My arrival to Madanapalle was a time of personal and professional change for my mentor. She had lost her husband 8 months prior and was slowly adjusting to the change of pace it had left in her life. Once I truly entered her world, it took very little time to understand the profound impact her husband had in the community, the organization, and most importantly, her life.
The one year anniversary of a loved one’s death is an important event that Hindus commemorate around the world. This day is memorialized in various ways throughout India, and I had experienced it this year in a manner that I had never seen before. My mentor was insistent on making this time-honored tradition more than just a grand cultural ceremony. More than anything, she wanted everyone to feel his presence and celebrate his death the way he would have loved to do with his friends and family.
The day started off at 5:00AM with traditional prayers much like any other Hindu ceremony at my mentor’s house. Once these rituals were completed, we were off to their family farm an hour away for the rest of the day’s events. This beautiful farmland was filled with mango trees, and as this was her husband’s favorite spot to think and relax, she built a large, beautiful memorial in his honor right in the middle of their gorgeous plot of land.
But once those rituals were over, it was time to celebrate. What I didn’t know was that this was the time when the booze would come out-openly and happily. Hundreds of people gathered together in the middle of this farmland to drink, eat, and enjoy each other’s company telling stories of their friend and how his spirit is still alive within their hearts. For hours, we ate, drank, talked, and napped picnic-style under the shade of the many mango trees. This was the first time in which I was able to connect with my coworkers outside of the work space and enjoy hearing stories about the mentor I never knew. The way he continues to inspire the organization and my coworkers is testament to the allegiance he had to his work.
As nightfall came around, it was time for the next phase of celebration. A band of cultural performers arrived around 10:00PM to start what I didn’t know at the time, would be a long night of song and dance. This was the event that everyone in my team had giddily warned me to watch out for. With thick layers of brass belts tied to their feet, each wearing matching green saris or kurtas, and flowers in their hair, or garlands around their neck, they were ready to begin.
Till 4:00AM, hundreds of people took turns dancing and singing with the performers, some crying, some laughing, and very few just doing whatever they could to stay awake. My favorite aspect was watching my mentor’s 87 year old father be the man of the evening in the center of the circle, playing the vibrant music that everyone danced to throughout the night. He didn’t take any breaks, and kept performing with the same dynamic energy, inspiring others to continue celebrating with him.
The car ride back to Madanapalle at 5AM was one of the most tiring days I had ever experienced, but one that was worth every minute of a sleepless night. Though I would never meet this individual who everyone around me revered, after that day, I could honestly say that he had influenced my fellowship journey in a way that nobody ever could.