Last week I got to make my early Christmas wish…kind of. Except, this time there was no letter to Santa Clause, no cookies or a glass of milk, and no hallmark. Instead, there were thousands of candles, a wishing pond, colorful flowers, dress, and sparklers. The Hindu Holiday of Diwali is the biggest holiday of the year. I relate it to Christmas for a few reasons. The day before Diwali, I had the honor of going with Ms. Beena, the vice principal, to give out gifts of clothes, sweets, and cash bonuses to our hard working kitchen and security staff. They all sat before me as we called out their names and handed them the gift bundle. I smiled brightly as we shook hands or bobbed our heads in Namaste.
The holiday itself was filled mostly with dressing up and eating, as all good holidays should be. Danielle and I spent the morning getting dolled up by the older girls. They wrapped us in our new silk saris, bedazzled us in jewelry, and transformed us with some classic Indian eye-liner. Shadows kept trying to be helpful, but he almost got tied up in my sari and just kept trying to perch on my shoulder. Halfway through the tying we both got overheated and had to lay down, I suppose the idea that there is no beauty without pain is universal. The girls then proceeded to parade us around the school for all the children and aunties to see. But, our transformation into true Indian princesses was not complete without mahindi.
The girls piled around us turning our arms and hands into an artistic masterpiece. Some painted our nails while others did our hair. We got a glimpse at what an Indian wedding must feel like: all the attention directed our way and feeling like a barbie doll. The mahindi design was beautiful – I am always increasingly impressed with the talent of these girls – but it made eating lunch a little challenging. In the afternoon we got a true holiday: just sitting snacking on our carefully rationed American chocolate, playing with the kitten, and watching a movie. The afternoon was filled with laughter: some embarrassing dance practice and questionable sports skills. We were getting ready for the evening.
The children put on a performance in the evening. We had some beautiful dances by the older girls and a hysterical Diwali song by the 9th grade boys. They even roped the volunteers into performing a one minute dance…it’s a good thing the kids simply enjoy watching us make fools of ourselves. The 11th graders every year are the ones in charge of organizing the holiday’s events. They created a magical atmosphere in the dining hall with candles on every table encircling the room. In the center was a floral design of candles with the big lantern in the center. Once the five wicks were lit, the evening could begin. We all took our seats and the 11th graders became our waiters, hustling around the hall serving us a very special dinner of kabob, fried rice, and raitha.
Unfortunately it had been raining all day, so the highlight of the evening – firecrackers – could not happen. But, we still got to light candles and float them in the pond to make a wish. The following evening we made the festivities continue with the long awaited crackers. All the children, even the four year olds, got to play with sparklers. It brought me back to all of the 4th of July celebrations from my childhood. Shortly thereafter, I remembered how old I feel here as I fretted about children burning themselves and the crying pre-schoolers.
There is this one fire cracker that I have never seen before, and I’m pretty sure would be illegal in the US, where you light it on the ground and it spins in a circle firing off sparks. The children all jump around on top of it trying not to get burned. Fun right?! Also my worst nightmare. Thankfully no one got hurt and everyone had a blast. The finale was beautiful with fireworks being sent into the sky and plenty of “oohs and ahhs” (Although we did continue confiscating the fire cracker bombs from the older boys for the rest of the week). It was quite a spectacular holiday to share with the children.
Luckily, those confiscated fire crackers came in handy the following week! Because, what would Halloween be without a few terrifying loud noises?! Halloween has been brought by Shanti Bhavan be the international volunteers, and continues to be a highlight for the children every year. It is a privilege every year for the 8th and 12th graders to go trick-or-treating. So we knew we had to make that special, but I was also determined to make this a grand holiday for everyone. It brought me back to my own childhood and my sincere love for planning themed parties. Whether it was making costume hats for all the Thanksgiving guests or making my older brother learn how to shuffle cards so he could be a poker dealer at my 14th birthday party, nothing got left out. And here was my chance to plan a party for all 260 of my favorite children. I took this task very seriously.
We began the festivities with day long costumes. The volunteers transformed in to the cast of Harry Potter. For creating costumes just with what we had, I think we did a pretty good job! All we were missing were the robes. Our wands came in quite handy throughout the day. Danielle and I patrolled the hallways casting spells of “silencio” and “accio textbook.” The kids were a combination of amused and concerned for us, which is just where I like to keep them. Possibly one of the best highlights about working at a school is getting to be a nerd all the live long day.
By the afternoon we had transitioned out of our wizarding attire and became zombies. I was brought back to my days of “clean safe fun” at The Mountain School where we made up massive school-wide games every weekend. Combining one of those games with the college campus “Humans vs. Zombies” event, I invented a scavenger hunt game to take the students on a quest all over campus to end the zombie apocalypse. Years ago a chemistry experiment went horribly wrong, the teacher buried the beaker and ran away from SB. This year, with the lack of rains, we had to dig a new well and it burst the beaker leaking the virus into our water source. Volunteers and graduates were the first to be contaminated and hiding around campus to catch the humans. I got all painted up as the “zombie lord” and had the power to induct new zombies and revive stunned ones. Everyone got very in to the game, and unfortunately one of the 11th grade girls jumped over a bush and fractured her arm. Needless to say the game ended, but we had fun while it lasted and she’s doing fine now.
The second event was the best. We made a HUGE haunted house. There’s been rumored a story about a ghost “Emily” who lives in the guest house, so we decided to tell them her story. I was the guide who took each grade through the haunted house. The story was that Emily was a volunteer here 15 years ago who died during Diwali. The sound of the fire crackers stir her spirit every year, which is why strange things had begun happening. As I was telling the story we set off fire crackers on cue, rattled the doors, had a graduate dressed up as a ghost appear from nowhere to attack them etc. Then we ran down the hall to another room for safety. Danielle started singing creepily, and they tried to be brave and check the open bathroom for any hidden fright, but instead she launched at them from the darkness. It was always a rush to push everyone out through the narrow doors. That drove us all upstairs to the room that was rumored to be Emily’s room. There the graduates took charge. Some were dead on the floor, a baby doll hung from the fan, strobe lights flashed, the whole room turned upside down etc. After a few minutes of horror we rushed them out, but I got caught in the room by the ghost and screamed for them to save me. While they tried to save me another volunteer launched at them growling with a devilish face painted on. I was really worried that the stubborn teenage boys were going to be “too cool” for it but even THEY got scared and said it was the best haunted house they’d ever had. It was amazing.
And then FINALLY after dinner we sent the 8th and 12th graders trick-or-treating. They got decked out in costumes, brought their pillow cases for bags, and we put glow sticks on them for fun. The volunteers and teachers got lots of candy and cookies and they went around school knocking doors. I refused to give them my treat until they told me who they were dressed up as. The best part was the “trick” we gave them… wrapped up mini ragi balls (the super healthy tasteless food we give to kids as punishment) disguised as a home-made brownie bite. No one opened them at first, but just as they were about to leave one of the 8th graders screamed “I GOT RAGI BALL” and they all stormed back in to protest. It was hysterical. Then we ended with one last scary story which led to them telling their own. We sat huddled in a circle in the dark laughing and screaming and just being silly. It was like one big slumber party and one of the best days ever. Holidays at Shanti Bhavan are truly something special.