The past two weeks I’ve had the privilege of celebrating festivals from the perspective of both an exchange student and a member of the family.
Raksha Bandhan is a major Hindu festival celebrating the bond between siblings. Sisters tie bracelets called rakhis to their brothers’ wrists to symbolize the bond of protection (the literal meaning of Raksha Bandhan). I was lucky enough to tie rakhis of my own with my host aunt’s 35-member family. The house reminded me of Christmas morning- kids ran around with chocolate covered mouths, there was lots of laughing, and everyone showed off their bracelets. To begin the ceremony, I placed a red tikka on my host cousin/brother’s forehead along with a sprinkle of rice. After tying the bracelet (some were simple woven thread, others were bejeweled) to the right wrist, we fed each other a piece of chocolate, and were officially rakhi siblings. Similar to holidays in the US, there was a mountain of food including the syrupy sweet gulab jamun, which has grown on me in the past seven weeks. My host aunt saved me a huge plate of mango, my favorite fruit here. This simple act made me feel even further included in my loving host family.
The next day at school we NSLI-Y girls had a small rakhi celebration of our own, complete with imaginary tikkas. After almost two months, it can still difficult to be away from home. The love and connection shown through Raksha Bandhan reminded me of the strong bonds I am creating here in India. I can’t wait to continue the tradition at home in America.
I had to move my rakhi to make room for mehendi- beautiful henna work done by a woman who created complex swirls and flowers even while talking on the phone or drinking chai. Each of the women/young women in my house sat for almost two hours per person, getting mehendi for the Sindhi Hindu festival and fast of Teej. At four in the morning, I woke up for our pre-fast meal of gulab jamun and rabri (Indian rice pudding). Sindhi women, fasting for marital bliss, can decided to drink chai or water throughout the day. However, food cannot be eaten until moonrise.
That afternoon, I rode the moped holding a plate filled with incense, fruit and a cone of henna to a small orange temple near our house. My host sister and I stuck incense into apples and bananas, which were placed into a large wicker basket filled with fruit and flowers and covered in henna. We repeated a similar pooja (prayer) in the evening with a larger group, although in the middle, the moon came out! Everyone began laughing and saying “jeldi!” (hurry) as we quickly finished the prayer. At home, we stood on the balcony and performed the short break fast ceremony while looking at the moon, before going out to a delicious dinner. My stomach felt a little funny going from empty to stuffed, but I felt too accomplished to care.
Participating in the fast was an important moment of bonding with my host family. Sharing the look of joy with my host aunt, mother and sister when we saw the moon made me even happier than I was to sit down to dinner that night.
Celebration with the school helped me gain experience in a very different manner. The past few weeks our schedule was busy preparing for the school’s celebration of Independence Day and Lord Krishna’s birthday, Janmashtami (which happened to fall on the same day). The four other NSLI-Y girls and I were triple-booked for a Hindi song, Punjabi Bhangra dance, and acro yoga showcase. A few last minute changes to the dance and the song being cut entirely shook things up a little bit, but I was proud of our performance. As my yoga teacher loves to remind us- I kept my “smiley face.”A few days later, we performed an Odissi dance for the governor of Haryana, a formal event which included a flower petal-covered red carpet.
I am still getting used to being seen as a symbol of America. It is a complicated thing to be an American appearing three times in an Indian Independence Day celebration, and makes me think about what and who I represent. An official photograph with the governor is very different from post-fast moon selfies with my host family, but both reflect the different ways in which I learn about the culture here.
After the excitement and chaos of the past two weeks, I’ve started 12th grade English and Informatics Practices (computers). The NSLI-Y summer kids left this week, and I will miss them lots. Being able to travel to Indore together and hang out here made me so happy, and I am looking forward to keeping in touch. I’m so grateful for the friends NSLI-Y has given me, even in the first six weeks! Making Indian friends in my new classes has helped me feel more at home here, in addition to being able to focus on the rigorous course content. As we approach our third month in India (and the end of the monsoon), I’m glad to be feeling adjusted and happy here.