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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Excerpt from Gotham Gazette. Click here to read the full article.
By: Kamelia Kilawan
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
What is your vision for Trimurti? Any current or future plans underway?
My vision for Trimurti is expansion. I think we have literally outgrown this mandir especially when we have important functions here, we run out of space. My vision is down the block, if it becomes available, then we should purchase more real estate in the future and expand our operations to include more youth and do much more for our seniors because we don’t have a program for our seniors right now. We purchased another building down the block which would be used as a cultural center but that building is in limbo right now. As it seems right now, it will fall in the hands of those that occupy it. My vision is to grow in size and to expand our activities, to do much more for the youths, seniors, and congregation.
Explain more about the cultural center. What are some ideas for the way it would be run and what activities would be held there?
The cultural center would mean to implement a lot of cultural programs for our children like music programs, dance programs, and Hindi classes. The culture is about the youth. So at the cultural center we’d like to put the youth in charge. We have some brilliant youth here with technology at their hands. One of the things I’d also like to see is a permanent drama class. We were very successful in the few dramas we did for this mandir like Bhakt Prahlad and Ram Banwas. I’d like to see more of this happen…dramatizations, and re-enactments of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other related Hindu texts.
During the last 14 years how has Trimurti progressed?
An area we have developed is in youth development and empowerment because one of the main focuses for this mandir is the youth. This means harnessing the capabilities of the youth in areas of music, academics, and so on. We have counseling sessions and music classes and the youths are given an opportunity. Now you may think the youth get a chance to sing here, so what happens to the other community out there? Well whatever happens here is also aired on Jyoti Satsangh on TV, so more than 10 million people are watching so the youth can expose their talents to 10 million people. We’ve also managed to produce at least three brilliant young pandits who serve the outside community as well. These pandits are the future leaders of tomorrow.
What are some of the reasons individuals come for counseling in Trimurti?
Couples come here with problems, family problems, and social problems. We sit down with them, interact with them, and help them to resolve whatever they are experiencing. Many people have gotten a lot of help here. Many people have also come with physical problems and illnesses. They pray and manage to get cured because of their faith. We’ve seen phone calls coming in the middle of the service where people are called right away for emergency treatment and relief from their problems.
How does the administrative and executive body interact with the membership of Trimurti?
Another thing I must mention is that many mandirs today have administrative problems, with the executive, where they cannot get along. There are people who are power-hungry and people greedy for power and they have their own personal agenda when it comes to the mandir. And you can see many mandirs are split because of this now at the administrative level. And at this mandir, thanks to God and to a very capable executive body, we have not experienced that here. We have a very harmonious relationship at the executive level and at the membership level.
Shri Trimurti Bhavan Inc. is located at 101-18 97th Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. To learn more log on to www.shritrimurtibhavan.org and to receive weekly updates join the group Shri Trimurti Bhavan on Facebook.
Is the reason why so many members of the Indian diaspora relate to D’Arranged Marriage because they are twice-removed or removed from India?
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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