My Hot and Rowdy Indian Summers at Hindu Youth Camp

When my parents first told me that I was going to the Hindu camp, I was not happy. And, to be honest, I was more than a little scared. My parents said they knew what was best for me, vom. Most of my summer vacations were spent in India with my family, so it was almost a pleasure to be able to stay home for once. I would miss swimming at Park N Pool, cycling to Dairy Queen and picnicking at Idlewild Park. Why would I want my perfect summer in the suburbs to be interrupted by some stupid camp where I don’t know anyone? Would there be bears? And even more terrifying, would there be cute boys?

I pouted in the backseat as my dad drove our family down the 79, past the Grove City outlets, through Meadville, and finally to Lake Erie. I was also disappointed because the temple sent a list of things we should pack and a lehenga was among them. As a tomboy who lived in denim shorts and a t-shirt, a girly cut was not on my list of favorite things.

Wearing my best frown, I walked past gathered campers shouting and headed for the girls’ cabin. Its tragic emptiness matched my pathetic Eeyore state of mind perfectly. I wanted to run after my parents and beg them to take me home, but instead I threw my bag on an unoccupied bunk and reluctantly unpacked. Then, the cabin door opened and Mishti jumped inside. She showered me with a barrage of questions. Where did I come from? What school did I go to? Was I good at softball?

Mishti was an OG camp and introduced me to all of her friends. We come from all Indian backgrounds having grown up in the Pittsburgh Tri-State area – Bengali, South Indian, Gujarati, Punjabi and more. My initial apprehension dissipated. We soaked ourselves in Avon Skin-So-Soft, the #1 mosquito repellent according to Indian immigrant parents, and embarked on normal camp life activities like hiking, arts and crafts and kickball. We started an NSFW prank war with the boys that would have us all canceling today, gasping them when they least expected it. I’d like to take this moment to apologize to all the boys I’ve ever run out of breath.

The sexual tension, recorded by us singing the same bhajan, “Om jaya jaga dee shi ha ree”, was thicker than a campfire log.

At night, nestled in our bunks, we circulated Amar Chitra Katha’s comics, a Marvel or DC for brown children, where our violent AF gods descended to earth and taught humans difficult life lessons about the style of love. Shiva, the creator and destroyer god, and Ganesh, the son of Shiva and remover of all obstacles, played with blood, sacrifice and benefits as if they were candy. These mighty gods literally didn’t give a damn when it came to dealing with lowly earthlings.

We got together for arti every day, which was time for our tween hormones. During arti, you would stand before the gods and offer them light, holding a silver plate containing flames and ghee-soaked cotton ball marigolds. You waited your turn to hold the plate with your homies and circled it multiple times in front of the gods. The sexual tension, recorded by us singing the same bhajan, “Om jaya jaga dee shi ha ree”, was thicker than a campfire log. If you have to hold the plate with your crush, arms rubbing against each other, C’MON! We were really channeling courtesy vibes at Bridgerton.

I had no patience for patriarchal traditions, so I canceled them on sight. Our rules were considered “dirty” and when Aunt Flow arrived you couldn’t participate in the arti and had to stand at the back of the room, marked with a scarlet letter. The girls in the back felt ashamed that they pretty much had to tell everyone they were on the rag. I said, ‘Damn the NOPEs’, started my own period protest and confronted the priest with Mishti by my side. I announced, “Priest Uncle, rules aren’t dirty, they’re a natural fact of life, and we’re going to partake in the art whether you like it or not.” The priest uncle (not my real uncle, by the way, we called everyone aunts and uncles our parents’ age) didn’t want to be about to discuss periods or tampons with a group of feminist tweens, because he immediately blurted out, “That’s good.” No girl ever had to stand in the back of the room again. I was like the Susan B. Anthony of the Hindu temple camp, no big deal.

We admired our advisors. They seemed worldly, wiser, and much cooler than our pimply selves, even though they were actually only a year or two older. Our fearless leaders were everything you wanted to become. They taught us dances—dandia, garba, bhangra—that we perform for our parents on the last day of camp. On the day of the show, I double braided the hair of all the girls in my group and my tomboy wore this sparkly lehenga loud and clear. As the sun dipped into the horizon of the lake, we held on tight to each other and our participation trophies and vowed to return next summer – and one day, one way or another , maybe even be an adviser. Advisors received their own bigger, shiny, golden trophies that we admired from afar.

I let my campers choose a fun Bollywood song to choreograph themselves. They loved it, and it freed up my schedule for total nonsense.

We’ve had a few summers of nurturing unrequited crushes, singing Kumbaya and bhajans around the fire, and surviving choppy drops in confidence. And then the fateful summer arrived. I was no longer that moody preteen in the back seat, mad at my parents for sending me to stupid summer camp. After my last year as a camper, I applied to be a counselor and was accepted. It was my Independence Day.

On the first day of camp, my fellow counselors and I quickly realized that we were a rowdy, rebellious bunch and far from your model minority. Nor were we like the obedient, perfect counselors of our past. We were an eclectic, artistic group that allowed campers to thrive with little or no supervision. We weren’t helicopter advisers, okay? Our first task was to teach our campers a lively Bollywood dance. I was only trained in Bharatnatyam, a classical Indian dance, which was not considered as trendy as other Indian group dances. I let my campers choose a fun Bollywood song to choreograph themselves. They loved it, and it freed up my schedule for total nonsense.

Rumors quickly spread about a serial killer who had escaped from a nearby prison and was hiding in the woods. Every day we swear up and down that the killer was spotted near the field, or near the cafeteria booth, or watching us shower. Threats from a serial killer didn’t stop us counselors from sneaking out of our cabins every night to hang out with the boys. Our crushes as campers have transitioned smoothly into the realm of counselor crushes. Arti was as sexually tense as ever. I fell for two boys with the same last name – Patel – who, in case you were wondering, weren’t related to each other. One was a stoner and the other was cool. My crushes never overlapped with Mishti’s crushes. She liked pretty boys. I liked funny ones with quirky personalities.

The cafeteria had its own ecosystem. Meal times were one of the only times the whole camp was together in one place. Cook Auntie has concocted an endless array of vegan dishes like tadka daal, matar paneer and buttery rotis fresh from the stove. We children of North India vocally implored our passion for burgers, pepperoni pizzas and hot dogs under the ungrateful gaze of Cook Auntie. Our groups of campers sat together and counselors twirled around, conspiring with each other. At dinner Chill Patel gave me his pakora and I literally DEAD. I have attained Nirvana, attained moksha, united with Shiva, whatever idea you want to give it of paradise. Later that night, the counselors all agreed from our bunks that Chill Patel and I were destined to be kindred spirits.

The night before the last day of the camp, thunderstorms hit. The moment was eerie, as if Shiva and Ganesh had happily plotted nefarious conditions to thwart our capricious plans. The counselors plotted with the boys for our last date. The boys would sneak up and meet us at our cabin, then we would all walk to the beach. We waited in our carefully chosen pajamas…and waited…and waited…but the boys never showed.

I have attained Nirvana, attained moksha, united with Shiva, whatever idea you want to give it of paradise.

The next morning, when the storm clouds gave way to sunshine, the gossip broke out like lightning. After many phone games we finally found out that the boys had been caught by the camp manager uncle on their way to our cabin and we were all going to be punished. The parents were already driving up and the talent show would continue. Our innocent campers danced, lip-synced and acted happily through the talent show as we plastered smiles on our faces and awaited our fate. The show ended, parents cheered and participation trophies were presented to the exuberant campers.

The moment of truth had arrived. Then the camp director uncle called the counselors by name to receive their counselor trophies. Mishti and I looked at each other confused and stood up to accept our awards with the other girls. After the announcement of our names, the uncle stopped with the kind of gravity reserved for Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. The uncle revealed that the counselor boys had escaped from their cabin and would not be called to receive their trophies. We gasped. The boys hadn’t implicated us in the scandal, even though we were equally guilty. Chill Patel looked up and smiled at me. My teenage teenage heart fluttered.

We’ve never spotted an actual bear, caught the serial killer, or transcended the level of Shiva. But the courage of the bear, the freedom of the serial killer, the power of the gods; a little of each of them was inside of all of us advisors in this magical and special year. Sometimes the thing you are most uncomfortable with and most afraid of at first turns out to be the most memorable experience of your life. In the end, my parents knew better. I’ve had many more lazy days with my best friends at Park N Pool, Dairy Queen and Idlewild. But I will never forget that hot Indian summer.

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