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.
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 Shreshta, 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
On the first truly warm day of the year, we took 45 seniors from our centers on a trip to the 100-year old Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. With the cherry blossoms in full gorgeous bloom, our seniors were eager to to view the flowers. They began their tour at the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, which was the first Japanese Garden developed in the United States, and is the most visited Japanese Garden in the world outside Japan. After the Japanese Garden, the seniors set off to see other sights such as the acclaimed Bonsai conservatory, and ended their trip after enjoying a picnic lunch under the flowering trees.
The Gujarati Samaj Hall decorated by our members
Every year, India Home plans a celebration for Diwali, one of the most important holidays for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. This year, however, a group of seniors, spearheaded by our members Dinesh Parmar and Bharat Patel, took the lead to plan, execute and carry out the Diwali event. The celebration was held at the Gujarati Samaj Hall on the Horace Harding Expressway in Queens, a spacious venue with an excellent stage and sound system. The women’s committee donated traditional lamps and runners and “showed up early in the morning at 7 a.m.,” to decorate the place, Niruben Hansoty said.
Movers and shakers were seniors
Dinesh Parmar and Bharat Patel, the movers and shakers behind the event, welcomed the audience with a traditional lamp lighting ceremony or deep pragatya. Then the members honored India Home’s Executive Director, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi and other staff of India Home, the President of the Gujarati Sama (who donated the space) and Mukesh Mehta, a Board Member of India Home.
Bharat Patel (left) and Dinesh Parmar (right)
Dr.Vasundhara Kalasapudi, E.D., India Home
The band played on
After the speeches, it was time for fun. Well known New Jersey-based singer Varsha Joshi and her band sang Bollywood hits and Gujarati traditional songs. Our seniors got down on the dance floor, dancing the garba and other folk dances with vigor, breaking only for a fabulous lunch from Usha Foods.
Our members love to dance the vigorous Garba
New jersey-based singer Varsha Joshi entertained the audience
Usha Foods catered the delicious lunch
Starting in 2015, the people behind Exceeding Expectations, a project from Columbia University’s Aging Center, searched far and wide for 20 New Yorkers from all different circumstances and backgrounds who have both exceeded life expectancy and who are disrupting commonly-held expectations of what it means to grow old. “The project, through writing, photography and video, explores how people find purpose in later life and how their environment and circumstances make it easier or more challenging to do so. Their stories are filled with mystery, drama, wisdom and search for meaning,” according to the website.
The Exceeding Expectations project, Chandrakant Sheth and India Home was also given a two page spread in India Abroad, the oldest newspaper in North America catering to the South Asian diaspora.
The project’s goal is to challenge people’s expectations of growing old and to present different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving, as we like to say. – Heather Clayton Colangelo
Heather Clayton Colangelo found India Home’s very own Chandrakant Sheth and shadowed him for a year, going to his home, meeting his family and friends, and visiting us and his friends at India Home’s Sunnyside Center. We interviewed her about the project and what sparked her interest in Chandrakant Sheth:
What made you choose Chandrakant Sheth as a subject?
We spent several months trying to find 20 people all in their 80s that represented the diversity of New York City. We wanted people in all different living situations, with different interests, from different socioeconomic backgrounds and from different neighborhoods. The key piece was that each person needed to be seeking purpose in some way, to have a goal that they were trying to accomplish. The project’s goal is to challenge people’s expectations of growing old and to present different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving, as we like to say.
I heard about India Home because of the opening of the Desi Senior Center right around the time we were looking for participants for the project, and were intrigued. As a then-resident of Astoria, I was also hoping to find someone suitable to follow in Queens as I wanted to represent the borough I dearly love. I contacted Lakshman at India Home and he recommended Chandrakant to me. He described Chandrakant as someone warm and genuine, with a thirst for learning, which made him a perfect fit for our project. Asking someone to be vulnerable and open their life up to a stranger is not an easy task, but from the beginning Chandrakant was willing to go outside of his comfort zone and share his life and thoughts with me.
You’ve been shadowing him for a year. How did your relationship develop?
The very first time I sat down with Chandrakant he was incredibly candid and genuine. He expressed enthusiasm for the goals of Exceeding Expectations and wanted to share his story as a way to help other people facing aging with limited models. I believe we talked for more than 3 hours that first day. Throughout the project he continued to graciously open up his heart and life to me, sharing his poetry, introducing me to family members, bringing me along on trips to India Home, and feeding me delicious food at his home. I feel grateful to have learned so much both professionally and personally from him.
What has the reaction to Exceeding Expectations been?
The reaction has been wonderful and is ongoing. We have heard from people young and old that they are inspired and see growing old in a more nuanced light. We have had pieces published in a variety of publications to reach new audiences, as well as on our website. We have more stories coming soon and hope people will follow along and share them with their friends! Best of all, we received funding from the New York Community Trust for a second year, so that we are able to follow these 20 inspiring people even longer and share their stories more widely.
Can you share a little of what you learned over the course of this project with Chandrakant Sheth and India Home.
India Home is an inspiring place. The people who attend demonstrate the diversity within the experience of older immigrants in New York, especially depending on what age a person has come to the U.S. and with what resources and knowledge. India Home is an example of the importance of culturally appropriate services and the need for meeting places in a city made of micro neighborhoods and cultural communities.
From Chandrakant, I have learned so much. I have learned how much having a positive outlook can aid resiliency and how it is a basic human need to have a sense of community. I have seen with Chandrakant, as with others that we are following, the challenges of building a new life and finding new connections when one’s partner passes. And I am also inspired by his desire to widen his community beyond only people with his same background. And finally, I have been so impressed by Chandrakant’s thirst for knowledge and how adept at technology he is! Chandrakant certainly challenges anyone’s belief that learning technology in old age is not possible.
We still have another part of Chandrakant’s story to come, so stay tuned!
India Home’s seniors are learning computer skills, many for the first time
India Home’s Desi Senior Center is now offering computer classes to senior men and women who want to learn to handle technology. Mr. Palash Piplu, a volunteer, teaches the class on Thursdays. For now, Palash is familiarizing our seniors, many of whom have never touched a computer, with basic computer skills, such as how to open a file and save it, or how to browse the internet.
A. Mahbubul Latif is happy that he is learning something new and wants to learn all about the computer. “I can do my own work, take care of my own things,” he said.
India Home started these classes because there is a strong desire among our seniors to get in touch with the world. As Latif said, “Everything is on computers now…but when I ask at home to teach me computers, nobody helps me.”
Learning the unfamiliar technology don’t come not easy for these elders, but they persist. They are determined to learn the intricacies of computer use, even though, as Latif acknowledged, “We didn’t practice computers in our time.”
It has been heartening to see how the women at the center have been at the forefront of the classes, encouraging each other to participate.
Rabeya Khanom is 67 years old but wants to be always learning. At the beginning of the class, she said, “It was difficult to catch up,” and wished there was a “shortcut.” But she says she’s “learning this from my own interest. It is better to be learning something than sitting at home doing nothing,” she said. She also doesn’t want to be left behind. “Everybody has computer in our home, internet too. I want to use email and the internet,” she said.
While many of the seniors have never used a computer, several others have worked and retired in the US. They are taking to classes to update their skills. Farida Talukdar worked for 23 years in the Social Services department in New York City and says she has a basic knowledge of computers. But now, she said, she “was getting interested in Word, Excel and the Internet. ” With the instructor Palash’s teaching, these programs, were “becoming much easier now,” she said.
It is a well known fact that students learn better with support from their families. Our adult learners are being encouraged by their children. For Ms. Khanum, there’s an additional incentive to master computers: “My daughter said if I learn computers, she will buy a computer for me,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.
Funding for the 14 unit computer lab was generously provided by Department for the Aging and Commissioner Dr. Donna Corrado.
(With additional reporting from Shah Afroditi Panna)
They wore saris with sequins, salwar kameezes with gold trim and blouses with mirror work. One member wore a cap like a famous yester-year Bollywood star. Another lady wore a costume from the state of Rajastan in India. Most of our members at India Home’s Sunnyside facility are immigrants from India and on Monday, September 19, a spectrum of fabrics, styles and costumes from across the home country were on display. While the event started out as a Fashion Show, our wonderful, enthusiastic members soon turned it into a Talent Show. Some matched their outfits to famous songs, showing off their prodigious memory of Bollywood songs. Many couples sang duets, danced or strolled holding hands to romantic ballads. Some showed off their comedic talents or did some improv.
As one member, Dinesh Bhai, wrote in an email: “Old is gold. For a few hours that day, seniors turned twenty years old.”