Desi Voices around a Quarantined New Orleans

By Pawan Bhat

Many cultures use sport as a means to connect, and the Indian community in New Orleans is no stranger to this. On a Sunday afternoon on the John Bennett Johnson quad at Tulane, Indian students can be seen playing a game involving a bat, a ball, and some rod protrusions from the ground. This is not baseball, but it is cricket. It is an unfamiliar sport to Americans but loved by Indians around the world. Cricket found its way to New Orleans, providing community to immigrant students at Tulane. Shy to the foreign culture of America, the students play cricket to create a sense of familiarity in a city that is unfamiliar to them and their culture. These students are proudly desi, a term used to describe fellow Indians that loosely means ‘of one’s country.’  

The national cricket team of India, endearingly known as the ‘Men in Blue,’ has one of the largest followings in the world. According to The Nielsen Company, Super Bowl XLIX had a record 114 million viewers tuned in. The most watched cricket match between rivals India and Pakistan had a viewership of 323 million, according to the International Cricket Council. This was just last year. The world record was set by another India vs. Pakistan match in 2015, at a whopping viewership of one billion. Cricket is a big deal in India, granting community to fellow Indians regardless of their social status, political, and religious beliefs.  

Prior to finding a home in cricket, incoming students struggled to find their footing. One student spoke about his troubles. “As a new student from India, I did not have access to [Indian] people,” recalls Avia Bhattacharya, graduate student at Tulane. Avik hails from Kolkata, India, a large metropolitan area that boasts a population comparable to Los Angeles. “New Orleans is a small city compared to Kolkata,” said Avik. It was one of the first things he noticed when he moved to New Orleans.  

Avik loved to play cricket in the streets of Kolkata, and he was glad to continue pursuing his hobby through the South Asian Graduate Association. Aside from their weekly sporting activities, the student organization hosts two major events to make New Orleans feel like home. In the fall, they welcome incoming students and help them get situated in New Orleans. Sometime in March, they celebrate the Indian New Year, regionally known as Ugadi, Gudi Padwa, or Vishu, among other names. 

However, social distancing prevented Indian students from playing cricket and celebrating festivals, due to Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order. For many of these international students, these activities are a connection to their homeland. “Some students struggle emotionally, being thousands of miles away from home,” Avik mentioned. Without these activities, they cannot replicate the sights and sounds of home that keep homesickness at bay. 

Now due to coronavirus, these students are stuck in the city. Avik explained that “because of this pandemic, I cannot return home because of [Prime Minister] Modi’s decision.” Recently, India decided to close its borders and issue a countrywide lockdown. Fortunately, the students help each other out with essentials, like groceries, and they keep in touch through social media while in quarantine. When they are thousands of miles away from family, they find family in each other based on shared cultural values, especially when the times call for such action. 

Living in Louisiana was not a struggle unique to international students. Sachin Prem, a Louisiana native, was frustrated at the lack of representation in his hometown Monroe. He describes his experiences growing up by saying “in high school, I would give presentations to faculty and students about Indian culture.” Those around him listened with open ears, yet they struggled to relate to his presentations. 

The depth of his issue can be summarized with the example of food. Cuisine is known to be the gateway to a culture, bringing people together from various backgrounds to share a universal appreciation of food. However, people in cities like Monroe have not even been exposed to Indian cuisine, let alone the expansive artistic and philosophical traditions that come from India. Sachin’s mission was to promote awareness, and he found his resolve through classical Indian music. 

During his undergraduate career at Tulane, Sachin realized that many of the problems in Monroe also existed at Tulane, being in the minority on campus. However, he saw potential in Tulane’s music department to facilitate musical outreach. Therefore, he founded the Tulane chapter of the Society for the Promotion of Indian Culture and Music amongst Youth (SPICMACAY). The society holds regular concerts with world-renowned artists in attendance. Sachin described their process by saying “the artists usually have tours planned, and we try to invite those who would fit at Tulane and the New Orleans community.”   

His organization was an astounding success. A typical event begins with some light Indian refreshments, sponsored by a local Indian restaurant or caterer. Attendees would engage in informal interaction prior to the concert. While describing the demographics of the concert, Sachin said “we get a mix of all kinds of people from the community interested in Indian culture.” His events engaged people from all walks of life, fulfilling his dream of promoting cultural awareness. 

The concert begins with introductions, followed by the artist’s explanation of their art form and a demonstration. After the concert, the attendees have a chance to speak to the artist. Sachin said that this was an honor considering many of these artists are maestros. Indians and non-Indians alike leave the concert, minds brimming with cultural insight.  

Unfortunately, the cancellation of SPICMACAY’s spring concert was another casualty of the recent pandemic. This concert was supposed to feature a Grammy nominated flautist, Pt. Ronu Majumdar and Amit Kavthekar on tabla. It was also going to be Sachin’s last concert at Tulane, thus it held great importance for him. 

Sachin is disappointed, but he remains hopeful about SPICMACAY’s future. “We had the support of the deans for this event. It was supposed to be our largest event yet,” said Sachin. However, SPICMACAY is established within the infrastructure of Tulane, he went on to describe, and has won the hearts of the city’s elderly community. He remains confident that SPICMACAY will continue to impart his culture long after the pandemic. In fact, these artists continue to entertain crowds through virtual concerts in response to social distancing. 

The Indian Arts Circle of New Orleans has a similar mission to SPICMACAY, and they often collaborate with their events. However, the main difference is that Indian Arts Circle puts on events for the greater New Orleans community. According to Urmila Kamath, an event organizer for the Indian Arts Circle, this year was going to be a banner year for them. “We normally do India Fest at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Our event was to be in conjunction with the new Rockefeller exhibit on Buddha and Shiva. We themed talks and dances around Buddha and Shiva,” Mrs. Kamath said.  

Buddha and Shiva are religious icons stemming from Indic tradition, likely unknown to New Orleans natives. The Indian Arts Circle wished to rally behind this opportunity, as the high-profile exhibit had great potential to educate the community on their underrepresented culture. They had even publicized the event on television and the radio, but coronavirus had other plans for them.  

Many of these organizers now find themselves at home with little to look forward to. Some are connecting through WhatsApp and Zoom, while others meet and picnic at a distance in local parks. The organization did not plan any alternative events in the wake of the pandemic. “We postponed the event until June, but it seems highly unlikely that it will happen,” Mrs. Kamath said.  

Unlike her contemporaries, Mrs. Kamath could not sit still. Desi women have a strong sense of maternal duty, and she is no exception. She has lived in the area since before Hurricane Katrina, for over forty years, and understands that the service industry drives the prosperity of New Orleans. Her family and those within her circles were fortunately unaffected. They decided to use this privilege to do some good for society. “Frankly, we are all retired in the group, and we are not affected in our daily lives. We are middle-class people and can spare some money to society. Indian women have collected money, to those who are unemployed” said Mrs. Kamath.  

She, along with other women in her circle, are amassing funds to relieve the financial burden on those who have been laid off by the hospitality industry. Currently, she is assisting financially a couple of Indian students who used to have a fellowship in the industry. These students are now out of work, in need of money for groceries and rent. Mrs. Kamath and her crew of women have donated to several other individuals outside of the Indian community since the stay-at-home order. In doing her part for New Orleans, she has fulfilled her role as a desi matriarch. 

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