V. starts the evening unsure and tidy, wearing a pressed button-up shirt under an approved uniform sweater bearing the school logo. This is a religious holiday, after all, and he has come as a guest to celebrate and honor the importance of the day. He comes into the kitchen to thank me for having him and hosting the dinner. Delhi is 10.5 hours ahead of Rabun Gap, a tremendous distance for a teenager feeling homesick as he watches videos and sees pictures of friends and family celebrations back home.
I give him a hug to welcome him, then turn to the stove, firing up the flame under a flat iron pan specifically made for cooking dosas, a south Indian specialty.
“Wait until it gets very hot,” V. hesitantly offers.
“Not too much oil,” he says next, as I begin to brush the pan to prepare it for the batter.
“Do you have the right batter?” he asks.
I smile and ask him if he would like to cook the first dosa. I am not offended, but genuinely want him to participate in whatever way will feed his soul and soothe his heart.
“May I?” he answers.
“Of course!” I say as I step aside and show him where to find everything he needs to start cooking.
Our house fills with more than thirty students and faculty members, but V. stays at the stove. K., another student from Delhi, arrives after basketball practice and sets up shop beside V. in the kitchen. I gather supplies for her to cook poha, one of her favorite dishes, and V. and K. enter a beautiful and joyful dance of cooking, smiling, and talking.
Soon, both of them are on Facetime with their mothers in India. I’m not sure how grateful the moms are for the calls since it is not quite 7 a.m. their time the day after a major festival with parties. But our cooks want to ask their mothers’ advice and show them the fruits of their labors.
“It’s almost time to eat. I’ll keep things going in here so the two of you can go to the living room and tell everyone something about Diwali,” I tell our cooks.
“No! You go and do it. We want to stay here,” they tell me with wide eyes as their hands continue to stir and flip.
K. finishes her dish then works the room as her friends load their plates with food from her homeland.
V. sheds his sweater after my husband encourages him to get more comfortable. It is hot in the kitchen, especially over the screaming pan. I offer to take over so he can eat but he will not leave his post. His friends line up, plates in hand, waiting for him to deliver a hot and fresh dosa. He laughs and chats with each of them, talking about the dosas and other foods from home. He stays at the stove until every last bit of batter has been slathered on the pan’s surface, flipped, then stuffed with potatoes and spices.
This last dosa is his. He takes a picture to send to his mother, proud of his progress in perfecting the dosas over the course of the evening. He loads a second plate with rice, daal, sambar, paneer, salad, and chutneys. He sits at the table, welcomed by the others like an athlete returned from a successful competition.
Most everyone else has finished eating and moved to the piano. An American student sits at the keys and begins to play. The students around her are from the Caribbean, Afghanistan, Chile, India, Germany, and other countries. They find song lyrics on their phones and soon all are singing their favorite pop songs.
Candles burn around the room and a Bollywood movie plays, muted, on the television. I tidy the kitchen then plop into my favorite chair. V. sits with friends at the table behind me, talking about the food and his favorite Diwali traditions. In front of me, K. sings with her friends and dormmates.
Everyone is full and happy. No one is missing home because they have brought home here, into this room, with one another.