Posts Tagged ‘Churches’

Christmas in India: Part three

January 13, 2011

After dinner, we once again sardined ourselves into Jakob’s SUV. This time our destination was The Church of North India, a church not too far from the site of our practice that afternoon. As our car pulled up around midnight, we were greeted by a spectacular sight.

The church was packed.

I’d had no idea this many Nagpurians went to church. This was the only church I was aware of in the city, but even accounting for the scarcity of places to celebrate Christmas, I was shocked to see the turnout for midnight mass. People spilled out of the cathedral, which was literally packed beyond capacity. Somehow we made our way under the church’s roof, and our group was let through until we had seats in the two frontmost pews.

This wasn’t the kind of crowd I was used to in India. People stared at us of course, but something was different in their expressions. There were the usual looks of shock at seeing foreigners, but also something more. On their faces was pity, with a hint of understanding, something I’d never seen flashed in my direction. The curiosity was apparent in their eyes. For once, the silent-stated question wasn’t “Who are you?” but “Why are you spending Christmas here?”

I think that last question dawned on some of us as the organ blared out and the choir sang. What were we doing here?

We looked in front of us: A priest was talking about Christmas. The high-ceilinged cathedral was decorated for the holiday. There was even a tree – a real Christmas tree!

Just like home.

We looked behind us: Rows of Indians sat watching the service, not one a familiar face. Outside, the street didn’t look like snow had ever fallen on it. Two-wheelers, not four-wheelers, were parked in abundance beyond the open doors.

Nothing like home.

We looked beside us.

For once, it wasn’t our families sitting by our sides as Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day. But it might as well have been a family. Caught between continents, between families, between homes, who did we have but each other?

For the second time that night, we sang Silent Night. Compared to our light-hearted rendition at PC Club, the song at the church was accompanied by a melancholy, albeit oddly cathartic air. Afterwards, many went to be blessed by a priest, half of us completely unfamiliar with the custom. When we returned to our seats at the end of the service, about a dozen Indians came to wish us Merry Christmas, and only one asked for a picture.

Is it really worthwhile to report that almost each of us hugged each other as we left the church around 1 a.m. on Christmas Day? At least five of us were crying in earnest, even those who were unaccustomed to such Christmas traditions. As we stood together at the end of the night, it was as though we had weathered a great storm where the precipitation came from people’s eyes, not the sky above.

When we arrived at the Khatri’s house that night, Pooja noticed “the gents” – Jordan, Jakob and I – were among the few with dry eyes. “Why is that?” she asked.

See, I’m not the type of person to outwardly express their sadness. Only at select moments on this exchange have I even come close to tears – before my flight to Nagpur after ten hours in the Mumbai airport in July, after Mayank left home in September, and while talking to my mom in October, hearing her voice for the first time in three months.

I felt compelled to respond to Pooja’s comment. “Just because there’s not water coming out of my eyes doesn’t mean I don’t miss my family!” Because, dry eyes or not, I really did.

And so did every other exchange student I was with that night.

There’s a chalkboard at Modern School onto which inspiring sayings are often written. One came to mind as I looked back on our Christmas night:

“Shared sorrow is half the pain, and shared happiness is twice the joy.”

We shared a lot with each other that night – our food, our homes, our personal stories, our personal space. We shared in our sorrow and we shared in our happiness. Essentially, we were sharing ourselves.

In spite of all the reasons I had to be sad, that’s why I was happier than I’d ever been on Christmas Eve.



Christmas in India: Part one

January 11, 2011

I knew before Christmas that the day’s events would probably be worthy of a blog entry. I was wrong. My Christmas was worthy of several blog entries. I’ve written nearly as much about a 40-hour stretch over three December days as I did on the 25-day South Tour. Enjoy!


It would sound better if I said we spent months preparing for Christmas Day.

It would sound better if I said we’d put in hours of arduous practice every week before the District Conference, that we’d diligently prepared and rehearsed for our presentation in front of 1,500 Rotarians, that the showcase of exchange students from Nagpur, Nasik, Bhopal, Indore, Jalgaon and Yavatmal would be flawless.

It would sound better, anyway. But the truth is that we learned just about everything we needed to know in less than a week.

The six of us from Nagpur (Anaïs, Dascha, Franziska [Germany], Jakob, Michelle and I) had been taking tabla and dance classes since August, and yoga classes since October – kind of.

Our tabla classes, which were supposed to last one hour three times a week, had dissolved into ten to twenty minute classes twice a week, if that. Our dance classes, which were supposed to be just as frequent as tabla, faced similar results as attendance slowly dwindled. We took drama/yoga classes for about two weeks in October, and had about five more classes in the days before the conference.

Much of what we did in those classes, too, wouldn’t apply to our Christmas Day presentation. In spite of this, we were to be performing four classical Indian dances, a musical fusion with tablas, flutes and drums, and a five-minute group demonstration of yoga. Save some of the tabla in the musical fusion, the entirety of our presentation had been learned since the end of the South Tour, much of it in the last two days. Jordan, Kelsey and Amanda had arrived from Indore and Bhopal on the 22nd, which lifted our spirits considerably, but they’d had only three days to learn their parts.

As our final practice began, we were still a long way from being ready to perform. Just before 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I biked to the flat where we always had yoga class, only to see Jakob riding away with our teacher. The location had apparently changed to Modern School, the site of our tabla and dance classes.

So I rode my bike to Modern School, and that’s where I spent the next four and a half hours.

Compared to the other practices, our dramatic yoga reenactment was coming along quite nicely. Brii was to be the yoga-goddess, and the other 12 of us were to file in and toss flower petals on her in worship. After sitting cross-legged and chanting “om”, we would then demonstrate various yoga positions while Brii explained them to the audience. The performance would conclude with us contorting ourselves once more as we constructed a human-temple through which Brii would walk at the end.

Except for Brii, who had several lines to memorize, yoga-acting looked like it would be a test of nothing more than our flexibility.

The same could not be said of music. Anaïs, Jakob and I had become adept at playing our 42-line, two minute main part – so long as we had a copy in front of us. But we still didn’t know what else would be going into the fusion, and how it would fit in. Olivia and Brii had been recruited in recent days to play “drums” with Jakob and I, which meant we’d be playing on two drums and two modified plastic buckets. Franziska and Jordan had learned what they’d be playing on flute, but how all three parts would fit together remained a mystery.

As for our four dances, I noticed a strong correlation between practice time and execution. None of the kathak I’d been learning since August helped me much, but I felt reasonably confident with the Maharashtran dance that I’d had ten days to practice. The same could not be said of the Bengali dance which I’d learned 48 hours before – a full half of the steps I was taking were erroneous or delayed.

Nevertheless, practice that day was transcended much more by Christmas cheer than stage fear. TV crews, photographers and journalists came to interview, photograph and film us. Jakob and I were interviewed by a TV reporter who asked us about our lives in India – in Hindi. The only responses I could give were “bahut acha” (Hindi for “very good”) when asked about Indian food and “Maha Laxshmi” (the huge festival at our house in September) when asked to name my favorite festival.

I’ll never know if our 30 seconds of fame found airtime. By the time I found myself in front of a TV once again, our interview was already yesterday’s news.

Our plan for what was left of Christmas Eve was to go to dinner as a group and attend midnight mass at one of the only churches in Nagpur. But our plan for the latter was in jeopardy.

Jakob’s host family, which would be taking us to a club for dinner, could provide transportation to the club and the church. But driving us back to our six respective homes at one or two in the morning was just not possible. We grew despondent as the sun set, and the possibility of Christmas without church dawned on us.

That’s when Pooja and Jagdish Khatri stepped up for us.

The problem of transportation would be resolved if all of us spent the night in one home. The Khatri’s home. Two rooms would be enough to accommodate all of us. Having us dropped in one place simplified the transportation situation considerably. It didn’t matter if they had a chimney or not. We had a plan.

Most Indians are very hospitable, but something about this gesture made it a little more meaningful.

Sharing your home on Christmas night just doesn’t compare to anything else.


South Tour: Kochi – Calculating the improbability of this event is pointless

December 31, 2010

4 Dec

KOCHI TO MADGAON: This morning, we went to a Dutch Palace in Kochi.

There were foreigners inside.

Young foreigners.

Young foreigners with familiar faces.

Other Rotary Youth Exchange students.

Jaws dropped, lips began moving, and soon the palace was so abub with conversation that the staff told us several times to quiet down. We’d run into a group of exchange students from Gujarat who were on a tour of South India of their own, although theirs had just begun. Three of their number – Oona, Mary and Lila – had traveled with Olivia [Michigan, USA] and me into Mumbai, and several of us from the Central States conference in Grand Rapids were reunited.

The ten minutes our two groups shared passed by much too quickly. We had time to introduce ourselves, we were able to meet some fellow countrymen, and some business cards were exchanged. But as we split into two groups while boarding our respective buses, our meeting felt woefully incomplete.

I can’t tell you a single thing about that Dutch Palace. Whatever was remarkable about it got quite lost in the moment. It’s not surprising that another group of Rotary students would tour South India, and as this is the best time of year to visit Kerala, you could hardly be shocked the group was touring this time of year. But it’s still extraordinary that we met at all.

Calculating the improbability of our encounter is pointless – the way our faces lit up when we saw each other said it all.

Just fifteen minutes before, I’d visited a church for the first times since coming to India. St. Francis church doesn’t look like much on the outside, but at nearly 500 years old, it’s one of the oldest churches in India. The church was one of those places where quietness and piety overtake you, like the meditation room in Kanyakumari where I’d escaped the paparazzi the day before. For the first time in India, I sat down in a pew and prayed.

When I walked outside, I noticed the sun was shining after a week of rain.

It was a nice moment.


Click to enlarge