I attempt at adjusting myself to a comfortable position in my constricted economy class seat. As I somehow manage to make enough room for my legs and rucksack, I realise that my only source of entertainment for the next twelve hours is a remarkable view of a sea of people, embarking on new beginnings, squirming about in their seats with the utmost degree of uneasiness. I glare at the flight route on the tiny television clamped at the front of the aircraft, observing the little icon representing the flight traversing across innumerable cultures, topographical units, groups of people who have never interacted with one another, groups of people who barely tolerate one another and groups separated by historic animosity. All these people simply separated by tiny dashes and squiggly curves, uncannily comparable to a child’s doodle. As I reluctantly gulp down morsels of the unexciting airline meal, I figure that if I don’t catapult myself into more colourful, happier thoughts, the dreariness of my immediate environment and the decelerated hour-hand will promptly ingurgitate upon my sanity.
This is an experience many international students can empathise with; not just the gruelling experience of long-haul budget flights but the many familiar and colourful moments you miss out on by being on a different continent. For instance, this weekend, during my time 35,000ft above life forms, I am missing out on all the flamboyant celebrations of the ancient Indian festival, Sankranti.
Sankranti is a festive ode to the sun god observed each year, marking the end of the winter solstice. Celebrated across India under different names such as Maghi, Lohri, Bihu or Pedda Padanga, it stands as a festival of gratitude, cherishment and unity while embarking on a new journey. As I sit restlessly in my airplane seat, I decide to transport myself back to all the Sankranti celebrations.
My memories are tinted with glossy pictures of watching kite flying competitions from the terraces of our houses in the mornings and bonfires in the evenings. The sweet aroma of jaggery, cardamom and cashews boiling in the Sakkrai Pongal, the main dish, infuse my senses.
After expressing our gratitude and conveying appreciation to the sun god through a colourful ritual, the whole family indulges in an elaborate fourteen course lunch, lovingly prepared by my mother and aunt. Everyone then treats themselves to a relaxing afternoon siesta. Late afternoons were spent by chewing on sugarcane with my father and uncles, trying not to yank out my incisors. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of chewing on sugarcane, its juicy, refreshing and energising effect will last with you through every summer. Evenings were spent distributing ellu bella, a delicious homemade trail mix of fried gram, roasted peanuts, desiccated coconut sesame seeds, moulded jaggery and sugar coated saunf. As a little girl, I would go around the neighbourhood distributing this mixture and in return, receive sequenced bangles, pocket money and more ellu bella.
I recollect how the following week after the festival is spent indulging in left over sweets and listening to stories from friends and relatives who celebrated the festival at the khumb mela. The Khumb Mela is the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims at the banks of the River Ganga. It is incredible to observe how the power of faith unites multitudes of old, weak, young and frail people on a journey of endurance away from any form of hesitation or complaint. Whether it is an expedition of love or fear, the feeling is born in incomparable imagination, an emotion almost unknown in the West. As I reminisce over all the vibrant festive experiences, a thought that all international students must have had at least once sparks in my brain.
“What am I doing so far away from that feeling of home and comfort, experiences that make me overflow with happiness?”
To any student reading this piece, deliberating over the same question: the answer is to let those experiences of the past work as a launch-pad in creating new traditions, sharing experiences with people from different parts of the world and subsequently receive a panoramic understanding of what the human experience really is about.
Image: Skitterphoto via Pixabay