volunteers at India Home to monitor blood pressure as part of a Community Health Assessment. Over 80 seniors from Desi Senior Center participated in the project.
Other projects too have had a direct impact on the health of our seniors. One helped to disseminate nutrition information with culturally and linguistically adapted brochures in Bengali and Hindi. “They came many, many times to the center to teach our seniors about nutrition. They gave them a cup and a spoon, taught them how to measure their food portions, ” Nargis Ahmed, the Site Director for Desi Senior Center said. Nargis worked closely with the NYU team to get seniors to try these new nutrition strategies.
The team from CSAAH shared the finding from various projects with the seniors at India Home’s Desi Senior Center.
Another important innovation has been CSAAH’s partnership with five area pharmacies to create linguistically adapted health materials in Hindi and Bengali, the languages spoken by our seniors. CSAAH also launched a nutrition strategy by working with area restaurants like Star Kabab in Jamaica to replace ingredients in common dishes so as to make them healthier. For example, switching white rice with brown in kitchurie ( a Bengali rice and lentil dish) increased its nutrition content. CSAAH has also partnered with local mosques to serve healthier foods for the iftar meal that breaks the Ramadan fast.
Other CSAAH projects like the DREAM (Diabetes Research, Education, and Action for Minorities) project, a five-year community based participatory research study, have also had success in improving attitudes toward health in the Bangladeshi community. The DREAM project aims to develop, implement, and test a Community Health Worker (CHW) Program designed to improve diabetes control and diabetes-related health complications in the Bangladeshi community in New York City. As a result of this effort at diabetes management, over 400 patients who participated across the city lost weight, became more active physically, managed their medications better and saw their doctors regularly.
The community health forum was held in the spirit of transparency and partnership and sought to update the seniors who participated in the projects and create ongoing dialogue. “We wanted to tell the community what our findings were,” MD Taher said. “And thank them.” The forum was well attended by community leaders, partners, local businesses, policy makers, and media partners.
Dr. Nadia Islam, PhD, the Deputy Director and co-investigator of the Center for the Study of Asian American Health presents findings on the DREAM Project.
The response from the community of seniors has been excellent. Even with all the barriers like work, taking care of grandchildren and busy lives, participants have been able to maintain the lifestyle changes they made as a result of the projects. India Home is happy to have done its part in improving the lives of our seniors. In the face of the rapidly growing older adult population of Bengali seniors in New York City, India Home’s vision is to continue to be a leading resource to our seniors and agencies and institutions that are working to respond to their changing and emerging needs. “Our seniors were very happy that they learned new things and I plan to continue to remind them,” Nargis Ahmed said.
India Home’s Executive Director, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, along with Dr. Swapna Dontinneni, Dr. Pratik Jain and Ms.Vani Tirumal presented a study on Attitudes to American Health Care among Elderly South Asians at the 34th Annual AAPI Convention.
AAPI or the Association of Indian Physicians, is the largest non-profit ethnic medical organization in the United States. It stands for over 60,000 practicing doctors and 20,000 students and residents of Indian origin. Every year doctors and healthcare professionals come together for an annual convention in a major American city. They meet to talk about medical advances, health policy, participate in presentations and exhibits that highlight the newest advances in caring for patients, and medical technology. This year, India Home’s Executive Director, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, MD, attended the convention in New York city in her capacity as a practicing geriatric psychologist. Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, Dr. Swapna Dontinneni, MD, Dr. Pratik Jain, MD and Vani Tirumala made a presentation about Attitudes to American Health Care among Elderly South Asians using their research conducted with participants from India Home’s Sunnyside Center and Services Now for Adult Persons Center. Most of the doctors leading the 2010 study were from Brown University.
Some of the key findings were that elderly South Asians relied on non-allopathic forms of medicine such as homeopathy, Ayurveda and herbal home remedies as a first line of defense. When they used allopathic medicine it was a second choice, and very few believed that it was important to have a primary care physician.
The Poster for the study
Barriers to healthcare
Interestingly, the study* also found the barriers to healthcare were the burden of paperwork, discrimination, communication (lack of English access) and affordability. With this study, the doctors made an important contribution to the growing body of knowledge about South Asian seniors and their attitudes toward American health care.
* Please enlarge image of poster for references
Shireen Mansoor was born in 1949 in Bogra village in, what was then, undivided Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh and its first President, was a cousin. Perhaps that’ is why the revolutionary spirit burned bright in her. From a young age she broke with tradition, went to college and became one of the few women in the country with a medical degree. Hardly 22 years old at the time of the Bangladesh War of Independence, Dr. Mansoor secretly smuggled herself into Assam’s refugee camps to help her country and the Bangladesh Revolutionary Party. This is her story in her own words.
Eight years old and in boarding school
I was born in Bogra. My father was a business man in Dhaka and my mother lived with him away in the city. We were 9 sisters and my grandfather, a retired lawyer, was taking care of us. He said to my father, “No matter what the sex of the children they need an education. Let them stay here..Bogra is a quiet place.”
I was bored at home and so my grandfather asked my father to put me in the POD Girls School. It was a dorm school (boarding). He said, “There’ll be a library, she will have companions.” I was eight years old when i joined the 5th grade.
All the other girls were bigger than me and one of them came and asked me, “You are so little what are you doing here.”
When my father was about to leave I said, ” I said let me sleep in your lap. When I’m asleep you can put me to bed and you can go.”
My dad used to send money to the post office and the school clerk would handle my finances. Sometimes he’d say, the teachers haven’t been paid so can I give them some money and I’d say please go ahead. When they got paid, he’d return the money.
I would buy breakfast for my school friends. I would tell the peon, “Today I want four parathas with bundiya and rasogulla.” He’d say, “Why four?” I wanted to give my friends breakfast because my breakfast came from outside and they didn’t like the school breakfast.
One of 10 female medical students in 1968
Shireen was a champion in Medical School sports
I went to college and I got admission into medical school. I was selected on merit. The medical school was set up by the World Health Organization and it was in the Rajshahi district, close to India. It was a wonderful school, newly built. Very big campus. There was the medical school, hospital, hostels for teachers and students, playgrounds. It was beautiful.
We were 100 students in the medical school. Out of the 90 students from home country, I was one of 10 female students. One time we had to do anatomy and thanks god I was one of the first to get to do it. I got to dissect the abdomen. It is a big part of the body and has a lot of organs intestine, spleen and so on. The Grey’s Anatomy was our book – it was so heavy we had to carry it on our shoulder. I had a study partner; she didn’t know good English and I always helped her to study. So she was always carrying my books, like my secretary. She was very good. I love her.
Called to help in the Bangladesh War of Independence
In 1971 the college informed the international students that there was going to be political unrest and asked them to go home. They told us that the ambulance would drop every girl from the hospital at home. So they dropped me home. My parents were worried about the unrest. Then on the 27th of March the war started and the army started marching from Dhaka to all the districts. My parents decided it wasn’t safe to stay in the city, so we moved to the village. On the 28th of March, we went to the village. I was a third year student.
Working in the delivery room in the OBGyn ward in Libya
One afternoon I was standing on my balcony. I saw a young boy was coming through the gates. When he came closer I realized he was my cousin. He was dressed like a soldier. He brought a letter from my uncle, asking me to go with him to the refugee camp in Assam, India set up by the officers of the Revolutionary Party. There were a lot of women refugees with gynecological problems, urinary tract infection and so on. The Red Cross was helping but there were no female doctors.My father said, “Yes, definitely this is your time to go and help.
“My mother started crying. “If she goes to the war front no one will marry her. No one will take her in marriage. People will talk.”
But my father said, “She definitely needs to go because she’s needed there.”
Hiding in the forest from Pakistani fighter jets
This happened at about 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon and I had to leave at 6:00 because they had hired a big boat with a motor. There were 100 people on the boat, including my relatives and some political persons. It had two floors like a steamer. They gave me a lot of honor. I had a corner on the boat with a curtain. In the daytime they moved very fast down the Brahmaputra river and at night they would hide. The Pakistani fighter planes were flying overhead all the time. It took three days; it’s a long distance from Bangladesh to Assam.
One time the boat was anchored and the Pakistani planes were overhead, they were looking to drop bombs. So all the political people on the boat said everyone get off the boat slowly and crawl into the forest. They asked us to scatter, to not go in groups. So my cousin and me got off the boat. It was a very terrible feeling. But on the other hand I did it for my country. My cousin held my hand and we crawl crawl crawl and we waited for two three hours in the forest. Then the plane went away and we went back to the boat and continued. This is one memory that stays with me even today.
Working in the refugee camps
With a co-worker in the OB-Gyn
The refugee camps were filled with refugees who had run away from Bangladesh to survive. There were building like a school or a police station, there were offices for the red cross. The camp officials were very happy to see me and they took me to meet the women. The women had problems with the language so they couldn’t tell anyone what was going on. There were like half a million refugees there. Many women were from good families. There was no water for washing. There was bread in plastic bags, but it wasn’t enough. Many were going hungry. There was canned milk, canned vegetables from abroad. They washed in the river. So I worked there and that’s how it went until December 16. Then knew the country was independent! Oh happy days.
Land covered in bones
When I went back home and had to go back to medical school. There were dead bodies on both sides of the road, collected there in huge numbers. It was nine months after they had been killed and all the flesh had disappeared.
The ambulance came to take us back and on the way there–oh my god –I saw the land was covered in bones.
Marriage and becoming an OB-Gyn in Libya
Husband and wife on holiday in Switzerland
I did an internship after graduation then I came back to Dhaka and started working in the OBGyn ward. My mother was crushing her head that I should get married. Then at the age of 26 I got married and moved to Libya. My husband was an eye specialist. Libya was beautiful, like a Mediterranean, European country. It had been developed along the curve of the Mediterranean ocean. The weather was not too hot, not too cold. I worked there with Italian, German and Indian doctors. I worked in Libya for 16 years, my children were born there and were going to British schools. Finally I resigned and followed my husband to Switzerland, then New York in 1994.
Husband’s stroke and hard times
In America it was hard. I had to study, I had foreign student status. I was older, my children were in school. It was very difficult to get residency. I finally started working with a Pakistani doctor who had 4-5 offices. She realized I had done everything possible to work here. I was working with her and she got me immigration, good salary and I survived. My children were still studying when my husband had a stroke and became bedridden. I started supporting the house. Just like my parents took care of me, I took care of my family. What to do? You do it for the children. I worked with the Pakistani doctor for ten years. I stopped working in 2014. It was not easy but I survived.
Proud of her children
I have two daughters and a son. My daughter is a doctor, she’s waiting for her residency. Second one was doing a Ph.D. at Columbia and then she got three scholarships to UPenn, so she moved there. My son got scholarships from Cornell.
Her feelings for India Home’s Desi Senior Center
It keeps us busy and in flow with the world. There’s wonderful feedback here for body and mind.
I had come to the mosque upstairs for prayer and then someone asked me to come to Desi Senior Center because she said, “They have physical exercise.” I came for the physical exercise because I have to take care of myself keep myself fit. When she saw me Nargis (Nargis Ahmed, the Program Coordinator) said, ” Oh my God! Dr. Mansoor, I was your patient!” Here I’m learning about senior citizens health issues, how to take vitamins, fight osteoporosis. I gave some health lectures here on how to protect from the cold, how to take vitamins. It’s a wonderful place for senior citizens. If they are sitting at home, they sleep. It is better that they stay active here. We get one hour exercise everyday and we communicate with each other.