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The Lotus of the Community: Aparna Bhattacharya

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November 2007
The Lotus of the Community: Aparna Bhattacharya

In the East, the lotus has always been held as a symbol of spirituality. Here's a flower that grows most fragrant and beautiful where the muck and mud is the thickest.

Aparna Bhattacharyya has seen her share of muck and mud! The setting of strife preceded her birth in the form of her parent's struggles as new immigrants who never quite found their footing in the great American dream. Her appreciation for the hardships that her parents—Ashok and Sumitra Bhattacharyya—faced, shines all throughout our conversation for this article.

She gets particularly sensitive talking about her dad's constant struggle trying to find a foothold in his career as a civil engineer and owner of Calcutta on Peachtree Road, one of the first Indian restaurants in Atlanta. "There was a time—I'm going to start crying—that he would work all day as a civil engineer, and then take care of the restaurant till late. Next morning he'd be up at 7 o'clock to get me ready and drop me off at school."

She adds proudly about her parents, "They struggled but they did a lot for the community. They always welcomed newcomers to their home and to the restaurant. They were always running around for the community. Whenever someone was in the hospital, they would be there. They may not have found all the riches in the world or became the most successful. But my father did it all with a smile and he did what he had to do. How he did it is where I have the utmost respect for him." The pain of layoffs, bankruptcies and other setbacks her father had to go through, even while doing his best, resonates strongly with Aparna.

That, and her own struggles growing up, may well be the reason behind her inexhaustible compassion as the director of Raksha, Inc., a social services organization serving the South Asian community in the area.

A tough childhood

"It was never easy!" recalls Aparna about her childhood. We never had an abundance of money. It was always a struggle, in some shape, way, or form."

Loneliness, she remembers, was her constant companion—considering both her parents were consumed by the family restaurant. "My parents worked all the time." She remembers spending a lot of time by herself. There are pictures of me in a playpen in the restaurant. When not at the restaurant, she would be home alone even as a child of 8 years of age. "I was mostly my own company. The television was my best friend growing up. According to current laws, my parents probably would have been taken into DFACS (Dept. of Family and Children Services), because I was alone quite a bit [without adult supervision]."

"I was one of maybe two or three Indian kids in the school. And of course I didn't dress the same as the native kids. I used to try not to go to school very much—because kids will make fun of you. It was hard to be Indian." For the sensitive kid that she was, she remained aloof from her own Bengali community as well. Even though her parents would frequently hold the well attended annual Durga puja celebrations at their home, Aparna remained distant. "I wasn't typical, I didn't always wear the sarees, and then if you didn't wear the sarees right, some of the aunties would make fun of you."

With the restaurant hogging all of her parents time, they rarely got breaks to go out and do stuff as a family. Her parents were often at odds with each other. "Both my parents used violence in their own ways. And as they got older, and I started doing this (Raksha), they realized what it was."���

The nadir of Aparna's tough formative years came when she was 16. "Between 10th and 11th grade, we lost our restaurant and home. It was a devastating summer. My mom had moved to Tennessee to try and start a new business with their business partner. I could not tell her that we had lost our house. So, here I was, having to be the strong child, packing things up and putting away our entire home and not be able to tell my mom a thing."

"It was a very scary time for me. My whole world, it seemed, was crashing down. At one point, dad and I were in a hotel that my dad was working at for about a month. And anything that could go wrong did. I worked hard for some clothes, and even those clothes got stolen when dad was doing the laundry in the hotel. For a teenager, all of this was pretty devastating."

"Meanwhile, dad was busy working in a restaurant (having lost his engineering job to a layoff). He and I fought that summer, but we were still there for each other. In spite of the challenges we would be facing, he would pick me up and drive me to the school and take me to my job. As tough as that time was, I made it with the support I got from my high school teachers and friends."

Finding herself and her poise

Towards ninth grade, I started to come into my own. One great thing my mom did is, in spite of our financial struggles, she made sure I got into dance classes which I loved. That's something that still rings through—that mom really fought for me to be able to have my dance classes," says an appreciative Aparna.

High school was a defining time for her. The wide racial diversity and international students was an environment she was at home with. "By 10th grade, I got more involved. I got into drill team, became class president, and started to really gain a lot more confidence in myself. By my senior year, I was student council president, and from that perspective as well as from the things that I had gone through, it made me always want to reach out to the kids that were younger than me, and be supportive to everyone."

Always the one wanting to make things right and make the bad people disappear, she pursued a degree in criminal justice at college. Also very much in character was her volunteering at the City of Atlanta as a victim advocate. Even as Aparna was finding her niche in life, she was also warming up to her native, South Asian community. "I started making more Indian friends at Georgia State. I started to see them as more like me. I was still an oddball, because I was the one that wasn't in business or science."

Slowly, but steadily, the building blocks of a position of directorship of an organization like Raksha were falling in place. Through her volunteering and then working as a victim advocate at the City, she realized that being an advocate rather than an attorney for crime victims was more to her calling.

Having noticed her commitment and capability, her managers, during the 1996 Olympics, charged her with putting together a cultural committee that would help in cases of victims from different communities. Having rounded up a cultural advisory committee for victims of crimes as a part of this effort, Aparna was making good progress and forging links with many contacts in the field of social advocacy.

Working with the various immigrant communities that were growing in the region, she was in her element. Besides helping abuse victims, battered women, and refugees, Aparna's repertoire in the field included outreach, job readiness, and general women's wellness.

About the same time, Aparna's dad handed her a flyer for the then new organization called Raksha. She immediately started volunteering at Raksha, whose mission was to serve as a support and advocacy agency for victims of abuse in the South Asian community. When she joined, it was a relatively new organization mostly functioning through volunteers from the community. By 1998, despite its modest means, it had made a mark on the community. So when they received an anonymous donation of $50,000, Aparna was chosen to become its first full time employee.

Meanwhile, triumph and tragedy were going hand in hand in Aparna's life. That year, she lost her beloved father; and then a couple of years later, her loving mother. Talking about what her father thought of her involvement with Raksha, she says, "He was really proud of me! I don't think my parents expected that I would be volunteering for a South Asian organization. They were puzzled. ‘Is this my daughter and she is doing this for the community?'"

Aparna now shares her life with husband, Paul, whom she married in 2003. They met while working together at a restaurant in 1994. When asked, tongue in cheek, if Paul considers her first marriage as the one to Raksha, she replies with humor, "Well, he probably thinks that my nephews are first, then it's Raksha, and then he. He always jokes that he knows where his place is in the grand scheme of things." But then Aparna adds in good nature, "He is a phenomenal individual because he knows how important this work is to me. And he knows how important it is to the community, and so I think I am really lucky that he supports what I do. He is very patient in dealing with a lot of my faults."

Talking about how the community has come a long way in recognizing the significance of the kind of services that Raksha provides, she said, "People didn't believe there was a need for Raksha when it first started. A lot of them thought we were here to break up families, or that we were just these girls with our project. Today we have pockets of the community that have learned to love, accept, and really support Raksha. But then there are still those who don't understand why Raksha exists. They need to understand that we are here for the community, but also that they need to support it."

So how does she keep her faith in spite of the daily witnessing of incidents such as child abuse, domestic violence, conflict and the like? "What we see at Raksha is not always the best part of the community. But then you also see the resolve and the beauty and the strength to survive. It just helps you love life."

Talking about the stigma that is so deep rooted in our community against seeking help, she says, "We have no problem going to the doctor for a physical hurt, but when we are going through emotional challenges like grieving or dealing with a very difficult phase, the idea of getting help or counseling is alien to us. But Raksha is a place to say I'm okay just the way I am. I don't have to be perfect; my world doesn't have to be perfect."

And that is Aparna's message: Being accepted for who we are can give us such strength, and not being accepted can hurt. She has seen and felt these pains, understands, and is ready, willing, and able to go to the next steps: caring and action. If a wife is being abused by her husband, if a young woman is in danger from an acquaintance or relative, if the young are being alienated by unsympathetic ways, if a vision of the model society prevents a community from seeing existing problems, she is there as director of Raksha to give a compassionate ear, an advocate's voice, and a helping hand.

Despite her muddied childhood, and despite the worst of humanity she may witness on her job, today Aparna is definitely a lotus emitting a fragrance of a beautiful, caring heart.

By VIREN MAYANI


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