By Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Esq.
I was about 11 years old when I met Rita Persaud. Our paths crossed for the first time at a fundraiser concert for the construction of a local mandir. My voice was shaking and it was the first time I was going to sing a medley. Beginning the medley with Churaliya, it all turned out okay after all. Persaud came up to me and say ”Gyal! You can sing high high! More high den me!” Of course, I totally disagreed but those words made a young adolescent me feel so good and encouraged. I now often begin any medley with Churaliya Hain Tumne since then. It helps me shake off any nerves.
A few years later, my path crossed with Persaud’s again at the Bhuvaneshwar Mandir summer youth camp in Ozone Park. One day, I wore an off shoulder shirt and got yelled at by a camp administrator for not dressing properly. Usually a straight arrow, I wasn’t used to getting yelled at. I was embarrassed and ashamed at that moment so I ran to the bathroom and cried. Persaud followed me there, gave me a big hug and said not to worry. She made some joke that today I can’t remember, but I do remember smiling through my tears.
I later ended up singing with Persaud occasionally at pujas and jhandis, even one hosted by a non-traditional African Hindu family in Brooklyn near Nostrand Avenue. She was always a ball of fun, but she na mek joke when it came to her dharma.
Persaud became a staple of the humble and hospitable Shaanti Bhavan Mandir. I am so sure her voice and presence will forever be felt by the devotees of Shaanti Bhavan Mandir under the leadership of Pandit Manoj Jadubans and their warm and welcoming temple family. I have such fond memories of Persaud, whether at Shaanti Bhavan’s picnic at Tudor Park or at their annual fundraisers with her beautiful voice singing that same Churaliya like a nightingale or at their annual car washes as we blocked traffic for a good cause. Her laughter was contagious. Her humility was inspirational. If she had this kind of impact on me, I can only imagine the countless memories and impact she had on her close family, friends and fellow devotees of her mandir.
On Sunday, October 2, a street was co-named for Persaud, specifically at 92nd Street and 102nd Avenue. This was the site of the tragic hit-and-run that took her life so suddenly that stormy Christmas Eve night in 2020. It is just steps away from the Church of the The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I think Persaud is the first Indo-Caribbean woman in New York City to have a street co-named after her. The ceremony began with a chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa by the Shaanti Bhavan Mandir, including at least a dozen of the temple’s youth and devotees. Pandit Manoj Jadubans, spiritual leader of the temple, noted that the chalisa would be sung “in the air” that Persaud considered her favorite. The 40-verse chant dedicated to Hanuman can be sung in many different tunes and rhythms. The temple continued by singing “Hari Om.” Pandit Manoj joked that Persaud would love to sing along if she made it to the temple on time. As a sign of interfaith solidarity, Imam Shaykh Baksh of Masjid Al Abidin offered an Islamic prayer. A framed photograph of Persaud, garlanded with marigolds by her bereaved family members, presided over the proceedings with a warm smile.
The street co-naming efforts were led by Romeo Hitlall, second vice district governor of the Richmond Hill South Ozone Park Lions Club, alongside Council Member Joann Ariola-Shanks who represents District 32. Ariola introduced legislation that would shepherd the co-naming upon request by Hitlall. At the ceremony, Ariola said, “We wanted an area that brought great sorrow to so many people to be turned into great happiness and a celebration for a life well-lived.”
“The manner in which Auntie Rita was killed caused much outrage within the Queens community and brought several community leaders together to press the NYPD for a swift and detailed investigation,” Hitlall said. “We stand in solidarity with Auntie Rita’s family, siblings and other family members who have had to bear the pain of her tragic death.” Queens District Attorney was also present at the co-naming ceremony and acknowledged Assistant District Attorney Dylan Nesturrick, who is prosecuting the accused hit-and-run driver. Katz underscored larger policy concerns: “As we are holding the man who killed Rita Persaud accountable, we will continue to hold people accountable for the way they drive,” she said.
Jainarain Prabhudyal, Persaud’s brother, expressed deep gratitude to those who made the street co-naming possible as well as his thanks to all of the Queens community for their ongoing support. Zaman Amin, a local dance artist, indicated how powerful it was to see young people in the community who continue to uplift Persaud’s spirit. Persaud’s nephew, Anand Churaman, noted that Persaud “came from very humble beginnings from Guyana” and that “all her life, she dedicated not just to her community, her brothers, her niece and nephews and all her family and every one of us here.” Churman continued to say, “All of your presence here represents what she stood for. She’s one of those people who made you feel you were the only person she was talking to. I am so proud and happy that her name will always be remembered.”
To the soul of Ritawantee Persaud, Om Sadgati.