Some 300 guests graced the ballroom at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Beach Resort on Friday to join the India Association of the Virgin Islands in celebrating India’s 67th Independence Day.
Among the audience were Gov. John de Jongh, Jr., Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis, Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, and the heads of several government agencies. Members of the Legislature, including Sens. Clarence Payne, Craig Barshinger, Donald Cole, Terrence Nelson and Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone, were also present.
India celebrates its independence from Britain on Aug. 15, but the local India Association held off this year’s celebration for two weeks to accommodate the schedule of deJongh and that of keynote speaker Ajit Kumar, India’s Consul General in Atlanta.
The program kicked off with three national anthems from the India Association’s three homes: the United States, India and the Virgin Islands. Traditional dancer Anita Maharaj, flown in from Trinidad and Tobago, followed in a colorful flurry of fabric as she performed two cultural dances that earned enthusiastic applause.
Solidarity as a source of strength was brought up several times during the program. Mistress of ceremony Kanta Vasandmalani summed it up in her remarks.
“The Indian community in St. Thomas believes when you stand alone, you are brave, you are strong,” she said. “But together, if we get together with the Virgin Islands community, we are stronger, braver, and yes, powerful.”
In a serious moment in his otherwise humor-laden welcoming remarks, India Association President Mulo Alwani emphasized the value of family. India Association Vice President Pash Daswani shared how he serves as the de facto funeral arranger for all members of the India Association. According to Daswani, who has lived on St. Thomas for 23 years, Indian families who move to St. Thomas split up only in terms family members building their own businesses, but they rarely leave the island.
The India Association, a predominantly business-oriented community, has 73 member corporations, each representing families and employees. In total, there are some 600 members living on St. Thomas alone.
In his keynote address, Kumar talked about India’s growth as a political and economic power. He also spoke of India’s trade and economic relations with the United States, and dove into some statistics on Indians living in the United States.
“Our relationship with the United States is also people-centric,” he explains. “We have 100,000 students studying in the United States, and they give a tuition fee of more than $3 million. There are today over 60,000 Indian-origin doctors working in the United States. About 40 percent of hotels in the United States are owned by Indian Americans.”
Giving back to the Virgin Islands is a big part of the lives of India Association members, according to Alwani, who could not help but brag a little about the association’s many causes.
“I am proud to say our members not only contribute to the association,” he said, “but also donate their time and money to projects and other worthy causes in the community that are close to their hearts.”
Daswani, whose child has cerebral palsy, is one member who has a favored cause. When asked if this year’s donations follow a theme, he responded: “Mulo [Alwani] gave me a lot of leeway. This year, it’s about physically disabled or challenged individuals.”
At the end of the program, the association gave away a total of $20,000 in donations.
Continuing a tradition that started in 1987, it gave away scholarships to two UVI students – this year, from the nursing department – to put them through their first year in college.
It also gave away $3,000 each to the Miracle Babies Foundation, which supports the medical treatment of premature babies, and to the Sister Emma Cottage of the Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands, which takes care of critically disabled and medically fragile children.
First Lady Cecile DeJongh’s Children’s Book Program and the St. Thomas Cancer Society also received donations of $3,000 each.
Alwani mentioned the possibility of donating to the Reichhold Center for the Arts in the following year, expressing surprise at Indian community’s interest in the arts. He also called on the audience to make on-the-spot donations that the association will give to charity. By the end of the evening, they gathered about $1,000.
The contribution and volunteerism of the India Association in the community were not lost on community leaders.
“Tonight, as the India Association magnifies its giving within the community, and it’s truly made up of volunteers, it is truly the richness of our community,” said deJongh. “Because even through the hard times that we may have, Virgin Islanders – by choice, by desire or by commitment – always seem to volunteer.”
Christensen also praised the association’s contribution to cultural diversity, saying, “We’ve been enriched by the India Association’s commitment to cultivating, celebrating and sharing Indian culture within the community.”
For Alwani, the association propensity to give back is simply explained.
“Donating to worthy causes in our community – that’s St. Thomas – has always been a priority for us, he said. “We all live and work here and have made the Virgin Islands our home.”