Over the centuries, The Banyan tree has taken on significance as a symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It is a fitting symbol for ‘DesiStoriesAshaUSA’ which presents the stories of South Asians who have wandered far and wide from their ancestral homes, traversing new frontiers and setting down roots and networks in the US. Our goal is to connect and establish closer ties within the diasporas of the South Asian community and facilitate a dialogue with our readers, one story at a time. We will showcase stories of achievement and success and also resiliency and hope during the COVID pandemic.
Our story today features the versatile Sarla Arora, grandma extraordinaire and dynamic 83 year old.
Sarla was born in 1939 in Multan, Pakistan. She came from a large family of 8, 5 sisters and 3 brothers. After Independence, the family left everything behind and moved to the Punjab, close to Delhi. Her father was a cloth merchant and away from home for long periods of time plying his trade. Daily life was very difficult and resources were few and far between. Sarla recalls the days of her youth, walking to the nearest pond balancing baskets of laundry on her head, and carrying pails of water back for the family’s daily use. Even ‘one anna’ was hard to come by for milk and vegetables and they subsisted often on plain flour and water.
Sarla’s father was a freedom fighter and very involved in the ‘Quit India’ movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. He instilled in Sarla life long values of service, enterprise and national pride. Being a cloth merchant, he objected to the British export of Indian cotton and was vocal in the ‘Wear Khadi’ movement.
Her parents also strongly believed in learning, and supported Sarla in her quest for higher education. She endured physical hardship getting to school and later studying for her ‘Teacher’s’ qualifications. Of note is the fact that she taught for over 40 years, and her students benefited from her tutoring in multiple subjects including History, Geography, Civics, and the Arts: Painting, Cooking, Sewing and Singing. Her days were long and Sarla’s mode of transportation was a bicycle, and later the train to Delhi, first for her training and subsequently her job.
Sarla got married in 1968 and moved to Delhi where she not only obtained a Masters but continued to influence the lives of new generations of students by indulging her love of teaching.
The couple were blessed with their only son Sundeep in 1971, and a beautiful and loving daughter when Sundeep married his wife Rakhi in 1997. Sarla’s first trip to her future home in the US was on the auspicious occasion of the births of her twin grandsons Ram and Krishan in 2006.
Sarla’s devotion and deep love for her family is evident in the songs she has written and performed.
Sarla moved permanently to the US in 2015, after her husband passed away. Her son was a successful Pediatric doctor in the Twin Cities area. She reinvented herself by immersing in different activities and establishing deep friendships.
Having never played the piano in her life, she started taking piano lessons with her grandsons, composing and singing religious and patriotic songs and also having fun with popular Bollywood music.
She took piano lessons with Galina Belssar resulting in bi-annual recitals. Sarla performs before a packed and enthusiastic audience, both solo pieces and duets with her grandsons.
Galina Belssar waxes poetic about Sarla.
“She is amazing. She started playing piano at the age of 76, previously having only played the harmonica which is completely different. Learning from scratch, practices diligently and sets a fantastic example for my students. Overcoming two knee replacements she continues to bloom like the best flowers in the world. She composes her own songs and we sing together. She has taught me a lot about Indian culture and religion. I wish I had more students like her.
I cannot live without her delicious Indian Parathas. This Grandma is unbelievable!”
Sarla gets up early in the morning and after an hour long Pooja, she spends her time doing yoga, gardening, cooking, sewing, playing piano and composing and singing ‘Bhajans’.
Her ‘pooja’ alcove pays homage to ‘Saraswati’, Durga Ma’, ‘Mahakali’, ‘Radha-Krishna’, ‘Ganesh’, ‘Shiva’, ‘Ram and family’ and ‘Lakshmi’ among many other deities.
Her vegetable and herb garden flourish under her green thumb and being a fantastic cook she grows the essentials which are utilized in her daily creations. Her gardening skills are also showcased in her beautiful flowers.
Eight years after permanent residency in the US, Sarla proudly became a US citizen. Not only did she study hard for the interview, she aced her exam and was complimented profusely by her interviewer for her knowledge and confidence.
Sarla has established a wide group of friends. They have joined Sarla in celebrating birthdays and special occasions and she is very active in the Hum Senior group, an event organized by the non-profit organization AshaUSA.
The Talented Chef
Sarla loves to entertain and concocts delicious meals for her family and friends. Her dishes at the Hum Group pot luck get togethers are eagerly consumed. Sarla’s recipe for one of her more popular dishes is listed below.
Dahi Baray Recipe
Ingredients: I cup each split moong daal beans and split Urad daal lentils without skin; 1/4 cup fenugreek seeds or methi dana; 3-4 cups of plain yogurt; roasted cumin, black peppercorn and red chili powders; salt, tamarind and date chutney and mint leaves for garnish per taste. Preparation: Soak lentils overnight for 10-12 hours separately; soak fenugreek seeds with one of the lentils; finely grind each lentil separately; mix ground lentils together and mix well till the mixture gets fluffy; test a small drop of mixture in cup of water: well whisked mixture will float to the top; heat oil in a pan and lightly fry the mixture in small balls; do not deep fry, balls should be yellow-light brown in color; add the fried balls to hot water (should not be boiling) and soak for 30 minutes; lightly squeeze the soaked balls and add to cold tap water; add yogurt to a bowl and whisk well; remove half of the whisked yogurt and set aside; add mint leaves to remaining yogurt; squeeze the soaked balls lightly and add to yogurt with mint leaves; garnish with red chili, peppercorn, roasted cumin powders and salt; add the remaining yogurt till the balls are covered; add tamarind and date chutney and serve cold (Extra balls can be frozen for later use).
Being surrounded by her family is a critical component of Sarla’s life. She displays her love for her family by composing endless poems in their honor.
And, for Sarla, in the final count it all comes down to being the best mother to her small clan.
DISCUSSION : Our goal is to start a dialogue through the stories we present here. Please send us your thoughts and comments, either by posting a comment at the bottom of this blog, and/or sending an email to ’email@example.com’. We will collate all the feedback we receive and share back with you. (And let us know if you wish to remain anonymous).
A. What life lessons/insights have you gleaned from Sarla’s story?
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AshaUSA’s mission is to provide culturally specific programs to the South Asian community to foster health and harmony in their lives. Please visit our website ‘ashausa.org’ for more information on our programs, volunteer opportunities and resources.
What a remarkable and inspirational story. To have started a demanding exercise like playing the piano at her age! Her family is fortunate to have her with them to share her skills both in cooking and music.
The biggest lesson: it’s never too late to live life to the fullest. I have only met her a few times, and was impressed with her immense zest for life, and the caring and giving attitude. She is a role model for anyone who immigrates late in life to a new country. Thank you for sharing.