By Ashwak Fardoush
Ashwak Fardoush is a writer, writing coach and teaching artist, who recently facilitated the Writing Workshop for older adults at India Home’s Desi Senior Center.
The room buzzed with anticipation. The smell of cooked chickpeas and onion lentil fritters served to the guests still lingered in the air. Children’s cries rang out in the background. Amidst the noise, Salema Khatun took the stage. She recited her poem, “Shadhinota” (translated as “Independence”), alluding to the Liberation War of 1971 in Bangladesh. I felt proud as I watched her read her poem to the audience.
On the evening of May 19, 2017, we were at the Culminating Event for a Writing Workshop organized by India Home for its members at the Desi Senior Center. The event was also a Pre-Ramadan Celebration and a happy and proud occasion for our members. This was the open mic portion of the event
Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center
“I had put away my writing for twenty years. …. But I have written four poems in your class.”
Salema Khatun crafted that poem over the course of a few weeks. She had attended a writing workshop that I facilitated at the Desi Senior Center. Inspired by a prompt at a workshop session, she wrote a poem that she finished at home, writing a few lines at a time in between her household chores, showing me the progress along the way, and adding the final two lines because she wanted the poem to be a sonnet. Just the day before the event, Salema Khatun told me, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”
Seniors tell their stories through poems and memoir
Salema Khatun was one of the eight participants who were part of a bilingual memoir writing workshop* at the Desi Senior Center. This workshop was designed to help seniors tell their stories. This pilot program was a collaborative effort, making the phrase “it takes a village” truer than ever. The staff from India Home and the Desi Senior Center—especially Lakshman Kalasapudi, Nargis Ahmed and Meera Venugopal—worked tirelessly to make sure the seniors had a great writing experience.
As I heard Salema Khatun’s voice rise and fall, I remembered the first day of the writing workshop. It was a Thursday morning. I was setting up the classroom in one corner of the prayer room. Some were still praying on the other side of the room. I arranged the chairs in a circle and laid out the attendance sheet and the writing supplies on a chair. I had thought about the content and the structure of the workshop for the past two weeks. I even had a bare-boned lesson plan for the first session. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t plan out all the sessions. I was not teaching these participants. Instead, I was holding the space for the participants to tell their stories—stories that danced inside their bodies, that rested inside their eyes, that settled on their skin. I simply needed to let these stories surface on the page. While facilitating the workshop was not like any other teaching experience I had in the past—the participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali—the advice I gave myself remained the same: I must keep my heart open, stay present and be curious.
Writing prompts and stories that unfolded against the backdrop of history
Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017
There were eight participants who made up the core group: Md. Hoque, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Rafiqul Islam, Salema Khatun, Haque Mohammad, Quamrun Nahar, Md. Abu Sayeed, and Farida Talukdar. I did not know what to expect each session. By the second session, I stopped bringing a thorough plan. The participants were vivacious, creative, mischievous, intelligent, wise, and in awe of life. We would always begin with a writing prompt from my plan, but then the session would unfold in ways I could never predict. We would write spontaneously. Soon, I became adept at reading what the group wanted in that moment in order to serve them and their writing.
Each session the participants excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays. When I closed my eyes, I could see the writers leaning over their marble notebooks, and scribbling away. Sometimes we would travel to far-flung places or go deep within ourselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history.
At times, the participants tried to write out a decade of their life during a session. Sometimes, I would ask the participants to scrawl a word on an index card, fold it and put it inside a mason jar. Then, I would ask a participant to pick a word out of the jar randomly and the group would write about that word. The first word picked out of the jar was “baba” (translated as “father”). Writers wrote about their love stories, their childhood friendships, and their son’s letters back home.
Participants eager to share their writing
Every session was memorable in some way. Once, I remembered seeing Md. Hoque writing in his notebook a few steps away from the class. Since the session was about to start, I gently asked him to come inside. He nodded, but his head was still buried in the notebook. A few minutes later, he entered the classroom and announced that he had just finished writing a poem. He not only addressed this poem to another participant, Md. Mokbul Hossain, but he also challenged his peer to respond back in the form of a poem. Md. Mukbul Hossain was deemed as the poet of the group. Even before the workshop, he had a moleskin notebook with poems written in his beautiful penmanship. He once showed me a poem he wrote in his notebook. The first line was a question a stranger posed him on his walk. He told me that he carried his notebook with him so that he could write down any detail, mundane or not, that can turn into a poem someday. Needless to say, Md. Mukbul Hossain managed to cobble together words to pen a poem to respond to Md. Hoque’s friendly challenge in class that day.
Md. Mokbul Hossain’s Poem, “Potichhobi”
Abu Sayeed was another participant in the workshop. He took two trains and a bus to travel from Brooklyn to the senior center in Queens. Before the first day of class, he told me of his interest in the writing workshop. He shared that his life was full of “korun” (tragic) stories and wondered if it was okay for him to write about those stories in the workshop. “Yes,” I said. “Life is full of joy and sorrow. Sounds like you have lived and have stories to tell! Please come and write with us.” So, he did. Md. Abu Sayeed would read his stories out loud in a voice that would tremble and crack at times. We would all listen, understanding the gravity of the moment and our role in it.
I was surprised by how eager everyone was to share their writing with each other. The ink would still be fresh on the page, our head would still reel from the memories we had dredged up on the page. Yet, the participants were ready to share their writing immediately. Quamrun Nahar read about scaling a tree as a child and falling down from it one day when she was stung by bees. She was carried to the kitchen where her grandmother rubbed garam masala paste all over her body. In a similar vein, Farida Talukdar often shared her anecdotes. We rarely made past the first writing prompt. The pieces people shared after the first prompt would inspire others to share their personal stories or debate passionately about a topic that surfaced in someone’s writing. We found ourselves discussing how in-laws’ relationship should be toward their children’s spouses, the struggles with upholding the Bengali language and culture in the United States, and the political climate in Bangladesh.
Teacher as Witness
Nancy Agabian, an author and founder of Heightening Stories, told me that the participants were “lucky to have [me] as their teacher and a witness.” That word, “witness” was the summation of my role. These participants contain a lifetime of memories and the workshop became a space where these writers got to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams and despair—and were witnessed with respect and camaraderie. Md. Hoque wrote so poignantly on the last day of the workshop: “will we remember the stories of the three sisters and five brothers, a family meeting for a literature class lasting but for a short while?”
Council Member Daneek Miller and his wife, were among the guests of honor at the celebration. CM Miller handed out certificates to seniors who participated in the workshop
At the event, I looked to the stage once more. Salema Khatun had finished reading her poem. She paused for a moment and looked out at the audience. The crowd broke out into applause. Salema Khatun walked off stage. I smiled and then closed my eyes: I imagined the participants pulling out their marble notebooks and writing away with their ball point pens, putting one word after the next word after the next to tell all the stories they held inside of them until they were spent, until they were empty, until they were fully satisfied.
*This Writing Workshop was funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
You can read the full publication of the writings by clicking here.
India Home’s panel at the SAALT “United for Action” Summit in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C – On April 21, 22, and 23, India Home participated in the 2017 South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Summit in Washington D.C. Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi and Afroditi Shah Panna, Case Manager, joined over 300 activists, organizations, students, and community members from across the country who had come together to raise their voices on a range of issues important to South Asian communities.
Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT, explained the thinking behind the Summit: “Our communities continue to live in various states of shock as a panorama of hate violence, civil rights violations, and anti-immigrant policies continue to impact South Asian Americans nationwide.” At this challenging moment, she said, South Asians were engaged in a “critical struggle for justice and full inclusion for all.”
“Disrupting Silos: Combating Ageism and Xenophobia”
The panel organized by India Home was one of 40 sessions at Trinity Washington University on urgent issues facing the South Asian community. The panel, titled, “Disrupting Silos: Combating Ageism and Xenophobia,” brought together community groups and advocates from New York City, the Bay Area, and Texas to discuss how they had organized and championed programs and services for South Asian older adults.
The community groups – spanning different nationalities, ethnicities, faiths, languages, and income levels – presented information on best practices gleaned from working in the trenches with their respective communities. They used the forum to share perspectives; discuss strategies for and partnerships that led to successful aging programs; tools to fight xenophobia and ageism and methods to address the unique challenges they and the communities they serve are facing with a new administration in place in Washington.
The panelists were:
Vega Subramaniam, Moderator (Contributor, Diverse Elders Coalition)
Shubhada Saxena (South Asians’ International Volunteer Association (SAIVA)
Asha Chandra (City of Fremont Human Services Department)
Kashmir Singh Shahi (Gurdwara Sahib Fremont)
Shah Afroditi Panna (India Home, Inc.)
Vishnu Mahadeo (Richmond Hill Economic Development Corporation (RHEDC)
Shaista Kazmi (Apna Ghar, LLC)
India Home’s Afroditi Shah Panna spoke about the difficulties facing Bangladeshi immigrant elders in NYC
Valuable perspectives on aging South Asians
They brought valuable perspectives on aging South Asian communities across the US, from Punjabi Sikhs in California to Indo-Carribeans in New York’s Richmond Hill. They told stories and related experiences. Afroditi Panna, a Case Manager with India Home, discussed the needs of aging adults in the Bangladeshi community. For example, many elders suffer from a lack of space and privacy because they live with adult children who cannot afford big apartments. Armed with this real life understanding and stories of the conditions these elders live in, India Home finds itself in a better position to advocate for more affordable housing, she said.
Shaista Kazmi, of Apna Ghar, an organization that provides caregiving facilities for South Asian seniors, spoke about the stresses on the so-called “sandwich generation” – second generation South Asians, many of whom lack extended family networks in America–who end up taking care of their own kids, as well as aging parents. The need for culturally competent caregivers is on the rise and it was important that these caregivers and home health aides not only be made aware of the fact that elder abuse exists in all communities, but that they are also trained to become “advocates for victims of elder abuse.”
Vishnu Mahadeo, who works closely with the Indo-Carribean community in New York city, spoke about the reliance among aging Indo-Caribbeans on over-the-counter drugs because they lack proper health insurance.
Kashmir Singh Shahi of Fremont Gurdwara Sahib urged South Asian communities to pay attention to senior issues and make them part of the conversation. The fact that sometimes older adults are neglected or their problems go unaddressed is also elder abuse, he said.
The panel strongly felt that community members needed to become part of the civic process in their cities, as a step toward drawing attention to the needs of South Asian seniors. Advocating for culturally appropriate services, getting more direct services, and casting a wide net to reaching South Asian elders in places beyond temples and gurdwaras was becoming more urgent with the increases in the population of elderly South Asians. “In order to build a system, we have to be part of the system,” Kashmir Singh Shahi said. Asha Chandra, who is a manager in the City of Fremont Human Services Department, brought another perspective when she described the volunteer efforts of older South Asians in Fremont. “It’s a win, win, win,” she said, “when seniors step up to work with city services.”
Lakshman Kalasapudi and Afroditi Panna of India Home march in DC as part of the SAALT rally to conclude the United For Action Summit 2017
On the evening of April 22, Afroditi Panna and Lakshman Kalasapudi of India Home participated in the South Asian Americans Marching For Justice event, a rally that began at Freedom Plaza and concluded with a march to the White House. They joined hundreds of other activists who marched for “a socially just country,” and demanded the support of policymakers towards that vision.
“Bringing aging issues to the forefront of the policy and advocacy agendas of our community is crucial to advance our communities equitably,” says Lakshman Kalasapudi of India Home’s participation in the SAALT summit.
Lakshman Kalasapudi, Deputy Director, India Home and Nargis Ahmed, Program Director, Desi Senior Center, were both called on to testify at separate New York City Council hearings.
Halal Home Delivered Meals
Ms. Nargis Ahmed, Program Director of India Home’s Desi Senior Center, testifies on the need for Halal home delivered meals for seniors at City Hall
Nargis Ahmed, in her position as Program Director of India Home’s Desi Senior Center, the largest Muslim Senior Center in New York City, testified on April 26, 2017 before the Committee on Aging in support of Resolution 0262-2014.
The Resolution calls on the Department for the Aging (DFTA) to ensure halal meals are available as a part of the home delivered meal program for seniors.
Ms. Ahmed testified that India Home runs the largest halal senior center congregate meal program in the city, with over 100 seniors who attend the program, access case assistance services, recreational activities, health and wellness programs three days a week.
Halal food is an integral part of Islam and a subset of one of the five main pillars of the religion. Muslims seniors eat only halal food in order to continue their faith and religious practices. India Home’s ability to offer culturally appropriate meals, has allowed the organization to serve an underserved and ignored segment of seniors in New York City.
Availability of halal home delivered meals would help India Home and other Community Based Organizations to reach homebound Muslim seniors who desperately need culturally appropriate home delivered meals, as well as case management services, friendly visiting programs, and other aging related services.
Halal meat is readily available. Many New York city schools now serve halal lunches, as a result of advocacy efforts–in which Ms. Ahmed participated. “There should be no reason why Muslim seniors cannot get halal home delivered meals in this day and age. We at India Home are ready to partner with DFTA to deliver these meals,” she said.
Expanding the scope of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA)
On April 25, 2017, Lakshman Kalasapudi testified his support of Introductions 1566-2017 and 1578-2017, sponsored by CM Danny Dromm, which expand the scope and work of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and their ability to work with other entities. Kalasapudi recommended:
1. Targeted outreach to Immigrants
As a community based organization we recommended that the Mayor’s Office of Immigration(MOIA) collect and disaggregate data on immigrants
Almost 50% of New York City’s older adults are immigrants. Many immigrants, including those we serve, have unique needs which require targeted outreach and extra attention. Many older immigrants do not have income support such as Social Security, and experience barriers accessing city agencies and services because they cannot speak proper English. As a result of their unfamiliarity with American ways, they face hardships in navigating the city’s transportation and healthcare systems . Many of them also have culturally mandated dietary restrictions that make attending a senior center or a hospital stay difficult for them. Kalasapudi recommended explicit and intentional interagency coordination and communication between the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) the Department for the Aging (DFTA) to ensure that vulnerable older adults are brought more fully into the aging services infrastructure so that they may access SNAP benefits, city services, and community activities.
2. MOIA-DFTA Partnership for data collection and disaggregation
A partnership between MOIA and DFTA could also give rise to increased data collection that would help quantify the needs of our seniors. An entity like MOIA has the sophisticated resources necessary to compile and deliver the accurate data required how immigrant older adults access or face barriers accessing city services, social services, legal services, housing, and adult education. Further, Kalasapudi recommended that MOIA should disaggregate the date to reflect the diverse needs of immigrant communities. Immigrant elders are of different cultures and ethnicities, speak different languages, and practice diverse cultures and religions. We need data along all these variables to better serve individual communities. He suggested that MOIA pay added attention to homebound immigrant older adults who, because of their physical or cognitive limitations, are even more isolated and vulnerable.
Question at NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Town Hall
Mayor de Blasio, right, and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer answer some questions during a town hall in Sunnyside, Queens
Photo credit: Anthony O’Rilley, Queens Chronicle
On April 27, 2017, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio held a Town Hall in Queens which Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi attended. He asked the Mayor why New York City was allotting no new funding to senior services in the Executive Budget, even as the country was celebrating the “Year of the Senior?”
He said that immigrant seniors have limited English speaking skills, have little income support, are unfamiliar with the healthcare and transportation systems here, and desperately need affordable housing to alleviate the overcrowded situations they are living in at present.
Mayor de Blasio answered that NYC has invested in affordable senior housing and mentioned the ThriveNYC Mental Health Initiative. He then referred the question to Donna Corrado, Commissioner, NYCs Department for the Aging, who had some very nice things to say about India Home’s services. As for the questions: “We intend to keep asking them!” Kalasapudi said.
India Home joins the crowd for Advocacy Day!
South Asian seniors, such as the one’s we serve at India Home, are among the fastest growing groups of older adults in New York City. For example, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, from 2000-2010, the number of Indian seniors in NYC grew by 135%. However, in a counterintuitive move, city funding for senior services dropped by 20 percent, going from approximately $181 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to $145 million in Fiscal Year 2012.
Mayor De Blasio’s Executive Budget for 2018 adds no new funding to Department for the Aging (DFTA), which allocates money for senior services. DFTA receives less than ½ of 1% of the city budget – and less than 2% of all human services funding, even as the share of seniors in NYC has grown to 18% of the population. It has been widely documented that immigrant seniors also have unique needs. Many have Limited English Proficiency and large numbers live under the poverty line. For example, 27 percent of Bangladeshi seniors are below poverty, while the numbers for Indian seniors stand at 15 percent and Pakistani seniors at 22 percent.
As Bobbie Sackman, Associate Executive Director of Public Policy, LiveOn NY, said: “On behalf of the 300,000 older New Yorkers served by LiveOn NY’s members, we find it deeply disturbing that Mayor Bill de Blasio, once again, has refused to add any new money to fund vital services through the Department for the Aging (DFTA).”
India Home’s seniors meet with CM Jimmy Van Bramer
Given the situation–growing numbers of seniors and a lack of funding–India Home’s seniors felt it was even more important this year to join advocates from LiveOn NY and other senior-serving organizations to make their case directly to elected Council Members.
About 10 seniors from our Sunnyside Center and Desi Senior Center participated in Advocacy Day organized by LiveOn NY at City Hall on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The day started with a rally on the steps of the famous building, where seniors holding India Home banners chanted, “No seniors, no budget,” along with the crowd. The fact that the budget for DFTA hadn’t increased was highlighted by various Councilmembers who spoke at the rally.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bremer who’s District includes Sunnyside, where India Home runs a center on Mondays, said, that “every year should be the year of the senior,” not just 2017. Danny Dromm, Councilman for Jackson Heights, and a longtime supporter of India Home, reiterated that “we need to be sure that seniors get their fair share of the budget.”
Councilman Danny Dromm speaks to the crowd on Advocacy Day 2017
Seniors and long time members of India Home’s Sunnyside Center, Usha Mehta, Bharat Patel, Dinesh Patel, Bharat Shah and Narendra Butala met with both CMs Van Bramar and Dromm and presented their demands for an additional day at the Sunnyside Center and better transportation. They urged the elected officials to approve India Home’s capital project citing the huge demand for India Home’s services and the lack of space that we are facing currently.
Seniors from India Home’s Desi Senior Center in Jamaica, Md. Abu Taher, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Mahbubul Latif and Mouirul Islam, met with CM Eric Ulrich’s office and CM Donovan Richards office. Desi Senior Center member, Md. Abu Taher spoke as a representative of all the seniors who couldn’t be there in person when he said: “We need more funds for Halal meals to give to people who cannot come to our center.We need more space; when we do exercise, it is very crowded.”
One of India Home’s stated missions is to create opportunities for seniors to lead and advocate for themselves. We were proud to see our members making their case with confidence with elected officials and their staff and their grasp of the important issues.
On April 19, 2017, India Home invited its members as well as residents of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens to a movie night at the PS 69Q auditorium. The film that was shown was Bollywood tear-jerker “Neerja,” an award-winning film about the bravery and sacrifice of a young air hostess on board a Pan-Am flight that was hijacked in 1984. Our members enjoyed free samosas and chai before settling in to watch the film. Later, there was avid discussion about the film and the heroism of the young air hostess.
A few early birds waiting for the movie to start
This initiative to extend our programming to the evening, is part of our on-going efforts to combat the social isolation that seniors often endure. This is also a first step in doing more activities in Jackson Heights, an area with a large South Asian community.
India Home’s program at the Rubin Museum was featured on the Museum’s blog.
India Home believes in providing creative aging programs that offer opportunities for our seniors to actively express themselves creatively, socialize with their peers while learning new skills, and engage in cultural performances.
…and a partnership with the Rubin Museum.
Sharan Bir Kaur led the crowd in a Kundalini chant
As part of this creative aging effort we have forged a partnership with the prestigious Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Manhattan. In our role as Community Partner, we’ve presented programs related to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Mahavir Jayanthi.
This is our third event
On April 15, 2017, we presented our third program at the Museum: a celebration of the Sikh festival, Vaisakhi, traditionally a rite that marks the end of the harvest season in India. We hosted the event along the Sikh Cultural Center, one of the biggest Gurudwaras, or Sikh place of worship, in New York City.
This is how our program was described on the Rubin Museum’s blog.
Sikhs believe that every individual is filled with divine potential. At a time when racial and religious tension is high, New York Sikhs continue to celebrate their faith and values of equality, even when occasionally faced with senseless discrimination. At the Museum, Sikh and non-Sikh community members came together to celebrate Sikh culture and participate in the OM Lab.
Usha Mehta, a senior from India Home, enjoyed recording her voice in the OM Lab.
Twenty seniors from India Home attended and some of them enjoyed the opportunity to make use of the OM lab’s recording booth and “offer their OMs and join thousands of others in the chant that will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition.”
Our elders enthusiastically participated in a new experience, when Sharan Bir Kaur, a Kundalini yoga expert, led them and the rest of the audience in a short chanting meditation using the mantra “Wahe Guru” which is the Gurumantra or seed mantra in Sikhism.
Seniors from India Home enjoyed being part the sold out event
Jagir Singh Bains, an elder from the Sikh Cultural Center, further enlightened the audience with a short presentation about the basic tenets of Sikhism and the meaning behind the symbols of the faith, like the turban, the beard, and the kada (the steel bangle).
Manpreet Kaur taught the crowd to bhangra!
The night ended on a happy note with everyone dancing the bhangra! To read more click this link to go to the Rubin Muesum’s blog
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.
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:
I Feel Like I’m Home – The Fi2W Podcast
India Home’s seniors joined a letter writing campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to restore TitleXX funds for senior center programs
Seniors from India Home joined LiveOnNY, a senior citizen advocacy group, in a campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to leave the funding for seniors in the New York State budget intact. The budget proposed a transfer of $17 million in Title XX Funds funds from senior citizens’ programs to child care initiatives around New York state.
The change, claimed alarmed advocates, would result in putting 65 senior centers in New York at risk of closing and deprive 6,000 older adults of a day at a local senior center. “The senior center cuts would also equal the disappearance of 1.5 million meals and 24,000 hours of case assistance which help seniors with public benefits, housing concerns and other aid in their own language. Elderly immigrants will also lose a safe haven, where they can trust staff,” wrote Bobbie Sackman of LiveOnNY in an op-ed in NY Slant.
India Home’s older adults took enthusiastic part in this spirited advocacy campaign to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to restore the Title XX funds as members of New York’s only professionally-staffed centers for immigrant South Asian seniors. Our seniors wrote 40 letters that were delivered to Governor Cuomo in Albany.
In the end, the pressure from 17,500 letters from 141 senior centers, phone calls and strong, united efforts by senior citizen advocates at City Hall and Albany worked to effect change. Last week, Governor Coumo restored the $17 million in Title XX funds for senior citizen programs to the state budget.
Whenever I think of Holi and our seniors, rangeen is a word that comes to mind. In Hindi it means “colorful” — and it’s often applied to describe not just things, but attitudes. Someone is called rangeen because he or she is enthusiastic and excited about living, and a happy generous minded individual.
Our seniors love to dance
Our seniors love Holi and look forward to it every year. On March 13th as is customary, we decorated the center and brought colored powders for our seniors to smear on each other. This year we also had a singer who delighted our seniors by singing Bollywood songs of yesteryear. Our seniors danced, sang along, and anointed each other (and us) with color. They also shared the joy of the festival with their American friends at Sunnyside Community Services by making a presentation, and teaching them to dance the Garba, a Gujarati folk dance.
Many of them also shared memories of celebrating Holi in their past, some reaching all the way back 50-60 years to their childhood’s.
“Some pranksters would load up ox drawn carts with large drums filled with colored water and drive them around town. They would stop at strategic points and dowse passersby in red and green water, and the townspeople would retaliate by drenching the guys on the cart too. It was such great fun–I used to wait anxiously for the day to come.” Dinesh Patel.
India Home’s seniors taught their non-Indian friends to dance the garba, a Gujarati folk dance
A visitor joined in the fun
This year, we were also joined by Rachel Pardoe of the New York Community Trust, a grant giving organization. She too was promptly pulled into the festivities by our seniors. Remember what i said about them being rangeen?
“When I was first married and went to my husband’s home as a young bride, Holi was such a big deal. My husband and his brothers would pick me up and drop me screaming into a tank full of colored water.” Neeru Hanskoty.