So What Are You Doing This Summer?

Are you ready to embrace the promise of the summer?


We Indians sure know how to work. We can write code till we drop dead, pump gas all night long at a deserted gas station, and study medicine while doing a side degree in engineering.

But do we know how to play?

Sukanya Rahman has settled down in a permanent vacation spot, Orr’s Island: “To this day the wind howling through the tall spruces, cedars, balsams and pines, can set your imagination churning and transport you back in time” 

Summer is coming – three glorious months of sunshine, greenery and utmost promise. Will we be so involved in work that the days pass by in a blur or are we going to be basking in the momentary pleasures they offer? Vacation seems to be that All American Dream, but most Indian immigrants, even after having lived here for decades, have never really taken to the idea of goofing off. However, a few have begun to embrace its promise wholeheartedly. And of course, the American-born children of these immigrants believe in vacations as a God-given right!

Flash back to your childhood, and you see everything through summer’s golden haze, the drone of bees, the endless, languid days stretching before one like a gift. This writer recalls the sheer over-abundance of the Indian summer, the mad growth of foliage.

Driving up to Mussoorie, we’d stop in the litchi orchards of Dehra Dun, buying crate loads of cloyingly sweet litchis encased in their prickly red skins to eat on the way up; at other orchards there would be choosa mangoes, whose juicy pulp could be sucked right into the mouth by tearing a hole in its skin. And of course the jamuns, those delicious purple berries that stained tongues and clothes and hands.

There was a languor, a sense of immortality, a conviction that each day was forever. You didn’t do much and yet the day was full: a walk around Camel’s Back, a spicy snack at a small storefront on Main Street, skating at the rink, or simply reading a worn, dog-eared copy of Gone With the Wind from the local library, while comfortably ensconced on a window ledge of the cottage on a drizzly day.

In those days you owned time – and now time owns you.

The Arjun Bhagat family chooses between overseas travel and the family ranch in Sonora, in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.

Ask Indians what they are doing during summer and you get a complex to-do list worthy of a major business marathon. Filmmaker and entrepreneur Harish Saluja of Pittsburgh, Penn, is a frenetic multi-tasker, and certainly can’t stop when it comes to summer.

“I am going to India to do location scouting for my next film Chasing Windmills and also to continue casting it,” he says. “I’m finishing the paintings for my solo art show in a gallery in Santa Fe later this year, and am preparing for the first Asian American Film Festival of Pittsburgh that I have launched.”
He’s also publishing Housecalls magazine, arranging for some high-profile events for TiE Pittsburgh, of which he is the executive director, preparing two courses he will be teaching in the fall at Carnegie Mellon University’s Arts and Entertainment Management College and co-hosting his weekly radio program, “Music From India.”

” In essence, the usual relaxed summer!” he jokes.

One almost feels like telling him to conduct a brain surgery too while he’s about it! Yes, walking to nowhere or reading tattered books won’t fit into this super-busy summer, but that’s the way Saluja likes it, with his fingers in a whole lot of different projects.

While America may be a nation of devoted sun worshippers who live for the magic of summer, to most NRIs who grew up in India summer was nothing to rave about. After all, in India the choice was mostly between hot, hotter and hottest, with annual newspaper headlines about people succumbing to the 100-degree temperatures.
The goal was to hide from summer!

When families journeyed up to the hills of Mussoorie or Simla for two months, it was basically to get away, to run away from the fierce embrace of summer in cities like Delhi and Chandigarh. So in India, summer had no cache – it was the time to stay indoors in air-conditioning or close to the whirring fan, venturing out just to the cinema, where you were assured of ‘time-pass’ and heavenly cool temperatures.

Summer is going to find film director Harish Saluja at another movie set.

America, however, has a centuries old love affair with summer. With its very defined seasons and its long, hard winter, there is a much greater appreciation of the possibilities of summer. It’s all about baseball, the beach, picnics in the park, cookouts and the time-honored family trip to national parks and other holiday resorts.

While children in India are urged by their parents not to play in the sun and ruin their complexions, Americans try their darnest to acquire that Indian golden glow in tanning salons and the beaches during summer.

So how do Indians who have settled down in America treat summer? Certainly with a lot more respect – a few of those freezing winters can certainly turn one into an ardent sun worshipper!

Having lived in America, NRIs gradually adapt to the rituals of summer such as heading out for Home Depot Country. 
Home improvements are a big part of summer, and Indian-Americans too get into the do-it-yourself mode. Landscaping is a multimillion-dollar industry, and as Indian families improve their homes and gardens, they often add an Indian touch, using Indian plants and flowers such as raat ki rani or chameli, or planting Indian veggies in their backyard.

For many Indians, summer is also wedding time. In India, December is the favorite month for nuptials, but in America hotels and wedding halls in the summer are booked a year in advance because this is the time overseas guests also can take advantage of the benign weather. With hundreds of summer weddings planned, we certainly know how wedding planners, DJs, photographers and caterers spend their summers!

While Indians have taken to the American notions of vacation travel and cookouts, sometimes they add their own desi touch to it. A handful of travel agencies organize group travel to different parts of the world where Indian vegetarian food is part of the offering. There are also cruises such as A Spicy Vacation run by Maharaja Vacations, which is based in Chicago. These cruises in conjunction with Carnival Cruise Lines, give the travelers everything from idli dosa to palak paneer and masala chaat even as they laze on the deck of the ship headed out to Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica or Alaska.

Interestingly enough, even the entertainment on board is desi-inspired, with a Mumbai Masti dance party on the deck, Disco Dandia, Garba Raas and ‘Saris and Sherwanis’, a social evening. The very idea of going away, of travel is to experience something new and different, but many Indians enjoy things more when they are desi-fied!

Even when it comes to the all-American cookouts, Indians want their spice! The tandoori cuisine fits well with outdoor grills, so kababs and chicken legs a la tandoori take their place along with hot dogs, burgers and steak. Some enterprising vegetarians also grill tofu hot dogs and veggie burgers on the grill. For Lavina and Mike Aswani of New Jersey, summer isn’t over till they host their huge barbeque party for about a hundred people on Labor Day. As the younger crowd plays ball, the adults go on a talking and eating marathon, with all these delicacies from the grill as well as Indian street foods and sweets like kulfi falooda.

And if Americans and second generation Indians have a passion for baseball, summer is cricket season for Indian immigrants. Hundreds of cricket clubs across America come alive in summer, drawing players and fans of South Asian origin as well as from the West Indies.

“It’s a totally summer activity,” says Atul Huckoo, the president of the Edison Cricket Club in New Jersey, which has about 30 members. “It starts in April and ends by late September. Some of the families do come to watch, so it becomes a family event too.” The club is part of The New Jersey Cricket League, which has 32 member clubs, each with about 30 members.

There is clearly a generational divide in sports: the members of the cricket clubs are 80-90 percent first generation while their children are all into baseball and other American sports. Huckoo’s 14-year-old daughter Abha plays softball and basketball, but watches both baseball and international cricket matches. The cricket aficionados are now trying to get cricket introduced into local schools.

There are as many versions of summer as there are people. Some like to celebrate the sea and the sun, preferring their summers in slow motion, almost held on pause. Sukanya Rahman, the noted dancer and artist, lives in Orr’s Island, a sleepy fishing hamlet in Maine and rarely stirs from it. The still waters and fishing boats off the coast are beautiful. She likes to paint and write during the summer, and play with her visiting grandchildren.

The daughter of the celebrated dancer Indrani Rahman, Sukanya has just written a fascinating memoir, Dancing in the Family about the experience of growing up in a family of passionate performers. As a child, she saw her grandmother, the dancer Ragini Devi, and her mother Indrani totally caught up in dance. Summer was just an extension of dance rehearsals, of performers dropping in or of endless performances.

“I don’t remember having a summer vacation as a child,” says Sukanya. “My parents never took a vacation. All my traveling was done on my mother’s tours.” Even her short three-week summer vacation from boarding school was dedicated to dance classes.
Little wonder then that when Sukanya married Frank Wicks, they decided to settle down in a permanent vacation spot! Orr’s Island is part of the Harpswells, a collection of peninsulas and islands running parallel to the mainland.

Writers like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Harriet Beecher Stowe have been inspired by the island, and as Sukanya says, “To this day the wind howling through the tall spruces, cedars, balsams and pines, can set your imagination churning and transport you back in time. The tide rolling into the rocky coves and the ever-changing color of the sea vividly bring to life the paintings of Winslow Homer and Marsden Hartley.”

Sukanya and Frank have lived on this quiet island, which is a coveted summer destination, for over 30 years. Their house is on a 2-mile wide island, which is connected to the mainland by bridges. Says Sukanya: “We are always here for the summer – we don’t like to leave. We’re near the water – all of us in the family are absolutely crazy about swimming and being on the beach. We work during the day and then we head to the beach.”

While their two sons Habib and Wardreath were growing up, summers were about baseball, soccer and summer camps, and also occasional trips to Europe or the Caribbean. Now that their sons live in New York and San Francisco, she and Frank are even more devoted to their home in the little lobstering village.

Says Sukanya: “We have a beautiful garden, Frank is my mali. What we love to do when the weather gets nice is have all our meals outside. We have a barbeque going, I make kebabs and have friends over and we have lovely dinners out on the lawn, under the moon.”

Rashmee Sharma: “this summer is dedicated to Rashmee – what makes me happy!”

For those with young children, summer is about entertaining the tykes and nearly everyone has done the mandatory trips to Disneyworld, the national parks and the cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska or Puerto Rico. India is also a big draw in the summer: the weather may be boiling hot but the longer summer vacations make it a practical choice. While families do travel to Europe and the Far East, percentage-wise the travel to India in summer is still the largest.

Says Ashish Dharamrup of Everest Travel in Atlanta, Ga.: “June-July and December are the peak times for travel to India. In summer it is hot, but it’s the longest period of time that people can get from schools and colleges. Families go to their hometown and then travel to places like Goa or Kerala. In Georgia there are a lot of students from India who are studying at the many colleges here – Georgia Tech, Emory University, University of Georgia and Georgia State. Summer is the time they get to go back.”

Pallan Katgara, New York director of TCI, a travel management company headquartered in India, which offers Travelnet, a 24/7 call center based in Mumbai for NRIs, says his company offers several special summer promotions aimed at NRI families, since high end hotel demand is weak during the summer.

How do travel professionals, who send everyone else off on trips, spend their own summers? Katgara, who lives in Brookville, Long Island, with his wife Carol and children Tyler, 8, and Dina, 4, says with a laugh, “Long Island is beautiful – so I basically stay put and chill out! It’s basically low season for me, my work is done. So I enjoy time off with my wife and kids.”

Dharamrup and his wife Jaishree, who live in Norcross, Ga, along with their children, Manisha and Sahil, are planning to hit the high seas in summer. He says, “We are planning a cruise to the Bahamas. That’s more relaxing than going anywhere else. With the kids and vacation time, the cruise is much better. You can relax for 7 days!”
Time is at a premium during summer even for children who are just as over-scheduled as their busy parents, with sports activities, play dates, classes and summer camp. There are extra credits to be earned, remedial or accelerated learning to be addressed. High school kids and college students often venture out on their own to new destinations with friends, gaining new experiences.

For American youth, summer has traditionally been a time to chill out, take trips away from family and experiment with summer jobs. While many Indian-Americans do that, watching summer movies at the Cineplex, wandering the malls and catching up on their summer reading on the beach, others like Akash Gupta, a 7th grader from Chaboya Middle School in San Jose, have weightier things on their mind – like participating in the Primary Mathematics World Contest in Hong Kong during July.

Yes, for Indian-Americans it’s hard to give up goals, even if the ocean, the seagulls and the beach are calling. Ask Anjali Dalal, an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, about her summer plan and she laughs, “Proactive Ivy League students should responsibly say ‘Summer is the chance to get ahead’, I guess! Everyone compares their summer internships so that’s what it boils down to.”

Last summer most of her friends did business internships with banks in New York while Dalal interned at a start up company in the music industry and also moonlighted at a restaurant. All of them saw these stints working in the city as a step in their future careers.

She adds: “When you have free time, no one wants to waste it, You do what you want with it. For a lot of kids in schools like the Wharton, it’s very competitive. Everyone wants to get where they want to be and they are willing to work for it. Others study abroad while kids in pre-med spend their summers in the lab! These are type A students, very goal oriented. They don’t want to lose sight of where they want to be, which is a good thing – or a bad thing – depending on how you want to look at it.”

This summer will find Dalal not at the beach, but in Washington DC where she is doing research at the World Bank. Doesn’t she do any summer fun things at all? She laughs merrily, “I like to think my life is pretty fun! I’m very excited about the work, which is my own research, and it allows me to travel as well. So I’m getting to do a bunch of things and in a context that’s stimulating as well.”

For many Indian parents, summer is the time to get their kids acquainted with their religion and culture. Increasingly that has involved adapting spirituality to the fun American concept of camping.
In Rochester, NY, about 150 boys and girls, ages 8 to 16, will be converging on the Indian Community Center for a Hindu Heritage Camp on 22 acres of land overlooking lush farms and woodlands.

Outdoor games, swimming, arts and crafts classes are interspersed with yoga, music, dance, philosophy, puja, chanting and culture classes, according to Padmanab Kamath, camp director. Last year children from 17 states enrolled for the camp.

For Sumati Jain, 19, of Shreveport, La, summer is intricately connected with the camp. Although Shreveport is the third largest city in Louisiana with a sizable Indian population, her 1,200 student high school has only ten Indian students. So Hindu summer camp was a definite eye-opener for her.
“It was the first time I had seen so many Indian children in one place at one time,” says Jain, who was born in Shreveport. “There were so many people I could connect with, who were experiencing growing up as an Indian in America, just as I was.”

Jain, who has just finished her first year at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn, has been attending the camp in Rochester, NY, since she was 9. Now she serves as assistant director, and her summers largely revolve around the activities of the camp.

She says, “That experience has connected me with myself by knowing more about my religion and my heritage. It’s given me more pride and self-esteem and a deeper understanding of who I am.”

Many Indian parents in the U.S. also turn to mainstream summer camps, where the agenda is simply outdoor activities, sports and having fun. Seema Sharma, an AIDS research co-coordinator in Houston, Texas, always enrolls her 8-year-old son Neil in these camps. She says: “He goes to camps for weeks on end, does a lot of rock climbing, ice skating to cool off in the hot summer heat. Houston’s weather is just like India’s.”

Houston in the summer, Sharma says, is bursting with fun activities from golf courses to pools and tennis courts. She takes Neil out to the beach, to water-rides amusement parks and also organizes at least one trip to a different region. Last year they headed to South Padre Island in southern Texas.

Sharma, who grew up in Kuwait, experienced summers full of travel. Her father was with the United Nations, so every summer they’d head to Europe or the United States, where her brothers were studying. “We made road trips within the country and that’s what we are planning to do this summer. My whole family is coming here and we are going to take a road trip for a month, driving along the whole North East to South East part of the States.” 
Does their childhood experience shape the summer plans of Indian parents?

“I think so,” says Sharma. ” Whatever we’ve seen in our own childhood, we want to expose our children to the same thing. That’s not only in summer, but also throughout life. The life cycle repeats itself and more. We probably want to provide for our kids what we ourselves hadn’t seen or the activities we hadn’t been able to do. The generations keep changing.”

Yes, summer is fleeting and people want to put their own stamp on it, often depending on what their childhood summers were like. Arjun Bhagat of Los Angeles, recalls, ” When I was a kid in India, I was sent to boarding school in Sanawar. So now I’ve chosen to try and be Mr. Dad. I work out of home and try to live vicariously through my kids on all the childhood things I missed out as a kid. We do quite a bit together.”

The Bhagat family takes summer trips with the children domestically and internationally, but the larger part of the season is spent on their ranch in Sonora, in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. This area is in the heart of the 1849 Gold Rush, and says Bhagat, “It was called Gold Country and it’s got old mining towns all around and there are still a few small working gold mines. This is really where the frontier was and you can see the China camp where the Chinese miners lived.”

The sprawling ranch is two hours from Bhagat’s home in Los Altos, and includes a four-bedroom ranch house, a pool, several horses and even a river where the family goes river rafting. In this isolated area there are three or four working farms, some set on 60 acres. And certainly no Indian families around! Laughs Bhagat: “A lot of people thought we were mad and asked us why were we buying a property in the middle of Redneck Territory!”

In reality, says Bhagat, Sonora is a very rural area where families have lived and worked for three or four generations. Yes, Lake Tahoe it’s not, but he enjoys its authentic feel and the incredibly beautiful, deep red sunsets that inflame the skies at sundown. “It’s pretty magical up there,” says Bhagat who plans to enjoy with his children all the outdoor activities he missed as a child, besides planning a summer trip to Scotland or one along the coast of California.

Then there are the empty nesters that suddenly have three months free and clear, waiting to be written on like an empty book or tasted like a heady summer wine. For many years, Rashmee Sharma’s summers were totally devoted to her children, Neeti and Gaurav. Sharma, who hails from Jaipur, lost her army officer husband when the children were very young. She came to Seattle, Wash., for her PhD and to make a future for the family.

Sharma, who has a doctorate in American literature, teaches at the University of Washington and also writes. She recalls, “When I came to the U.S., being a single mom my objective was to take care of the children. Summer revolved around the children’s activities, taking them to movies, shopping, doing things together. ”

Today Neeti is a microbiologist in Chicago and Gaurav is pursuing his final year in law school in Spokane. Says Sharma, “This summer is dedicated to Rashmee – what makes me happy! Now that I have time on my own, I’m just discovering a totally different side of myself. I’m planning to join a hiking club and the golf club, do rock climbing and yoga. All the things I wanted to do but couldn’t.”

Besides looking to do all the adventurous things she never had a chance to do in her life before, Sharma has also embarked on another kind of adventure – turning publisher and author of a book on Indian Americans who’ve made a difference. Her last two summers were spent in traveling all across America, interviewing and researching for the book.

So the summers took her from the citadels of IT in Silicon Valley to the tomato farms of Oceanside, San Diego and the mushroom farms of Denver, Colorado to document Indian success stories. ” It was just an amazing energy and you feel recharged yourself,” she says.

This summer, with the book soon to be released, Sharma is planning to finally devote time to exploring the back roads of Seattle, and trekking and rock climbing in Vancouver.

A far cry from her sedentary summers in Jaipur as a child: “If I close my eyes, in a snapshot childhood summers appear to be very lazy summers to me. Because of the heat we would do mostly indoor activities. Friends would come over, relatives would visit, and it was full of stories, movies, mangoes.”

Then there are others who don’t move far from home for their vacation because they happen to be in the wonderful spots that most people want to visit anyway. Dr. Bhupi Patel of Muttontown, Long Island, has been summering in the Hamptons for 20 years, and was one of the first Indians to buy a summer home there.
Patel, who is chief of medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital of Queens, bought his first house in West Hampton Beach in 1985. A four bedroom, it was a party house set on the ocean where the Patels entertained 100 friends at a time over the weekend. This house was unfortunately washed away in a hurricane and the Patels later bought a condominium, once again on the water.

Indeed, the Hamptons are increasingly popular with well-heeled Indians who either own summer homes or rent during the summer months, an option popular with young professionals who often pool their resources to enjoy a Hampton summer. The pristine beaches, water sports, shopping, bars and restaurants on Main Street are all major attractions.

Water probably has a special significance for Patel, whose childhood was in Kisulu on Lake Victoria in Kenya: “We grew up spending our vacation on the lake,” he recalls. “We would go hiking around the lake or spend our holidays on the sugarcane farms since many Indians were in the farming business. Or we’d go to the beaches in Mombassa.”

These leisurely summers came to an end when Patel entered medical school in Baroda: “When you go to medical school in India, it’s mostly work. In summer the rest of the colleges are off except medical students who still have to go to the wards in the morning. We used to spend our summers in Baroda in 90-100 degree heat, so what we did enjoy was good food and good mangoes.”

As he recalls, the first 10-15 years in America were hectic as he tried to establish a career. The days were so crowded that there was no time to visit the summer home in the Hamptons. Now he is more relaxed: “The first generation worked very hard to get where we did. The children have grown up and it’s time for us to enjoy – and a lot of Indians are doing that.”

What Patel especially likes about the Hamptons is that he’s totally cut-off from daily life. There are no telephones in the house and if one chooses not to use the cell phone, one can be cocooned from any contact.
He says, “I think people unwind in the Hamptons, after all the parties are over. Sometimes we’ll go there late at night – and the best thing is getting up in the morning. We are on the ocean and it’s a beautiful feeling. Anybody who loves the ocean will tell you there’s nothing like being on the ocean. You can get lost in it. And when you come back on Monday, you’re ready to take another week on.”

As he points out, summers are precious because they are so short. When the Patels are not in the Hamptons, their grown children – Rupal, Shilen and Reshma – take over with their friends. The family manages to still catch holidays together, especially in their winter home in Boynton Beach near Boca Raton, which is close to a golf course.

Indeed, golf is fast becoming a popular summer activity for Indian American men, and increasingly, the women too. For the empty nesters who’ve done it all with the children – exotic cruises, Disneyworld, volleyball games – it’s time to slow down and smell the golf balls. It is their new mantra.

Sumati Jain is heading back to summer camp: “It was the first time I had seen so many Indian children in one place at one time”

“Children have their own life. Empty nesters want to finally start doing things themselves,” says Patel. “If you talk to ten successful Indians, you’ll find six of them play golf. Age is no bar to playing golf.”

New York socialite Meera Gandhi believes in maximum summers, a time to challenge the family to try new and exciting things. Her summer this year is packed with activities ranging from meditation in South India to taking a cruise to Alaska. She will also be partying with Kevin Costner, Kerry Kennedy and Sandra Bullock in Puerto Rico in a three day fundraiser.

She says, “The Alaska cruise will be in August complete with helicopter trips onto glaciers and dog sleds. I will also go hiking in the Colorado Mountains and after a hard and cold New York winter it all seems like Nirvana! We also plan to go snorkelling in Juno and Ketchiken in the Pacific Ocean. Finally in Victoria, we will visit the Buchard Gardens and have High Tea at the famous Empress Hotel. Outrageous? No. Off the beaten Track for sure..That’s the only way I would ever have it….”

So whether you decide to go away or stay, hit the hammock or the golf course – just do it. Summer is so fleeting, so ephemeral that one almost longs to capture it and preserve it, like a swarm of golden butterflies. Soon cranky winter with its snowstorms, its flu season, dead car batteries and clanking shovels and rock salt will be here. So enjoy the joyous cocktail of summer while you still can! 

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