This is the quote that comes to mind when I hear the name Mahendra Phagwah. Words have impacted people for generations, but it’s stories that carry on their legacy. Phagwah has a story that will not only touch your heart but will fill you with inspiration. So exactly who is Mahendra Phagwah and what is his story? Before you read any further, take a minute to appreciate the blessings in your life. Sometimes we forget the value of what we have.
Phagwah grew up in No. 2 Village Canje in Berbice, Guyana. He has a younger sister, and they were born to differently-abled parents –one being mute and the other deaf. Due to his parents’ disabilities, they were unable to access quality jobs. As a result, the family faced many financial issues and struggled to maintain a stable income.
The family lived in poverty, but family members and neighbors helped by occasionally sending barrels of food and clothes. These little acts of kindness made the struggle feel a little bit lighter. However, that did not diminish the mental issues Phagwah faced. His father suffered from alcohol addiction which left the young boy craving a sense of family.
At a young age he recalls going to events, such as BBQs, and seeing families together, laughing and smiling. He could not share such love with his own parents, for their limitations in comprehension made it hard for them to engage in emotional connections. A simple hug or word of advice was the support he lacked growing up. Like many who lack a solid family foundation, Phagwah’s frustration showed itself in the form of behavioral issues, lashing out in a rebellious manner.
Phagwah’s experience in high school reflected his childhood struggles. His routine for the day would often involve him brushing his teeth with soap, not being able to take a proper shower due to the lack of products, and having a sole meal consisting of a bowl of salt and rice. While barely surviving the day-by-day was hard, things were worse at school. Bullying played a negative role in his life as he was often mocked and laughed at for having smelly underarms, small ears, large teeth, and for his distinctive walk. Such taunts tortured him mentally. Phagwah wished he would get hit by a passing car, or die from his heart condition. Eventually, he dropped out of school and began working to provide for his family.
Phagwah was the breadwinner of the family. He worked rigorously to make sure his family was fed and his sister (who excelled in school) could continue her education. Phagwah knew, however, he was destined to do better and not only provide for his family but give them the life they deserved.
While he took private classes that were financed by the help of friends, it was still inefficient as the quality of private classes was not the greatest. He realized it was time to go back to school. He met with a teacher from J.C. Chandisingh Secondary School through a Facebook friend and managed to get enrolled, even though he was considered an adult. No one was as determined to receive the Caribbean Examination Council (CSX) education as much as Phagwah. This was his second chance. Through persistence, a generous scholarship of the MMP Foundation for Excellence, the support of teachers and family members, and a bond made with new friends, Phagwah was able to score (15) on his CSEC subjects.
Phagwah then applied to the U.S. Youth Summit in New York City. The summit is made possible from the MCW Global through its Young Leaders Access Programme (YLPA). The program is meant to assist communities around the world by training youth to become the leaders in their communities. In 2019, Phagwah became the only Guyanese participant out of 50 youths worldwide. The program is open to applicants worldwide and is very competitive.
The application process involves three major phases. The first is answering questions related to oneself, describing community issues, and submitting a resume. In the second phase (for only those who get through phase one) candidates must describe a way to tackle their community’s issues.
Phagwah created an extensive survey that targeted Guyanese teachers, students, former school dropouts, religious workers, and social workers, to get their view on the community issues. The majority agreed that a major issue was drug use and a growing school-drop-out trend. The third phase required him to answer thought-provoking questions to tackle these community issues. Phaghwah was successfully selected for the program, which begins summer 2021 spanning July 23th to August 1st.
When asked what are some issues he would change within his community, Phagwah replied
“Poverty and the effects it has on children…”
While other societal factors such as bullying and suicide are topics of concern, Phagwah highlights that the root cause has to be pinpointed, tackled, and solved by communities as a whole, not just one person.
Phagwah is one of the lucky ones. The reality is that not every child that drops out of school will be fortunate enough to reenter the educational system.
“Why should they pay for dropping out of school for the rest of their lives? Oftentimes, realization kicks in and the drive from within is what matters. By allowing dropouts to go back to school and complete their education, we open the door of possibilities for a brighter future. I lost my best friend to suicide and I know of many people who lost friends to suicide. So much more needs to be done in school on mental health, equipping students with the mental tool to psychologically process and handle external factors. Bullying is no stranger to me also and I hope to work with NGOs, gym clubs, teachers, and students to tackle such issues and create a strong awareness campaign.”
Phagwah and his family still reside in Guyana. He has successfully secured a position as the OSH Safety Officer at Metro Office and Computer Supplies. This is only the beginning as he hopes to carry out his project after graduating from the U.S. Youth Summit. He will be mentored and funded to ensure that his vision is successful.
Once his campaign is solidified in the community, he will be visiting schools regularly to create awareness, will partner with other organizations in solidarity, and will be working with the government and ministries to tackle bullying, suicide prevention, and drug abuse. The overall aim of the platform is to work through the community to empower youth, foster growth, and development, and bring awareness to such social issues as a country at large.
As for personal goals, Phagwah’s words on family, activism, and politics paint their own picture.
“I am currently hoping to pursue law as I am passionate about the field. Even though I am actively pursuing an associate degree in Public Health and other courses, my ultimate aim is to be well-rounded as knowledge gained is never lost. The true purpose of the law field (which I believe is my calling as I have a deep passion for helping others) is changing and challenging the way we operate and advocating on platforms.”
“As a little boy to the present, I intend to one day become president for my country. Even if I don’t get there, I intend to come close. My love for this country lies not in pro-opposition or anti-government support but to help Guyanese people. Whether directly or indirectly it can make a difference in the lives of my fellow brothers and sisters easier. Politics has always been painted negatively but the brush that draws is always determined by the painter, hence politics guided by efficient leaders who represent the people what should be the ultimate goal.”
“My sister has always been supportive and I am always pushing her to do her best as she has the ability and she too will be working with me on many social platforms. Last but not least, my parents are the ones who are the burning fuel for me wanting to achieve success. Both of my parents have worked domestic jobs and have suffered because of their disabilites. Yet my mom never gave up on me even when I dropped out. As a son I want to give them the happiness they truly deserve. I only pray that God gives them life and good health so they can live to see me achieve such goals one day.”
Guyana’s high suicide rates are alarming. It’s activists like Phagwah, that are looking to make a difference and bring awareness to the country’s dire concerns.
For now, remember the name Mahendra Phagwah, you may just see the young activist rise to the occasion.
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.