Queens Book Fair Celebrates Indo-Caribbean Heritage

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Mr. Vijaykrishnan (center), from the Indian Consulate in New York, share a light moment with members at the Queens Book Fair.

By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

In March 2023, we celebrated Black History Month. Two months later, we gathered to celebrate Indo-Caribbean Heritage and to pay homage to the forebears that crossed the Kala Pani, or dark waters, from India to the Caribbean. This year’s observances were different. The idea was to look ahead, to chart a course for the children of the second indenture, and to examine the extent to which they could influence policy in the receiving societies. The program took place at the Queens Library in New York and attracted a mixture of students, and seasoned professionals. It was held under the auspices of the Queens Book Fair and Literary Festival, a not-for-profit organization whose objective is to promote literacy in Queens, New York.

A moment of silence was observed for the victims of the Mahdia tragedy in Guyana. This was followed by greetings from Mr. Michael Brotherson of the Guyana Consulate in New York. He congratulated Guyana on its anniversary and also the Queens Book Fair for holding a function to recognize the contributions of Indo-Caribbeans to Guyana and the Caribbean. Similar sentiments were expressed by Mr. Sunil Sitahal, Suriname’s ambassador to the United Nations. He expressed the hope that all communities could work together to bring about worthwhile change.

The meeting was declared open by Mr. A.K. Vijaykrishnan from the Indian Consulate in New York. He wished Guyana well on its independence and lauded the close relationship between Guyana and India, and the rest of the Caribbean. He said, “young people should have respect for each other. There is a lot of similarity between Guyana and India. The Book Fair shows that studies are very important. I am glad to see so many young people. Everything is easily available out there but you should concentrate on your studies.”
There was a scholarly paper by Ashook Ramsaran who looked at “Indo-Caribbeans in America.” He examined the origins of East Indian migration, the regions with significant populations, their religion and culture, their prominent high achievements and a number of street-namings that were done in the community. Mr. Ramsaran was actively involved in some of these namings, including Ramesh Kalicharran Way, Little Guyana Avenue, Pandit Ramlall Way, Maharishi Dayananda Gurukula Street, and Dharamacharya Laldharry Seerattan Way. The Queens Book Fair and the community are indebted to his service and activism.

The students selected a variety of Indo-Caribbean personalities to highlight. Ariana Narine spoke of the contributions of President Cheddi Jagan to the freedom movement in Guyana, and the Caribbean, and said that he was an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere. Amelia Persaud dealt with the life and contributions of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Amelia concluded that Kamla-Persad Bissessar is a voice that will continue to be heard in Trinidad and Caribbean politics.

Veena Bedasie took on the task of reporting on a number of Indo-Caribbean women trailblazers. They were school Principal Mala Panday, Jennifer Bisram, a reporter for CBS Channel 2 News, Judge Karen Gopee, Judge Andrea Sabita Ogle, Dr. Kamini Doobay who is a Mt. Sinai Emergency Room Attending Physician, and Shamela Karrim of WPAT 930 AM Radio. This was a most admirable assignment and Veena did remarkably well. The message from these personalities is that young people should not give up in the face of challenges. They should persevere and stay the course for success.

Anil Bedasie echoed these sentiments and suggested that we need more academic meetings to showcase the intellectual side of the community. There was a musical interlude that featured Son Son Sonipersaud. He sang a popular Mohamed Rafi song ‘Akela Hoon Main’ in the company of several persons. Jelecia Blair gave a short biography of Basdeo Panday, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Mr. Panday surprised everyone by calling live to the Book Fair and giving his best wishes. This was done through the efforts of Deo Gosine. Melissa Deokie profiled Swami Aksharananda and the Saraswati Vidya Niketan (SVN) High School. She pointed out that Swamiji had long wanted to open a school to bring affordable and quality education to Guyanese. The SVN school, at Cornelia Ida, has over 450 students and currently tops Guyana and the Caribbean in the examinations.

This led to the presentation by Anita Sanehi from Richmond Hill High School in Queens, New York. She spoke about the importance of mental health in the community and gave out literature on the subject. Amy and her sister Aruna Lall recalled the important role played by Kowsilla who refused to allow scabs, in the sixties, to break a strike in the sugar industry. Kowsilla paid the ultimate sacrifice and her sculpture is engraved by the eminent Karr Dyal as a reminder of the fight against colonialism. The distinguished Trinidadian Deo Gosine reminded young Indo-Caribbeans to do the research on Indian ancestry and to publish the findings for the benefit of the community.

Suriname has always been an important part of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. Mohini Shibsahai gave a concise history of Suriname and highlighted the role of its president Chandrikapersad Santokhi who is working hard to make his country self-sufficient. It is most fitting that the Indian President Droupadi Murmu should visit Suriname for their Indian Arrival Day observances. Rusat Ramgopal, a young politician with a future, viewed the meeting with optimism. He saw the day in which Indo-Caribbean leaders would be elected to higher office in New York, and elsewhere, and effect political and other changes. Samantha Tappin read a poem “Black and Brown” in which she called for racial unity in Guyana. Poems with similar themes were also read by Shivaaya Diya Ramdial and Selena Khelawan.

Sara Ali spoke glowingly about her mom Dr. Minewattie Ali, a former teacher in the New York City public school system. Dr. Ali, from Berbice in Guyana, was an effective and caring English Language Arts teacher. She worked hard to earn a doctoral degree from St. John’s University in New York and gave most of her service in schools where the intake of Indo-Caribbean students was high. Sara, an attorney, is the Section Chief, in the Refugee Division, of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

One of the highlights of the Book Fair was the award of two scholarships to Richmond Hill High School students. This was done by Dr. Mirza Ijaz Rahman, a brilliant Guyanese doctor. Dr. Rahman is currently president of the American College of Preventative Medicine. The scholarships will be awarded to Indo-Caribbean students starting in 2023.The vote of thanks was given by Indi Mohan who thanked the Director of the Queens Book Fair, Dr. Dhanpaul Narine, as well as Ashook Ramsaran, the Queens Library, and the participants and donors, for an outstanding event.

The next meeting will be on July 1, 2024 where the theme will be “Poetry is Life.”