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Diwali takes on new meaning for Indian Americans whose loved ones died of Covid

“When I see this evil, we have to take it away and bring the light to us, to everyone, as a family,” his wife who is the festival director said.

For Abha B. Roy, director of a large Diwali event in Queens, New York, Diwali is normally a day of celebrating with traditional Indian dances, foods such as biryani and samosas, oil-wicked candles called diyas and vibrant clothes. 

Those traditions remain, but Roy won’t have her husband, Sandeep Roychowdhury, by her side to celebrate this year. He died in June from Covid-19 while taking care of family in India.

So this year’s Flushing Town Hall’s Diwali celebration, a holiday that commemorates the victory of good over evil, is dedicated to Roychowdhury, and all those lost to Covid. The pandemic hit the South Asian American community hard after many lost loved ones to a large surge in India earlier this year.    

Abha B. Roy and her late husband Sandeep Roychowdhury who died from Covid-19 in June 2021.
Abha B. Roy and her husband, Sandeep Roychowdhury, who died from Covid-19 in June.Flushing Town Hall

“He was a great artist, a great father and a wonderful human being,” Roy said.

Roychowdhury traveled to New Delhi in December 2020, before Covid vaccines were available to the public, to take care of loved ones who had Alzheimer's disease and a heart condition. He anticipated returning at the end of April, but contracted Covid, was unable to return and later died. 

Covid cases skyrocketed while he was visiting family. In March, 114,000 cases were reported. According to the World Health Organization, that number spiked to 2,739,000 by May. India currently has the second-highest Covid cases globally, although the number is believed to be underestimated

Dedicating the Diwali event to Roychowdhury is a way to remember his life and those of others who also passed from Covid, his wife said. “He loved Diwali. When I see this evil, we have to take it away and bring the light to us, to everyone, as a family.”

The celebration will take place Saturday and can be attended in-person or virtually. 

Roy and performers Angela Rostick and Ling Tang will present a cross-cultural dance exchange. Rostick will perform an American tap dance, Tang will perform a Chinese Tibetan dance and Roy will finish with an Indian Kathak dance.

People dance during the 2019 Diwali celebration at the Flushing Town Hall in Queens, N.Y.
People dance during the 2019 Diwali celebration at the Flushing Town Hall in Queens, N.Y.Flushing Town Hall

The event will feature food workshops, henna demonstrations, dance lessons, performances, a DJ and a rangoli design exhibition. 

“Since childhood, I’ve loved movements, and I feel that people can see things without words,” said Roy, who is a professional Kathak dancer and dance instructor and owns a dance company.

As the celebration gets underway, she reflected on the struggles she faced while her husband was in India. Oxygen was running low all over the country, and Roychowdhury’s oxygen levels began dropping quickly. 

“There was no oxygen,” she recalled. Her family bought multiple tanks and were ultimately price gouged because they weren’t all full. Roy, who was in New York, was told her husband's tank ran out in the middle of the night and she said she was in a panic calling around looking for another.

They spent hours on the phone trying to find another tank. Finally, Roy’s brother found a gurdwara, or a Sikh house of worship, near his home that provided free oxygen. He and a childhood friend traveled five hours to get Roychowdhury to the Sikh temple. 

Hospitals across the country were overflowing, so Roychowdhury, like many, was treated at home with house calls from doctors at nearby hospitals.  

Roy and her children plan to visit the gurdwara to thank it for its help when they travel to India after the Diwali celebration to spread Roychowdhury’s ashes. 

Abha B. Roy is a professional Kathak dancer, one of eight Indian classical dances.
Abha B. Roy is a professional Kathak dancer, the art form being one of eight Indian classical dances.Flushing Town Hall

“He was not only good to me, but he was a great dad to his two kids,” Roy said.  

She remembers the four of them sitting in bed laughing and sharing stories. She said he would ask their kids to give him a word as a prompt and he would come up with a story using that word right away. “It was so fun, so joyful,” she said.

Roy received her last text from her husband May 27. He spoke about the good books and the music he loves. Roychowdhury was a sociocultural journalist for the Hindustan Times in India and was constantly seeking new artists. He was too weak to text after that but read every message Roy sent him until he died.

When they moved to Queens, Roychowdhury owned an accessories store at Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, New York. Even during the stressful Christmas shopping season, he loved working there. 

“He supported me and was a very good friend. I learned a lot from him," Roy said. "He was a mentor to me. He was a giver and Covid-19 took him away.”