Friday, October 14, 2016

Why Starting a Desi Seniors' Writing Class Feels Like Home

On Wednesday, I drove 50 miles from Oakland to Cupertino to present my writing program, “Reflections: Your Story, Your Way”, which will help seniors write some of their experiences down for themselves and loved ones, to 100 seniors at the India Community Center.

On the long drive down, I went over my speech. Practiced it in English and Hindi, willing myself to just do it in Hindi, who cared if it wasn't perfect?

The building was non-descript on the outside, but rounding the corner to the parking lot, I caught a glimpse of an uncle in a crisp kurta-pyjama-vest and Nehru hat entered the building and I knew I was in the right spot.

The seniors at ICC take their programming very seriously. Wednesdays is open mic day. Anyone can come up and speak, sing, recite poetry, it’s all possible. When I arrived, the program was in full swing. The auditorium was packed, and onstage, a woman sang a beautiful melody.

The auditorium itself was out of a film: a Hobbit meets Game of Thrones meets Alice in Wonderland sort of a room with wood paneling, red carpets, and at the center of each wall, a tall, pointy throne like chair amid the other normal chairs.

A sea of elders, elegantly draped in saris and kurtas and shalwar kameez, sat upright, mesmerized by the melody. I was mesmerized by this alternate universe I had just entered.

While the open mic went on in the auditorium, the dining hall was in full preparation for Diwali. In one corner, rehearsals for the Mahabarata. In the other, dandia practice. Large groups of elders participating in both categories for the upcoming celebrations.

I’ve always dreamed of going to India. That day, India came to me.


I discovered the ICC a week after I moved to California. Every country I've visited- Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, London- I've found a desi connection. I’ve been a member of the ICC and a teacher there for 9 years. The Cupertino branch was new to me, however, and I wondered what the reception would be like.

Here’s what it was like:

As I hung out in the large dining hall waiting for my turn to present, people who did not know me smiled. Open, welcoming. A handful of my students from the other location were there and raced across the room to hug me. Told their friends about me. So then strangers came up to me and said, "You're Phi. You're a great teacher." I felt a tight grip on my waist as I spoke to a small crowd of aunties, when from behind, another student embraced me tight.

I told them about the writing class I was there to launch and they nodded eagerly. “We need that.”

I was invited to have coffee and the westernized part of me was like, “I’m on a schedule, yo, I want to present and peace out.”

A vague memory of my time in Karachi came to mind: I visited the Dawn Newspaper HQ to do research for my novel, and was first invited to have tea with the contact person there. We sat in his office making small talk and my brain was bursting: “Why is he offering tea? I had tea at breakfast. Why are we making small talk? We’ll never meet again. I just want to do my work and go.”

But this is how you roll in South Asia. Or with South Asians in - anywhere.

And so this time, I accepted. Made small talk. Accepted the offer for lunch later. Said goodbye to anything else I had planned for the day. This was important, a small voice told me, face time is important. Chill the F out.

When it came time to present, I went back into the Hobbit Hall.

“This is Ferozey,” said my contact person to the crowd, desi-fying my name right on schedule. “She’s Parsi, from Karachi, and a marvelous person.” [we had met an hour earlier, but this hyperbole is also part of desi-ness].

I got up on stage. And for the first time in my life, I did not read from any notes. I just spoke. Because I knew what to say: this is the story of my life.


Why do I want to teach South Asians how to write some of their life experiences?

Because my own grandparents’ stories, which I’ve listened to and written down for 20 years are my most prized possessions. Because these stories are my connection to my home, my culture. They are the link between my east and my west.

I also love working with and hanging out with elders. I am an old lady at heart, always have been, so it’s very easy for me to discuss the merits of Grace Kelly vs. Leslie Caron or Julie vs. Audrey in My Fair Lady or...sorry.

My Nana and I
But more than that, having always always been close to my grandparents, I have a deep sense of what this time of life is like. It is hard. It can be isolating. It can feel very … less? Small? You can’t do the things you used to even though in your head you’re 17 or 40 or whatever. But your body is different, it’s betraying you and slowing down. You need more help. It’s hard to ask for help. From your children, who you’ve always helped up to now.

If you’re fortunate, what you do have is your mind. Your memories.

Elders love to talk. For many, like my grandma, it’s the one thing that is 100% functional. Where your eyes and hearing may fade, for many, the mind is razor sharp.

I can feel, when I speak to my Nani on the phone (every night), her energy lift half-way through our call. I know what my time and attention mean to her. What our conversations mean to me.
Nani and I
How amazing that as my life's path becomes clearer, I see that it's all stemming from the most important relationship in my life- the one I share with my grandparents.

Everything I have observed and gleaned from Nani-Nana over the years informed my experience at the ICC that day. The energy that the seniors got from each other. From me. I could almost feel this feeling of, “Oh wow, a young person is spending time with me.” It means a lot. I know elders often feel neglected and forgotten by their own families and this contact with young people means the world to them.

I get an energy from them too. I haven't quite figured it out: some of it is about connection, a remembrance of my childhood. There is also something about speakingUrdu/Hindi, this language which isn't my first or second but a chose third. When I speak it, I feel a rod of energy run through my frame. Makes me feel like all of me is engaged, not just the western part of me.

There is something about knowing the needs of a group of people, an oft-overlooked group of people, and knowing I have something to offer. I have seen for years how much the seniors dance class I teach means to my students. Why not writing too? I know how to modify dance moves and writing lessons. I truly believe that anything can be modified, made accessible, with a little care.

My decision to do my speech in Hindi also stemmed from my interactions with Nani Nana. Though they both speak fluent English, I always feel more connected to them when I speak Gujarati. I have spoken to them in Gujarati for about 15 years (after a total break for close to 10 years when we first moved to Canada) and over time, it’s improved (ish) and become more second-nature. So I just had this feeling that speaking Hindi would create the same connection with this crowd. Not that they didn’t all speak English, but more that connection, that gesture and what it implies.

(And because, let's face it, I don’t look desi. I always have this fear of not being accepted, of being thought of as some tall lanky Mexican invading a desi space)


Normally when I make a speech, I read from carefully planned notes. On this day, my notes remained in my bag. This wasn't a speech. This was my life's story. I talked about my relationship with my grandparents. What Nani-Nana’s stories mean to me.

“This is my most valued possession,” I said, holding up a non-descript notebook. “Inside are his music lessons from 60 years ago, raagas, natak songs.” The audience murmured appreciatively. "I was so honored when he gave it to me, out of the whole family. It is my most prized possession."

“Inside this book, I found an essay he wrote,” I continued, pulling out a yellowed sheet of paper.
Nana is the handsome one on the far right

I talked about the essay my Nana had written who knows how long ago. It begins with a retrospective of his illustrious cricket career. “In a match of Sindh v. West Indies, I scored 48 runs in 22 minutes,” I read, to a loud gasp of amazement.

And then a slight he’d received from some of the cricket community. How hurt he’d been.

“I shed a tear,” I read from the essay, nearly shedding a tear of my own. “And then he talks about how he overcame this slight and realized how much cricket meant to him despite everything.” I put the letter down. “This essay shows me not just my Nana’s accomplishments, which I already knew, but his character. How honorable he is.”

Vigorous nods. Grunts of appreciation.

I meant every word, and I knew they were eating this shit up. I told you, I speak fluent Elder. Because I am an elder. I am Old at Heart, chortle chortle (that is a reference, of course, to the 1954 classic, Young at Heart, starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, right? Everyone got that, right?).


After open mic ended and people made their way to the dining hall, I was bombarded. People lined up for my sign up sheet. One aunty took my hand, sat me down, and began to tell me her story then and there. She told me her story for 40 minutes, and I would politely interrupt as I answered people’s questions, then get back to her.

I dined with my contact person at the VIP table. Learned that he himself does a monthly function where he highlights one senior, doing a full-length, two-hour interview of them onstage, in front of an audience in Hobbit Hall. We are like minded, he and I. Different forms of the same thing.


After hanging out with 65-90 year olds for three hours, guess who was most tired? Me. Their energy was at an all-time high as I dragged myself out of the ICC and drove the 40 miles home.

Yet the elation I felt remained. For days.

I am going to do a pilot project this year and then start regular classes early next year, if all goes well.


As I explore teaching yoga, dance and writing, I'm trying to see what pans out, what sticks, what I like. I like teaching dance. I enjoy teaching yoga. I LOVE teaching seniors any of the above.

A friend asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I thought about it. I see myself teaching desi elders to write their life experiences. Making just enough money to have a couple of days to write my own stories. And go to Paris once in a while.

I can't believe it's happening, that my dream, which I only said out loud a few weeks ago, is ... becoming clearer. That I'm on the path. That the path is plucking all these parts of my life and seamlessly bringing them together, as if it was all part of the plan.

Trippy shit.