Three mornings a week, Abu Sayeed, 64, wakes up in his home in Cyprus Hills in Brooklyn, NY, worrying about the subway. He wonders if he’ll manage get the right train? How long will he have to wait? As he gets ready for his long walk to the station – putting on a cap, a thick sweater, sports shoes – he worries if he’ll make it in time to catch the exercise class he loves so much at the Desi Senior Center in faraway Jamaica, Queens.
His journey begins at the Cypress Hills subway station in Brooklyn where he catches the J train to the Sutphin Boulevard station in Queens. From there he transfers to the E train for Kew Gardens. At Kew Gardens he waits for the F train to Jamaica’s 169th street station.
Three trains and 70 minutes after he first got into the subway, he emerges into the light at Hillside Avenue and walks up the slope to the Desi Senior Center. He’s timed the walk: it takes a further 8 minutes.
Abu Sayeed has to take 3 trains and travel for more than an hour to get to India Home’s Desi Senior Center. Lack of convenient transportation increases the social isolation and decreases the wellbeing of our immigrant seniors.
Refuge from Social Isolation
Abu Sayeed has made this complicated journey, three times a week, ever since the Desi Senior Center opened in 2014. “My three arteries was blocked so I had three bypass operations. But still I came,” he says, proud of his tenacity. “I am coming here since day one. December 15, 2014.” His eyes crinkle under his cap. We are in the office of India Home’s Desi Senior Center in Jamaica. Outside the door, other older adults at the center have finished their lunch of rice and chicken curry are munching on apples for desert. A few pop in now and then to say hello to Sayeed or to ask questions of the staff.
So why, given the time and effort it takes, does he make this journey day after day?
Abu Sayeed doesn’t hesitate. “The friendliness of all the people here is very important to me. It is something that I enjoy every much,” is how Sayeed explains his dedication.
For Sayeed, and others like him, the Desi Senior Center, catering to mostly Bengali muslims and other immigrants from South Asia, is a refuge from social isolation, a problem that more and more elderly face in New York city. Sayeed moved from Bangladesh in 2008 to join his children in the US. His sons are busy, off at work or college, leaving Sayeed and his wife alone at home. In the summer he putters around growing flowers and vegetables in his small garden, but in the winter, there’s nothing to do. “My wife is idle,” he mock-laments. She’s happy to stay home. But he gets bored.
At the Desi Senior Center he meets older adults from his country who share the same language and culture, people with whom he can laugh or talk politics with for a few hours a day. There are other reasons that draw him here: “There is a group exercise session that happens every day that I really like. That is the main reason why I come here. They also serve halal food which, especially for me, is very important.”
Food that is culturally suited, exercise, a friendly face: Sayeed’s needs are simple. Yet the journey to enjoy a few hours of small comforts is difficult.
The burden of transportation costs
Finding easily accessible public transportation is one problem; the high cost of transportation is another. Sayeed, who retired as a manager at a fertilizer plant in Bangladesh, has no work history in the US and thus has no social security income to draw upon. The cost can become a burden: “Every day I am spending $5.50…that is a lot if you don’t have a job.” he says. Selvia Sikder is a case management worker at India Home: “New York City requires that older adults have to be 65+ to get the reduced fare Metrocard. Many of our elders who don’t meet the criteria, even those who are below the poverty line, are spending $5 dollars a day to get to the center.” They can’t access private transportation services because these seniors are often on Medicaid, and these services are not available to those on the Medicaid plan.
There are days when Sayeed simply doesn’t have money and waits for some kind soul to swipe him through the turnstile.
Still, not all elders are as determined or as healthy as Sayeed. “Many elders have to beg for a ride to come to the center. Or wait for family to come and pick up. Some can’t afford even the reduced fare of $1.35. Others live far away from the nearest subway or bus-stop and find it difficult to walk,” Selvia, the case worker, explained.
Fast Growing Elderly Population Needs Better Options
New York City’s large older adult population includes 1.4 million people over the age of 60 and the fastest growing segment of this population are immigrant seniors. The 2013 poverty rate among those age 65 and over was 21.6%. Given these statistics, one would think that NYC would make improving the public transportation system for the elderly a priority. However, the global design and consulting firm Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility index 2017 published in 2017 found that NYC’s public transportation system was ranked 23rd in the world. Funding concerns, long commute times and looming mega projects kept the city out of the top tier.
New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) funds 14 transportation only programs, which provide means of transportation to older and frail adults, according to a concept paper released in 2015. However these programs serve a limited number of community districts. Many community districts in Brooklyn and Queens remain without a ready source that can provide transportation to older adults.
The benefits of older adults being able to use a low-cost, easily accessed public transportation system are well documented. In January 2017, Reuters reported on a UK study that followed 18,000 older adults for more than a decade. Eliminating cost as a barrier to traveling around town was seen as an important way to improve the mental health of older adults by reducing loneliness and lack of social engagement.
By 2040 the older adult population of New York city is set to grow by 31%. Without proper transportation infrastructure that works for the aging, older adults like Abu Sayeed will face increasing social isolation and the physical and mental health issues that come with it. For now, though Abu Sayeed is looking forward to turning 65. “After 1 yr and 4 months I’ll get my half-fare Metro Card.” He grins in anticipation. “Almost there,” he says.
Here are some of the recommendations that AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) urged on Congress in 2012. Many of them could be applied in NYC today.
Dedicate increased funding for public transportation and the specialized transportation program for older adults and persons with disabilities.
Include support for operations to help mitigate the high cost of gas and other expenses.
Strengthen the coordination of public transportation and transportation provided by human services programs, such as agencies that provide transportation for seniors to group meals
Ensure that older Americans have greater involvement in developing transportation plans to meet their needs.
Ensure that state departments of transportation retain their authority to use a portion of their highway funds for transit projects and programs.
Include a Complete Streets policy to ensure that streets and intersections around transit stops are safe and convenient.
Rosa Mendonza is singing. The 86 year old doesn’t speak much English, so she decides to sing instead. Her beautiful, rich voice rises in long trills above the crowd in the bright room and and seems to set the very trees outside the windows quivering. The murmuring crowd falls silent as her voice fills the room.
She stops. Her audience draws a breath, then erupts into cheers.
Columbia University’s Aging Center celebrated the culmination of its project Exceeding Expectations
It’s a wondrous moment in a morning filled with revelation and wisdom that came from 18 or so elder New Yorkers who sit on chairs before a crowded audience in the auditorium of Columbia University’s Journalism school.
The audience had been invited by Columbia University’s Robert N. Butler Aging Center to celebrate the culmination of its Exceeding Expectations project. Started in 2015, by Ruth Finkelstein, a psychologist, and Dorian Block, a journalist, the storytelling project “explores how people find purpose later in life,” through writing, photography and video. The “people” in this case are aging New Yorkers who are disrupting expectations of what it means to grow old.
“The goal was to show the lives of every day people and 20 people in every category of diversity were chosen,” according to Dorian Block.
The elders being honored are certainly reflective of New York city’s diverse population. Among them is India Home’s own Chandrakant Sheth, an elder who has been a regular at our Sunnyside Center for years. A senior writer and photographer on the project, Heather Clayton Colangelo, shadowed Chandrakant as he went about his everyday life. She followed him to India Home, on his walks around the city, and into his room as he pecked away at his keyboard. She talked to him while he gardened, Skyped with his grandchildren, took art classes or hung out with his friends. “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,” Heather said in an interview for this blog in 2016.
Like Heather, other project staff chronicled the every day routines of each of the 19 men and women they followed.
Some of the participants who were shadowed by the Exceeding Expectations project
The result is a rich, fascinating glimpse of aging New Yorkers in their later decades–captured through film, photographs and writing. The stories were told in their own voices, in their own language, set in their familiar surroundings. These chronicles of the everyday are moving and funny, and occasionally tragic.
Dorian Black was clear why she wanted these stories out in the world: “Journalism is how we chronicle our time. Aging is universal-all of us are growing old, but the way journalists do it now is to show aging as either terrible, pitiable and static, or heroic!” Or as Heather put it, the project wanted to show aging as having “different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving.”
The goal was to change hearts and minds, to make people see aging in a whole new way and more nuanced manner, as another life stage. The project asks viewers to understand that each of these individuals and their stories are unique.
For instance, there’s Sylvia Lack, an 84 year old New Yorker and lifelong activist, who has traveled to Albany for 40 years to advocate for social justice issues. “Every time I get on that train to Albany, the attendant greets me with “Here comes the No.1 Democrat!” she recalled to the delight of the crowd.
Not everyone was so voluble. Hank Blum when asked what he would have differently in his life just had only four words, “I wouldn’t have smoked.”
Asked what he thought he had learned from being part of the project, Chandrakant said, “It made me go back over my life, over the sad events and the happy events. Just sitting with these wonderful people enriched my knowledge.”
Chandrakant Sheth with Dorian Block, journalist and Director of Columbia’s Aging Center
“It also taught me that New York is the best city in the world. You meet so many people from so many places and they have so much to teach us. I think we should all mingle, rather than staying in our own little circles.”
Chandrakant, like so many of the others who’s stories we heard, had never stayed in his own circle. He had ventured far, far from home, having come to New York from India in 1969. For 40 years, he had worked and lived in this city, had moments of struggle and happiness, and created a new life and story for himself.
Now his unique immigrant story will become part of an invaluable record created by one of the world’s great universities and help others understand what it means to grow old in New York.
Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled our member, Putul Chanda, a senior from Bangladesh and our center in Jamaica, known as the Desi Senior Center. In the article she tells the history, not just of our senior’s life, but that of Bangladesh’s protracted and traumatic fight for freedom. Putul Chanda is not the only one of our seniors who has been through the travails of war and displacement – several of the elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The second and last installment of Bakshi’s article is reproduced. To read Part 1, click here. Both installments have been edited for length and clarity.
Putul Chanda, a senior at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, recounted her story of resistance and escape during the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971
Putul Chanda once told me that she was the only Hindu at the Desi Senior Center, and everyone else was Muslim. Aunty’s assertion of her Hindu identity made sense. She had come so close to forsaking her religious beliefs in order to protect her life that it was natural for her, so many decades later, to feel proud of the fact that she had managed to retain the faith she had grown up with.
“You Hindu or Muslim?”, she asked me. On learning that I too was a Hindu, her eyes lit up and she happily agreed to let me take a picture of her.
I never noticed any animosity between her and the other members of the Center. On the contrary, it seemed that Putul Aunty was very well liked and respected among her peers at the Center, and she treated them with equal respect. None of them could forget the genocide of ’71, but forty-five years later in a different country, their common Bengali identity united them more than their different religious identities divided them.
Putul felt relieved leaving her ancestral village. Once again, the journey proved treacherous. As they waded through the Ichchamati river, the river that, in Bengali literature, is said to grant wishes to passersby, Putul’s wish was to make it safely into India. The route was notorious for bandits and murderers who would rob not just money and jewelry, but also abduct women. The family was wealthy, so they were traveling with a darwan, a bodyguard, who swore that as long as he was alive, nothing would happen to any of them. They hardly slept, but on the rare occasions when they did, they had to sleep wherever they found open space; on a verandah, in a jungle, even in the marshes, always keeping an ear open for gunshots that would cause them to scatter.
Refugees from Bangladesh riding in a bullock cart. Photograph (c) by Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only
They survived on the fruits and wild berries they picked from the fields and forests they crossed along their journey. Sometimes, while crossing towns, they would manage to procure roti, dal, and vegetables, but towns also meant that there would be more soldiers. On these rare instances when they sat down to eat a proper meal, they would be interrupted by sounds of soldiers approaching, accompanied by gunshots and screams. Putul would discard her uneaten meal, and run as fast as she could to find a hiding spot.
By surviving off of the land this way, they managed to make it to Jessore, a town that bordered India on the west. India would only be a few days now, Putul told herself. From Jessore they afforded themselves the small luxury of setting out again in a bullock cart. Riding in the cart did not do any favors to Putul’s back, which had developed a constant pain. Traveling through rocky inner routes and rickety passageways to avoid the highway which would have considerable army presence, they soon had to abandon the cart and set off on foot once again.
Family members carrying an elder as they walk across the border from Bangladesh to India during the 1971 war. Photograph (c) Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only
As she made her way towards India, Putul, her stomach churning, saw the discarded babies and children that had died due to starvation and exhaustion, their bodies reeking of death, flies and vultures preying upon them. Old women and men that had been abandoned by their families because they were too weak to complete the grueling journey sat on the edges of paths, hoping for and awaiting their own deaths. “There is no Bangladeshi family in which at least one or two people didn’t go missing”, Putul said.
Mr. Hussain, who had been listening intently, nodded vigorously. He once told me that the reason he couldn’t talk freely at the Center was because he believed a particular staff member to be hailing from Pakistan. On being told that the staff member in question was actually from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, he opened up a great deal. He had been the Agricultural Secretary of the district of Dinaspur in Bangladesh, and considered himself an expert on the topic of the ’71 War, having fought in it himself.
Putul continued. She was thankful that dada’s (her elder brother) resolve to get the entire family across the border was firmer than a rock. Her mother was too old and feeble to carry out the exhausting journey on her own, so dada and Putul’s uncle broke off a branch from a bamboo tree, tore their clothes to create strips that they used to bind Putul’s mother’s arms and legs onto it, and then carried one side of the pole on each of their shoulders.
The exhausted family finally reached a small canal, that was, as they found out, close to the Indian border. Any glimmer of hope they had preserved instantly vanished when they were told that there were no boats to take them across. Hundreds of fleeing Bangladeshis had crossed that canal, and once the army found out, they stole all the boats that were being used to transport people across the water.
The banks of the small canal were not safe by nightfall because the soldiers would plunder camps and kidnap girls to rape and then kill them. Dada’s legs were painfully swollen and he, like Putul, was developing a painful and consistent back pain, but he vowed that he would only rest after reaching India.Putul had reached a stage of utter exhaustion and hopelessness, and was beginning to give up her inner resolve. Then they noticed the banana trees that lined the shores. Desperate to finish their trek to safe shores, Putul, dada, and the rest of their family feverishly broke off branches of banana trees and tied them together to make a raft.
They used any energy they had left to row to the opposite bank, but once they reached, they found that their struggle wasn’t over yet. Disembarking from the raft, Putul put her feet on the ground. As she tried to take the next step, she found her foot stuck; the more she would try to free it, the more it would sink. She was stuck in five feet of quicksand, and all she could see for miles and miles was more of the sucking mud. Putul wondered if the gods were playing with them, using them as mere pawns in a sadistic game.
At her vivid description, Shakhwat Hussain gasped, his eyes enlarged. Leaning in slightly, he admitted that his struggle was nowhere close to being as arduous as Putul’s, simply because he hailed from Dinaspur, a district very close to the Indian border. So, when the time came for him to flee Bangladesh, he simply crossed over into India, aided by his status as a student muktijhhoda.
Putul Aunty continued. They battled the kalamatti (black mud) for what seemed like a lifetime, Putul’s mother still being carried on a pole. Dehydrated and ravenous, they were all looking death in the eye, using their desperation to will themselves forward. Their bodies gave up, but their minds didn’t.
It was 10 PM when the kalamatti finally lessened. Putul no longer felt anything after overcoming an obstacle except an anticipation of the next hurdle. She could see little huts scattered around. She approached one of the huts and asked the man inside for a glass of water, the first she would have in days. She asked him, “India kauto door? How far is India?” The man waved his arms, demonstrating, “My kitchen is in Bangladesh, but the rest of the house is in India.” Pointing to a pillar that ran across his living room, he said, “That’s the border demarcation pillar right there. You’re safe now.”
Putul had never been more elated in her life.
She noticed a muktijhhoda camp nearby, and knew that she would be safe now. They reached the camp where they changed their damp clothes, and collapsed onto the bare ground, devoid of meals or mattress. When they woke up after what felt like days, they were greeted by sunshine and the beaming face of Putul’s younger brother, her chhotu dada.Chhotu dada had fled to India during the partition of ’47. He had met no one in the family since then, but they had been in correspondence through occasional letters and rare phone calls. When he heard that the rest of his family were trying to flee Bangladesh, he had searched all the mukti bahini camps in the area, until he saw the sleeping shapes of his family members in the camp at Boira, recognizable to him even after 25 years.
Gasping at this positive turn of events, Putul Aunty’s enthralled little audience cheered. Beaming, she rushed through the rest of her story.
Putul’s family went with chhotu dada to Krishnanagar in the Indian state of West Bengal, where the stashes of cash they had somehow managed to travel with were declared invalid. However, the Indian government gave them rations. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had decided that India would intervene in Pakistan’s civil war, supporting the Bangladeshi mukti bahini’s demands to create a new nation-state comprising of ethnic Bengalis.
Putul Aunty paused, and looked at me. “Thanks god to India, to Indira Gandhi. Because of India’s kindness so many people are alive today. Indira Gandhi’s name will be chiseled onto my heart till the day I die.”
Shakhwat affirmed this dramatic statement, “If it wasn’t for the alliance with India, with Indira Gandhi, we wouldn’t have gotten independence so fast, and crores more people would have died.” Like Putul, he said he would always be eternally grateful to India.
The Liberation Times announces the news of Pakistani surrender to Indian forces in Dacca on 15th December, 1972
The Pakistani forces had two territories to defend; West Pakistan from the Indian forces, and East Pakistan from Bengali rebels. Unable to match up to the combined forces of the Indians and the Bangladeshi rebels, on December 16, 1971, Pakistan officially surrendered, making East Pakistan the country that is now called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Putul stayed with her family in Krishnanagar until the war was over. After the war, dada decided that it was time for her to finally finish her education. So, he went back to Bangladesh with her, and after she finished her education, arranged a marriage for her to a Hindu Bangladeshi freedom fighter. Her husband, like Hussain, was recognized by the Government of Bangladesh as a freedom fighter. After his death in 2004, the pension he received annually for his services to the country went to Putul, who will continue receiving it her entire life.
Having finished her story, Putul became silent, a satisfied look on her face, the cup beside her conspicuous due to the lack of tea inside it. Putul Aunty had gone through more life threatening adventures in the course of a few months than most people I knew had encountered in their entire lives. I felt humbled by her complete lack of self-awareness – she didn’t seem to think that what she had gone through was unusual in any way- as well as honored that she had decided to share her story with me.
I felt like I had to say something. “So, what made you shift to New York?”, I asked both Shakhwat and Putul. Hussain, currently residing with his son and his family in Queens, is here with his wife for lung therapy. He had severe lung and kidney problems, and was told that the best treatment would be available in New York. He might go back once he has fully recovered, but he loves New York and the lifestyle it affords, so he might stay on here with his family. Putul Aunty came to New York in 2012, to live with her daughter.
Currently, she is considered a refugee in India, a muktijhhoda in Bangladesh, and an immigrant in New York. She likes it here, but it’s just not like home.
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.
Maganbhai Chavda is tall and thin, a white-haired gentleman who towers over his wife Kamuben’s tiny bird-like figure. Kamuben, in turn, is the one you will see dancing the vigorous garba at every opportunity. The husband and wife, both 82, are unmistakable fixtures at India Home’s Sunnyside Community Center location. They were born in 1935 and have been married for 63 years, sharing a long, eventful life–one that has seen them journeying from abject poverty in a tiny village in Gujarat in India to a life in New York that is filled with success and generosity. The couple spoke to India Home together one afternoon, trading stories, completing each others sentences, refreshing each other’s memory.
Growing up during India’s Independence struggle:
Kamuben says: “I was 13 years old when India became free and we would stay up night after night because the government said they would announce India’s Independence. Finally, we were told that India was free. All the kids ran out into the street cheering. We had steel plates and we began banging on them with sticks and shouting –we went around the city in a big parade.” Her husband, Maganbhai, has his own memories, although less dramatic: “I remember that there was a building in my village that was built after Mahatma Gandhi-ji visited in 1932. He came through our village on his way to the Salt March in 1932. We children would talk about him all the time.”
“Every day was a crisis of poverty.”
Maganbhai’s parents were field hands. They were illiterate and worked the land, doing hard physical labor. “We children could only eat if our parents worked with their bodies,” he explains. As a result of his family’s difficulties his education suffered. ” When I was in the 7th grade I left school. I was an excellent student, first class first, but I had to get a job because we had no money. I couldn’t afford to go to college or pay the boarding fees to stay in town. I became a teacher and worked for two years. I didn’t like being a teacher, so I joined the postal service in the village. I had six people working for me. I stayed on in that job for 30 years, and only left it to come to the United States.
Even in 1953, her father-in-law was a feminist
Kamuben studied up to SSC in Baroda and then trained as a teacher. After marriage she moved with Maganbhai to his tiny village of Borsad in Gujarat where they started living with his parents and siblings. “I became a teacher and taught primary school from 1-7th grade. I liked teaching the small children in 1st grade. The kids loved me and everyone gave me a lot of respect. Some parents would come to the school and insist that they wanted their child to be in my class.” Kamuben at one point had 14 assistants working under her and she retired as the Principal of the school after teaching for 30 years.
Yet it’s the family that she married into that she reminisces about the most. Her father-in-law was illiterate and a farm worker, but she says, the way she was treated was unusual for the era. “My father-in-law was a gem. When I got married I was very delicate and my father-in-law wouldn’t let me go to get water from the public tap. He would come to help. There were so many restrictions for women in those days. They were to be veiled, they couldn’t laugh or talk in front of their inlaws or even wear shoes. My father -in-law said, “Wear your shoes.” He was an enlightened person, his attitude was so modern. He always said, “do something new, leave these outdated, ancient rituals.” We used to play with my father-in-law, a game with cowrie-shells. He didn’t want us to be veiled — he put an end to all that. People in the village used to laugh at us say mean things. They’d tease my in-laws and say that they were letting me do whatever I wanted because I was educated. After a while, though, following our family’s ideas, even villagers also changed their attitude towards women.”
“My father died without a good doctor, so I vowed to make my sons into doctors”
Maganbhai and Kamuben are sorrowful when they recall the day his father died. “We had no money to treat him or take him to a hospital in Ahmedabad city. So he died in the village. Maganbhai was changed by his father’s death. “That day I decided I will make at least one son a doctor,” he said said. “Fortunately, I had three sons and they were all intelligent and they had our support,” he says. Today, not one, but all three of the couple’s sons are medical doctors–one is a radiologist, the others practice ER-Medicine and pulmonary medicine. The couple are justifiably proud of their sons and daughter. “They sent us on a tour of Europe, they sent us to South East Asia,” they said, each one talking over the other in their excitement.
Coming to America
Kamuben’s sister immigrated first to the U.S. and then sponsored the couple. Their children were grown and had done MBA’s in India, but with typical drive and enterprise, they studied further and became doctors. Their only daughter is an accountant. Maganbhai, even after spending his entire career in the post office, decided to continue working in the US and operated a Lotto machine in his brother-in-law’s store. “I started at $3.50 an hour in 1985,” he says. “When I finally listened to my children and stopped working, I was making $7.00 an hour.”
The Goddess of Charity
Kamuben and Maganbhai have been in the US for 30 years. They are comfortably off and their children are doing well. Yet they have never forgotten the days when they weren’t so fortunate. “Everyday was a crisis without enough money,” Kamuben says. Now they sponsor kids who are smart but may not have the means to go to college or get graduate degrees. They sent a friend’s young son to London to study. If someone wants money, we give it to them. “Because we have seen what happens when you have no money, we help anyone who needs it. We’ve helped so many families, helped their kids come up in the world. Even though I was in the village, I would cook for poor kids who didn’t have anything to eat. I’d feel sad for them.” Maganbhai teases his wife: ” When we go to India, all our relatives call her the “Goddess of Charity.”
So what’s the secret of their happiness?
The couple is remarkably active even though they are both 82 years old. Maganbhai waves his hand: “Don’t worry, be happy. Worrying too much makes you sick,” he says. Kamuben nods: “We don’t have any illnesses. I say, eat, drink, be happy, help others and don’t be selfish with your money. If you have enough to eat, feed others. Everyday I pray that god gives me the means to help others.”
On India Home
“We come here, we see our friends, our brother-in-law is here – we have a good time.”
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!
Maimoon Mohammad, 74, was born in Guyana in the Caribbean in 1942 and moved permanently to Jamaica, Queens in 2012, where she now lives with her daughter. A small, voluble lady with a large loving smile, she is a regular at India Home’s Desi Senior Center. She speaks English and Guyanese creole. In this edited interview, we have tried capture a little of that distinct flavor.
Maimoon Mohammed is from Guyana and as she says,”every three times a week I come here to the center.”
On her childhood: “I work work work when I was small. I plant rice, I cut rice.”
I was born on Plantation Ogle in Guyana. My grandparents were Muslim. Only I live with my grandparents, and all my brothers and sisters live with my parents. My grandparents come from India and they believed at the time I turn a young lady I should stop going to school. I was very very bright in school. Very brilliant in school. When I go to up to 5th grade I become a young lady and I stopped going to school. We had no computer, no clock nothing. When I sleep I wake to the bell of the sugar factory.
I only had to work work work work when I was small. I plant rice, I cut rice. In our own fields. We had a piece of land to plant; not an estate. Not with the white people. We had a vegetable garden. It was very long, so we going out there to work. We plant squash, kathal (jackfruit), all kinds of vegetables and then when it is too much, we pick it and go and sell it out in the market.
On her grandparents: “He was an overseer. They called him Sardar.”
My grandfather was born in 1901. He was tall and fair and had blue eyes, his father was a white man. The British bring the people from India to work. The British were ruling. My grandfather he would take the order and take these people into work on the sugar estate. You go that way, you go this way, he would say to the workers. He was something like an overseer or a director. They call him Sardar. Sardar, they would say. When I was small and my grandma and we clean the kathal (jackfruit), we have to skin it take out the seeds, when we do that, my grandma tell me lots of stories.
On looking after her sick grandmother: “I massage her and I bring her back good.”
One day I come back from sewing class and I see my grandma get a stroke. She just sit there then suddenly get up with a passion. She hold her stomach from the pressure of the blood rushing up. I call my neighbor. We put her to rest then we take her to the doctor. Then I start to mind her. I wasn’t married then. I massage her everyday. I bring her back good. Two years after she get it back again. Again I massage her and bring her back. My grandmother died after my first child was born, so I start to look after my grandfather. Then he remarried.
On marriage: “In February my husband and I will be married 58 years.”
I marry at 17 years, my husband as 19 years when we marry. I married and went to the West Bank in Guyana. I got five children. Three daughters and two sons, but one boy died when he was just two years old. My husband worked in the sugar factory. He worked from when he was 18 until he retired at 60 years old. In February we will be married 58 years.
On coming to America: “Didi, 69 years you live in Guyana, you gonna miss us there in the US.”
I used to come here from Guyana on vacation. I was 69 when I came permanent to the U.S in 2012. I’m 74 now. My daughter brought me here and now I live with my daughter and son-in-law. They are very good to me. My son-in-laws are like my own sons. My daughter doesn’t let me cook, she furnish me. Now I have 8 grandsons and 1 granddaughter. And two great-grand children in Guyana. Every day I thank Allah for his bounties and favors. My sister, when I leave she say: “Didi, 69 years u live in Guyana, you gonna miss us there.” I like it very much here. Even it’s cold you can stay warm. I go back to Guyana to see my family and friends. I always think of my family and friends. They call me and I call them. One day, my neighbor from Guyana called. He was so sweet. I can’t figure how he got my phone number. I have my grandson in Guyana. He’s very handsome. I miss him.
On her routine: “You should see me garden. I have 20 squash.”
I keep myself busy. I don’t watch the TV so much. I clean upstairs, I clean my room. I do puzzles, my grandson got me a big puzzle book. I go to the park and walk around. I go to the mosque. I pray my salat five times a day and I read the Islamic Book in English. I go to the center three days a week. I pray upstairs. I’m growing things. You should see me garden. I have 20 squash in my garden. Yesterday I clean so much “sem,” (runner beans). I clean them and I freeze them for the winter to cook it. I thank the Lord that for my age, I can go down on my knees and clean my place and cook. Allah has blessed me.
On India Home: “All kinds of people come together, it’s so nice.”
Every three times a week I come here to the center. India Home is so nice for elders. All kinds of people come together. There’s entertainment. We get some exercise, some food. I saw Manhattan when they took us on the trip. Only thing I don’t understand Bangladesh language. There’s a girl here from Guyana. She lives in 161 street. Me and she and my husband get together, we speak English. It’s very very nice. They [India Home] are doing good things.
Shireen Mansoor was born in 1949 in Bogra village in, what was then, undivided Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh and its first President, was a cousin. Perhaps that’ is why the revolutionary spirit burned bright in her. From a young age she broke with tradition, went to college and became one of the few women in the country with a medical degree. Hardly 22 years old at the time of the Bangladesh War of Independence, Dr. Mansoor secretly smuggled herself into Assam’s refugee camps to help her country and the Bangladesh Revolutionary Party. This is her story in her own words.
Eight years old and in boarding school
I was born in Bogra. My father was a business man in Dhaka and my mother lived with him away in the city. We were 9 sisters and my grandfather, a retired lawyer, was taking care of us. He said to my father, “No matter what the sex of the children they need an education. Let them stay here..Bogra is a quiet place.”
I was bored at home and so my grandfather asked my father to put me in the POD Girls School. It was a dorm school (boarding). He said, “There’ll be a library, she will have companions.” I was eight years old when i joined the 5th grade.
All the other girls were bigger than me and one of them came and asked me, “You are so little what are you doing here.”
When my father was about to leave I said, ” I said let me sleep in your lap. When I’m asleep you can put me to bed and you can go.”
My dad used to send money to the post office and the school clerk would handle my finances. Sometimes he’d say, the teachers haven’t been paid so can I give them some money and I’d say please go ahead. When they got paid, he’d return the money.
I would buy breakfast for my school friends. I would tell the peon, “Today I want four parathas with bundiya and rasogulla.” He’d say, “Why four?” I wanted to give my friends breakfast because my breakfast came from outside and they didn’t like the school breakfast.
One of 10 female medical students in 1968
Shireen was a champion in Medical School sports
I went to college and I got admission into medical school. I was selected on merit. The medical school was set up by the World Health Organization and it was in the Rajshahi district, close to India. It was a wonderful school, newly built. Very big campus. There was the medical school, hospital, hostels for teachers and students, playgrounds. It was beautiful.
We were 100 students in the medical school. Out of the 90 students from home country, I was one of 10 female students. One time we had to do anatomy and thanks god I was one of the first to get to do it. I got to dissect the abdomen. It is a big part of the body and has a lot of organs intestine, spleen and so on. The Grey’s Anatomy was our book – it was so heavy we had to carry it on our shoulder. I had a study partner; she didn’t know good English and I always helped her to study. So she was always carrying my books, like my secretary. She was very good. I love her.
Called to help in the Bangladesh War of Independence
In 1971 the college informed the international students that there was going to be political unrest and asked them to go home. They told us that the ambulance would drop every girl from the hospital at home. So they dropped me home. My parents were worried about the unrest. Then on the 27th of March the war started and the army started marching from Dhaka to all the districts. My parents decided it wasn’t safe to stay in the city, so we moved to the village. On the 28th of March, we went to the village. I was a third year student.
Working in the delivery room in the OBGyn ward in Libya
One afternoon I was standing on my balcony. I saw a young boy was coming through the gates. When he came closer I realized he was my cousin. He was dressed like a soldier. He brought a letter from my uncle, asking me to go with him to the refugee camp in Assam, India set up by the officers of the Revolutionary Party. There were a lot of women refugees with gynecological problems, urinary tract infection and so on. The Red Cross was helping but there were no female doctors.My father said, “Yes, definitely this is your time to go and help.
“My mother started crying. “If she goes to the war front no one will marry her. No one will take her in marriage. People will talk.”
But my father said, “She definitely needs to go because she’s needed there.”
Hiding in the forest from Pakistani fighter jets
This happened at about 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon and I had to leave at 6:00 because they had hired a big boat with a motor. There were 100 people on the boat, including my relatives and some political persons. It had two floors like a steamer. They gave me a lot of honor. I had a corner on the boat with a curtain. In the daytime they moved very fast down the Brahmaputra river and at night they would hide. The Pakistani fighter planes were flying overhead all the time. It took three days; it’s a long distance from Bangladesh to Assam.
One time the boat was anchored and the Pakistani planes were overhead, they were looking to drop bombs. So all the political people on the boat said everyone get off the boat slowly and crawl into the forest. They asked us to scatter, to not go in groups. So my cousin and me got off the boat. It was a very terrible feeling. But on the other hand I did it for my country. My cousin held my hand and we crawl crawl crawl and we waited for two three hours in the forest. Then the plane went away and we went back to the boat and continued. This is one memory that stays with me even today.
Working in the refugee camps
With a co-worker in the OB-Gyn
The refugee camps were filled with refugees who had run away from Bangladesh to survive. There were building like a school or a police station, there were offices for the red cross. The camp officials were very happy to see me and they took me to meet the women. The women had problems with the language so they couldn’t tell anyone what was going on. There were like half a million refugees there. Many women were from good families. There was no water for washing. There was bread in plastic bags, but it wasn’t enough. Many were going hungry. There was canned milk, canned vegetables from abroad. They washed in the river. So I worked there and that’s how it went until December 16. Then knew the country was independent! Oh happy days.
Land covered in bones
When I went back home and had to go back to medical school. There were dead bodies on both sides of the road, collected there in huge numbers. It was nine months after they had been killed and all the flesh had disappeared.
The ambulance came to take us back and on the way there–oh my god –I saw the land was covered in bones.
Marriage and becoming an OB-Gyn in Libya
Husband and wife on holiday in Switzerland
I did an internship after graduation then I came back to Dhaka and started working in the OBGyn ward. My mother was crushing her head that I should get married. Then at the age of 26 I got married and moved to Libya. My husband was an eye specialist. Libya was beautiful, like a Mediterranean, European country. It had been developed along the curve of the Mediterranean ocean. The weather was not too hot, not too cold. I worked there with Italian, German and Indian doctors. I worked in Libya for 16 years, my children were born there and were going to British schools. Finally I resigned and followed my husband to Switzerland, then New York in 1994.
Husband’s stroke and hard times
In America it was hard. I had to study, I had foreign student status. I was older, my children were in school. It was very difficult to get residency. I finally started working with a Pakistani doctor who had 4-5 offices. She realized I had done everything possible to work here. I was working with her and she got me immigration, good salary and I survived. My children were still studying when my husband had a stroke and became bedridden. I started supporting the house. Just like my parents took care of me, I took care of my family. What to do? You do it for the children. I worked with the Pakistani doctor for ten years. I stopped working in 2014. It was not easy but I survived.
Proud of her children
I have two daughters and a son. My daughter is a doctor, she’s waiting for her residency. Second one was doing a Ph.D. at Columbia and then she got three scholarships to UPenn, so she moved there. My son got scholarships from Cornell.
Her feelings for India Home’s Desi Senior Center
It keeps us busy and in flow with the world. There’s wonderful feedback here for body and mind.
I had come to the mosque upstairs for prayer and then someone asked me to come to Desi Senior Center because she said, “They have physical exercise.” I came for the physical exercise because I have to take care of myself keep myself fit. When she saw me Nargis (Nargis Ahmed, the Program Coordinator) said, ” Oh my God! Dr. Mansoor, I was your patient!” Here I’m learning about senior citizens health issues, how to take vitamins, fight osteoporosis. I gave some health lectures here on how to protect from the cold, how to take vitamins. It’s a wonderful place for senior citizens. If they are sitting at home, they sleep. It is better that they stay active here. We get one hour exercise everyday and we communicate with each other.
In this regular feature we interview our seniors for insights into the life they’ve lived. This month we talked to Mr. T.D. Chawla.
T.D. Chawla is 98 years old. Yes, two years short of a century. He has experienced some of the great historical events of the past years : the British Raj, the Partition of the Indian sub-continent, the World wars. Not as a mere spectator, watching the caravan of history pass by, but as someone who has lived it, been caught up in its dusty wake. He was one of the millions displaced by the Partition in 1947, when the British divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. India Home talked to him recently.
On his experiences during Partition
I lived in Pakistan, in the Punjab side and we were all kicked out. People lived in villages, then the Partition happened and people were on their own. We had to leave. We left everything and thank god our life was saved. I went to the district office and I met the District Commissioner and said, “I’d like to stay in Pakistan.” Everyone wants to stay in their own home’s even if it’s a hut.
The District Commissioner said, “I can’t guarantee your life. Look here,” he said. He pointed to man with torn clothes. “This man, he was the magistrate of Jullunder.”
There was no choice. So I told him I wanted to be evacuated with my family.
We were in a camp at the border (between India and Pakistan). At midnight, they came and said, you have to leave for India.
You cannot imagine so many women were kidnapped, so many men were butchered. Thousands of people lost their lives. I came to India on the goods train. So many of my friends were butchered. People killed their own ladies. So many sad stories.
On his career in the Foreign Service
I came to India and wanted to appear in the civil services exam. Fortunately I got a chance and could move abroad. I was an official in the Indian embassy. My first posting in 1950 was Holland. If a man has first, second, third wife, he will always have best memories of the first one. Same thing with me. My first posting was in Holland! I had never left the country. I loved it. I must have been somewhere around 30 years old, maybe. There were no airlines, so we went by boat. It took 14 days from India and I went to Marseilles, in France, and then I went to Paris and took the train to Holland.
I was surprised by the development there: the streets, the cars. People were so nice. I was posted to the External Affairs Ministry in 1964. I was in countries in Africa, Holland, Pakistan working in the Indian Embassies.
On his love of India
“Swarg se bhadkar apna desh” (One’s country is greater than heaven). I’m attached to India. I go in the winter to Delhi. People say, “You are going to India alone?” And I say, “I’m not alone, God is with me.” I go to my daughter. She takes so much care of me. When I am in the USA, she calls me every day. Did you eat? Take your medicine? For the last 52 years I’m going back and forth.
On the secret of his energy
I am settled here and in India. I’m busy. I live with my son who is divorced. I get up in the morning, I have a shower and breakfast, go to the library, meet my friends, go home eat dinner, watch TV—especially Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. I read the news every day, from all over India and abroad. I go to the library and read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I take public transport, buses and trains all by myself. I go to the Arya Samaj.
On India Home
I like coming to India Home’s centers—there are so many activities. You are all working so hard. I see you all working all the time.
In this regular feature we interview our seniors for insights into the life they’ve lived. This month we talked to Mr. Benjamin Samson.
Benjamin Samson, 72, likes to make people laugh. A Jewish member of India Home’s center at Queens Community House at Kew Gardens, Benjamin likes to tease people and crack jokes. He was born in Mumbai, India, and came to New York after living for 18 years in Israel. India Home chatted with him about his adventurous life, it’s unexpected twists and turns, and his many avatars–as army man, railway man, and occasional repairman.
On being in the Israeli army in the 1970’s: In the Israeli Army my job was to fix the tanks and the airplanes. The tanks would go in front and we would follow behind them. If there was something that broke down then I would get the parts and fix it. One time, I remember there were bushes on the side of the road. They were moving. There were enemy fighters hiding in them, shooting at us. But the aircraft would land and we would have to find the parts and fix them, no matter what.
On striving:When I got to Americathere was an exam I needed to take. When I got there I realized I had missed it – I was late. But I went up to the them and said, I missed the exam, but can I still take it? And they said yes, okay. I took it and I passed. I got a job as a technician with the MTA. Fixing the trains. I worked for Metro North. It was dangerous work because you had to be on the tracks. I would work at night, come home and sleep, then go right back. I worked a lot of overtime. I wanted to work and they paid well, very well.
On being retired: I like to repair things. Radios, computers, electronic things. People bring their broken down things to my house and I repair them. I don’t charge them–it’s more like a hobby. Whenever I go to repair radios, I don’t take money. But you know how Indians are. Their wives will say, “You have to eat something, Mr. Samson. I’m not going to let you go without eating.” That kind of Indian hospitality you won’t find anywhere else. My son bought a flat and there were so many thing that needed to be fixed. So I went over and fixed the door knobs, the flush. I like all that engineering stuff.
“When I was in the Israeli Army my job was to fix the tanks and airplanes. The tanks would go in front and we would follow behind them. If there was something that broke down then I would get the parts and fix it. One time, I remember there were bushes on the side of the road. They were moving. There were enemy fighters hiding in them, shooting at us.”
A favorite memory of his life in America:I was working for security at LaGuardia airport. When the bags were going through the machine I saw that a man was carrying a knife in his bag. It was a big knife. I told my supervisor-stop the machine. She didn’t listen so I stopped the machine. She said, Why did you stop the machine? I said look, There’s a knife. She said, No, there’s no knife. That’s not a knife. I said there is a knife. Explosives look green. A knife looks green. She said, go inside and don’t do anything. I came out and said, no you have to check- this guy is taking a knife on board. Then she opened the bag and she found the knife. Then she said, how did you know? I’m a supervisor and I didn’t know. I said, in Israel, they have very good security–because they have a lot of experience of terrorists. After 9/11 I met my supervisor on the platform — I was working for the MTA. She said. “You are a very good person.” I have got experience, I’m Indian but I lived in Israel 18 years. My brothers are still there. I travel there all the time.