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Elizabeth Kochar: India is my second home

April 28, 2010
By YVONA?FAST, Special to the Enterprise

Although Elizabeth grew up in New York City, she was privileged to spend summers at her maternal grandparents' farm in St. Lawrence County.

In North Lawrence, conditions were quite primitive. "My mom was raised in this old farmhouse," she said. "They didn't have running water until after we kids were grown.

The porch pump supplied the cooking and drinking water, and we collected rainwater for bathing."

Article Photos

Elizabeth Kochar
(Photo —Yvona Fast)

She went to college in Albany, majoring in French and Latin. There, she met her husband, Nand Kumar, who was earning a doctorate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in chemical engineering.

"He was an Indian gentleman," she said. "When we first met, I didn't think we had anything in common, but I was wrong. We're both very family oriented."

After Elizabeth graduated from Albany State College, they married and moved to New York, where Nand worked as a chemical engineer and Elizabeth taught on Long Island and studied for her master's degree at Teachers College.

"I took my first trip to visit India three years after we married," she said, "because my husband felt strongly about contributing his skills in his native country and I supported him all the way. We moved to India in 1972 with six-month-old Anjali."

The Kochars settled in New Delhi, where Nand Kumar's older sister lived. It was quite a culture shock. "The farm experience did help me transition to the stark living conditions in New Delhi, but it was very difficult," she said. "There were language, food and culture barriers, but the family did all they could to make life easier for us. Life in New Delhi and New York were completely opposite.

"For example, when it's daytime here, it's nighttime in India. In New York, we have seven months of warm weather and five months of cold. In New Delhi, we have seven months of hot weather and five months of cool weather. We used to joke that India has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest - although New Delhi actually does have a winter, though without snow of course.

"I was able to teach at the American School. I taught 'English as a Second Language,' French and Indian studies. I also studied Hindi, so I could speak it."

In 1978, the Kochars returned to the U.S., where Nand Kumar was able to work for the same chemical engineering company in Manhattan.

"We came back for economic reasons," she said. "We were unable to save money on the Indian salaries."

Nand Kumar did a lot of traveling for business, and would often take one of the girls on these trips.

While on a business trip to India in 1983, tragedy struck. On Christmas Day, five family members were killed when a drunken truck driver collided with the hired car that was taking them to visit the Taj Mahal - a four- or five-hour trip from New Delhi.

"Our younger daughter (who had accompanied her dad on the trip) was one of the survivors," she said. "I believe she was shielded by both her father and her uncle, between whom she was sitting. They were both killed.

"That was a huge shock. It took us a long time to get back on our feet. My husband's sister, who was also living in New York in the same two-family house, was a huge support. I leaned on her."

The girls were young. Anjali (the name means "offering") was 12 and Aradhana (Sanskrit word for "worship") was only 9.

Elizabeth wasn't very fond of the New York City schools for her daughters' education. "I thought the family in India could help me with the rebellious younger child, so I asked for a job back at the American School in New Delhi and took the girls there to live," she said. "My older daughter, who had gone to kindergarten at the American school in New Delhi, graduated from that school. She met her husband (who is of Irish descent) at the American School. (Both of their daughters also have Indian names, carrying on the Indian tradition).

"We returned to the U.S. when my older girl graduated from high school. Anjali attended American University in Washington and worked for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, while Aradhana attended a boarding school. Later, she got her associate's degree from North Country Community College.

"Today, my younger daughter is working as a civil engineer for the highway system in Sacramento, Calif. She took after her dad. The older one, Anjali, lives in New York City and works from home for a Denver nonprofit, Mothers Acting Up. This organization empowers mothers to realize they have a voice and can influence legislators to pass laws with children in mind. She has been a real source of support to me."

Elizabeth moved to Saranac Lake in 1991.

"I didn't know much about Saranac Lake before I came," she said. "I wanted to experience rural life after living in New York and New Delhi. One of the first things I wanted to know was if I could hear (North Country Public Radio) stations here. I quickly came to love this wonderful, caring community."

Elizabeth loves being outdoors, close to nature here in the Adirondacks, and enjoys gardening in her leisure time. Before taking the job at the Adult Center, she taught and worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Elizabeth loves her job.

"I enjoy the Adult Center immensely," she said. "I've always enjoyed older people and have many older friends. It gives me the opportunity to serve, which is important to me.

"The seniors of Saranac Lake work in partnership with the Association of Senior Citizens and the OFA (Office for Aging) in Malone, which runs eight area adult centers.

"The Nutrition Program serves lunch each day and is a focal point of its operation. Besides providing many services, programs and activities for the seniors of the area, the Saranac Lake Adult Center is making great strides in providing a community center for the health, social and transportation services of the county right here in the center of the village."

Elizabeth comes from a long family tradition of volunteerism. Both her grandmother and mother served in their communities. Today, in addition to her paid work at the Adult Center, she volunteers in different capacities. "Bingo night is a volunteer program that funds many of the Adult Center's activities," she said.

She also volunteers at the Budget Box and is a member of the Reviewer's Club and the Sister Cities organization.

Through the Sisters of Mercy, she puts in many hours as a Friendship Volunteer.

"My involvement grew out of my interest in the Adult Center and complements my work there," she said. "I find it very rewarding. When the Sisters of Mercy transferred Uihlein nursing home to the Adirondack Medical Center, they wanted to continue their mission to older folks, so Mercy Care for the Adirondacks was organized in 2007.

Sister Katherine Cummings is the director. Their Friendship Volunteer and Parish Nursing Programs help older adults stay in their homes and in the area. To help people keep their independence, volunteers run errands, take seniors to doctor's appointments, read, play cards with them, etc.

Their mission is to ease the loneliness and provide companionship for the elderly. The program offers sound training for working with the elderly. Mercy Care for the Adirondacks holds educational forums on aging with conferences at Paul Smith's College about twice a year.

Elizabeth is still closely connected to India. She celebrates Indian holidays like Divali, the Festival of Lights, in the fall and Holi, the festival of colors, in spring. She cooks Indian food and makes her own yogurt.

"The Indian diet is mainly vegetarian and is based around fresh food every day," she said.

In 1998, she took a group of local women (of whom she was the youngest) to India for 10 days.

"Now that the family has prospered and can travel here (my brother-in-law's family will be visiting Saranac Lake this summer), I don't travel there as often," she said. "My elder daughter had a second wedding in New Delhi with all the ceremony, bright lights (Indian weddings are held at night) and family celebration of a typical Hindu marriage. Although my roots are here, my connection to India is still strong."

With one daughter on the East coast and one on the West, and family on both sides of the globe, Elizabeth enjoys the best of Eastern and Western cultures.


Based on an interview with Elizabeth Kochar. Yvona Fast can be reached at



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