Archive of Memory: Bangladeshi Seniors Document Their Stories in a Memoir Writing Workshop

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

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

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"

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?”

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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.

Movie Night in Jackson Heights!

On April 19, 2017, India Home invited its members as well as residents of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens to a movie night at the PS 69Q auditorium. The film that was shown was Bollywood tear-jerker “Neerja,” an award-winning film about the bravery and sacrifice of a young air hostess on board a Pan-Am flight that was hijacked in 1984. Our members enjoyed free samosas and chai before settling in to watch the film. Later, there was avid discussion about the film and the heroism of the young air hostess.

A few early birds waiting for the movie to start

A few early birds waiting for the movie to start

This initiative to extend our programming to the evening, is part of our on-going efforts to combat the social isolation that seniors often endure. This is also a first step in doing more activities in Jackson Heights, an area with a large South Asian community.
Film Night at PS69

Everyone is Divine: India Home partners with the Rubin Museum to celebrate Vaisakhi

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India Home’s program at the Rubin Museum was featured on the Museum’s blog.

Creative aging…

India Home believes in providing creative aging programs that offer opportunities for our seniors to actively express themselves creatively, socialize with their peers while learning new skills,  and engage in cultural performances.

…and a partnership with the Rubin Museum.

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Sharan Bir Kaur led the crowd in a Kundalini chant

 

As part of this creative aging effort we have forged a partnership with the prestigious Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Manhattan. In our role as Community Partner, we’ve presented programs related to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Mahavir Jayanthi.

This is our third event

On April 15, 2017, we presented our third program at the Museum: a celebration of the Sikh festival, Vaisakhi, traditionally a rite that marks the end of the harvest season in India. We hosted the event along  the Sikh Cultural Center, one of the biggest Gurudwaras, or Sikh place of worship, in New York City.

This is how our program was described on the Rubin Museum’s blog.

Sikhs believe that every individual is filled with divine potential. At a time when racial and religious tension is high, New York Sikhs continue to celebrate their faith and values of equality, even when occasionally faced with senseless discrimination. At the Museum, Sikh and non-Sikh community members came together to celebrate Sikh culture and participate in the OM Lab.

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Usha Mehta, a senior from India Home, enjoyed recording her voice in the OM Lab.

Twenty seniors from India Home attended and some of them enjoyed the opportunity to make use of the OM lab’s recording booth and “offer their OMs and join thousands of others in the chant that will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition.

Our elders enthusiastically participated  in a new experience, when Sharan Bir Kaur, a Kundalini yoga expert, led them and the rest of the audience in a short chanting meditation using the mantra “Wahe Guru” which is the Gurumantra or seed mantra in Sikhism.

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Seniors from India Home enjoyed being part the sold out event

 

 

 

Jagir Singh Bains, an elder from the Sikh Cultural Center, further enlightened the audience with  a short presentation about the basic tenets of Sikhism and the meaning behind the symbols of the faith, like the turban, the beard, and the kada (the steel bangle).

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Manpreet Kaur taught the crowd to bhangra!

The night ended on a happy note with everyone dancing the bhangra! To read more click this link to go to the Rubin Muesum’s blog