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What Should We Carry Forward from the Pandemic? Stories From Millburn, New Jersey

What Should We Carry Forward from the Pandemic? Stories From Millburn, New Jersey

  • The organically spiraling events show that humanity cuts across boundaries and that a crisis in any country is a crisis that hits home for all of us as global citizens.

By February 2021, the world watched in wonder as India seemed to have flattened the COVID-19 curve and life was returning to normal. The euphoria was short lived as in March cases started exploding all over the country, with Mumbai and Delhi reporting record daily increase in numbers. The healthcare facilities couldn’t keep up with the continuous stream of patients gasping for breath and their distraught relatives. Each day, we woke up to frightening headlines and frantic calls from India bearing news of gloom and doom. Now the world watched in horror as funeral pyres burned in open grounds, bodies floated along the river Ganges and people were getting oxygen in rickshaws or dying waiting to get medical assistance. 

Twitter feeds were filled with desperate cries for oxygen cylinders and concentrators and many of them came from our own hometowns, from people we knew. This time, the disease did not discriminate between the rich and the poor as everyone was on the road looking for a hospital bed or a ventilator. Some were lucky to get one, but still lost the battle to COVID. Others resigned to their fate as they stayed at home, tending to their family members. Aging parents with children living abroad gave false consolations about doing well, but there were days when they couldn’t hold up the pretense any more as things were beyond their control.

The misery in India resonated deeply in our town of Millburn/Short Hills, New Jersey, which has a sizable Indian community. We had lived through this mayhem last year when the U.S. had suffered a similar devastating wave. We had witnessed the loss that this virus has brought in its wake. As part of the Indian diaspora, we live in two continents simultaneously, so we relived the horror as we watched our families suffer. Non-stop calls from India were followed by Google searches for treatment and calls to relatives before getting to work at 9 am sharp.

Routines and deadlines were disrupted as it became impossible to avoid a WhatsApp message, or a call from a sibling giving updates on a parent’s ill health. Keen to help, we got busy on chat groups, using our network to share lists of hospital vacancies in various cities, apps for meal deliveries and plasma groups. We shared medical reports and treatment protocols of relatives with local doctors, and also discussed the government’s failure, lapse in individual responsibility, and frustrations about not being there in person for our loved ones. 

Pooja Iyengar distributing dry grocery packets to communities in Bhopal. Top photo, Open Door Nursery School Bake sale event in Millburn, New Jersey.

It was time for some real action because when communities come together, great things are accomplished, no matter the distance that separates us. A local resident, Dr. Radhika Iyengar’s family runs an NGO called Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK) in Bhopal that does exemplary work in recycling, and providing professional training and employment for disadvantaged women. We all look forward to spring dresses, scarves, home linen and other handcrafted products made by these women from recycled fabric that her sister, Pooja Iyengar brings every year to raise money for MSK. As the second wave escalated, Pooja, who was tending to her own mother struggling with COVID, began to hear stories of families in Bhopal who were running out of money to feed their children, or going hungry as they waited outside hospitals to hear from their loved ones. There were daily wage earners who had lost their source of income due to the lockdown, and stray animals starving on the streets. Along with her friends Mita Wadhwa, Sparsh Dwivedi and other volunteers, she organized a community kitchen for Bhopal hospitals and started posting pictures on social media, chronicling the daily work done by them. 

Initially, nutritious food, packed early in the morning was delivered to four hospitals for patients and the staff. Packets were also distributed to relatives standing outside hospitals. During lunchtime, people queued up in long lines for food and cold water in the scorching summer heat and kids were excited to receive tetra packs of milk. As donations started pouring in, they expanded their operations to serve 20 big and small hospitals with over 1,000 packets a day. They also started getting calls for aid from people who were stuck at home due to COVID and from those who had lost their jobs. This group was now supplying over 2,000 grocery kits comprising dry grains on a daily basis. The meal packet for hospitals cost Rs. 60 (less than $1), and the one-week grocery kit for families cost Rs. 400 ($6). 

As their outreach increased, more funds were needed, and this is when the Indian diaspora across the U.S., Canada and Europe decided to step up. In Millburn New Jersey, Sapna Gupta, Radhika Iyengar, Pallavi Verma and Jahnavi Bhatt started a Thrift Fair, where families donated clothing which was sold to raise funds for MSK. Impressed with this venture, neighbors Yuko and Debbie made a generous donation. Radhika Iyengar’s neighbor, Anne not only donated for the cause but also took the remaining clothes to stock up the ‘clothes cabinet’ at churches in Newark. A middle school student, Ashna Swaroop decided to sell her hand-sewn bibs and burp cloths to raise money. Shobha Jain decided to use her green thumb and organized a plant sale with some help from her daughter-in-law, Vanita Gangwal. 

Every day, Pooja would post pictures of her Community Kitchen for people to see how their funds were being utilized. This inspired more people to donate. In Texas, Aditi Atri who is from Bhopal, organized a fundraiser despite her personal loss and Pria Kothari, also from Bhopal raised money along with her two children. Pooja also found a supporter in Finland, from a pop-up shop owner, Pukhraj who had spent some time in Bhopal to train the women at MSK in sewing. She in turn recommended the Community Kitchen to her friend Radhika Gupta in San Francisco. Radhika, who runs a consultancy, Rahaa, which supports local artisans in India made a significant contribution to the food drive Pooja’s friends in Canada, who are doctors and professionals, also made generous donations.

By early May, Pooja was getting longer and longer lists each day. Her house became a grocery storage area and a pick-up and drop-off location for packed meals. A system was put in place with continuous feedback from recipients of the meals. Some needed more rotis than rice, milk packets were a hit with kids, and since this was the only meal that some would have in a day, it had to be nutritious with lots of vegetables. Validating the lists was important as was serving food with dignity. Lines had to be maintained with social distancing, and only volunteers who had antibodies were recruited for this drive to keep everyone safe.

Again, more funds were needed to maintain this momentum, so Nidhi Bindal of Heartsversesminds organized a poetry session to share the angst and reflections of what everyone was feeling. To uplift the mood of frontline workers, Apresh Deva recited a heartfelt poem, while nine-year-old Asmi sang ‘Underdog’ by Alicia Keys and four-year-old Swara recorded the sweetest thank you message. The money raised from this fundraiser came as a breather for those working round the clock in Bhopal.

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A local newspaper carried an article on our fundraising efforts and individual donations poured in from people not known to us. They trusted the group and wanted to help. Pooja now needed approximately Rs.10,000 everyday and despite the donations, many families were on standby with various requests. Two ex-World Bank professionals working with children invited Radhika to share information about the Community Kitchen and take questions from kids in India and the United States. Moms from Open Door Nursery School in Millburn heard about the crisis and decided to conduct a bake sale. Kaitlin Blevin, Ms. Randazza, the school Principal, Ms. Hong, Ms. Davis and other teachers and parents participated with enthusiasm in supplying baked goods. Kyna, Sia and Asmi, and other 9-year-olds also made cupcakes for the event, which was a great success.

Each class made cards to be digitized and sent to India for the Community Kitchen volunteers. Many of these volunteers had started working immediately after cremating their loved ones, and had not hugged their children for weeks. A class parent rep, Laura Stagliano shared “There’s no such thing as other people’s children.” By setting an example in empathy and global citizenry, Open Door Nursery School won the hearts of the entire Indian community. As a thank you gesture for the school staff and the volunteer moms, Kumkum Srivastav, a Millburn chef, prepared special boxes of Indian desserts. Plans are also afoot for a virtual music concert to celebrate Pooja’s birthday on the 19th of June. 

These organically spiraling events show that humanity cuts across boundaries and that a crisis in any country is a crisis that hits home for all of us as global citizens. It shows that people do care for each other and that care doesn’t require formal petitions but a connection of hearts and a feeling of kinship. We would like to convey our heartfelt gratitude to all those who have supported the Bhopal Community Kitchen and made the Indian diaspora feel that Millburn is truly their home away from home. Thank you for sharing our pain and coming through for the people back home in India.

Radhika Iyengar volunteers with Mahashakti Seva Kendra, a non-profit based in Bhopal, India. She currently lives in Millburn, New Jersey and is originally from Bhopal. She is a life-long learner of sustainability and believes that education is the greatest tool to build a greener future. She received a PhD (with distinction) Economics and Education. Venmo@radhikaiyengar.

Jahnavi Bhatt is a freelance writer and a creative writing tutor. She is passionate about teaching, sustainability, cooking and yoga. She has worked as a copywriter in advertising and used to be an editor in chief for an online magazine. She holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English Literature. 

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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