How an international student celebrates a family holiday away from home


Snapshots of Ugadi celebrations. Photo courtesy: Meenakshi Rao

Sharmila Kuthunur

Every year, when the Ugadi festival—the Hindu New Year—rolls in, my family has celebrated it in the same way: my dad and brother take up the laborious task of decorating the house. Mom and I finish our rangoli (a colourful art form drawn on the floor for every major festival). 

We then start cooking the traditional multi-course meal. Relatives who arrive at any point in the midst of all this simply join in. The ladies drift toward the kitchen to cook while the men gather in the hall to decorate the house.

Once this and the prayers are done, everyone gathers around the family priest to listen to the reading from the almanac about what the next year holds. The group then proceeds to sit cross-legged on the floor for lunch, careful not to spill liquid dishes out of the banana leaf and onto the floor.

But, I have missed these family celebrations for the past five years. 

Snapshots of Ugadi celebrations. Photo courtesy: Meenakshi Rao

When this year’s Ugadi arrived on March 25, I did what I have been doing for the past five years: picked up my phone, called my family in India, and contributed my virtual presence. Five years ago, when I had moved to an undergraduate campus housing that was a 12-hour train journey away from home, I got used to being only virtually present for all get-togethers. Now that I am 17 hours of flight time away, that feeling has cemented itself, and being absent for festivals and birthdays has become the norm. 

What hasn’t, however, is the longing to be home among family, to hustle early in the morning because getting ready doesn’t happen automatically and the elaborate festival food doesn’t cook itself. 

Mornings during every festival are packed with tasks to finish before the prayers, and I often yearn to be in the midst of activities, good-hearted bickerings and all the love-filled attention that comes with being the youngest in the house. 

This routine has become increasingly familiar and comforting over the years. I miss the camaraderie, more so because COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc and my family, like countless others around the world, has been self-isolating. This means no more large gatherings, even during festivals. Gone are the extensive cooking plans, the lengthy pre and post-festival calls with family and friends to discuss the nitty gritties and all the family gossip that tags along. Instead, for this year’s Ugadi, my family picked up their phones and celebrated the festival virtually, like I have done for the past five years.

A house full of decorations. Photo courtesy: Alavoor Mukundan

This realization threw me into a trip down memory lane. Homesickness kicked in. Being away from home is hard enough. Coupled with festivals meant to double the joy during get-togethers, it only gets worse. Add in COVID-19, and here’s the perfect recipe for a gloomy scenario. There is an intense ache in my stomach when it hits me how far away from home I really am. Seventeen hours of flying. Halfway across the globe. 

Ever since India shut down completely, I have been glued to news channels for instant updates, waiting for reporters to either give me hope or destroy it. I have been scrambling for tidbits from every WhatsApp forward. Irrespective of my exhaustive attempts to gather information, nothing comes close to being in India during this long-lasting crisis. Close to home, to family.

While the healthcare professionals are on the frontlines tackling COVID-19, there is not much  I can do. It is important now, more than ever, to take care of myself and the ones around me. I am soothed by the thought that my family and I are individually doing our part to flatten the curve by staying home.

While we might be physically away from each other, I am comforted that all of us are leading similar lifestyles with one unifying goal: to stay safe and healthy, even if it means washing our hands a gazillion times a day. At a time when all of us are scared to the extent that we become instantly suspicious of anyone who coughs or sneezes, it helps to be aware that we are all in this together.

That thought lessens the burden on my mind that home is 7,800 miles away and gives me the strength to hang on for a while longer.

A quote. Photo courtesy: Charlie Mackesy