Kali: A foundation stone of NY Indian-Caribbean community passes on
Photo : Ramesh Kalicharran (blue shirt)
I was in New York over the past two weeks during which one of the foundation stones of the New York Queens based Indian Guyanese community - Ramesh Kallicharran -passed away. I had arrived in the City back in 1972 and having attended Brooklyn College, at a time when that Flatbush neighbourhood was transitioning from Jewish to West Indian.
I ended up in the suburbs of North Jersey in the late 70’s, which was a more convenient commute to mid-Manhattan where I worked. Around the same time, the Indian Guyanese community was coalescing in Richmond Hill, where Kali, as Ramesh was called, was a real estate agent who sold his first house to my uncle, on Liberty Ave in late 1977. So when in 1983 I wanted to buy a property in Queens where my parents could live and commute more comfortably than in suburbia, I, of course sought out Kali. And fell into the Indian Guyanese community.
Next door to his office on Hillside Ave in Jamaica, he hostedthe meetings of the fledgling Indo Caribbean Federation, led by Rudra Nath and a flock of his students from Corentyne Comprehensive. In the big, burgeoning city, this meeting place was crucial to the kindling of a community spirit. Mr Nath had originally hailed from West Coast and we fell into step and Kali was there to assist in the first Indo-Caribbean Arrival Day commemoration in NY at Smokey Park. This is now an annual event in NYC.
In the floor above that meeting place, Kali pioneered and facilitated a Hindu Mandir, the Gyan Bhakti Satsangh, which is still going strong under a new name - the Prem Bhakti Satsangh. He assisted in the launching of several other Sanataan Mandirs and was one of the key figures launching the Federation of Hindu Mandirs a few years later. Kali transcended the religious divide as he facilitated from Haji Zakhir (Muslim) and Pt Ramlall (Arya Samaj) as well as several Christian Guyanese groups.
Kali was the first Indian Guyanese to engage the Indians from India - the NRI’s. He befriended Dr Vishwanath, who ran TV Asia from his home, and from where we would broadcast Indian Caribbean interviews and music, pioneered by Trinidadian Bhanu Dwarika. He was the first to organise an Indian Caribbean Diaspora float for the India Day Parade, and I had the pleasure of seeing village girls from India dancing excitedly along the streets of Madison Ave to the beat of our tassa drums. They were not used to the exuberance of village music in the parade. He provided the space for the group of us who organised the Commemoration of 150 anniversary of Indian Indentureship at Columbia University in 1988.
When the Federation of Indian Organisations and other sub-continental groups decided to host a NRI Global Conference, they, of course, got in touch with Kali and he informed activists like myself and other members the newly formed Jaguar Committee for Democracy. At one of the joint meetings, Pandita Indrani Rampersad of TT and myself proposed calling ourselves “People of Indian Origin”. Kali, myself and a delegation of “Indian Indians” and “Caribbean Indians” travelled to the Caribbean to invite the participation of Cheddi Jagan, Basdeo Panday and other Caribbean Indian leaders. Kali was integrally involved in that inaugural 1989 GOPIO Conference in the Sheraton on NTC. When the conference was over he provided a forum for Dr Jagan to meet the community.
But for me, Kali provided some of my most sublime musical experiences ranging from Pankaj Udas at Madison Square Garden to the music composer Ravi of “Nagin” and “Hamraaz” fame, in an evening’s “mauj” in his basement at 169th Street. I remember once arrogantly advising Kali to move to the suburbs as befitting his “wealth”. He smilingly told me he would rather remain where his people were.
And it was here that I went last week to attend his “wake”, that Caribbean institution that we incorporated into our syncretic cultural practices. As the bhajan I sang in his honour said, Kali was a man who appreciated there is no point giving nectar to the gods (in puja) if you have never offered water to one who was thirsty.
May you forever be with Lord Krishna, old friend