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Withering Away of Indian Pioneers of Las Vegas

The passing away of a friend and relative known for 40 years is a moment of a strong reality check on life. Last night, Milly passed away at the age of 88. We knew It coming, when I first visited her in a local hospice facility three days ago. The transfer of a patient to a hospice means that recovery is beyond medical treatment. 

Milly and Leela (generally mentioned together!) moved to Las Vegas in 1972, and worked as specialist nurses mostly in the UMC (known as Southern Nevada) hospital. It happened at the persuasion of their Indian friends, Lem and Chinmaya Kundargi. In 1970, the Kundargis were offered jobs in the newly opened Sunrise Hospital, and they urged Milly and Leela to move from Virginia to Las Vegas. The Kundargi couple are both 82-years old, and continue to live out independently in the shadow of the Sunrise hospital they retired from. Their son, a friend of our son, is a local pastor.

Talking of the Las Vegas pioneers, two months ago, I learnt that Mathew Azikaketh, 77 years old, had been shifted to an assisted living facility in the Phoenix area, where his daughter is a pastor too. In 1967, Mathew moved from Boeing /Seattle to Nevada Test site, where he was a nuclear engineer. He used to be the last person to sign off before an atomic test was carried out.  He and his late wife Connie were the first friends we made within one week of our arrival in Las Vegas in August, 1974.

All of them being from Kerala, Leela, Milly and Mathew were members of the same church for years. There was hardly any one of our family function, which they did not attend. Putting it into perspective, in 1974, there were only ten Indian families in Las Vegas – now, there may be ten thousand. At this point, Sadanand Verma, aged 85 and still a full-time professor of mathematics, is the oldest Indian pioneer. He joined UNLV in 1967 and chaired the Mathematics Department for a record number of 22 years.

Milly had a long life despite never being in good health, and was on disability benefits. But her memory remained incredibly sharp until four days ago, when a stroke which she suffered at home necessitated her being sent to the hospice. Since last December, she was having one health setback after another and was in a rehab facility for a few weeks till last Tuesday. She had married late in her 40s, and her husband died soon after retirement. Leela and Milly are a perfect example of a life-long-friendship -outliving even a married life, going back to their days in a nursing college in India. Leela, a piously lady, never married.

In good times, life is panoramic and one can look back at so many events on a mental screen. However, the debilitating effects of ageing, sicknesses, and accidents gradually turn it into a blob and blur of nothing of consequence. It is amazing, when one tries to recount one’s own life – forget others doing it! Milly always loved talking and that is an open secret of keeping memory sharp, as one is constantly exercising it by recalling big and small things of the days gone by.

I have been to hospice facilities thrice in my life in the US. Medically speaking, it is a place where one gets the Last Care before Checking Out. The Nathan Adelson on Swenson Street, across from UNLV, is the first hospice facility in Las Vegas – opened in 1980. During my Tuesday visit, I toured the dozen-room Infinity Hospice, which has a nice lounge and meditation or prayer room. The ambience makes the inmates and visitors feel comfortable both physically and psychologically. The nurses are young, and a male nurse seems like a bodybuilder – needed to turn the patients periodically and check on personal hygiene. What a job, where they may be seeing a death every week!

At the same time, my thoughts flew onto a life style that I grew up during my years in Bathinda, where three to four generations lived/living together under one roof. Births and deaths were witnessed by all at home! Hardly a week would go by, when a dead person was not publicly taken to the cremation grounds. In contrast, the kids in an atomic family (in which one member does not even know the existence of the others) are totally insulated – from inclement weather to emotions of pain and loss that the aged persons are becoming like museum pieces for them.

Thanks Milly, Leela and Mathew for the lasting memories! Lem and I often laugh at the episodes of life during our long phone calls. He is the greatest storyteller I have ever known. I must add that the majority of our longstanding friends, which we made outside India, have been from Kerala, the state farthest from Punjab, my home state in India!


Satish C. Bhatnagar
March 07, 2015

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