By Nibras Karim, Hunter College Asian American Studies Program Intern
The Captain Tilly Park in Jamaica, is named after Captain George H. Tilly who was a local son of a prominent Jamaica family who was killed while fighting in the American war in the Philippines in 1899. The park is a local destination for Jamaica residents to relax and enjoy public space and greenery in their neighborhood. Situated on nine acres, the park is in the heart of Jamaica and a peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
On September 21, 2017, as part of our effort to help with the health, fitness, and mental wellbeing of the seniors of our Desi Senior Center, we took them out for a change of environment and had them try some new activities they hadn’t done before. The seniors really enjoyed the scenery that the Captain Tilly Park had to offer such as the ducks and Canadian geese swimming about. They also enjoyed the picnic we had brought. They did their exercises outside and enjoyed the fresh air.
One highlight of the day was when they played games like carrom board and ludu. Carrom is a “strike and pocket” table game similar to billiards. Instead of using cue sticks and billiard balls, carrom is played by using different sized and colored pieces called carrom men. Some of the seniors were very passionate about winning the carrom board games. Prizes were given out to the winners of the games.
After they ate their picnic, they sang Bengali folk songs, solo and in chorus with others. Everyone was very supportive of each other regardless of their singing abilities. In the end of the picnic, all the seniors thanked the director of our Desi Senior Center Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed for making this wonderful picnic a possibility.
By all accounts, Bharti Parikh, 66, has led an exciting life. Her life has been an adventure that took her from a childhood in the tiny village of Patton in Gujarat, India, to a law degree, and fulfilling years in America that included working for the City of New York, being invited to be an artist at President Clinton’s inauguration, and being a singing star on TV.
However, there’s also another sadder, more stressful side to her story, one that is unfortunately shared by so many older adults in America. Bharti Parikh is a caregiver, and has had to be one for years. A senior herself, she continues to care for her husband who has Parkinson’s Disease, and her 88 year old mother. Until May 2017, she was also caring for her aged father who suffered various illnesses that kept him going in and out of hospital.
Her husband cannot use Medicaid, which pays for two-thirds of longterm care in the US, because it requires clients to be impoverished to qualify for benefits. Because of their income and their savings, the couple do not qualify and has “no choice.” Bharti is one of those millions in America who are trying to pay for long term care through savings, private insurance and family resources.
We highlight Bharti’s story as an example of seniors, who, even as they age and grow more frail, are also caring for loved ones who are older and sicker than themselves. Apart from the financial toll, caregiving can be physically and emotionally brutal on the caregiver. Caregivers like Bharti who are singlehandedly managing to take care of loved ones often find themselves alone and isolated.
However, with America’s population aging rapidly, the nation’s 2.2 million home care workers (also known as personal aides or home health aides) can barely meet the demand for their services. Not only is it hard to find care, it’s even harder to find a way to pay for care for more than a few hours a day, she says.
A slight, pretty woman with dark hair and clear skin who looks younger than her years, Bharti is an active member of India Home, always eager to dance the garba or sing traditional songs in her beautiful voice. She spoke to Meera Venugopal at her home in Woodside, Queens, while an aide took her husband for a walk.
Ashvin and Bharti Parikh on an picnic to Bear Mountain with India Home
Caregiver for her husband, parents and in-laws
My husband was fine until 2009. Then he got Parkinsons Disease. Now the disease is at its worst, and he needs someone to take care of him all the time. We can get help with Medicare but only a few hours a day, for three to four days a week. Then after 2-3 weeks, the payments stop. Now I have hired someone to take care of my husband for a few hours a day. That’s a private hire; I pay the aide from my pocket. The person I hired does everything from brushing my husband’s teeth to giving him a shower. He massages him, feeds him, takes him on a walk.
Before I was doing everything for him, and I had no help at all. But the aide I have now for my husband is old too, and he’s not going to be around forever. If I can get someone younger that would be great.
I talked to an agency and a social workers came and said “I’m going to help you. Your case is tragic, so I’m going to do this fast.” Once he went back, I never heard from him again. I’d call him and he refused to come to the phone and talk to me. Someone else called and said, “There are too many people on the waitlist. You won’t get an aide. You should apply for Medicaid.” I can’t apply for Medicaid—I have an income, and my husband had an income, I had a job, plus we have savings. So here we are. My sons are in Ohio, so my daughter, Shephali and son-in-law are living with me. They help me take care of my husband and my late father and my mother.
You know what’s tragic? I used to be a supervisor for New York City in the Human Resources Administration. I know all the rules and regulations on Medicare. I met Mayor Bill de Blasio at a fair in Queens, and he said he would get me a home health aide for my husband and I still didn’t get one. I’m going to go to the Mayor of New York City again and I’ll ask him: What happened to your promise?
Bicycling to college in small town India
I was born in a very small village called Patton, in Gujarat, India. I was the only daughter and my father loved me very much. He let me do anything I wanted. In my town they didn’t allow girls to go to school, even my uncle didn’t want me to study, but my father sent me to college. He didn’t want me walking to college, so I would bike. College was so much fun. I had so many friends. I would dance, take part in singing competitions, go on picnics. I started taking singing lessons, my father encouraged me to do that too.
I got married when I was in my second year of college. My mother-in-law too, let me study, and work. My son was born when I was in my 4th year. I started law school when I my son was five years old. I was going to start working as an advocate when my husband decided to come to the US.
A hole in her son’s heart brought her to America
My second son was born with a very small hole in his heart. The doctors said it may eventually close, but my husband said “I want to go to America because they have advanced treatment there. So we applied and got here.” He’d applied for a visa in 1968, but couldn’t come because he didn’t want to leave his mother alone. He would renew his application every year, and finally he got accepted in 1980. Until then, he was working as a chemical engineer. He was a Gold Medalist in Chemistry and he got the visa in two months! I came in 1981 with the kids and joined him in New York.
Chemical engineer to candy store owner
I started working at the Paul Stewart clothing company in New York almost as soon as I got here. That was my first job in America. Then after a year and half, my husband bought stores, first in the Bronx and then in Yonkers. Both stores had candy, magazines, lotto.
I would also work in the Yonkers store. We worked hard, day and night. Even my kids helped out in the store. We did very well. Then I had my daughter and I quit working in the store. But after 5 months or so of sitting at home, I was bored and applied for a job with the city. They finally called me on a Friday and said I had to come for an interview on Monday. The application was 25-30 pages long and they wanted to know my entire life – my education right from school in India.
In 1989 I started working for the city, for the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and I worked until 2012. I started as a case worker, and then I took the exam and I became a supervisor. We bought our house in 1994 in Woodside, Queens and we’ve been here ever since.
“Mom, you are a superwoman”
Bharti’s award from the Associations of Indians in America for her service during Diwali celebrations at South Sea Port
I would work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. then come home and take care of my kids, mother, father, husband. My parents were not doing so well. I would do everything, cooking, getting the groceries, school supplies, sitting with my kids as they did homework, going to PTA meetings, attending their programs and events. It was hard when the kids were small and I had my mother-in-law with me and she would get sick all the time. Now my kids say, “Mom, you are a superwoman.”
My father also lived with us until May this year. His aide would go home at 4:00 p.m. He was sick all the time. There were a lot of emergencies. I would have to run to the hospital and stay with him all day and all night. He couldn’t be alone because he doesn’t speak English. My niece lived near the hospital and in the morning I would go to her place and I would take a shower and go back to the hospital. For years, I did all this.
Later on my husband got worse and so I couldn’t stay with my father all day and night. But he couldn’t hear very well and he wouldn’t understand what they said, so the hospital would call me. Then my mother would have some problem in her head, and she would fall down again and again. They even did a biopsy, and they didn’t find anything
I had to look after all three. I had no choice. Sometimes my mother was sick, then my husband was sick. It could get very hectic. But in every Emergency, I felt God helped me. Someone somehow came along and helped us.
An invited artist at President Clinton’s inauguration
Singing with her guru – Bharti’s recordings are still played on TV programs for Indians in the US
Through all this I continued singing. I learned singing in the US with a Pakistani teacher. I even made a cassette tape of songs with him in India, and in the US we would do a lot of programs for Indian TV. Even now, they’ll sometimes play those all programs.
Bharti’s talents as a henna artist got her invited to participate in President Clinton’s Inauguration in Washington D.C.
For ten years I did henna designs every year for the South Sea Port Diwali Mela (Fair) for the Association of Indians in America – New York Chapter. I was self taught. I would get invited to weddings in Manhattan to do henna. Then the Association sent me to Washington D.C. during President Clinton’s inauguration. Artists were invited from all over the USA. We stayed for four days in the Marriott, and I was set up in a big tent on the National Mall. Hundreds of people came to get henna designs from me.
Art at India Home
I like that we get to do art at india home. I signed up for the drawing class. I want to learn new things. I like coming there, I like doing the exercises. My husband likes it too, all the different activities and meeting people.
On facing the future
My husband is getting worse. My mother is getting deaf, and she needs a full time aide. But it’s okay. We are not going to take the money with us—whatever we have we will leave it here, so why not use it? It’s not about the money, it’s about getting help.
If I can even get a little bit of trained help that would be nice. But I will spend whatever money I have to take care of him.
Bharti Parikh often brings her husband with her on her visits to India Home. Her children, she wanted us to say, have all done well. Her daughter works in the financial sector. The baby with the hole in his heart, Ripal, who was the reason the couple moved to America, is now a well known pain management specialist. Her eldest son, Nehal, is a neonatologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and researches prevention of neurodevelopmental disabilities in high-risk newborns.
By Rohandeep Arora
Outside the Sikh Gurudwara in Richmond Hill, Queens, I approached an older Sikh man with a turban and a long, flowing beard. “Hello, Uncle!” I said in Punjabi, my mother tongue. “Do you have a couple of spare minutes to fill out a survey on our research for the needs of the South Asian seniors?” “Sure, beta,” he said. He was very pleased to help me out and patiently answered my questions. It was very hot day, and after a while, he invited to his home which was two blocks down from where we were for a cold drink. He sent me on my way with best wishes for my future.
This experience was just one of many similar encounters I and my fellow interns had this summer as we helped gather data for the first ever needs assessment of South Asian seniors in New York City. We were working with India Home, the only professionally staffed nonprofit in the North East that serves South Asian elders, to gather information on a wide range of issues that confront immigrant South Asian seniors.
India Home’s interns fanned out across Queens to interview South Asian elders for a new Needs Assessment Survey this summer. Tenzin is talking to two seniors.
My fellow hardworking interns, Tenzin, Zarifa, Daiyan, Sanjana, Amna and I helped India Home to survey the needs of South Asian seniors in areas of New York City that have high populations of South Asian immigrants like Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Our goal was to understand the requirements of these seniors and make them feel comfortable enough to answer our questions. We surveyed senior citizens who have immigrated from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other South Asian countries. We visited temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches, senior centers, and spent time in parks and streets in order to gather legitimate data for the needs assessment research.
South Asian Seniors Overlooked and Underserved
South Asian immigrant seniors are part of a demographic that is often overlooked by social service agencies, community providers, and public policy initiatives. They face issues of social isolation, limited English proficiency, poverty, health difficulties, transportation deficits, and more. Even though they are among the fastest growing groups of the older adult population of New York city, South Asian seniors are consistently underserved by government agencies. India Home aims to gather objectively verifiable data to make a strong case for increased focus on South Asian seniors.
Interns who spoke the languages of South Asia
India Home’s interns spoke over 12 languages between them and were competent in diverse South Asian cultures
India Home’s gathered an intern team that was very diverse and multilingual. Between all of us, we spoke close to 12 South Asian languages.
Zarifa Ahmadi (Queensboro Community College), originally from Pakistan, speaks Urdu, Hindi, Dari, Farsi and Pashto.
Tenzin Lama (Baruch College), who is from Nepal, is fluent in Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi.
I am from India and can speak Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu fluently. (Pace University)
Amna Aslam (Vassar College), originally from Pakistan, is fluent in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.
Daiyan Hossain (Hamilton College), originally from Bangladesh, can speak Bengali fluently.
Sanjana Inala (The College of New Jersey), who is from India, speaks Telugu.
Many older adults from South Asia have little or no English proficiency which makes it difficult for them to communicate in this country. That is why our abilities in multiple languages paid off when we encountered elders who were not proficient in English. My team and I did not face any problems in talking to elders and translating the surveys to them. Even those seniors who could speak some English were happy to have us approach them in their native tongue.
“Quite a few seniors have adjusted themselves to the city’s lifestyle but still miss the friendliness and warm community relationships in their native lands. Most of them get very excited when we approach the seniors with their mother tongue and are pleased to help us by participating in the survey,” said Tenzin Lama.
Even though we came from different backgrounds and cultures, we enjoyed each other’s company, whether we were working or taking a day off to enjoy the summer in NYC.
What is the survey about?
“What is the survey about” was the very first question the elders invariably asked us. We would tell them that the survey asked detailed questions related to the lifestyle of South Asian seniors, like marital status, age, year of immigration, a reason of immigration, income, housing status, health related questions, social security income and much more. “The surveys are anonymous and records no personal information of the respondents,” we would reassure them.
We made sure our elder participants in the Needs Assessment Survey were comfortable. Daiyan is interviewing a senior.
Challenges in the Field
One of the biggest challenge we faced was convincing the seniors we met that taking the survey would not harm them in any way. Despite repeated assurances that their responses were anonymous, many elder respondents were scared. Some were undocumented or had a distrust of government. The lack of literacy among immigrant seniors was also reason why it was hard for our interns to persuade elders to take the survey. However, we were trained to combat this distrust and fear. For instance, our team was trained to greet elders appropriately and with respect according to the cultural norms of their respective cultures. Thus we would fold our hands in a namaste while approaching Indian elders or say tashi delek to greet Tibetan elders.
I like to think that our cultural competence helped to put the elders at ease. “Sometimes elders need that support from someone to move on from a tragedy or depression if they have any. Sometimes they want to share some tragic experience,” Sanjana said.
The other thing we did well was listen – sometimes to much more than just answers to our questions. “Most of the senior citizens we surveyed were very friendly and warm. I think they tend to feel lonely when their families aren’t home which makes the seniors more than happy to communicate and share their experiences with someone” said Sanjana.
Funding for the needs assessment was generously provided by New York Community Trust and SAALT We Build Community.
Last year, Narendra Butala, a long time member of India Home, was facing a health crisis. He had been feeling breathless for a while. His blood pressure would drop suddenly and he would sweat profusely.
Still, he was afraid to go to the cardiologist because his brother had got a pacemaker in 2004 and had passed away shortly after. Even as he worried about the condition of his heart, he heard from one of his relatives. Pacemaker technology had changed, she said, and urged him to get a check-up. Finally, in July, a few months after his 78th birthday, Butala, took the plunge and went to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and got a pacemaker inserted. “I was home after two hours,” he said. “They monitor my heart from the hospital, remotely.”
South Asian seniors like Mr. Narendra Butala (left) will benefit from a new bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal that targets heart health in the community
Mr. Butala, who emigrated from India 20 years ago, lives an active lifestyle, and is a life-long vegetarian who doesn’t smoke. At first glance, he would not appear to be a typical candidate for heart disease. However, there is one indicator that increases his risk exponentially – his South Asian descent. Several recent studies have found that all over the world, individuals of South Asian descent account for 60 percent of heart disease patients. A study conducted by the University of California San Francisco found that in the United States, South Asians have the highest death rate from heart disease compared to other ethnic groups. Other research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, discovered an even more troubling trend. Among people of normal BMI (Body Mass Index), South Asians were twice as likely as whites to have risk factors for heart disease.
BMI, a height-to-weight ratio, is used to determine whether someone is overweight or obese. Body Mass Index and weight are often the first numbers doctors consider. Many doctors may not screen for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes if they are within normal range, but what the study indicated was that when it came to South Asians, even patients of normal weight were showing risk factors for heart disease.
Fortunately, someone in the federal government has been paying attention to these concerning numbers. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) introduced in the House in late July a bill aimed at the issue of high levels of heart disease in the South Asian American community. Called the “South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research Act,” the bill garnered bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by 18 other members of Congress, including Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina).
In an email to NBC News, Jayapal said that she introduced the bill because she thinks the US, needs, “to take action by expanding funding for research and spreading awareness targeting [these] communities. We’ll save lives and reach a better understanding of heart health that will benefit all Americans.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) sponsored the “South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research Act,” in the House of Representatives.
NBC News reported that the bill would “establish grants at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health to provide information about heart health to South Asian-American communities and fund medical research on cardiovascular disease in South Asians in the U.S. The bill would also fund grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the promotion of better South Asian heart health nutrition.”
India Home, which runs the largest South Asian senior center in the North-East, has made its own modest contribution to improve heart health among the older South Asian adults it serves. Regular yoga, meditation and Ayurveda is taught at its centers along with holistic and healthful ways to exercise and maintain their physical and mental wellness. Moreover, in partnership with NYU Langone’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH), India Home has introduced its members to a number of educational projects like Keep On Track / REACH FAR.
Eighty seniors from India Home took part in Reach Far, a project in collaboration with NYU Langone, which taught community volunteers to monitor blood pressure for better heart health.
This project trained 26 volunteers at India Home to monitor blood pressure as part of a Community Health Assessment. Over 80 Bengali seniors from India Home’s Desi Senior Center participated in the project. Another project helped to disseminate nutrition information with culturally and linguistically adapted brochures in Bengali and Hindi and taught seniors how to measure their food portions and try new nutrition strategies.
As for Mr. Butala, he’s back at India Home’s Sunnyside center, being the first to volunteer to push the lunch cart, as usual. “I’m feeling fine,” he said the other day. “The doctor said I can do all activities.”
Elders waited patiently at Queens Borough Hall to see the Mayor and air their issues
On 18th July, Mayor Bill de Blasio hosted a City Resource Fair at the Queens Borough Hall in order to help residents understand the various services available to them, and untangle problems incurred by the people of the city. The event was very well organized and different departments like NYC Department of Health, Department of Aging, New York Police Department, Fire Department of the City of New York, MTA’s Access a Ride as well as Reduced Fare services, NYC Rent Freeze Programs were represented at the venue.
India Home seniors Bharti Parikh, her nephew, and Narendra Bhutala with NYC Mayor Bill D’Blasio at the City Resource Fair in Queen
Most of the people who were waiting to meet the Mayor had come in search of a solution to specific issues like health care, transportation, housing and so on.
Several seniors from India Home attended the Resource Fair. Our seniors were very excited as well as honored to be able to meet the Mayor of New York City. The long lines did not deter our seniors, instead, the waiting allowed our elders more time to come up with other concerns they wished to share with the Mayor. “Since the Mayor has made so much of effort to organize this type of an event for all of us, in turn, we can definitely spare a few minutes standing in the line to meet him,” said Mr. Butala.
In the end, the hassle of waiting in line paid-off as the seniors finally got to meet the Mayor and expressed their problems. Mayor de Blasio immediately helped the seniors find solutions. “He was very friendly and patient in listening to all my problems and further asked Donna Corrado, Commissioner of Department for Aging who in turn helped me with information on care resources for my husband,” said Bharti Parikh. As for Mr. Butala, he brought an important issue to the Mayor’s notice: “I notified the Mayor about the increasing number of accidents near my neighborhood and how badly someone needs to take action for it,” he said.
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.
“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….
“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.”
“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
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.
Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled two things: 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 a nation’s trauma and Bangladesh’s 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 our elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The article is reproduced here in installments, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Putul Chanda: The Journey Before Jamaica
It was my first day at the Jamaica Muslim Center, one of the centers under India Home, the non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of the South Asian senior citizen immigrant community in New York. I stood outside, in the verandah of the Center, apprehensive, waiting for Sohom, the India Home volunteer who had kindly offered to help me interview the Bangladeshi freedom fighters that frequented it. My skin soaked in the sunshine, uninterrupted, for a change, due to the lack of high rise buildings. The Center was definitely larger than the unimposing two storied houses that lined the quiet, serene street. Sohom would later tell me that it wasn’t always like this; this part of Jamaica, Queens used to be a dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood until the Bengali community from India and Bangladesh started moving here. Gradually, it gentrified, and it has kept its gentrified appeal because, as Sohom said, “The Bangladeshis are house-proud.”
As I paced up and down the verandah, the front door opened. A middle-aged Bengali man shuffled out, mop and pail in hand, looking curiously at me. I absentmindedly stared back, less out of curiosity than out of my surprise that the South Asian habit of mopping the area outdoors as well as indoors was being continued in Jamaica. Now ignoring me, he squatted on the ground, dipped the mop into the pail of water, and began to scrub the ground. I quickly jumped out of his way. I hadn’t seen the inconveniently painful but highly effective mop-and-pail method being utilized since I had left New Delhi. This felt like home, I thought to myself. I realized it had taken just a few seconds for the feeling of apprehension to vanish.
As my visits to the Center increased, I found myself feeling more at home every time. The Jamaica Muslim Center is delightfully and determinedly grounded in the widespread South Asian belief that change of any kind is bad. 8000 miles couldn’t change the fact that this branch of India Home felt exactly like that- a home in India.
Every time I would enter the Center, I would be led inside by Sohom, who was always late, through a prayer room with shoes neatly arranged outside, past a kitchen that always had the distinct aromas of tadka dal and mustard fish, down a winding staircase into a basement. Here, we would be greeted by the sight of over a hundred senior citizens exercising to the count of the yoga instructor, the men in shirts and pants and the women in salwar-kameez. Sometimes, instead of yoga, they would be practicing spoken English, chanting “Good morning! How you today?” to the cue provided by a South Asian English-language coach.
Long wooden tables lined every wall of this room: some had attendance registers, registration forms, and scraps of handwritten notes; most tables supported the weight of the snacks and drinks that would supply the next tea break, or remnants of biscuits and samosas from the previous chai-time. I soon discovered that at the Center, everything operated on the basis of gastronomy. Bengalis certainly take their food very seriously. The first day, I had arrived before lunchtime, and no one had wanted to talk to me. It was only after they had finished their portions of mustard marinated spicy fish, dal- roti, and rice-curd that Putul Chanda and Shakhwat Hussain, two of the Center’s freedom fighters, agreed to speak with me.
It was only later that I realized that the senior citizens at the Center would have felt apprehensive at the idea of sharing their stories with me. “It was the most traumatic experience of my life, I won’t talk about it”, said one senior citizen, seemingly angered at the mere mention of Partition.
The Partition of ’47 was so traumatic that most of the people who had experienced it and were still alive refused to talk about it. A study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 14 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were displaced during the ’47 Partition, making it the largest mass migration in human history.
The freedom fighters at the Jamaica Muslim Center were Bangladeshis that had undergone a double Partition- that of India and Pakistan in 1947, and then again, in 1971, when East Pakistan became the independent country Bangladesh. Approximately 1.2 million Bangladeshis are estimated to have migrated to India between 1959-71, and another 10 million entered India as refugees during the war months of ’71.
Besides, would they feel comfortable talking to me, when I wasn’t a Muslim of Bengali origin, but a Hindu of Punjabi-Pakistani descent, the very region they had struggled decades ago to gain independence from? But, as I soon realized, this was a misconceived doubt. In South Asia, religious and micro-ethnic identities might have mattered, but here in Jamaica, New York, the greater South Asian identity trumped the smaller, fragmented ones.
The War Comes to Putul’s Village
I can speak Hindi, English, and can only understand bits of Bangla. The freedom fighters I interviewed could speak mostly Bangla, a little Hindi, and scattered English thrown in here and there. This is where Sohom would be a great help – he spoke all three languages.
Mrs. Chanda was referred to as Putul Aunty by the staff and volunteers of the Center, to denote the non-familial familiarity that she exuded, with her bright salwar-kameez outfits, matching dupattas covering her head, and a twinkle in her eyes. It was in the organized chaos of this room that Putul Aunty, over several cups of chai, shared the very disorganized chaos of her own life with me. Mr. Hussain, who was a student freedom fighter back in the day, was trained in secret by the Bangladeshi rebel forces. Currently serving the Government of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Agriculture and well versed in the historical events that transpired in the years leading up to the ’71 Bangladesh War of Liberation, he provided much needed context and background information that Putul could not.
With her very first sentence, Putul clarified her religious affiliation to me. “My name Putul Chanda, I’m Hindu”, she said, in heavily accented English. “What do you want to know?” Her voice was kind, but extremely matter-of-fact, as if she was teaching a history class to lazy high school students.
No, unlike Mr. Hussain she hadn’t fought with weapons herself in the ’71 War of Liberation, but was a nurse along with her sister in a mukti bahini camp. Mukti bahini refers to the guerrilla resistance movement that had formed in East Pakistan. Comprising of the Bangladeshi military, paramilitary, and civilians, it was the main opposing force to West Pakistan, now just Pakistan. In 1947, the British colonizers, before leaving India, had split it into three parts, but two countries. There was the separate nation of India in the center; bordering it on the west was West Pakistan, on the east was East Pakistan. Bizarrely, both West and East Pakistan were governed by the same government. The 1971 War was fought with the intention of liberating East Pakistan and making it into a separate state.
Putul’s dada, or eldest brother, the acting head of the family, had known the leaders of the camp and had asked Putul and her sister to volunteer as nurses. They hailed from an educated, wealthy family that owned many plots of land, that were to be ravaged later by the destruction of the war. When the muktijoddhas, or freedom fighters, would return to the camp injured, Putul and her sister would nurse them back to health. “What more do you want to know?”
Muktijodha or liberation fighters of the Bangladeshi resistance army. Putul Chanda and her sister used to be nurses who helped to take care of the soldiers when they were wounded in Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971. (Photograph from Commons)
“If you had to explain to my generation the hardship that your generation went through, what would you say?”, I asked.
“Ooh baba”, she replied. “Then it’s not a five-minute story. This will take time.” Her tone changed. Sipping on her tea, she leaned in, and spoke in a hushed, conspiratorial manner.
Putul’s house in Bangladesh was in Barisal district, governed by Pakistani commander Major Jaleel. After a violent bombing in Barisal, Putul’s dada decided that it wasn’t safe for them to stay there any longer.
According to surveys conducted by the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, during the nine-month long war and the genocide that ensued, Pakistani forces and Islamic extremists were estimated to have killed between 300,000 to 3,000,000 people, and raped between 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women.
They decided to escape to the village they originally hailed from. For seven days, the family trekked through forests, trudged along dangerous terrains, and braved the strong currents of the two rivers they had to cross. Putul arrived at the village famished, her clothes drenched in water and sweat. This was the pastoral playground of her childhood, she would be safe here. After all, the rest of their family still resided here.
She sprinted into the village ahead of the rest of her family, eagerly searching for familiar faces, known sights. Where was everyone? There were no children running about playing make-belief games, no women outside haggling with vendors, and worst of all, no cousins running to greet them. The unburdening feeling of relief was dissipating rapidly. She felt more unwelcome with each unfamiliar face she crossed. She looked around, searching for dada or her mother, and spotted an elderly lady hurriedly walking towards the party. As Putul walked back to where the rest of her family had gathered, she saw her fear reflected in each of their faces. The lady was speaking in hushed tones with her mother. Whatever she had said had caused Putul’s mother to turn pale. The old lady took her by the arm and led her inside her house, as the rest of the family followed.
With sweeping arm gestures and protruding eyes, the old lady narrated the incidents of the past months that shaken up the village, Putul continued, her gestures matching those of the old lady she had just described.
The imam of the local madarsa had issued a fatwa against Hindus. Pakistani Special Force Officer Sarsinath Peer Shah was conducting officially sanctioned operations to either convert or kill; if Hindus refused to change their religion to Islam, he would have them murdered. Putul was devastated to find out that both her maternal and paternal cousins had been killed by Pakistani forces.
“I want to speak a little about why there was a problem between Pakistan and Bangladesh.”, said Hussain, chiming into the conversation. He explained that West Pakistan did a terrible job of governing its territory on the other side of India. They would tax the people of East Pakistan, and rob it of its wealth and resources, but never give anything back. The people of Bangladesh were always discriminated against in any governmental scheme and were rarely appointed official positions. In short, the Pakistani government treated Bangladesh like its colony. The tipping point, according to Hussain, was when the Pakistani government carried out Operation Searchlight in March of ‘71, hunting down and killing nationalist Bengali students, civilians, and religious minorities. “It was clear that Operation Searchlight was unconstitutional, but Bhutto (then the President of Pakistan) kept it going. It caused the deaths of millions of Bangladeshis.” It came as no surprise that the people of Bangladesh wanted independence.
War exposes the best and the worst of people; while on one side religious extremism was at its peak, on the other side Muslim civilians were putting their own lives in danger to help Hindus.
Refugees in their own country
With their world spinning out of control, Putul and her family lived out the next few days at the mercy of the few friendly neighbors they had left, eternally grateful to these friends who took an even greater risk by providing them with food and shelter. A family with vast lands and wealth, they were reduced to unimaginable penury. They slept wherever they could- on the cold floors of the houses of warm neighbors, on grassy verandahs, and muddy grounds; and devoured whatever little morsels their friends could provide.
With each passing day they felt more and more disconnected from their own village, and Putul increasingly started realizing that their only chance at escaping death was to convert to Islam.
The local Pakistani forces were aware of the family’s arrival in the village. Putul, then in her teenage years, had already received an offer to marry one of the top local officers of the local Pakistani forces. Of course, there was a catch. A Muslim man can marry a woman of any faith as long as the woman has converted to Islam prior to the ceremony. The family was well known in the village and if Putul married the officer, it would send out a strong message of obedience to the people.
Bangladeshi families crossing the border between India and Pakistan to join the refugee camps in India. (Wikipedia Commons photo)
Putul considered the offer. It would save her life, but who knew what kind of man he was? Would he let her see her family? Probably not, unless they also converted. Besides, her education had hit a standstill due to the past few turbulent months, and there would be no chance of her finishing her education if she married him. Fortunately for Putul, dada made the decision for her. He decided to go against the odds and trek to India.
India Home’s seniors joined a letter writing campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to restore TitleXX funds for senior center programs
Seniors from India Home joined LiveOnNY, a senior citizen advocacy group, in a campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to leave the funding for seniors in the New York State budget intact. The budget proposed a transfer of $17 million in Title XX Funds funds from senior citizens’ programs to child care initiatives around New York state.
The change, claimed alarmed advocates, would result in putting 65 senior centers in New York at risk of closing and deprive 6,000 older adults of a day at a local senior center. “The senior center cuts would also equal the disappearance of 1.5 million meals and 24,000 hours of case assistance which help seniors with public benefits, housing concerns and other aid in their own language. Elderly immigrants will also lose a safe haven, where they can trust staff,” wrote Bobbie Sackman of LiveOnNY in anop-ed in NY Slant.
India Home’s older adults took enthusiastic part in this spirited advocacy campaign to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to restore the Title XX funds as members of New York’s only professionally-staffed centers for immigrant South Asian seniors. Our seniors wrote 40 letters that were delivered to Governor Cuomo in Albany.
In the end, the pressure from 17,500 letters from 141 senior centers, phone calls and strong, united efforts by senior citizen advocates at City Hall and Albany worked to effect change. Last week, Governor Coumo restored the $17 million in Title XX funds for senior citizen programs to the state budget.
Whenever I think of Holi and our seniors, rangeen is a word that comes to mind. In Hindi it means “colorful” — and it’s often applied to describe not just things, but attitudes. Someone is called rangeen because he or she is enthusiastic and excited about living, and a happy generous minded individual.
Our seniors love to dance
Our seniors love Holi and look forward to it every year. On March 13th as is customary, we decorated the center and brought colored powders for our seniors to smear on each other. This year we also had a singer who delighted our seniors by singing Bollywood songs of yesteryear. Our seniors danced, sang along, and anointed each other (and us) with color. They also shared the joy of the festival with their American friends at Sunnyside Community Services by making a presentation, and teaching them to dance the Garba, a Gujarati folk dance.
Many of them also shared memories of celebrating Holi in their past, some reaching all the way back 50-60 years to their childhood’s.
“Some pranksters would load up ox drawn carts with large drums filled with colored water and drive them around town. They would stop at strategic points and dowse passersby in red and green water, and the townspeople would retaliate by drenching the guys on the cart too. It was such great fun–I used to wait anxiously for the day to come.” Dinesh Patel.
India Home’s seniors taught their non-Indian friends to dance the garba, a Gujarati folk dance
A visitor joined in the fun
This year, we were also joined by Rachel Pardoe of the New York Community Trust, a grant giving organization. She too was promptly pulled into the festivities by our seniors. Remember what i said about them being rangeen?
“When I was first married and went to my husband’s home as a young bride, Holi was such a big deal. My husband and his brothers would pick me up and drop me screaming into a tank full of colored water.” Neeru Hanskoty.