Indian-Americans Nurture Growing Community in the Upper Valley

Photographs by Jovelle Tamayo

Story by Liz Sauchelli

Published: 05-02-2017 10:17 AM

Lebanon — When Sheena and Rajesh Arora opened the Asian Super Store 17 years ago on Hanover Street in Lebanon, it was to provide a place for the Upper Valley’s growing Indian population to find groceries.

What started as a place to purchase food, however, soon evolved into a gathering place for Indian-Americans to meet others, give advice and find connections.

“I could let them know what is happening around here, (that) we have a community,” Sheena Arora said. “A lot of those connections have been made because of the store.”

Since the Asian Super Store opened, Shanti, a Hindu student organization at Dartmouth College, has started, informal cricket games are held regularly, Hindu language and dance lessons are offered and other activities centered on Indian culture have sprung up throughout the Upper Valley.

The couple moved here from New York City in 2000 with their then-3-year-old daughter, after Rajesh Arora got a job at a software company. Part of the motivation for the move was that the couple did not want their daughter to grow up in the city.

“I found this an ideal place to raise a family,” Sheena Arora said. The decision was confirmed when the couple’s daughter, Taniya, started attending school in Lebanon. Her teachers encouraged the couple to speak both Hindi and English to Taniya, emphasizing the importance of making both cultures a part of her life.

“I love the Lebanon school system,” Sheena Arora said. “I can’t praise it enough.”

The transition from New York City, with its thriving Indian population, to the Upper Valley, where there were about a dozen Indian families at the time, was difficult. In order to find groceries, they would have to travel to Manchester or Boston.

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“We opened the store because there was none here,” Rajesh Arora said. “It was tough, our first four years. Every year we were thinking to close it down.”

But the couple saw the need, and were determined to make it work.

Around the time the store opened, the couple’s son, Roneet Arora, was born. In addition to running the store, Sheena Arora cared for their children. When Rajesh got out of work at the software company he would go to work at the store.

“ ‘You do business with your heart, not your head,’ ” Sheena Arora said her husband would tell her. “The head part was his.”

After the software company closed a little over a decade ago, Rajesh Arora opened a travel agency in a room in their store, which has also attracted many students and employees from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“A lot of youngsters who come from other cities say there’s nothing here to do, but I always tell them it’s a good place for the family” Rajesh Arora said. “I’ve seen a lot of families decide to move. They move and then they come back. They say, ‘no, this is a better place.’ ”

Abarna Thirumeni moved to the Upper Valley from Nashua, N.H., eight years ago when her husband got a job at DHMC. The family has found community through Shanti, as well in places such as the Carter Community Building Association in Lebanon.

Their 10-year-old daughter attends the Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover and is participating in an Indian cultural dance program, while their 2½-year-old son goes to work with Thirumeni at FitKids Childcare at the River Valley Club.

“It has grown huge,” Thirumeni said of the Indian population in the time the family has been here.

Language, Prayer And Cricket

The store has not only provided a greater sense of community, it has also allowed the culture to grow stronger.

Aparna Jayanti started teaching free Telugu language classes a little over a year ago.

Telugu is an Indian dialect and both of Jayanti’s children learned how to speak it and write it in before they were 3. Her son is now a senior at Princeton University and her daughter works at Amazon.com in Boston.

“I want every language on Earth that was ever developed to survive,” said Jayanti, who encourages people she meets to become fluent in their native languages. “With the language, the culture goes.”

That’s one of the reasons Radhika Mopala signed up her daughter for the lessons.

“We grew up talking and learning and speaking Telugu,” she said. “If you don’t teach them, the culture will stop.”

Aparna Jayanti’s husband, Prasad Jayanti, a computer science professor at Dartmouth, oversees the religious ritual known as puja, held daily in space at Rollins Chapel, which the group has been able to turn into a Hindu temple.

“The temple has become a point for Dartmouth students and (the) Indian community to come together not only for puja, but also (for) the celebration of festivals, discussions, and learning music and Indian languages,” Prasad Jayanti wrote in an email.

Attendance and the engagement of the community is most visible at the time of Deepavali, also known as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, “when the Upper Valley Indian community and Shanti … put together a wonderful display,” he said.

The group “arranges thousands of lamps on the Dartmouth Green,” and celebrate with Indian music and dance.

“A remarkable feature is the coming together of over 30 families each year to cook a coordinated menu of festive vegetarian dinner to over 500 attendees,” Prasad Jayanti said.

Part of that culture is playing cricket. Rajiv Mishra, the information technology director at Wagner Forest Management in Lyme, has lived in the Upper Valley since 2001 and been attending cricket games since they began in 2003. The informal cricket group, which plays at Eldridge Memorial Park in Lebanon, has since grown to number 64.

“Things have changed a lot. When I moved here, there were very few (Indians),” he said. “Especially for new people who come in, when they join the group, they meet a lot of people very quickly.”

Valley News photographer Jovelle Tamayo contributed to this report. She can be reached at hello@jovelle.photo. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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