Last year India Home was approached by John Rudolf, the Executive Producer of the Feet In Two Worlds podcast. The podcast is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs housed at the New School. “For the past 10 years, Feet in 2 Worlds has brought the work of immigrant and ethnic media journalists from communities across the U.S. to public radio and the web,” according to their website. Rudolf introduced his student-reporters, Sruti Penumetsa and Alex Wynn, who were interested time in making a podcast about India Home. Sruthi and Alex came by and spent time in our satellite centers at Sunnyside and Kew Gardens, talking to our South Asian elders, and blending in so well, that half the time we even forgot they were around.
Now the results are in – the work Penumetsa and Wynn created is up on the FiTW website. It features the voices and opinions of many of India Home’s members. Our members share intimate details of their lives, talk about the loneliness and isolation that accompanies aging, and how they deal with it, their yearning for their homeland, and the comfort they find in their friends at India Home. What emerges is an audio portrait of a vibrant, close knit community that has adjusted to the vicissitudes of aging in their own inimitable way. Click the link to listen to the podcast here: https://feetintwoworlds.podbean.com or click below:
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.
A fit older man in a dapper suit suit turns to his wife and sings a few lines from a romantic song in Hindi, ” Life is nothing but your story and mine,” he croons. She laughs, almost shy, as he puts his arms around her. As he continues to speak of his love and their life together, they both begin to cry.
The couple in the video are Dinesh and Kusumben Parmar, active members of India Home. They are the stars in a video campaign created for AARP by Next Day Better, a media company that specializes in telling stories about Asian American communities.
His goal is two-fold says Ryan Letada, CEO and Co-Founder. On the one hand they want to bring immigrant Asian American and Pacific Islander stories and histories into the mainstream; on the other they want to “build intergenerational/inter-relationship understanding and empathy to strengthen and unify families.”
Next Day Better asked Dinesh and Kusumben to share their “love origin story” as a way to highlight their family’s history in America, a history that is shared by so many other immigrants to this country. Immigrants like Dinesh and Kusumben know that their stories go beyond mere romance to encompass an unconditional love that is expressed through courage, long struggle and sacrifice for the sake of family. Dinesh poignantly sums up the stories of so many new comers to America when he describes the couple’s life together as a ” journey of sacrifice, sorrow and happiness. ”
Watch the video for more on Dinesh and Kusumben’s poignant love story.
You’ve seen the advertisements around Valentine’s Day—the media and your timeline are probably filled with them. These images invariably feature young people—beautiful, tan, fit young people with perfect hair and dazzling teeth celebrating their love. These images are also rampantly ageist. You may not realize it, but this is the culture subtly telling you that everything associated with Valentine’s Day—love, beauty, passion, physical intimacy—all the beautiful human experiences somehow only belong to the young.
By reinforcing these stereotypical ideas of love, the media writes older adults out of the national consciousness, diminishes their real experiences of love and dehumanizes them. Perhaps, as Ashton Applewhite, author and anti-ageism advocate says, the time has come to “think critically about what age means in this society, and the forces at work behind depictions of older people as useless and pathetic. Shame can damage self-esteem and quality of life as much as externally imposed stereotyping.”
Love Transcends Age
Many of the seniors at India Home find themselves at a point where they are in a position to enjoy the companionship they have achieved over a lifetime spent together.
As Geeta put it, “Even today, after 45 years of marriage, we go everywhere, for walks, shopping and so on, together. He [her spouse, Shantilal] likes being with me.”
Sudha, said of her partner of 52 years, “We’ve learned to live together over the years. When one is angry, the other keeps quiet. Then when we cool down we talk about it, express our opinions.”
Listening to these veteran couples would help anyone who has ever been in a relationship identify and empathize with them and undo, what Applewhite calls, “the “otherness” that powers ageism…”
The truth is that love transcends age. This doesn’t need to be said, but older adults, whether they are 60 or 80 years old, feel love, longing, tenderness, friendship, passion–all the emotions that make us fully and gloriously human.
Giridhar, a quiet senior at our center, expressed his feelings about his relationship eloquently when he said, “Like the left leg and the right leg is needed to keep the body upright, my wife and I worked together to make our marriage work.”
Disrupting Notions of Love
So to celebrate this Valentine’s Day, we decided to disrupt the stereotypes that exclude older adults from this national celebration of love. Our Twitter campaign features vibrant, loving couples talking candidly about their long partnerships.
After all, love is love, no matter what age you feel you are.
by Wendy Cope
Today we are obliged to be romantic And think of yet another valentine. We know the rules and we are both pedantic: Today’s the day we have to be romantic.
Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic. You know I’m yours and I know you are mine. And saying that has made me feel romantic, My dearest love, my darling valentine. –
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.
“When I had a fever, my father-in-law fasted so I would get better.” “When I was leaving for America my father told me I was brave and should not cry.” “My father never bought himself a single thing–he sacrificed his life for us.”
Our stories make us who we are, our stories tell of where we come from, our stories shape our past and our future. For Father’s Day, India Home’s elders stood up one by one and shared memories of their fathers and father figures and it was a beautiful thing to hear them. They told stories of men whose sacrifice, caring and determination made a better life for children. Familiar perhaps to some, but made new and precious in the passion and wonder of the telling. In sharing their stories so openly, our elders enrich our lives. And after the stories, came the feast donated by Bharat Patel in memory of his wife, Vikuntala Patel, and gifts, donated by Usha and Bharat Shah.