India Home’s elders enact the aarthi worship ritual asking Ganesh, the elephant headed Hindu god,for intervention against obstruction
Lord Ganesh, the roly-poly, elephant-headed Hindu God is beloved of devotees not only across India, but also Nepal, Tibet and other Himalayan communities. As part of India Home’s on-going partnership with the Rubin Museum of Himalayan culture in Manhattan, our members, immigrants from India and Nepal presented a program for the Himalayan Heritage unit on their relationship with Ganesh.
The audience was diverse and was made up of people who ran the gamut from those who loved Himalayan culture and had visited India or Nepal several times, to curious folks who had wandered in out of a cold, rainy evening.
Rameshwor Koirala, a Nepali elder spoke of diverse traditions and memories
What they got were stories: childhood memories of waiting for hours in line to catch a glimpse of the most famous Ganesh statue in all of Bombay; a Nepali myth of Ganesh incarnated as a warrior God who breaks his tusk to throws it at the jeering moon; and surprising accounts of Tantric offerings of meat and whisky from Renu Shreshta, a member of the Newari community of Nepal.
Renu Shreshta, an immigrant elder from the Newari community in Nepal, related myths about Ganesh and her community’s unique rituals that include offerings of meat and whisky.
India Home elder Kaveri Amma sings a praise song to Lord Ganesha at the Rubin Museum event
Our elders also enacted the rituals of worship, wether it was the installation of a tiny statue of Ganesh, or the “visarjan” or immersion that is part of the cycle of the celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh’s Birthday). Meera Venugopal, India Home’s staff explained how the clay body of the God animated by the ardor of worship is returned to nature by being immersed in moving water. Just as our bodies are returned to the elements through death, so too Ganesh is sent off on his journey, only to be welcomed again next year.
India Home elders enact workshop rituals celebrating Ganesh’s birthday at Rubin Museum
The program ended in true South Asian fashion with feasting–there were samosas, hot tea, and laddoos, beloved sweetmeat of Ganesh.
India Home’s elders chanted and played the dholak drum as they led the audience around the room in a playful farewell to Lord Ganesh
Rubin Museum’s Assistant Manager of Cultural Programs and Partnerships, Tashi Chodron, welcomed a full house to the program
Once again Rubin Museum’s audiences had an opportunity to experience a culture through the authentic medium of stories of lived experience. Our elders were thrilled to share their lives, perform and be seen as active, talented story-tellers and performers.
All photographs are by Jane Stein
Our seniors, many of whom are from Bangladesh, went to visit Boscobel House, one of America’s greatest historical homes
On July 27th 2017 our seniors from our Desi Senior Center went on a summer picnic to Boscobel House and Gardens in Hudson Valley. Described by Nelson A. Rockerfeller, then Governor of New York, in his keynote address at Boscobel’s opening celebration in 1961 as “one of the most beautiful homes ever built in America,” the house is considered, “one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the country and contains one of the nation’s leading collections of furniture and decorative arts from the Federal period,” according to their website. In short, it is a quintessentially American gem.
Many of our seniors are immigrants from Bangladesh and are relative newcomers to America. Many do not have the economic means to travel for pleasure. So this trip was very exciting and a revelation for them, one that had them looking forward to getting out into the open air for days.
Our seniors were awed by the breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley
As the bus wound along the Hudson, and they finished their breakfast and broke out the snacks, they admired the beauty the towns and mountains we passed through and were vocal in their appreciation of the river and the rocky cliffs that fell away from the road.
The bus got to Boscobel mansion at around 12:00 PM. The driver made a mistake and took our party to the entrance to the woods instead of Boscobel. “You build up so much expectation through the journey only to bring us to the woods?” our seniors joked. Though, once we found the correct entrance, everybody was in awe of the elegant house set in the midst of beautiful rolling gardens, and the breathtaking views of the Hudson river shimmering in the calm valley.
Docents explain the history and traditions of Boscobel House to our seniors
Docents from Boscobel treated our seniors to a tour of the house and the gardens. They went went over its unique architectural details, furniture and decorative objects, and also talked about daily life in the early 1800s. Our seniors loved hearing the stories of the history and traditions of the house. The docents were thrilled with their enthusiasm and interest and answered many questions with patience and humor.
Boscobel House had provided us with tents to rest in and have our picnic. Later in the evening, our seniors, who come from a tradition that reveres literature and poetry, held an impromptu cultural event under the tents.
They sang folk songs in Bengali. They recited famous poems by poets like Nurul Hassan or Rabindranath Tagore, or the ones they had written, told jokes, and read from famous works of literature or their own pieces.
That is where we shall leave them: a collection of our Muslim elders, on the grounds of this tradition-steeped American historical landmark, filling the air that wafts off the storied Hudson river with their own words and songs – creating on that day their own American moment and memories.
Reporting contributed by: Sabit Bhuyian
Our seniors recited poetry and sang folk songs in Bengali in an impromptu cultural event under the tents at Boscobel
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is the largest and most influential museum of modern art in the world. As part of a creative aging initiative, our seniors got to engage with the art of photography in the MoMA. The program featured a guided tour of exhibits, and two photography classes at our center conducted by Jano Cortijo, an artist-educator from the museum.
“Looking” at photos at MoMA:
Jano Cortijo, an artist educator from the MoMA asks our what they notice in Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits
Our seniors study Robert Rauschenberg’s photographs at the MoMA
Henri Carter-Bresson, considered one of the world’s greatest photographers, said, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.” Our seniors were encouraged to look for the smallest thing in a photo and asked to wonder why it had been included and what effect it had on the photograph. We looked at light falling through a sheet, the lines on a tower, various graphic shapes in Robert Rauschenberg’s work — with Cortijo asking guiding questions that made our seniors understand the many choices that go into making a photograph. We talked about Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits which have him taking on roles of his heroes like Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis, and his attempt to take on a larger political and activist role as an artist.
Seniors workshop their own photographs
Photography class, homework and all:
Taking photos outdoors and in the street
A lesson about backgrounds
After looking at photos by famous artists, our seniors got a lesson in taking better photographs using a smartphone. They learned about backgrounds, about lighting, angles, position of the photographer, focus on the subject and rudimentary editing. They also learned about the difference in portrait photography versus landscapes, tricks to modulate the brightness in iPhones and so on.
Cortijo, the artist-educator, also assigned our seniors “homework.” They were asked to take photos at home using their new found skills. When their homework assignments were displayed on the TV, the class enthusiastically critiqued the results – generously pointing out what worked in the photos as well as the flaws.
Our seniors listened avidly and responded with enthusiasm to this foray into photography as art. While it is true that modern technology has made taking a photograph easy, it was fascinating for seniors to see it as an art form, one that required more than just a point and click. We could see that the lessons had made a difference–many of the photos taken after the class showed that they were paying attention and practicing their skills!
Our seniors loved the tight focus on the little boy, the symmetry of the trees, the repetition of ochre color in this photograph. (c) Jayesh Patel.
For 75 years the Voice of America – VOA has been the the official news source of the United States government and provides news and information in 47 languages to a weekly audience of more than 236.6 million people on 5 continents around the world. Last week they did a multi-media segment on India Home.
They explored the problems our seniors face…
“Among New York City residents over the age of 65, the immigrant population accounts for 49.5 percent, up from 38 percent in 2000, and growing. Facing language and cultural barriers, increased isolation, and higher levels of poverty than their native-born counterparts, the rapid expansion has taken its toll on both immigrants and the small, cash-strapped organizations that serve them….
Interviewed Lakshman Kalasapudi, India Home’s Deputy Director :
“But Lakshman Kalasapudi, deputy director of India Home, says there is a misconception that South Asian immigrants who arrive as older adults are “fully taken care of” when they live with their children.
“This financial dependency kind of creates family tensions, especially when the seniors are living in overcrowded situations,” Kalasapudi says. “There becomes a real breakdown in the family structure and it really profoundly negatively affects the seniors’ mental health.”
And talked about India Home’s services:
“India Home is a secular organization that depends heavily on community donations and discretionary funding from local council members. It confronts social isolation and loneliness among South Asian elders. But it does so by partnering with existing centers, including Jamaica Muslim Center.”
To read more click here: https://www.voanews.com/a/aging-new-york-immigrants-confront-shortage-of-culturally-appropriate-services/3959423.html
They danced on the stage, they danced in the street, they danced in front of our table. They were India Home’s wonderful senior ladies and nothing was going to stop them. Not the heat or the crowds or their sore feet. Our wonderful seniors had come prepared to be the life and soul of the Annual Rubin Block Party and they gave it their all.
Our seniors taught everyone, from the littlest guests to seniors like them, how to use the dandiya sticks. They demonstrated garba dance steps. They let people admire their beautiful chaniya choli (skirts and blouses) or saris. They also got the entire crowd to join in the dancing at one point.
We were thrilled to be one of the 6 community groups invited by the Rubin Museum’s Dawn Eshleman, Jane Hsu and Tashi Chodron to be part of the renowned Rubin Museum’s Annual Block Party that is held every summer. What we didn’t realize through all the planning and meetings was that it would offer so much fun for all concerned.
On a more serious note, our immigrant seniors who are also people of color, are sending a a very important message by participating in giant public events like the Rubin Block Party. Their very presence in these spaces demonstrates that older people of color are active and engaged in public life, that aging is what you make it to be. Their visibility helps to break down prejudices and benign ignorance around aging and seniors of color, and forces people to change their perspectives. Our mission is to challenge the stereotypes around aging, and we are grateful to the Rubin Museum for helping us realize it.
India Home’s Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed has won AARP’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community Hero Award. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) created the award in 2016 to acknowledge the hard-working staff and volunteers of nonprofit organizations serving AAPIs age 50-plus. AARP is the largest membership organization in the United States with over 38 million members across the country.
Nargis Ahmed, or Nargis Apa, as she is known to the seniors and staff, is the Center Director at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, the largest Muslim senior center in New York City. A staff member since 2014, Nargis has worked tirelessly to make the Desi Senior Center a warm and welcoming place for new immigrant Bangladeshi Muslim seniors, helping them to access social services, feel comfortable in their new country and integrate into American society. As Center Director, she oversees the programming that improves the well being of her seniors and provides a safe haven for the over 150 Muslim seniors who visit the center every program day. She also advocates for our seniors, providing valuable culturally relevant testimony and perspective to elected officials and city and state authorities on issues as varied as halal home delivered meals and transportation.
Talk to our seniors about Nargis, and they say that they look forward to coming to the center every day because of her warm and generous nature. She knows each one of them and their problems and always has the time to stop and listen. She has been their hero all along.
AARP garnered 61 nominations for the award and their judges chose 10 outstanding finalists. A popular vote competition on Facebook helped involve the AAPI communities and choose the top three winners. The top three finalists will each be awarded with $1,000 dollars and another $1,000 dollars will go to the non-profit organizations they represent.
Congratulations to them all — and especially to Nargis for her hard work and dedication to her community and India Home’s mission.
Manhattan’s best kept secret is Roosevelt Island. Once host to insane asylums, prisons, hospital outpatients, and uniform Soviet style blocks, the island is now dotted with shiny new condos, swathes of grassy playing fields and gardens, and the brand new Four Freedoms Park. A famed tram (which had a star turn on “Spiderman”), runs between Manhattan’s 59th street and the island and anchors what is surely one of the most unique commutes in NYC.
Our elders loved the spectacular views of Manhattan’s Upper East Side
We took our seniors on a day trip to Roosevelt Island recently. They enjoyed the spectacular views of Manhattan’s iconic buildings on the Upper East Side, walked along the riverside under the spindly beauty that is the Queensboro Bridge.
Elders pose In the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge on Roosevelt Island
Since most of our elders are active and healthy, they decided not to take the golf carts we had arranged, and walked over to the new FDR Four Freedoms Park. Located at the southern most tip of Roosevelt Island, it is the only memorial dedicated to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his home state. We had boxed lunches delivered which they ate in the picnic areas.
FDR’s face graces the new FDR Four Freedom’s Park on Roosevelt Island
Then it was picture time, and picture time, and…well…picture time. The tram ride was the highlight – the quick swing up into the skies over Manhattan transforms the city into a lego set for a fleeting, spectacular instant, before the ground come rushing back up as the tram descends. Quick trips like this one, help us vary the routine for our elders and help combat social isolation and build community. Plus, they give our members a chance to have fun and experience something new and exciting.
Our active seniors walked many over the riverside paths at Roosevelt island
Until eight weeks ago, Rabeya Khanom had never used the internet. “I didn’t know anything about it,” she told me. She had just said goodbye to her computer teacher at India Home’s Desi Senior Center and was feeling a mix of emotions. Sadness because the free 8-week long computer class was ending. But also happiness because, as she pointed out, she could now, “email, and send photographs, buy ticket from travel sites, book hotel.”
Muslim elders at India Home’s Desi Senior Center use a manual in Bengali to learn computers
Rabeya Khanom, 72, is a student with eight other Bangladeshi seniors in the free computer classes offered by India Home, in partnership with OATS, an award winning New York City nonprofit (the acronym stands for Older Adults Technology Services). OATS provides free tech training for seniors.
The class at India Home was the first and only computer training especially geared toward Bengali older adults in New York city.
“We wanted to be responsive to the unique needs of each site we partner with,” Alex Glazebrook told me. He is the Director of Technology and Training at OATS. Most of the seniors at the Desi Senior Center are immigrants from Bangladesh, hence OATS hired a Bengali speaking computer teacher, Umme Mahmud, to teach the classes.
Council Member Rory Lancman’s Grant Helps Teach Computers in Bengali
A grant from Council Member Rory Lancman, who represents New York’s District 24, helped to pay for the teacher. “In today’s interconnected world, we need to empower as many people as possible with the skills needed to use modern technology, especially senior citizens. I am incredibly proud to provide OATS funding to the Desi Senior Center to enable local seniors to take part in computer classes this year.” Lancman emailed.
Thanks to Council Member Lancman’s grant, OATS was also able to translate the manual used in the classes into Bengali. An effort, Glazebrook acknowledged, “was not an easy undertaking.” Still, everyone involved felt that a manual in Bengali was necessary for this demographic since, as Glazebrook noted “Language is a huge barrier to getting online.”
Computer classes at India Home’s Desi Senior Center teach Muslim elders practical skills
Barriers to learning
When it comes to older adults and technology though, language is only one of the barriers.
In 2016, Pew Research Center reported that while fully 87% of seniors living in households earning $75,000 or more a year say they have home broadband, just 27% of seniors whose annual household income is below $30,000 are online. Many of the seniors at the Desi Senior Center are immigrant seniors, below poverty, and Low English Proficient. For them, the free computer training offered by Desi Senior Center and OATS opens up a world that they would not have access to otherwise.
Household income, education, language abilities, computer anxiety, lack of confidence in their skills, also prevent older adults from going online.
When I visited the class, the seniors were seated around rectangular tables in a red-carpeted room. The women were on one side and the men on another, in keeping with Muslim customs. As the elders stared intently at the screens of their laptops, Umme Mahmud, the instructor, helped the seniors to look for travel sites on the internet. She was teaching them how to find cheap tickets, something that would come in useful to find flights in the future, for instance, to Bangladesh.
Learning Practical Skills
The computer training manual was translated into Bengali thanks to a grant from Council Member Rory Lancman of District 24 in NYC.
The OATS curriculum aims to help seniors harness the power of technology toward achieving practical outcomes. “ I teach them how to research medical insurance, find answers to medical questions, email, read the news,” Ms. Mahmud said. They learn the basic technological skills that could be applied to their daily lives. A majority of the seniors around the table were highly educated, and many had college degrees from Bangladesh. But they felt left out of modern methods of communication. Some seniors didn’t even know how to retrieve text messages. But, Ms. Mahmud said, because they are eager to learn, they learn quickly. “It is my hope that the seniors who participated in these classes will now be able to access the digital world right at their fingertips,” CM Lancman wrote.
The seniors at the Desi Senior Center sure seemed headed that way. Sukhtar Begum had recently started to read the Koran on line. Another student, Mohammad Haque, 70, rattled off the names of his favorite newspapers in Bengali, “Jugaltok, Probash, Aajkal.” “Also Google news,” he said. Abdul Mannan, 62, has gone a step farther : “I never used email, but yesterday I sent an email by myself.” He smiled and shrugged. “To the teacher, but I sent email,” he said.
Increased confidence and self-worth
The classes are doing more than just teaching these elders practical skills; their attempt at mastering technology was making an enormous difference in their lives in other profound ways. Ask Ms. Khanum, the 72 year old OATS alumuna. “If I need something,” she said, referring to searching the internet. “I don’t have to bother no one at home.” The confidence in her abilities had clearly increased as a result of the classes.
Ms. Mahmud pointed out an even more valuable benefit of the classes. “All their connections are back home in Bangladesh. Their past, their entertainment, everything is in Bangladesh. Older people get depressed so easily, sometimes they feel that they have no value.” But with these classes things had changed, she said.
“Now they feel connected with the world.”
Computers for the computer classes were generously funded through the New York City Department of the Aging (DFTA) at the discretion of DFTA Commissioner Dr. Donna Corrado.
Written with contributions from Anita Konaje and Meeta Patel
A group of eight LGBTQ South Asians gathered around platters of mushroom kababs and Chicken Methi Malai at Sahib restaurant in Manhattan, NY, one evening in May, and worried that they would have nothing to say to each other. Okay, so they didn’t actually know each other, but it’s not as if strangers don’t get together at dinner all the time. What made this dinner different was that they were were all of wildly varying ages. Anita was 29, Meeta was 40ish, Per was 70, Pradip was in his 80s, Babu was in his 60’s, and then there was the baby of the group, 23 year old Rahim. The age difference was…shall we say, pretty wide, hence the worry. Still, they had been brought together to try a SAGE Table, and so here they were. Created by SAGE (Services &Advocacy for GLBT Elders) with support from AARP, the SAGE Table was a one day event that brought together different generations of LGBTQ+ people across America to share a meal. This particular SAGE Table was brought together by SALGA NYC, New York City’s community organization for LGBTQ+ South Asians.
SAGE had built the concept around a simple idea – namely, the generation gap. In America, older people are usually segregated from young people. Interests, music, spaces, trends, a relentless focus on youth – all tend to keep us stolidly fixed in our silos. For LGBTQ+ people the gap can sometimes be a chasm. Many older gay people are afraid to reveal their sexual orientation. Some LGBTQ+ people don’t have kids or a family that supports their choices. Hence the SAGE Table wanted LGBTQ+ people of all ages to get together. Share their experiences. Find out what it felt like to care for each other if age didn’t matter. Break bread (or in this case, naan).
It sounded great in theory, but Pradip was skeptical. He didn’t really like going to group events he confessed. They were always crowded with young people and no one talked to them. Often they were left to their own devices and after a while it got boring to hang around, he said. But his friend, Babu, had persuaded him to come to this particular SAGE Table, which was hosted by SALGA NYC. Anita, who was representing SALGA, had worried about the exact same thing. What would they talk about?
Over the tomato soup and pakoras, someone started talking about the resistance. Not the one now, but the one that had started in the ’60s and the ’70s, another time in history when social justice issues were boiling up. Pradip and Babu had both come to America at that time of fervent. They had participated in the movement for equal rights as college students. Meeta, who is also from SALGA, was intrigued by the fact that Pradip had arrived in America, even before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that brought so many South Asians to the US. But the ’60s were also a time when Westerners were going to India to find themselves. Per, another diner, had gone to Varanasi, lived in India for a while, and that had been another kind of revolution altogether.
The conversation moved on to books.
Pradip was a writer and had published a book of short stories in Bengali. Per had published a self-help book called “Gay Money,” that tells aging gay men how to organize their finances better. On Amazon, the description promises to tell gays and lesbians, among other nuggets of wisdom, “What insurance we absolutely need to protect our legacy, our lovers – or our independence.”
The food kept coming: Gutti Venkaya Kura, a delicacy from Andhra Pradesh, then, Alu Gobi, a dry potato and cauliflower dish.
Like the inveterate New Yorkers they were, the diners kept circling back to marvel at the life they led here. Everyone at the table felt lucky to be living in the city and lucky to be in a place that allowed LGBTQ+ communities, like the one gathered around the table, to have events like the one they were at.
The mango mousse arrived.
As the night wound on, everyone kept talking. Pradip said he was glad Babu had pushed him to come tonight; it was nice to talk to people for hours without thinking about age at all. Then it was time to leave. Where they would meet next time, they wondered. Would it be easier to meet in someone’s apartment? Or how about a picnic in Central Park.
This SAGE Table was organized by SALGA NYC on May 18th, 2017. You can click here to visit their website. Funds for the meal was generously provided by India Home, Inc.
By Ashwak Fardoush
Ashwak Fardoush is a writer, writing coach and teaching artist, who recently facilitated the Writing Workshop for older adults at India Home’s Desi Senior Center.
The room buzzed with anticipation. The smell of cooked chickpeas and onion lentil fritters served to the guests still lingered in the air. Children’s cries rang out in the background. Amidst the noise, Salema Khatun took the stage. She recited her poem, “Shadhinota” (translated as “Independence”), alluding to the Liberation War of 1971 in Bangladesh. I felt proud as I watched her read her poem to the audience.
On the evening of May 19, 2017, we were at the Culminating Event for a Writing Workshop organized by India Home for its members at the Desi Senior Center. The event was also a Pre-Ramadan Celebration and a happy and proud occasion for our members. This was the open mic portion of the event
Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center
“I had put away my writing for twenty years. …. But I have written four poems in your class.”
Salema Khatun crafted that poem over the course of a few weeks. She had attended a writing workshop that I facilitated at the Desi Senior Center. Inspired by a prompt at a workshop session, she wrote a poem that she finished at home, writing a few lines at a time in between her household chores, showing me the progress along the way, and adding the final two lines because she wanted the poem to be a sonnet. Just the day before the event, Salema Khatun told me, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”
Seniors tell their stories through poems and memoir
Salema Khatun was one of the eight participants who were part of a bilingual memoir writing workshop* at the Desi Senior Center. This workshop was designed to help seniors tell their stories. This pilot program was a collaborative effort, making the phrase “it takes a village” truer than ever. The staff from India Home and the Desi Senior Center—especially Lakshman Kalasapudi, Nargis Ahmed and Meera Venugopal—worked tirelessly to make sure the seniors had a great writing experience.
As I heard Salema Khatun’s voice rise and fall, I remembered the first day of the writing workshop. It was a Thursday morning. I was setting up the classroom in one corner of the prayer room. Some were still praying on the other side of the room. I arranged the chairs in a circle and laid out the attendance sheet and the writing supplies on a chair. I had thought about the content and the structure of the workshop for the past two weeks. I even had a bare-boned lesson plan for the first session. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t plan out all the sessions. I was not teaching these participants. Instead, I was holding the space for the participants to tell their stories—stories that danced inside their bodies, that rested inside their eyes, that settled on their skin. I simply needed to let these stories surface on the page. While facilitating the workshop was not like any other teaching experience I had in the past—the participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali—the advice I gave myself remained the same: I must keep my heart open, stay present and be curious.
Writing prompts and stories that unfolded against the backdrop of history
Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017
There were eight participants who made up the core group: Md. Hoque, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Rafiqul Islam, Salema Khatun, Haque Mohammad, Quamrun Nahar, Md. Abu Sayeed, and Farida Talukdar. I did not know what to expect each session. By the second session, I stopped bringing a thorough plan. The participants were vivacious, creative, mischievous, intelligent, wise, and in awe of life. We would always begin with a writing prompt from my plan, but then the session would unfold in ways I could never predict. We would write spontaneously. Soon, I became adept at reading what the group wanted in that moment in order to serve them and their writing.
Each session the participants excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays. When I closed my eyes, I could see the writers leaning over their marble notebooks, and scribbling away. Sometimes we would travel to far-flung places or go deep within ourselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history.
At times, the participants tried to write out a decade of their life during a session. Sometimes, I would ask the participants to scrawl a word on an index card, fold it and put it inside a mason jar. Then, I would ask a participant to pick a word out of the jar randomly and the group would write about that word. The first word picked out of the jar was “baba” (translated as “father”). Writers wrote about their love stories, their childhood friendships, and their son’s letters back home.
Participants eager to share their writing
Every session was memorable in some way. Once, I remembered seeing Md. Hoque writing in his notebook a few steps away from the class. Since the session was about to start, I gently asked him to come inside. He nodded, but his head was still buried in the notebook. A few minutes later, he entered the classroom and announced that he had just finished writing a poem. He not only addressed this poem to another participant, Md. Mokbul Hossain, but he also challenged his peer to respond back in the form of a poem. Md. Mukbul Hossain was deemed as the poet of the group. Even before the workshop, he had a moleskin notebook with poems written in his beautiful penmanship. He once showed me a poem he wrote in his notebook. The first line was a question a stranger posed him on his walk. He told me that he carried his notebook with him so that he could write down any detail, mundane or not, that can turn into a poem someday. Needless to say, Md. Mukbul Hossain managed to cobble together words to pen a poem to respond to Md. Hoque’s friendly challenge in class that day.
Md. Mokbul Hossain’s Poem, “Potichhobi”
Abu Sayeed was another participant in the workshop. He took two trains and a bus to travel from Brooklyn to the senior center in Queens. Before the first day of class, he told me of his interest in the writing workshop. He shared that his life was full of “korun” (tragic) stories and wondered if it was okay for him to write about those stories in the workshop. “Yes,” I said. “Life is full of joy and sorrow. Sounds like you have lived and have stories to tell! Please come and write with us.” So, he did. Md. Abu Sayeed would read his stories out loud in a voice that would tremble and crack at times. We would all listen, understanding the gravity of the moment and our role in it.
I was surprised by how eager everyone was to share their writing with each other. The ink would still be fresh on the page, our head would still reel from the memories we had dredged up on the page. Yet, the participants were ready to share their writing immediately. Quamrun Nahar read about scaling a tree as a child and falling down from it one day when she was stung by bees. She was carried to the kitchen where her grandmother rubbed garam masala paste all over her body. In a similar vein, Farida Talukdar often shared her anecdotes. We rarely made past the first writing prompt. The pieces people shared after the first prompt would inspire others to share their personal stories or debate passionately about a topic that surfaced in someone’s writing. We found ourselves discussing how in-laws’ relationship should be toward their children’s spouses, the struggles with upholding the Bengali language and culture in the United States, and the political climate in Bangladesh.
Teacher as Witness
Nancy Agabian, an author and founder of Heightening Stories, told me that the participants were “lucky to have [me] as their teacher and a witness.” That word, “witness” was the summation of my role. These participants contain a lifetime of memories and the workshop became a space where these writers got to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams and despair—and were witnessed with respect and camaraderie. Md. Hoque wrote so poignantly on the last day of the workshop: “will we remember the stories of the three sisters and five brothers, a family meeting for a literature class lasting but for a short while?”
Council Member Daneek Miller and his wife, were among the guests of honor at the celebration. CM Miller handed out certificates to seniors who participated in the workshop
At the event, I looked to the stage once more. Salema Khatun had finished reading her poem. She paused for a moment and looked out at the audience. The crowd broke out into applause. Salema Khatun walked off stage. I smiled and then closed my eyes: I imagined the participants pulling out their marble notebooks and writing away with their ball point pens, putting one word after the next word after the next to tell all the stories they held inside of them until they were spent, until they were empty, until they were fully satisfied.
*This Writing Workshop was funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
You can read the full publication of the writings by clicking here.