“I am domesticated, broken, tamed,” Arun Pancholi says, sounding like a hen-pecked husband. But as he speaks, his cheeks break into playful dimples. With a baseball hat stylishly cocked on his head, he looks like a mischievous middle-schooler. “I am on the inside,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “I am done for.”
“Inside” is the Indian-American retirement community of Shantiniketan in Tavares, Florida, where Pancholi has been living with his wife Usha for the last two years. “Women adjust better to this place; they don’t have to cook any more,” he adds. “Men have a hard time. They have to find their niche.”
Pancholi has found his niche. He volunteers at a local hospital. “There is a great need to help people,” he says. “Not only at Shantiniketan but also in the town.” Florida, after all, is the retirement capital of America. People need transportation to medical facilities; they need help in so many different ways. And Pancholi feels fulfilled when he is helping others. “I am an A-type personality,” he says. “I need something to occupy me.”
After a successful career in sales and marketing in Ohio, where he lived in a 4,000-5,000 sq. ft. suburban home, it is a challenge to adjust to a 1,000 sq. ft. condo in a retirement community. But the choice for him and his wife was to move close to their daughter in New Jersey, go to India, or come to Shantiniketan. And after forty years in America, they knew they could not adapt to life in their native land.
Like many Indians of their generation, the Pancholis are modern people. They were among the first wave of Indian immigrants, many of whom came to the US as students and later acquired green cards. They were the first generation to also reject the traditional lifestyles of their parents and grandparents, with the result that they do not expect to live with their children; they value their independence too fiercely.
When I embarked on this project to explore Indian-American retirement communities, my visions of such places were derived from stories about nursing homes I had read in the newspapers when I first came to the US in the ‘70s. I was imagining the neglect, the isolation, the abuse; I was envisioning ghettos of women in saris and men in kurtas hobbling around, cut off from the diverse world, the normal world of America. But Iggy Ignatius, Shantiniketan’s founder says, “They don’t know what heaven is until they come here.” “Every ethnic and religious group has retirement homes in America,” he adds. “Why not us?”
Image Caption: Seniors doing yoga.
In some media stories, Shantiniketan has been referred to as a Hindu community. But in fact, it is as secular as India is, with a prayer room that accommodates all beliefs, including Islam, Christianity, and Jainism.
Ignatius is himself a Christian but belongs to the Brahma Kumaris, a sect that believes in purifying the soul through meditation and positive thinking. “I was seeking something more in life,” he says. Material and professional success was not enough. Trained as an engineer, he got an MBA from the University of Illinois. He became a marketing consultant, got into computers in 1974, and formed a successful IT company. Still, he felt that something was lacking in his life; he was not actively involved in society. He began to ponder his old age. He started to long for his homeland. But his children would not let him leave the US. He realized that like many Indians who came to the US in the sixties and seventies, he was too assimilated into American life to adjust to India. Yet he longed for his own community. “We are like salmon that return to the stream to die,” he says. “At the end stage of our lives, we want to be surrounded by our own kind.”
The name Shantiniketan, which means abode of peace, is taken from the name of the university that Rabindranath Tagore, India’s only Nobel laureate in literature, founded outside of Calcutta in the early 1900s. Devoted to the pursuit of art and poetry in a natural setting, Shantiniketan, India, caters to one end of the population spectrum, while Shantiniketan, Florida serves the other.
“There are three million Indian Americans,” Ignatius says. “Nearly 10% or 300,000 are retired. And about one percent of those seek a place like Shantiniketan. So it is definitely a niche community.”
The main reason residents come to Shantiniketan is the vegetarian food, he adds.
Pancholi and his wife Usha agree.
“Don’t you get tired of eating institutional food day after day?” I ask.
“No,” they reply. “We have so much variety.”
Image Caption: Ladies at lunch.
Breakfast is served continental style, with cereal, milk, toast, tea, and coffee. Lunch consists of two vegetables, daal, roti, rice, and yogurt. In the evenings, there are over 30 items for dinner, including Gujarathi, Punjabi, and Maharashtrian cuisine. Mexican and Italian dishes are also available. For the monthly price of $250, the meal plan is a bargain. Residents are free to cook non-veg in their own kitchens, as many fish-eating Bengalis do.
For the retired doctors and engineers, Shantiniketan’s condos at $250,000 apiece are quite affordable. But then again, you can get a four, five bedroom house in Tavares for that amount. Still, one of the attractions of a community like Shantiniketan is that it has 55+ zoning, Ignatius says, so residents do not have to pay property taxes for schools.
His model has been so successful that he has been invited to open homes in California, Washington DC, Dallas, Texas, even overseas, in places such as Malaysia, England, Australia, and New Zealand. One of the reasons for his success is that 50% of the profits go back to the community, he says.
“What about low-income Indian-Americans?” I ask. “A plan for a subsidized ashram is underway”, Ignatius replies.
“For years, Indian-Americans tried to create something like this,” Ignatius says. “But they couldn’t figure out the structure.” Until he came up with a financial model that worked. “First, the land is purchased and infrastructure is put in,” he says. “Development proceeds in phases. Out of a 100-condo community, about 30% or 30 are pre-sold and built at the first stage. The developers get their profits and the next phase is built. Once the entire project is finished, the management and ownership transfers to the Shantiniketan Association.”
Currently, in Phase I, the Ignatius Company prepares the food while the Association serves it. The Association, in fact, has a committee for everything. There is a management committee, a food committee, a transportation committee, a safety and health committee, and a maintenance committee.
I recall my experience of communal living in Berkeley in the early eighties and the inevitable arguments it involved over doing the dishes and taking out the garbage.
“Don’t you get tired of endless meetings and squabbles?” I ask.
“It is definitely like living in an extended family,” he says. “Individually, Indians are great to work with, but communally, they can be difficult.” “I have to keep the premise of 3Cs in mind,” he adds.
3Cs consist of camaraderie, caring, consideration, and compassion, he explains. When I point out that these add up to four Cs, he chuckles and says that you can combine consideration and compassion in one.
Image Caption: Seniors in the courtyard at Priya Living
A sense of humor, after all, carries the day.
Based on the principles of ownership and partnership, if Shantiniketan is modeled on the co-housing facilities of Scandinavia, Priya Living offers a different alternative to aging Indian-Americans. Located on a side street off a main thoroughfare in the heart of Silicon Valley, Priya offers one-bedroom rental accommodations for about $2,500 a month. Every year, there is an increase of about 8%. Not only are the rates reasonable by Silicon Valley standards, but for the majority of affluent Indian-American residents, very affordable. Still, Pravin Thakkar, who moved here in April from Columbus, Indiana, worries about his payments. He had a successful career in management in Indiana, but his rental income from a condo there is low.
Cost is not Thakkar’s only preoccupation. He also worries about his health, about the possibility of having surgeries without anyone to help him. He finds his loneliness devastating. At the age of 66, Thakkar retired from his job after his wife passed away. He could not bear to live alone in the Midwest. But now he regrets his emotional decision. At least his work kept him occupied, he says. Now he has nothing to distract him. He was never interested in spirituality, so it is hard to find solace in it now. He tried to live alone in Cupertino near his daughter, but it was expensive.
So he moved to Priya. “My daughter tells me I was unfortunate to be so fortunate all my life,” he adds. “I had a happy marriage, a happy life. I never had to face the meaning of life.”
“The people here are good company,” he adds with a tinge of wistfulness in his voice.
Seventy-nine year old Kottarathil Venugopal also speaks wistfully about his forty-eight years in the US. A professor of anesthesiology in Chicago, he started a private practice after the university failed to offer him tenure. He had a successful career but he could not get close to the Indian community there. Winters were cold; distances large. His life was filled with work. Now, at last, he is part of a community. But talking to the 79-year old Venugopal, one cannot help getting the sense that the life he had envisioned when he first came to America has somehow passed him by. Still, he is pragmatic about his decision to live at Priya. “Medical facilities are close by,” he says. “I had a heart procedure at Stanford.”
The women at Priya seem more adapted to communal living than men do. Sheela Jangla, who left India forty years ago with her husband to live in Dubai, has acquired the resilience of a nomad. After retirement, she and her husband came to California to be with their son, she says, but returned to India when her husband got cancer. Now that they have green cards and healthcare through Obamacare, they are back. They tried staying with their son but got bored. Her husband misses India, she says, but she does not.
Eighty-four year old Uma Jindal, a “snowbird” who comes to California every winter to be near her daughter, is reluctant to give up her condo in Edmonton, Canada. She worked at the library in Canada, she says; she has friends there. Talking to these strong women, one gets the sense that they are fiercely independent and determined to avoid being a burden to anyone. They have used the philosophical underpinnings of their culture, I observe, to prepare themselves for life’s transitions.
One advantage of Priya Living is that it also offers rentals to a small number of young Silicon Valley workers, providing much-needed diversity. The other advantage is that in addition to yoga classes and other activities offered in-house, the residents can access facilities in the communities such as food ordered in from nearby restaurants or activities at the Santa Clara Senior Center.
I sit in Priya’s sunny but breezy courtyard, watching a group of residents mixing flaked rice, peanuts, and spices to make Bhel, an Indian street food, when Arun Paul, the founder of Priya, joins me.
“A column of yours explains the philosophy behind Priya Living perfectly,” he says, jolting me out of my reverie. “I read it years ago, but I remember it clearly. I have it in my office.”
Titled “Exiled at Home,” he reminds me, the essay talked about the experience of spending a lifetime in a place one was not born in. “You talked of the longings and disorientations exile produces in immigrants,” he says. “Even though I was born in the US, I feel it too; I am cut off from my larger family and community.”
“Now, millions of people live in places they were not born in,” I wrote in that 2011 column. “Yet, deep down, our longings have not shifted. To be born and to die in the same place, surrounded by your own people and family, is a privilege that many no longer have.”
In my column, Paul reminds me, I quoted a 1961 song a man sings to his country: Sometimes, you come to me as my mother’s heart.
And sometimes, like my little girl.
And every time I remember you, I ache.
Maybe it is Paul’s reminder of my words, or maybe it is the sight of these women, young and old, peering over jewelry someone has brought for sale from India, but I no longer feel separate from the group. Teary-eyed, I envy its camaraderie and companionship.
I recall the last words of that song:
“Hum jahaan paida hue
us jagah pe hi nikale dam”
“Where I was created,
There I will take my last breath.”
Most of us no longer have the luxury of taking our last breaths in our birthplaces, I muse, but Shantiniketan and Priya Living offer a very good simulation.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications. Sarita Sarvate wrote this article supported by a fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by AARP.