American Dream For the Second Generation Guyanese Girl

There is one picture that never ceases to both amaze and perplex me as a daughter of immigrants. It’s my parent’s wedding photo taken in 1988 in an old Bronx photo shop, which likely does not exist today. The photo features a shy, 80-pound bride donning a close-fitting, Victorian era dress (minus the ’80s poofy sleeves) and a white top hat. She’s from the developing nation Guyana and her new husband sports a freshly cropped, curly Afro and gray suit. The liberty blue sky and cloud backdrop envelope their eager smiles.

Kamelia's Parents Wedding Photo (Loving the '80s poofy sleeves on my Mom's dress and retro cloud background) Photo Credit: unnamed Bronx photo shop

Kamelia’s Parents’ Wedding Photo (Loving the ’80s poofy sleeves on my Mom’s dress and retro cloud background) Photo Credit: unnamed Bronx photo shop

At the time my Mom had no family members in America, so my Dad’s cousin, who worked at the thrift bridal store offered a hefty discount on the bridal gear, and witnessed her struggle pulling on dress after dress, each one bigger than the last.

Today when my Mom looks at the photo she remembers how cold it was that February day when my parents (and several of my Dad’s relatives) crammed into a two-door vehicle to accompany them on the photo shoot. When I look at the portrait, I am amazed by how much hope this picture encapsulates. If I were my Mom, a 23-year-old with an arranged marriage entering a new country, I would be running to JFK airport in search for a one-way ticket back to Guyana. But she stayed.

I asked my Mom why did she make such a big move, she was a young woman with experience designing clothing and had already held a job at a local sewing shop. But of course the typical narrative of maternal sacrifice and hope for her daughters followed. Despite my pushback and commitment to unmasking my Mom’s saint-like demeanor, I realized she was right.

Growing up I had the cushion of a home in south Queens, a private school education and a television to teleport me to a slew of dreams I may not have had the time to develop if I were a young woman growing up in Guyana, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with an economy based on sugar and rice farming and gold and bauxite mining. As a 13-year-old Guyanese American, I envisioned myself climbing on top of elephants’ backs, teaching in Africa, visiting my country of ancestral origin, India, and hosting talk shows like Tyra Banks and Oprah. Selfish and bold as I felt, I knew I always wanted more. I would never be the woman in search of one goal: to raise and nourish a family.

I’d like to think the shifting paradigm of the American Dream could be more so described as a journey, not necessarily discovering yourself, because that sounds spiritual and abstract, but more as one designed for “go-getters,” a word my Mom uses to describe my two sisters and me. The word is impartial to the amount of money you make, it’s more so based on what you desire.

Snapshots of Business Life Along Liberty Avenue

One Sunday morning in October 2012, I decided to take a walk down Liberty Avenue—a bustling intersection featuring roti-shops and sari stores in south Richmond Hill, Queens. I started at Lefferts Boulevard and began walking down the avenue noticing the vibrant life of local businesses targeted to a people with Indian roots, Caribbean influences, and an urban ambition. After taking another look at the photos on my not so sophisticated camera, I decided to post them. Why don’t you be the judge. Do these pictures tell a story?

Indo-Caribbean Collegiate Women Talk Marriage

By: Kamelia Kilawan
Article Originally Published in The West Indian Newspaper February 16, 2013

Growing up is hard to do as an Indo-Caribbean young woman in a city filled with exciting career prospects and a home filled with expectations to live up to. You must study yuh books, do da right ting, and geh married.

Indo-Caribbean young women are receiving a college education, taking on full course loads, and making career choices that may not have even been options for their parents. But when it comes to marriage, parental acceptance becomes a tricky factor in the decision. This Valentine’s Day, I interviewed some of my friends and found a trend that more Indo-Caribbean college educated young women are speaking out about their parents influencing who they choose to marry and how difficult it is to suit their expectations.

Amanda Ramkissoon, a 21 year-old college student said there is a lot of uncertainty whether or not your family will accept whom ever you choose to marry.

“My parent’s acceptance is important though they grew up in a different time and are very traditional,” she said pointing out that as immigrants of another country her parents have worked hard for her education and that she feels she should at least choose a life partner that suits their expectations of being vegetarian, Hindu, and financially-stable though she would just like him to be “respectful and intelligent.”

Ramkissoon is of Trinidadian and Guyanese descent and grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens. She is in her senior year at Baruch College and holds a grade point average threading the path of Magna Cum Laude.

She has dated in college and had a high school boyfriend that she kept a secret from her parents for two years but has not found someone she believes to be a life partner who shares the values of her and her parents.

Ramkissoon said she would consider if her parents gave her suggestions of who to marry. “They know what they’re looking for and I think that saves a lot of time in terms of me wandering around hoping to find someone and trying to build a connection,” she said in an interview commenting that it is difficult to find the one in a city with so many options.

Farzana Ghanie said if you find someone your parents accept it makes the life after the marriage a lot easier even though it may take a while to find the right person.

“You don’t want to have to choose between the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with and your family,” Ghanie said.

Ghanie, 21, who grew up in Queens Village, works as a student leader in three college departments advising fellow students while pursuing a double-major in Communications and Psychology. She mentioned how difficult the search to find a life partner is while balancing a hectic schedule.

“It’s even harder nowadays with school and work and everything else in between,” she said noting that she will not bring a potential partner home until she is absolutely sure her parents would approve.

But there is a significant challenge for some Indo-Caribbean girls growing up in the city and are instructed by their parents to remain completely immersed in their studies in high school and college—later facing the pressure to find a life partner.

Radha Singh, 26, who is studying acting education at New York University commented on the struggles faced by many young women to follow the conflicting expectations of their parents.

“Indo-Caribbean girls are expected to only focus on their education without the distraction of any male companions, however, once they reach a their late teens, they are suddenly pressured by their elders to find a husband. In this case, there is no actual time for these girls to find anyone because the length of time to do so was never permitted by their parents,” she said.

Singh said she will not marry until she finds someone who she falls in love with but she noted an additional challenge that many men are falling behind in terms of their education level.

According to 2010 Census Bureau data, nation wide women are earning more bachelor degrees than men. The widest gap in education levels exists among young people between the ages of 25 and 30, where 36 percent of women in this range hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to only 28 percent of men.

But in an analysis of 2010 Census Bureau data conducted by Philip Cohen a sociologist at the University of Maryland, once married women have children they fall behind in earnings compared to their husbands. According to Cohen, in only 20 percent of all married families does the wife earn half or more of all family income and in 35 percent of marriages, the wife earns less than 10 percent.

For many women the decision to get married is never a simple choice. Ramkissoon said that she would not mind getting married and making less money because she would appreciate being a Mother while having the support of a husband.

Although she pointed out in all aspects of marriage from tying the knot to having a family, “It’s not just thinking about your self.”

A Car Culture Debates for Style or Speed

Originally Published in The West Indian Newspaper on January 26, 2013 

By: Kamelia Kilawan

It’s a cold, brisk Friday night as passerbys watch in bewilderment while dozens of shiny, show cars are photographed in the street between a glass paneled Starbucks coffee shop, a simmering chicken and rice cart, and the Hilton parking lot.

Two glistening Toyota Supras, red and white, with racecar trunk handles shaped like winged bars stop in the middle of traffic on Sixth Avenue as yellow cabs honk their horns while an NYPD van lags behind.

He crouches below, whips out a tripod and a camera snapping photos of the scene before the cars drive out.

“What brings us together is the picture,” Sateesh Parsotan said at Friday’s car meet on Jan. 18. He explained that you never know if your car’s photo will end up on Facebook but if someone posts it, that shows their respect for the style of your car.

The underground car community in the city has become glamorous bringing many young car enthusiasts together, both during car meetings publicized on Facebook and in a thriving online forum of photos, blogs, and websites. But even after the tragic accident where four Indo-Caribbean teens were found dead in a car that sped off a Long Island highway last October, some leaders of the car movement in Queens have ambitions to suit the need for speed.

 Sateesh Parsotan called "Tesh" in the Monkey Wrench auto shop in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Ryan Rosenberg)

Sateesh Parsotan called “Tesh” in the Monkey Wrench auto shop in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Ryan Rosenberg)

Parsotan, 26, also known as “Tesh” has been driving a car since he was 16 and has coordinated dozens of meetings online for anywhere from several to several hundred car owners throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut through a network of photographers, auto shops, and models called Lowered Congress with over 37,000 Facebook followers.

The meetings have added to the glamour of the scene, allowing owners to show off their posh vehicles in vacant parking lots and street corners throughout the city to local photographers. Although these meetings are often shut down by the police because they are in public locations.

A car meeting last November in front of the United States Postal Office on Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Liu)

A car meeting last November in front of the United States Postal Office on Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. (Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Liu)

Yet Parsotan continues to be the face of the underground car community for many in the city including Indo-Caribbeans in Queens.

As his black rosary beads dangled down his neck, Parsotan said by altering the suspension of a vehicle it becomes more attractive, similar to the stance of a runway model as she poses for photographs.

“People are breaking their necks to look at you, it’s the attention, that’s the whole beauty of it,” said Chris Totan, 19, from Ridgewood, Queens about car meets who brought his lowered 1997 off-white Civic last Friday.

A photo of a lowered car enthusiast parked for the Jan. 18 car meeting in West Midtown Manhattan. (Photo Courtesy of Sateesh Parsotan)

A photo of a lowered car enthusiast parked for the Jan. 18 car meeting in West Midtown Manhattan. (Photo Courtesy of Sateesh Parsotan)

But advocates against lowered cars say it destroys the vehicle’s suspension and can be dangerous driving on bumpy city streets.

Pravan Kuntmala, 29, from Astoria, Queens who leads a group against Lowered Congress said lowering a car’s suspension often causes drivers to make abrupt stops and swerves on the road in an effort to avoid large bumps or potholes.

Some members of the car community in Queens feel that a track approved by elected officials would be a lawful way of allowing people to race while the only person capable of being injured is the driver.

Harjit Walia a resident from Richmond Hill explained that one way to focus on the safety of youth interested in racing cars is by developing a racetrack in the city. “If the community had access to such a facility they wouldn’t have to risk their life and others racing on the streets,” he said. But Parsotan said creating a racetrack in the city will only add to the need to speed in the streets. “What will these people do when the track is closed at night?”

Though Parsotan also raced on a track in New Jersey several years ago, he said a track in the city is a risk he does not want his friends to take. “I don’t want to lose anymore friends,” he said referencing his friend Bishnu Dinanauth who died in a race on a highway in Long Island in 2011 while racing another vehicle.

But Walia pointed out the closest track for motor sports is in New Jersey. “There is no place for our hobby,” he said. Kuntmala noted that in previous meetings elected officials from Nassau and Suffolk County rejected their proposals for a track in the area.

Leonard Ali John, 41, the manager of Monkey Wrench who also used to import cars from Japan to Trinidad, said he believes a racetrack is a secure environment for young drivers interested in testing the speed of their vehicles, noting that there are often helmets, a safety crew and firemen on the site.

As a native of Trinidad he remembers being in his twenties testing the speed of his car in Trinidad’s tracks. “You do it to see how it feels. Every one tries to see things and do things just for that adrenaline rush,” he said.

But the need for speed does not always thrill parents, even young parents who attend car meets and are involved in the underground car community in Queens.

Shivanie Seopersad, 21, sat in her husband’s lowered Hyundai Sonata with their six month old son and her twelve year old brother during the car meet on Jan.18.
“I don’t understand what all these girls get so excited about. It’s just the turbo charger or the exhaust engine,” she said as she picked up her baby and wiped his mouth with a washcloth while looking over at a group of girls outside gazing at each car as it entered the street.

Seopersad grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens and mentioned that her husband has been taking her to car meets since they began dating. So far she has been to nearly twenty, some in Flushing, Baldwin and Glencove.

Last week Friday, her husband said he wanted to take their son out to his first car meet.

Avienash Seopersad, 22, said when his son grows up he would tell him not to focus on racing in the streets and instead to have a good-looking car that others would notice.

“I would say don’t go and race that side. Just stick to the show because you’ll be more safe, you’ll get more looks, and you’ll probably be in a magazine one day,” he said.



Sikhs, With Ally Liu, Push For Change In NYPD Dress Code

Excerpt from Gotham Gazette. Click here to read the full article.

By: Kamelia Kilawan

Sikh devotee at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens.

Sikh devotee at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens.

BELLEROSE, QUEENS — Navraj Deep has wanted to become a police officer since he was 10 years old, but as a member of the Sikh religion, he knows that he would have to give up his right to wear a turban if he wants to join the New York Police Department.

It is a compromise he is unwilling to make. “I really look forward to serving my community and being one of New York’s finest,” said the now-13-year-old teenager, on a recent Sunday at his temple, the Sant Sagar Gurdwara in Bellerose, Queens. “But this country is supposed to be free, and if it’s not free, then what are we here for?”

Navraj Deep, 13, poses for a picture at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara.

Navraj Deep, 13, poses for a picture at the Sant Sagar Gurdwara.

For years, Sikh community advocates have been trying to get the NYPD to reform its dress code to allow officers to wear turbans and full beards, which they say would give an equal opportunity for more Sikhs to become members of the city’s police force. And now they have found a potent ally in their cause — city Comptroller John C. Liu, who is expected to run for mayor and has been shoring up his visibility in the Asian American community.

“We get discriminated against by the way we look but people would get to know Sikhs in the NYPD,” said Gurdev Singh Kang, the president of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Queens. Kang commented that the few Sikhs in the police force of such a diverse city are not recognized because they are clean-shaven. “Until they wear their turban and beard then they will know we are Sikhs.”

The NYPD has defended their policy, saying they do allow certain Sikh articles of faith in their dress code.

“The NYPD makes reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, and already allows Sikh members of the service to wear turbans that fit under department headgear,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told The New York Post in an article published in August.

Browne also told the tabloid that officers are allowed to wear beards at a certain length, but added that in the case of an emergency officers may need to wear gas masks but “beards of a certain length will break the seal” allowing contaminated air to enter.

There are approximately 19 Sikhs in the city’s police department, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Comptroller John C. Liu speaks to Sikh devotee.

Comptroller John C. Liu speaks to Sikh devotee.

In October, Liu visited the Sant Sagar Gurdwara to gather support for his online petition (which currently has 277 online signatures) requesting that Mayor Michael M. Bloomberg include more Sikhs in the city police department by changing the policy to allow officers to wear full beards and turbans.

As Liu and members of his office entered the temple in orange Sikh bandannas, Babaji, the spiritual leader, welcomed his arrival and Liu began his speech with the Sikh greeting “Wahe-Guru!” — referencing the supreme teacher in Sikhism. 


Indian Communities Serve Thanksgiving Meals for Sandy Victims

BROAD CHANNEL, Queens— At the American Legion, a community center for U.S. army veterans, dozens of volunteers gather to serve Thanksgiving meals including a flock of Indians and Indo-Caribbeans eager to serve Hurricane Sandy victims.

In an effort to help the hard-hit communities of Howard Beach, Broad Channel, and Far Rockaway community groups came together at the center on Nov. 22 to serve meals that reflected various ethnic tastes and a budding movement to become a part of hurricane relief.

Vermicelli also known as “Vamazelli” brought by Indo-Caribbean community members. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan)

Indian spicy channa, Bengali style chicken and rice, and Indo-Caribbean sweet vermicelli were among the tasty foods brought by volunteers, community members, and religious organizations throughout Queens.

Members of the Hindu Temple Society of North America line up to serve Sandy victims. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan)

As over fifty volunteers from all five boroughs of the city lined up to serve meals to those in need a group of Indian Hindus wearing white T-shirts with the emblem “The Hindu Temple Society of North America” gathered to serve their vegetarian dishes.

Uma Mysorekar, 66, President of the Hindu Temple Society of North America said that during the past two weeks their Flushing based temple has conducted outreach throughout their Hindu community to raise funds, clothing, and canned food towards hurricane victims.

But she said that serving others in need also relates to her faith. “Serving the needy is like serving God,” she said noting that service is best connected to Hinduism as seva meaning selfless service.

Misba Abdin the president of a Brooklyn based organization for Bangladeshi youth and owner of five Key Food supermarkets in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan has been donating canned food to Sandy victims since the aftermath of the storm.

He volunteered during the center’s Thanksgiving luncheon to show that he and his fellow Bangladeshi community members are part of the Sandy relief effort. “We want to be a part of everything,” he said.

Abdin explained that it can be hard to get along with other cultures in such a diverse city but by serving all races and types of people suffering the impact of the hurricane it shows that as Bangladeshis “we are American.”

Etienne Adorno, 28, a political newcomer who ran for State Assemblyman in Woodhaven, coordinated the special Thanksgiving luncheon and said the event was about looking beyond political, racial, and religious lines to help in the Sandy relief effort.

Event coordinator Etienne David Adorno speaks to a crowd of volunteers. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan)

Adorno stood in front of a gathering of volunteers and Broad Channel community members saying that it was wonderful to see “something so beautiful come out of something so tragic” while commenting on the many different groups who came out to help feed those in need.


Interviewing longtime Broad Channel resident Martin Feeney. (Photo Courtesy of Aminta Kilawan

While looking at the trays of chocolate cookies, dozens of pumpkin pies, and loaves of sponge cake Martin Feeney, a life long Broad Channel resident and American Legion community organizer said he was absolutely amazed with the outpouring of help from people throughout the city.

As Feeney noticed three two foot long foil pans of raisin flecked vermicelli he told another community member, “I don’t know what that is…looks like raisins inside” while a volunteer noted  it’s a dessert from the Indian community. Feeney replied, “I guess it’s here so I’ll give it a try.”


A Morning Walk

Her heels echo as each sandal hits the pavement like the hooves of a horse. As we begin our five minute morning walk my Mother is leading me to the A train as I trail behind her. She wakes up everyday at 6:30 AM, to take the train not by our nearest train station but in Howard Beach.

I always wonder how does she wake up so faithfully every morning and manage to look so good. Her outfits are perfectly coordinated with matching skirts and blouses, her heels always striking so powerfully against the concrete.

I am twenty years old shouldn’t I have way more energy than her?

Thing is, I don’t.

My flats, my braided hair, my plain jane face with no make-up. A book in hand, a bag on the side, and my eyes desperate to stay open as we walk.

The surrounding homes feature quaint little bay windows and American flags perched up on the right side of each house. The sidewalk is impeccably clean–garbage cans of freshly cut grass saddle the driveway. But noticing a dark brown and green spot of what looks like a crumpled leaf–it mars the ivory concrete.

How could one single leaf remain on the sidewalk? I pass by closer and peer over–a dark greasy feather, a scrunched beak, a ruffled wing. A sad little creature remaining on the sidewalk. I will never know how she died but I loom over her in a moment of lament.

There is a clattering sound of more heels hitting the pavement. I see two other women at opposite ends of the sidewalk headed in our direction. Her work outfit is navy, swanky, and tight. She walks in careful strides as her heels are a strappy leather construction. The other woman speeds up as she sees us approaching, her short golden blonde Mom hairdo shimmies as she races to the finish line.

Mom hairdo is in such a rush but not the kind of rush that you know that person needs to actually rush. She just seems like one of those people who rushes for no reason, whose face permanently looks like she needs to race against something. Navy, swanky, tight just looks completely self-indulgent. It’s not just her outfit though. She just walks so damn carefully it makes me annoyed. Like every inch of her waist needs to fall in the right direction as she walks.

We all meet at the elevators waiting in an awful moment of concentration–the elevators will not come down no matter how much we take turns pressing the button.

My Mom takes the lead and presses the button twice as if the first press didn’t register. Mom hairdo grows impatient as she gives her hair one last shimmy. Glancing up at the top of the glass-paneled elevator she rushes over, darts up towards the platform, and scurries up the stairs. We continue to wait and in a second more the elevator comes and the rest of us cram into the glass elevator as I press the second button for UP.

An Atypical Review of a Legendary Painting

Oedipus and the Sphinx. An 1864 painting by Gustave Moreau located in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A slender man wearing nothing but a green sheet falling from his waist and a spear in his hand stares intently at a woman, her eyes penetrating his gaze while her neck, chest, and breasts curve upwards against his body. It seems a mystical force is holding her in position and he is locked in submission–his spear facing downwards.

Captured by the hypnotic aura of the painting my eyes skim the background looking for clues: a serpent slithering around a post, a vase holding something I can’t quite decipher, and a dead man’s foot lurking beneath a boulder. The colors are a mixture of blue, grey hues across the dimly lit sky and rich brown, red, and a tinge of gold saturate the latter half of the painting. But missing the most obvious of them all the woman a beautiful winged creature that I took for granted. She has the arched back of a lion. Her paws lurch onto the man’s erogenous zones.

The story goes that Oedipus, the man featured in the painting, is confronting a winged monster called a sphinx. Oedipus must solve the monster’s riddle to enter the land of Thebes and free the Thebans from her rule. Oedipus is able to solve the riddle and is then offered the hand of his widowed mother in marriage, at the time the fact unknown to him after never meeting his mother or father. Oedipus later succumbs to the tragedy of ripping his eyes out after learning he slept with his mother.

But what demanded my attention after seeing the painting was not the story but the minute of utter amazement as my eyes flicked back to the winged woman, who did not look very much like a monster to me. Her arched lioness body became visible after a second glance.

Walking down a hall of 19th Century contemporary paintings displaying women, nymphs, widows, and monsters I became fascinated with the many forms women could take. In this painting that sparked the Salon of 1864, the female monster called a sphinx wears a crown looking just as beautiful on the upper half of her body as the next ancient Greek woman.  

How Singing Brought Me Closer to God

A dozen of family and friends gather around–some elderly women on the couch and other mothers, uncles, and children scattered around the bright lighted living room. A collective group of voices sing Hindu chants and devotional songs.

My voice is not good, while I love to talk–singing has never been one of my talents. Sometimes I can carry a tune but belting out a chant in Hindi or singing the rhythms of a demanding bhajan can be nerve-racking for me. Though now I find myself singing, clinging on to the Hindi words praising lord Krishna. It is the way I feel closest to my Grandma and the way I am helping her soul.

In the past I dreaded singing. I felt I had no understanding much less a connection to the music. It was embarrassing for me as a child being forced to sing at mandir or Hindu temples revealing how little I knew about the Hindi language I did not speak.

Since my Grandma passed away I find myself singing in the company of my family members and friends and reading the meanings of songs during wakes.

But even before the days leading up to my Grandmother’s last rites Hindu ceremony or “shraadh”, I found myself singing and praying with immediate family by the bedside of my ailing Grandma. It was the only way I felt I could soothe her pain when words like “Hang in there Gram” proved no longer effective.

As Rabindranath Tagore once wrote in his collection of poems titled Gitanjali, “When grace is lost from life come with a burst of song.” I think that best describes how I felt when singing to my Grandma during her last few days of life.

For me singing bhajans or Hindu songs during my Grandma’s wakes allowed me to forget about the daily stressors of life, leave it all behind, and concentrate on my Grandma and her passing hopefully into a path of liberation as Hindus would say. But so many, including myself, have taken this power of singing for granted until death crosses your path.

Hindu Goddess of Knowledge and Music Saraswati

I argue that if you do believe in a higher being, singing is a way to feel one step closer to that being. It is a personal step one makes to sing with devotion, but when done with no intentions besides reaching a peaceful state God feels much closer to you.

But the very act requires one to submit themselves to be heard–the end result could be glorious and aunties and uncles can be asking you to “sing wan more” or the surrounding audience can be wishing to lower down that mike. It is amazing how so many Indo-Caribbean Hindus are drawn to singing as a method of reaching God but also equally amazing how it took me so long to realize you don’t have to be good to sing.

Many Guyanese and Trinidadian Hindus who emigrated from their home countries to this city do not speak Hindi but they carry their culture and religion through music and song. You can imagine the three worlds Hinduism has managed to pass through: from India, to the West Indies, and then to New York City where West Indian immigrants have created a new life, built a thriving Hindu community of temples, and bring their children to experience the religion and culture.

Throughout Queens songbooks are passed around in places of worship and first-generation youth are trained in music schools all over the city to play the harmonium, sitar, dholak, tabla, and sing bhajans in Hindi–though most of these youth do not speak the language too.

There is something universal about the idea of spreading religion through songs when you do not even speak the language you are singing–you feel the divinity behind the words and that is good enough a reason to sing.

My Grandma was a spiritual woman who found joy and excitement in hearing the latest Prakash Gossai bhajans. Singing to her was a way to connect to the Lord and share in the praise of gods and goddesses through song. She could not converse in Hindi either but she represented the many elderly women who know this power–to sing in temples, during pujas or Hindu ceremonies, and among family and friends despite how good of a singer you may be or whether you completely understand the language.

I have walked into pujas and ceremonies where one may be rendering a song that may not exactly pleasing to the ear and members of the audience are secretly wondering when is this song going to end. I know this because those thoughts have entered my mind too. But many of us have not realized that singing brings a certain power or closeness to God for those in need of it.

When you do–like I did this past week–you will understand that singing is not just music but a movement that has transgressed time, place, and language to establish a unique relationship with yourself and a much more powerful force.

Grandma Julain Khilawan Pardesi

Sunrise November 4, 1935 – Sunset August 6, 2012

The late Julain Khilawan Pardesi: “Mama” of 6 children, “Grams” of 17 grandchildren, and “Granny”of 20 great-grandchildren.

Stepping out of the attic facing the top of the staircase I struggle to keep a stack of toys within my grip. I slowly inch one little foot onto the next step. I can barely see the end of the stairs.

With much concentration I reach halfway down the stairs but suddenly one foot trips in front of the other. In a split second my toys and my little body come crashing down the stairs.

My Grandma turns around and looks at me face down on the floor, my arms and legs sprawled out, and my toys scattered around me.

She stretches out her hand and offers to help me up.

Then she says, “Kameel, take your time and peel your pine.”

Last year I wrote an article in tribute to my Grandma titled “Our Female Sages” It was published on August 6, 2011. This year on August 6, 2012 my Grandma passed away.

I had no knowledge that my Grandma wouldn’t be with me exactly the year after my article about her was published but I have taken it as a symbol that time was always on my Grandma’s side.

Sometimes I wonder how was my Grandma so successful at being a Grandma. I think the answer is she always made time for herself and for others. In my home, anytime a pamper needed to be changed, a tear wiped, or a warm smile offered she was there.

My Grandma lived with me, my parents, and my two sisters for nearly two decades. Growing up I became accustomed to hearing her cassettes playing the tunes of Hindu bhajans every morning.

When I was five, I had stomachaches that only she could treat with hot black tea and sugar but really it was her comfort and understanding that helped me the most.

Food was always given with a smile, the gentle force of her hospitality, and with a tale.

Saijan baji she said would, “Help me see better” and pumpkin would “make me smarter”–it was those tales that would cast a giggle on me and my sister’s faces. We would always wonder if she really meant it or if she was just trying to get me to eat.  Nevertheless food became a way for my Grandma to teach us the lesson she would never feel full until we were.

My Grandma serving up some baji to her grand-daughters.

She reminded us even though we were girls to “take your book seriously” Her dream as a young girl to become a teacher was not exactly fulfilled but she taught me and my sisters to make the most of our education, help in the house, and be a part of Hindu culture.

My Grandma with me and my sister “Minty”

Underneath every piece of wisdom she gave us was her mark of a good person–to love yourself no matter what wrong you do and love your parents no matter how old you are.

She was born in Plantation Albion in Guyana and her roots from late parents Betty and Arron Erriah were of strength, tenacity, and passion. My Grandma was an intelligent student in Guyana but was married at the tender age of sixteen and later had six children.

At thirty my Grandma became a single mother due to the death of her husband. She was faced with the challenge of feeding six mouths and ensuring a safe roof over her children. She took on the task by becoming a rice vendor selling in the marketplace–measuring dozens of twenty gallon bags of rice each day.

After her children grew up and were acclimated, my Grandma moved to New York City in 1984. She took care of her grandchildren but never stayed confined to the home. She visited all parts of Europe, United States, and the Caribbean while encouraging other family members to come along for the ride too.

It was in this time of her life that she witnessed some wonders of the world–something very few are able to. Yet with all of her travels she still made trips back to Guyana to host annual jhandis at her home.

My Grandma was able to do all of this within her seventy-six years of life. In her words she “took her time and peeled her pine” Even in the last few months that she lived she reminded me to do just the same.

As an adult I am always in a hurry to do things, to be successful, to make sure I get a chance to try everything even if I can’t see what is at the end of the stairs. But my Grandma was able to do so much in no hurry at all and I’m sure she will rise to her final destination.

My Grandma passed away this past Monday August 6th 2012 in her own bed at home. Her hands were loosely clasped with a murti of Lord Krishna by her side.

Our Female Sages

Her eyes looked upon me so kindly beneath her wrinkled, soft skin. Her glasses shimmered with wisdom while her smile penetrated my soul. It was just another visit with Grandma and I was feeling like my time spent with her was invaluable. 

This picture and article was originally published in The West Indian last year on the day my Grandma passed away August 6th. She must have been working in mysterious ways. The caption was “My Grandma, Narinamah Julain Pardesi. 75 Years and Going Strong.” Now she will be living strong in our hearts forever.

There is something mystical about the old. Those who have wisdom through their years always amaze me. Like my Grandma, so many elders have wisdom through the rare ability of telling the truth. Having lived for so long and witnessing so much of life, the truth comes easier off the tongues of those with age. I learned about the wonders of old people since I was a child when I was about four years old.
We were on our way to Florida on an American Airlines flight. I was happy to have the company of my dentist Barbie along with my Mother, Father, and older sister. I was four and it was a great age to be. I was able to wander around and get away with it, I could play with all of the airline stuff and still be cute, and I was able to charm the passengers in conversation. My Mother was always concerned with my habit of wandering off and speaking to strangers, but I still did it anyway. And that flight was no excuse.
I began to strike up a conversation with an elderly passenger with blonde hair. From what I remember her hair was long like mine and was in a braid. It was such a wonderful similarity and the old woman found me to be very intriguing. I can’t remember what we spoke about that day, but all I remember is that we spoke for a while. My Mom found me speaking to her and was so relieved yet also so surprised to see I had so much in common with the elderly woman. That was the first notable time that I exhibited the curiosity for wisdom from elderly women.
When I was about five years old, my bike was my main mode of transportation. I would dress up in my fanciest jumpsuits to have a chat with my favorite two old grandmas on the corner of my block. Each day I would bike my way to the corner and talk to my old friends. They were both exact opposites of each other, but they lived together and had the strongest friendship I had ever seen. It was like Rose and Dorothy from the popular television show Golden Girls. One of the women was a smoker and the tougher out of the two. The other older woman was very kind and I remember her love for holidays as she put out a different flag for each season and celebration. I thought when I was older; I wanted my house to be just like theirs.
Each day I would take a trip to hear their lively conversations. They always helped me and gave me advice whether it was when I talked about my family or the little boy on the block who gave me flowers unnecessarily. They were always there for me, until the day that the tougher women passed away. I was so sad and couldn’t understand why she went away. After that, the other kind old lady didn’t come out on the porch very often and she eventually sold the house on the block. I couldn’t bike there anymore, but I remember her telling me goodbye. I knew that she really would miss me and I would miss her too.
There is something to say about relationships with the elderly. Although death comes without warning, curiosity for life never ends. Throughout my life, I’ve explored conversations with elderly women and have found that they are our modern day female sages. I’ve encountered so many old wise women that often hold the key to life’s simplest mysteries. I remember each time I visit a close friend; I always take the time to chat with her “Aaji” or Grandmother.  Although she doesn’t always remember what grade I’m in, she tells me “Just take you education and do your best. God will bless you if you try.” And sometimes it’s just as simple as that. It was advice from someone who has lived through many decades and has seen it all through a female perspective from Guyana, to here, to now.
Perhaps my interest in the elderly is because of the fact that I spent a significant amount of time with one of the wisest old women of my time, my Grandma. Her influence has pushed me to find out more about the older women in our community who are so strong, hold so dearly to cultural and religious values, and are often such amazing mothers who defy all odds to have the best for their family. My Grandma always tells me to study hard, she encourages me to reach my fullest potential, and she always listens to my long, circular stories whether they are interesting or not. My Grandma is a progressive, and despite her age, her wisdom increases with relevance to our times. Sometimes the simplest words are the most applicable to life. Her advice is so familiar, yet so relevant and that’s what makes her a modern day female sage.
I’ve always discovered the sincerest advice from elderly women whom I feel a close connection with. Some would call me an old soul, but I like to think of it as just doing the smarter thing.  It’s wiser to get advice from those who’ve lived. Sometimes by taking the time to hear the elderly you could gain a different perspective on life. To me these elderly women are our modern day female sages, and this article is a tribute to the strong old women that lived.

Behind the Scenes of an Indo-Caribbean Beauty Pageant

A veiled beauty glides onto the stage. She sparkles in a magnificent sequined top. Her ankles chime with the sound of ghungroos. Her flowing skirt raises through the air while she twirls around the stage like a Rajasthani dancer. In a dramatic stop of music, she drops to the floor. She lifts the ends of her sparkling yellow veil to begin. 

Pageant contestant Tatiana Pooran performing a dance for her talent.

On April 22nd at the Golden Terrace Banquet Hall located at 120-23 Atlantic Avenue in Queens, eight Indo-Caribbean young women competed for the SPA Indo-Caribbean National crown during a pageant of talent, elaborate gowns, regal Indian wear, and messages of being role models to girls in the Indo-Caribbean community.  Each pageant contestant  performed a dance for the talent portion of the pageant and graced the stage with signature walks, air kisses, and waves at the audience. You could feel the nerves and anxiety in the air as the girls performed their walks on stage to win the Miss Indo-Caribbean National Queen 2012 title giving them a year long reign as a national spokesperson representing the Indo-Caribbean community.

One may wonder what it’s like to be on stage as a contestant. The experience could be quite nerve-racking as each girl was called upon so the judges could make their decisions and the audience could cheer for their favorites. Sarah Jardine, winner of two SPA titles Miss USA 2011 and Miss Universal Royalty said, “It’s a long process to get prepared for a pageant as a contestant. You have to have the time and dedication and you have to want to do it. You have to get your outfits,  you have to get your talent ready,  you have to make sure everything is ready for the day you go on because anything can go wrong on that stage and you have to know how to catch yourself and make it look like it was on purpose.”

But for Jardine, the experience is a commendable one that gives her a purpose as an Indo-Caribbean to “Show girls of Indo-Caribbean culture that you can do this and you can represent your community by bringing about awareness…A lot of people don’t know what we’re [Indo-Caribbeans] about and how similar we are to the Indian culture.”

A performer of the Fusezion dance group.

Behind the scenes of the pageant the girls were hustling to get dressed and making sure their outfits were perfectly intact with the help of mothers, family members, friends, and the team they came with to help them prepare for the experience. I managed to speak to some of the former queens and new contestants and came across how much time it takes and how expensive it is to prepare for this pageant.

Behind the scenes pageant queens help each other tie saris.

According to Jessica Hussain the 2011 Miss Mystic Masala, “On my pageant I spent approximately $6,000. And my costume was about $1,500.” She chuckled and told me ” I’m going to do a photo shoot and sell it back.” Natasha Rambrich, the runner-up for the Miss Indo-Caribbean Nationals 2012 title noted, “It took me three months to prepare for the pageant and have all of my outfits ready.”

Pageant contestant and runner-up Natasha Rambrich in her evening wear.

Gayatri Teakram, mother of pageant contestant, Sangeeta Teakram said, “I have to be honest with you. This is a very expensive pageant to enter. One has to  be prepared financially to get their daughters or sister involved. All of the expenses are on the contestants. You have to be prepared to take the risk to do this.” After asking her what is her ambition as a mom to send her daughter to this pageant she said, “I’ve also been a promoter myself and also a TV personality back in Guyana. I’ve always been involved in this and for that reason I feel that my daughters should have an experience of knowing what it is like so they don’t live a life of not knowing it.” Teakram mentioned that she trusts her kids and explained once a child has identified her personality, no pageant can change who she is at heart.

Jessica Hussain, Miss Mystic Masala 2011, told me of her perseverance throughout the SPA pageants and her inspiration for entering. She recalled, “Ever since grew up as a little girl I wanted to be in a pageant. And now when I see Toddlers and Tiaras on TV I wish I could have had those. But living in Guyana you don’t have those opportunities. I came here in 2003, and I thought to call this organization SPA. The first pageant, Miss Galaxy, I didn’t win and the second time I tried for the Mystic Masala pageant and I got it.”

Crowned winner of 2012 Miss Indo-Caribbean National Seema Saroop.

Yet what may be the most significant beneath the luxurious gowns, beautiful costumes, and glittering make-up is the strive for a presence and voice as Indo-Caribbean young women. Monica Sanchez the CEO of Miss Caricom, an international pageant in its ninth year, said “Let us not forget that it is really difficult to be a beauty pageant contestant. It’s difficult to stand on stage and face your Mom, or your Dad, or your best friend. Please understand that the girls in pageants deserve a lot of support. It’s really encouraging to see such a large turn out tonight and understanding that this community at least understands the importance of pageants. It’s not just beautiful girls walking on stage, its an education in and of itself. Anyone that enters a pageant becomes a little more educated, a little more secure, a little more beautiful.”

The contestants at the 2012 Miss Indo-Caribbean Nationals waiting for the results.

The SPA pageants have enabled the winners to take advantage of pageant benefits and interact with the Indo-Caribbean community. In Tina Basdeo’s final speech as a former titled queen she said,”Along with my fellow queens we have photo shoot meetings, exclusive makeup artists, and talented dress designers. We made everlasting friendships and business partners as well. The SPA Productions USA  gave us the opportunity to visit churches around the Tri-State area and perform with many different artistes from charitable events. None of this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Jennifer and Aunty Rani.”

According to Jennifer Prashad-Hawaldar Executive Director of SPA Productions USA and CEO of Trust Claim Insurance Adjustment Recovery, “These contests are more than a beauty pageant.” She noted that the pageants are about having “intelligent, well-mannered, and cultured young women.” She explained SPA is the “leading Indo-Caribbean pageantry organization to make appearances at public speaking engagements and charity events generating awareness for a variety of causes.”

Free cupcakes promotionals from a local community business in the lobby of the SPA pageant.

However, it seems the pageant depends on the support of many sponsors from businesses like Singh’s Roti Shop and has generated literally a lobby of community business promoters. When entering the hall of the pageant, you’re surrounded by a sea of promoters from DJs to make-up artists and members of New York Life to promotions like free cupcakes. The beauty pageant has become a hotspot for anyone planning a wedding, sweet sixteen, or event to locate community businesses.

Sangeeta Teakram crowned and given a SPA queen title by former queens.

The SPA Productions USA has become an Indo-Caribbean pageantry organization that has grown tremendously during the past few years and has also produced queens who are committed to the livelihood of the pageants. For many queens the pageants are much more than about having a voice and platform while being an Indo-Caribbean spokesperson. As Tina Basdeo stated, “My reign is over but I’ll be a part of this organization forever.”

Photos and text by: Kamelia Kilawan