Port Jeff business owner brings hard-won resilience to North Shore hospitality industry

Port Jeff business owner brings hard-won resilience to North Shore hospitality industry

Indu, left, with sister Kiran Wadhwa at The Meadow Club’s new garden area. Photo from Indu Kaur

By Mallie Kim

Indu Kaur was destined to rise from the ashes.

Indu, right, celebrating Christmas with her sister Kiran and her mother several years after the train accident. Photo from Indu Kaur

Kaur, who runs The Meadow Club banquet hall in Port Jefferson Station and the Curry Club at SāGhar in Port Jefferson, was born in Afghanistan and survived a series of tragedies to become the woman she is — dedicated to family, exuding confidence and poised to solve the next problem.

In the early hours of July 14, 2018, as she watched flames shoot from the roof of The Meadow Club, Kaur made a promise. “‘The tragedy that happened to us will not happen to anybody else,’” she recalled saying to her father and business partner, Kulwant Wadhwa, thinking about the christening and wedding they were scheduled to host that day. “‘We will make sure everybody’s celebration goes on.’”

And she did, together with her father and sister Kiran, the club’s creative director. Within hours, they secured a new venue and redirected staff members and guests.

Long before Kaur was running hospitality businesses, she was a small girl gathering eggs for breakfast outside the earthen home in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, she shared with her parents, grandmother, great grandmother, aunts and uncles. Life felt simple inside the multigenerational Sikh home. Kaur remembered the whole family eating meals together, sitting on traditional hand-sewn floor mattresses. After dinner was the real treat: “The whole family would do this beautiful dance, and then smile, laugh, just be free,” she said.

Outside the home, things were not so free or peaceful. In 1979, when Kaur was a toddler, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States supported the anti-Soviet rebellion of the Afghan mujahideen guerrilla fighters.

Kaur’s ancestors had immigrated to Afghanistan from India several generations before, and Kaur’s father, Wadhwa, who took over his own father’s job as pharmacist and family provider at age 15, remembered the nation with affection. “The country was very safe before the Soviet Union,” he said, recalling there were even buses of American tourists. “It all changed.” 

Indu, in chef hat, with her managers and sister.
Indu runs the omelet station at brunches. Photo from Indu Kaur

Smaller communities like Jalalabad became hotbeds of fighting, so in the early 1980s, Wadhwa decided to move his family to the relatively safer capital city of Kabul, where his pharmacy business thrived and the family’s lifestyle improved. They had running water, raised wooden beds and a proper school, but also a backdrop of fear, with unpredictable fighting and bullets flying. “Seeing our parents not smiling or not dancing after dinner was something we really missed,” she said. 

Worse, stray bullets twice hit close to home: One bullet struck a girl at Kaur’s school, and another killed her cousin Harpreet, who was only a couple years older than Kaur. “It could have been me,” she said.

Kaur’s grandmother shielded the children as best she could, trying to bring fun into daily life. “I used to look forward to coming home and washing dishes,” Kaur said, remembering her grandmother would let dishes pile up so the two of them could wash up together after school. “I enjoyed getting wet in the soapy water, and then she would get the hose and, you know.”

In February 1989, the Soviet soldiers withdrew from Afghanistan, and for non-Muslim minorities, life worsened further. Wadhwa remembers the mujahideen, predecessors of the Taliban, told the Sikh community, “‘You guys have three options: You guys either leave the country, or die here, or you can work to be a Muslim,’” he said. “They wanted a nation of only Muslims.”

Wadhwa made plans to uproot the family once again, but not before they faced danger one more time.

Early one morning while everyone was still asleep, mujahideen soldiers came into the house, and Kaur was too far distant to reach the basement hideaway she usually crowded into with the other women and children when soldiers came around. While her father stalled the men, her grandmother laid her on a bench, Kaur recalled, and covered her with a blanket to pretend she was a cushion. “My grandmother sat on me to hide me,” Kaur said, and she remembered listening with horror to the threats and demands of the mujahideen. “They beat my dad up, big time.”

From Afghanistan to India and the U.S.

When safely in India, the family’s lifestyle improved again. Wadhwa restarted his pharmaceutical business and was more successful than in Kabul. They would once again, Kaur said, “rise up stronger.”

Indu, left, with her family in India. Photo from Indu Kaur

Kaur, 13 years old when she arrived in Delhi, attended a British school to fill gaps in her education and learn Hindi and English. She also learned what it meant to be a “country girl” refugee wearing big bows and flowery clothes, among young teens who had an eye for glamor. The bullying was brutal, and Kaur said she did what many adolescent girls around the world do — she plucked her eyebrows and changed her style to fit in. One bright spot was “a beautiful British teacher in a sari,” who inspired the confident posture Kaur still holds today, and also taught her what turned out to be a helpful survival tool — the British “stiff upper lip.” She remembered, “Always, spine straight, look straight, perfect expression.” No matter what emotion, “I could take control and just figure it out.”

This skill was vital when, at age 19 in 1994, she arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport as a new bride in an arranged marriage, a common custom in Indian culture. The day the marriage offer came, Kaur remembered Wadhwa asking if she was OK with it. Kaur reflected on how Wadhwa had led the family so far, and told him, “Whatever you do is always good for us, so [I’ll follow] whatever decision you make.”

She faced settling into life in the United States the same way she faced that first meeting with her future husband at JFK: When things were overwhelming, she went with the flow. “I was very good at smiling and keeping it quiet and having a stable face,” she said. “Emotions were always very internal.”

Internal, but not gone. Kaur is a woman who feels deeply but acts decisively. When she tired of feeling lonely in Delaware and then in Virginia, Kaur built skills, first in retail and computers, and then in banking, working her way up from teller to commercial loan inspector within a couple years. “I was a thriver, I wanted to learn,” she said. “I was eager and hungry for education and doing well.”

Kaur’s parents and younger sisters immigrated to Suffolk County as asylum seekers soon after Kaur’s wedding, once again leaving everything behind. Wadhwa built a completely new career in 1996 as a restauranteur serving Indian cuisine at The Curry Club’s first location in East Setauket, powered by family connections and the entrepreneurship he’d learned restarting his pharmaceutical business twice.

But in the fall of 2000, tragedy came again, when Kaur’s mother Amargeet was walking the dog and suffered a brain hemorrhage, falling onto the tracks at Port Jefferson railroad station. A departing train severed her arms and one of her legs, but — incredibly — she survived.

Indu at her wedding. Photo by Indu Kaur

Kaur remembered her father running to her when she arrived, devastated, in the waiting room. “He hugged me, and he said, ‘We are done, we are done. I’m destroyed. We are not going to live anymore,’” she recalled. “His heart just poured on my shoulder.”

The whole family was heartbroken by the accident, but they were not done. Everyone banded together to keep the family business running, care for Amargeet and raise Kaur’s youngest sister Kiran, who was only 11. Kaur drove nine hours from Virginia every weekend to help.

This back and forth continued for several years, but eventually the pull of family was too strong to resist. In 2013, Kaur moved to Long Island and cared for her mother full time. When her father presented the opportunity to take over The Meadow Club with her sister a year later, she was up for the challenge. Kaur remembered feeling nervous since her two children, Sahiba and Sartaj, were still young. Wadhwa told her, “Well, we have each other.”

With Kiran’s contemporary, Americanized vision and Kaur’s practical determination, The Meadow Club was a success. Then, in 2018, it went up in flames. During construction and permitting, Kaur continued to find venues for her clients and attend events to be sure clients were well served. 

Meanwhile, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants to shut down in 2020, Kaur’s family survived as they always had, together. Kiran created a donation-based meal delivery service to hospital workers, Kaur drove the delivery van and her father oversaw food packing. Kaur said they delivered hundreds of meals a day.

When The Meadow Club finally reopened in January 2021, no scars of the fire were visible. The sisters had crafted a modern, classy, better-than-ever venue.

“It’s a blissful, blessed feeling of knowing that, yes, everything is up and running,” Kaur said. “But the best part is that we are together.”

And together is how she plans to weather any future storms. “I just keep going, just like my dad,” Kaur said. “We wake up in the morning: All right, it’s a beautiful day, sun is up, what’s next? What do we have to tackle now?”