“I let my campers pick a fun Bollywood song to choreograph themselves. They loved it, and it freed up my schedule for utter nonsense; I reached Nirvana, achieved moksha, united with Shiva, whatever idea of heaven you want to call it.”
Sujata Day in Salon: When my parents first told me I was going to Hindu camp, I was not happy. And, to be honest, I was more than a little scared. My parents claimed they knew what was best for me, vom. Most of my summer vacations were spent back in India with family, so it was almost a treat to be able to stay home for once. I’d miss swimming at Park N Pool, riding bikes to Dairy Queen and picnicking at Idlewild Park. Why would I want my perfect summer in the ‘burbs to be interrupted by some stupid camp where I wouldn’t know anyone? Would there be bears? And even more terrifying, would there be cute boys?
I pouted in the backseat while my dad drove our family up the 79, past the Grove City outlets, through Meadville and finally reaching Lake Erie. I was also bummed because the temple sent a list of things we should pack and a lehenga was one of them. As a tomboy who lived in jean shorts and T-shirts, a girly ‘fit wasn’t on my list of favorite things.
Wearing my best frown, I walked past squealing reunited campers and shuffled my way to the girls’ cabin. Its tragic emptiness was a perfect match for my pathetic, Eeyore state of mind. I wanted to run after my parents and beg them to take me home, but instead I tossed my bag on an unoccupied bunk and begrudgingly unpacked. Then, the cabin door sprang open and Mishti bounced in. She peppered me with a barrage of questions. Where was I from? What school did I go to? Was I any good at softball?
Mishti was a camp OG and introduced me to all her friends. We came from all Indian backgrounds growing up in the Pittsburgh tri-state region — Bengali, South Indian, Gujarati, Punjabi and more. My initial trepidation melted away. We drenched ourselves in Avon Skin-So-Soft, the #1 mosquito repellent according to Indian immigrant parents, and threw ourselves into normie camp life activities like hiking, arts and crafts and kickball. We started a NSFW prank war with the boys that would get us all cancelled today, pantsing them when they least expected it. I’d like to take this moment to apologize to all the boys I’ve pantsed before.
At night, tucked in our bunks, we passed around Amar Chitra Katha comics, a brown kid’s Marvel or DC, where our violent AF gods came down to earth and taught humans some tough love-style life lessons. Shiva, the creator and destroyer god, and Ganesh, Shiva’s son and remover of all obstacles, played with blood, sacrifice and boons like they were freakin’ candy. These powerful gods literally gave zero fucks when it came to dealing with lowly earthlings.
We gathered for arti every day, which was go time for our tween hormones. During arti, you stood in front of the gods and offered them light, clutching a silver plate holding ghee-drenched cotton ball flames and marigolds. You waited for your turn to hold the plate with your homies and circled it a few times in front of the gods. The sexual tension, soundtracked by us singing the same bhajan, “Om jaya jaga dee shi ha ree,” was thicker than a campfire log. If you got to hold the plate with your crush, arms brushing against one another, C’MON! We were truly channeling some Bridgerton-level courting vibes.
I had no patience for patriarchal traditions, so I quashed them on sight. Our periods were seen as “unclean” and when Aunt Flow arrived, you couldn’t participate in arti and had to stand in the back of the room, marked by a scarlet letter. The girls in the back felt shamed for pretty much having to announce to everyone else they were on the rag. I said, “Hell to the NOPE,” and launched my own period protest and confronted the priest with Mishti by my side. I announced, “Priest Uncle, periods aren’t dirty, they’re a natural fact of life, and we’re gonna participate in arti whether you like it or not.” Priest Uncle (not my real Uncle, btw, we called everyone our parents’ age Aunts and Uncles) didn’t want to be anywhere near discussing periods or tampons with a bunch of feminist tweens, because he blurted out right away, “That’s fine.” No girl ever had to stand in the back of the room again. I was like the Susan B. Anthony of Hindu Temple camp, no bigs.
We looked up to our counselors. They seemed worldly, wiser, and way cooler than our pimply selves, even though they were actually just one or two years older. Our fearless leaders were everything you wanted to grow up to be. They taught us dances — dandia, garba, bhangra — that we’d perform for our parents on the last day of camp. On performance day, I double french-braided the hair of every girl in my group and my tomboy self wore that glittery lehenga loud and proud. As the sun dipped into the lake’s horizon, we held each other and our participation trophies tightly and vowed to return next summer — and someday, somehow, maybe even be a counselor. The counselors received their own bigger, shiny, golden trophies we admired from afar.
We had a few summers of nurturing unrequited crushes, singing Kumbaya and bhajans around the fire, and surviving squirmy trust falls. And then the fateful summer arrived. I was no longer that moody tween in the back seat, pissed at my parents for sending me to some dumb summer camp. After my final year as a camper, I applied to be a counselor and got accepted. This was my Independence Day.
On the first day of camp, my fellow counselors and I quickly realized we were a rowdy, rebellious bunch and nowhere near your model minority. Nor did we resemble the picture-perfect, obedient counselors of our past. We were an eclectic, artistic group that allowed campers to thrive with little to no supervision. Helicopter counselors we were not, OK? Our first order of business was teaching our campers an upbeat Bollywood dance. I was only trained in Bharatnatyam, an Indian classical dance, which wasn’t considered as trendy as the other group Indian dances. I let my campers pick a fun Bollywood song to choreograph themselves. They loved it, and it freed up my schedule for utter nonsense.
Rumors spread quickly of a serial killer who had escaped from a prison nearby and was hiding out in the woods. Every single day, we swore up and down the murderer was spotted by the field, or near the cafeteria cabin, or watching us shower. Threats of a serial killer didn’t stop us girl counselors from sneaking out of our cabins every night to hang with the boy counselors. Our crushes as campers segued smoothly into the realm of counselor crushes. Arti was as sexually fraught as ever. I crushed on two boys with the same last name — Patel — who, in case you were wondering, were not related to each other. One was a stoner and the other was chill. My crushes never overlapped with Mishti’s crushes. She liked the pretty boys. I liked the funny ones with weird personalities.
The cafeteria had its own ecosystem. Meal times were one of the only times the entire camp was together in one place. Cook Auntie whipped up a flurry of never-ending vegan dishes like tadka daal, matar paneer and fresh-off-the-stovetop buttered rotis. Us North Indian kids vocally craved our passion for hamburgers, pepperoni pizzas and hot dogs under Cook Auntie’s thankless glare. Our camper groups sat together and the counselors flitted around, conspiring amongst themselves. At dinner, Chill Patel gave me his pakora and I literally DIED. I reached Nirvana, achieved moksha, united with Shiva, whatever idea of heaven you want to call it. Later that night, the girl counselors all agreed from our bunks that Chill Patel and I were destined to be soulmates.
The night before the last day of camp, thunderstorms rolled in. The timing was strange, like Shiva and Ganesh had gleefully plotted nefarious conditions to thwart our wayward plans. The girl counselors schemed with the boy counselors for our last rendezvous. The boys were going to sneak out and meet us at our cabin and then we’d all walk down to the beach. We waited in our carefully picked out PJs … and waited … and waited … but the boys never showed.
The next morning, when the storm clouds made way for sunshine, gossip sparked like lightning bugs. After many games of telephone, we eventually found out the boys had been caught by Camp Director Uncle on their way to our cabin and we were all going to be punished. Parents were already driving in and the talent show would go on. Our innocent campers danced, lip-synced and acted their way joyfully through the talent show while we pasted smiles on our faces and awaited our fate. The show ended, parents clapped and participation trophies were handed out to the exuberant campers.
The moment of truth had arrived. Then Camp Director Uncle called the girl counselors up by name to receive their counselor trophies. Mishti and I looked at each other hella confused and got up to accept our awards with the other girls. After our names were announced, Uncle paused with the kind of gravity only reserved for Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. Uncle revealed the boy counselors had snuck out of their cabin and would not be called up to receive their trophies. We gasped. The boys hadn’t implicated us in the scandal, even though we were just as much to blame. Chill Patel looked up and smiled at me. My adolescent teen heart fluttered.
We never did spot an actual bear, catch the serial killer, or transcend anywhere close to Shiva’s level. But the courage of the bear, the freedom of the serial killer, the power of the gods; a little bit of each of them were inside all of us counselors that magical, special year. Sometimes, the thing you’re most uncomfortable with and scared of at first turns out to be the most memorable experience of your life. In the end, my parents actually did know best. I had plenty more lazy days with my ‘burb besties at Park N Pool, Dairy Queen, and Idlewild. But I’ll never forget that one hot Indian summer.
With her infectious personality and unique sense of humor, Pittsburgh native Sujata Day has established herself as a performer, creator, writer and director. Sujata is known for her starring role as CeCe in Issa Rae’s “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” She recurred for four seasons on HBO’s “Insecure.” Sujata is a Sundance Lab fellow, Sundance Film Festival influencer and HBO Visionaries Ambassador. She directs “This Is My Story,” a series in which LeVar Burton narrates tales of everyday racism. Sujata’s award-winning debut feature film, “Definition Please,” was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s Array and is currently streaming on Netflix. MORE FROM SUJATA DAY