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A Block Party To Remember – Indo-American Neighborhood Picnic

R. Balachandra and Susan Moore

It was Sunday, September 14, a wonderful Fall day. The sun was out in its glory, the temperature a cool and comfortable low 70s. The setting was perfect – the yard in the back of Bijoy’s house in Lincoln, with many old and large trees providing shade. There were tables with food and tables with chairs for sitting.

People started arriving around 1:00 PM as scheduled. When I came in a bit after, there were already a number of people mulling around and greeting each other. I saw some of my friends and quite a few Americans whom I did not recognize. Many of them were Bijoy’s neighbors.

There was Tom Burke, our fountain of knowledge of Sanskrit and related fields, and Paul who has been working on programming Panini’s sutras. There was Susan the Sanskrit scholar. There was Gopi (the Sanskrit student) who has been abroad as a Dean of a Business School in India, and his lovely wife Nalini. I was of course accompanied by my wife Sharada. Maya De and Pam Olmsteder had joined.

The Indians comprised of people, some known to me and many unfamiliar. There were Bharat and Saroj Dave, who are planning to move away to San Diego at the end of the year.  There were some younger people who had been influenced by Bijoy through his association with different institutions.  There were Bijoy’s friends from MIT and his associates from various temples.  And, there were students from his community classes in yoga and Sanskrit.

A large number of Bijoy’s neighbors were there. I met and talked briefly with a couple of them.  I am not good with names, there were dozens of them! The first one I met, a lady, had lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years. She loved the neighborhood and said that Bijoy had really made his yard very beautiful.   There were others who had lived in the neighborhood longer.  There was our philanthropic friend Samir Desai, who has made Lincoln as his residence for several decades.
The food was a sample of Indian cuisine, both north and south.  There was one table set up for Pani Puri, a delicious North Indian snack - a small puffed piece is pierced by the thumb of the server and is filled with sweet and spicy syrup, and a mix of spicy chick peas. One eats the whole thing at once. The table also had Dhokla, a Gujarati dish made of chick pea flour – delicate to the touch, and spicy.  Another table had cut fruits, and juices.  Mango lassi was made to order.  You eat hot snacks and cool off with lassi!

Another table had other Indian foods – lemon rice, dal, chick pea curry, and idli, the soft and healthy steamed rice cakes. The highlight at a neighboring station was the masala dosa, a delicate crepe with vegetable fillings made right there by an accomplished Indian cook, Ramaa Bhattar, from the Sri Lakshmi Temple community who had specially come to help out. There was a long line to enjoy this delicacy!

With an abundance of food, the guests enjoyed themselves and went for seconds. After getting their fill, the guests had a chance to mingle and socialize. One of the things noticed in any gathering is that the groups form according to some social criteria. In this gathering I found that the groups formed according to their relative level of acquaintance with each other. There was one table that held Indians who belonged to the state of Orissa where Bijoy comes from. Another table held people associated with the Sanskrit meetings held at Harvard, and their spouses. At a third one there were Indians known to Bijoy through his Ramayana readings. A few other tables had Bijoy’s neighbors. Some tables were occupied by people who could be from other uncategorized groups.  Bijoy’s wife was moving around among the tables.
Bijoy was running around to make sure that everybody was taken care of, and talking with as many people as he could. One could see that he was a little frazzled, but he held himself well. Just before 3:00 PM, he came to the microphone and called the people’s attention. He spoke about how, for quite some time, he has wanted to get together with his neighbors to know them. He stated his liking to the neighborhood, and specifically mentioned some of his neighbors and how they helped him. He thanked them all for coming to this Block Party, which he called a “picnic”.

A neighbor Emily Lovering then spoke about how impressed she was with the transformation Bijoy had made into this yard. She has lived in Lincoln for over forty years coming as a young bride.  Elaine Brennan, the grand old lady of the neighborhood followed.  In a faltering voice of wisdom, she declared that she had lived in the neighborhood for fifty-nine years.  Dorothy Taylor who lives up the road thanked all for coming by.  She narrated briefly her fifty six years in the neighborhood.
Finally Bijoy asked the people to assemble in the other part of the yard for music and storytelling.  After the delicious luncheon was finished, and heartfelt expressions from old friends and neighbors had been shared, everyone moved to the high ground behind Bijoy's home where a lovely garden-garlanded stone patio was set up as a stage for artistic presentations.  Chairs were set up in the lawn in front.

The first was a young Indian dancer Arya Mohanty, a sweet embodiment of the Devi herself masquerading and adorned as this young girl of 14 years.  She performed a graceful dance displaying the intricate footwork and story-telling hand gestures typical of Odissi/ Bharata Natyam dance style.  Everyone was thoroughly delighted by her performance.

Next to hold our attention rapt was Elisa Pearmain, a consummate story-teller of over 25 years.  She shared three charming stories of various ethnic origins: one from the Buddhist tradition, one from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one from the Hindu tradition.  Elisa's generous display of facial expressions, voice intonations and hand gestures held us spell-bound as she imparted the wisdom of humanity passed down through the ages. It was a rare treat to witness this ancient art of story-telling done with such skill.

This was also a time to recognize Dr. Mary Kay Klein, who had just come out of hospital after treatment.  Rev David Killian of Episcopal Church spoke about the interfaith work done by her and the group Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries.  The group is active in Boston area with offices in Newton, MA.
The final entertainment was provided by Lenny Solomon, a ballad folk singer/song writer, guitar player and ... to our surprise, an accomplished physicist.  With long beard and faded denim jeans, Lenny invited us all to jump onto his transport of song and story.  Each song resonated with a specific sentiment and a tale to which we could easily relate. One was a simple ballad about raising an injured baby squirrel and the ensuing love and loyalty that arose therefrom, and another was a tender love song dedicated to his wife of many years.

As the final performance came to an end, we were not left high and dry, but rather ushered over to pots of gulab jamun and fresh fruit.  No one left empty-handed; everyone departed fully satisfied in both body and spirit.  Suffice it to say, the day was well spent in this communal fall celebration.  Bijoy's "experiment" to bring together a group of ethnically diverse people from wide-ranging backgrounds, and unite them in fun and commonality most certainly was a success!

Bijoy wants to thank Sri Sunder Rao, Assistant Manager in SriLakshmi Temple at Ashland to have helped him in planning the menu and assembling the good.  Poonam Bharadwaj, Bharat and Saroj Dave, Prem Nagar, Shantamma Prakash, Jaspal Singh and Hardeep Mann, Sudhanshu and Chitra Misra, Nityananda and Nihar Misra, Krishna Gazula, Bhavani Venkineni and Rama Bhattar helped with the food tables.  Janmejay Shishupal arranged the fruits and also helped with the pictures.  Radha Jalan helped with the name tags and greetings.  Sanjeev Tripathi served the icecream and sweets.  Praveen Sahay, Arun Mohanty and Nityananda Misra helped with the microphones.  Bijoy’s weekly friend Huber Contreras was superb in setting up the tables and arranging the yard.  A deep word of gratitude to all!

(A separate version of the picnic was reported by Elisa Pearmain, a Lincoln resident and appeared in http://lincoln.wickedlocal.com/article/20141009/News/141006249. )

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