April 7, 1949 to December 3, 2017
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
Hundreds of people hailing from the West Indies and India alike mourned the late Ramesh Dalchan Kalicharran, popularly known as “Kali,” this past week. Kali passed away on December 3, 2017. He was 68. He left this Earthly plane with an outpouring of love and admiration from all who ever knew him.
A self-made man, Kali hailed from humble beginnings. On April 7, 1949, Kali was born to a second-generation Indian family, the first child to Kalicharan and Manganie Ramdayal, at Bush Lot Village in the Essequibo Coast of Guyana. He grew up in Essequibo and attended the Anna Regina Primary School where he later worked as teacher. In 1967, Kali moved to Grove Village in the East Bank of Demerara. There, he became a teacher at Diamond Secondary School. He was also heavily involved in the Grove Hindu Society, perhaps the impetus to his long-standing future in selfless service and philanthropy.
In January 1970, Kali moved to New York City. Like many who migrated to the United States, he struggled to establish himself, yet amidst obstacles thrown his way, Kali persevered. While working as a manager at a department store, Kali’s entrepreneurial spirit took shape. He formed Arcel Driving School, serving immigrants just like him, opened his own real estate office, and created Kali Travel and Kali Bharat Yatra Tours. Nostalgic advertisements of these businesses were proudly displayed at his funeral services this past week among a slideshow of lucid photographs honoring Kali’s memory. Hundreds lined up at the Bernard Dowd Funeral Home on Hillside Avenue to pay their last respects to Kali, including a host of pandits (Hindu priests), musicians, and community leaders, many with tears in their eyes.
Kali always had positive, uplifting things to say about anyone he encountered. Those who recalled memories of him reciprocated this positivity. Author Balkrishna Naipaul said that “Every time we had a discussion, it had to be about people’s needs and suffering and what we could do for our people.” He highlighted that Kali played a critical role in bringing people of all faiths together in the aftermath of the 1991 Ayodhya riots in India, an event that tore friendships between Hindus and Muslims apart. Alluding to Kali already attaining moksha (liberation), Naipaul indicated that “one does not need to die to become free.” Imam Tony Shafeek, who once accompanied Kali on an India tour, said, “He was everything good that you can think of. One human personality achieving so much is unheard of in modern day.”
Reggie Rawana recalled visiting Kali’s office recently when Kali asked him if he’d seen that “the car was out.” Rawana thought Kali had bought a fancy new car; he was actually referring to an old car likely from the 1950s. Referencing Kali’s steadfast dedication to his community, Rawana said “while he could have gone anywhere, he stayed in one place.”
After Ramesh Deochand of the Nirvana Humanitarian Foundation sang “Tujhe Sooraj Kaho,” Kali’s daughter Romanee spoke of how fond her father was of the song, one which he often sang to his sons. A lover of culture and the arts himself, Kali raised children who took to music. Romanee, a classically-trained dancer, was the apple of her father’s eyes. She often performed at concerts featuring famous playback artists sponsored by Kali, notably including a concert featuring the late Manna Dey. Kali’s sons Jagdesh and Nadesh are also trained musically.
While unassuming and humble, Kali has a very long list of significant contributions to the New York City Indo-Caribbean population. He was among a handful of pioneers who co-founded the Phagwah Parade in Queens, NY over thirty years ago, a festival which has grown to become the largest gathering of NYC’s Indo-Caribbean population. He was also a founding member of the Indo-Caribbean Federation, which hosts an annual Indian Arrival Day celebration at Phil Rizzuto Park (formerly Smokey Park). Kali convened a meeting of pandits from which the USA Pandits’ Parishad was born. Kali was a servant of his dharma, founding several mandirs in the New York City area, including the Gyaan Bhakti Satsangh Mandir (now the Prem Bhakti Mandir) and the Maha Lakshmi Mandir. It is no coincidence therefore that he was born on Ram Naumi Day, 68 years ago.
Kali became a household name because he filled a void many Indo-Caribbeans twice removed from the motherland feel at some given point in their lives. He organized two trips per year to India through Kali Bharat Yatra, taking hundreds of Indo-Caribbeans to India, where their ancestors came to the Caribbean from in the early 1800s. According to a 2008 interview he did with Travel Agent Central, Kali first visited India in 1983, when he was 34 years old. “I had an instant sense of belonging when I arrived in India,” he said. “I wasn’t alone in feeling this way—some people in my group kissed the ground or hugged a tree.”
Kali developed another company that helped Indo-Caribbeans in search of their heritage find their ancestries. It was said at his viewing that he knows just as many Indians as he does Indo-Caribbeans.
Kali never exploited the fact he was a businessman. Instead, he believed in empowering people. He once told Caribbean Beat magazine: “Somebody from Trinidad or Guyana or Suriname who just migrate to America, and they come to me to rent a room or an apartment, I counsel them. My thing is not just to make money. If I get them an apartment I will tell them, ‘Don’t come back to me for an apartment. When you come back to me come and buy a house.”
For his exemplary service to his community and to humanity at large, Kali received many citations and awards from NY State Assembly, New York City Council, Queens Borough President Office, the U.S. Congress, and the president of Guyana. Kali also received an Ellis Island Award for outstanding immigrants.
Kali is survived by his wife Judith Kalicharran, his children Jagdesh, Nadesh and Romanee, his grandchildren Amalia and Amadeo, his five brothers, Rudolph, Prem, Jaikaran, Shankar and Ramko, and his three sisters, Juliet, Jeanette and Shobna.
Ramesh Kalicharran’s legacy will live on through the indelible impact he made on people across continents, and the unity he fostered in a world that sometimes seems so divided. We have much to learn from his example as a leader who brought people together without seeking praise or accolades, gave freely of himself to causes that made a difference, and saw the broader humanity which exists beyond race and religion. May his Soul rest in eternal bliss.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.