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My Turn: The Souvenirs Were in My Heart

By Shaan Sancheti Email By Shaan Sancheti
July 2024
My Turn: The Souvenirs Were in My Heart

A young, bicultural teen muses about snippets of life and family from his visit to India.

[Left] The author, Shaan Sancheti, seen here with his parents and younger brother, writes about his family’s vacation in India.

A short, balding man wearing a striped button-down shirt and a grouchy expression stamped our passports. My tired eyes scanned the area and noticed that nearly every man in the building looked the same. As we stepped out of the airport into the New Delhi air, we were hit by a surge of humidity, the cacophony of horns, and a smell that can only be described as India.

MyTurn_2_07_24.jpgIt was past 3 a.m. when we took the taxi to the hotel. Everyone was falling asleep in the back except my grandma, who had, as if triggered by landing in India, shed her mild American mannerisms for a lighthearted, boisterous persona that I had never seen before. She struck up a conversation with the taxi driver, and they talked and laughed the entire ride as if they had known each other their whole lives. I could tell she was glad to be back home.

The hotel was a nice refuge from the noise outside the airport, even if the stench and heat were still very much present. The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of Super Mario Odyssey on my brother’s Nintendo Switch. I finally got out of bed past lunchtime and devoured aloo paranthas for breakfast. My grandparents broke out into a heated discussion in Hindi as Mom and I looked at each other in confusion, two snow peas in a pod.

[Right] Shaan and his younger brother with their cousins in Udaipur.

It was around 5 p.m. before we did anything, but nobody really seemed to care, as we all were still reeling from our long flight from Atlanta. We all crammed into a taxi to visit family. All I knew was that they were relatives and we were invited for dinner at their place. The taxi ride was short, but it felt like forever. I was a little concerned that my un-seat-belted body swayed about freely. My noise-canceling Air Pods were no match for the incessant honking and the clamor of a sea of people on the sidewalks (and streets!). I was surprised to see that nobody seemed to be bothered by the noise.

We stopped for some kulfi on the way to our family’s apartment. When I saw a boy about my age working at the kulfi stand in his dirty purple shirt, I felt a sense of guilt about all my First World privileges.

When we arrived, we were greeted kindly. Various uncles and aunties commented that they couldn’t believe how much I had grown. The whole time we were there, I had only one thought: how am I related to these people again? Thanks to the classic Indian trait of continuing to insist on serving more and more food to the guests, I ended up eating what felt like three dinners. When we bid them farewell and returned to our hotel, I jumped straight into the shower to clean up from the grime and cool off from the punishing heat. For some strange reason, a smell of sulfur emitted from the shower.

MyTurn_3_07_24.jpgA dry fountain, decaying gardens, and a marble giant

Only two days after we arrived in Delhi, we set off for Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Technically, Delhi and Agra are only three hours apart, but unfortunately, our taxi driver worked for a company that only allowed him to drive at 40 miles per hour—which meant our trip became six hours long! The sights of a different country and the calming voices of Indian pop stars playing in the taxi helped make our drive feel a little less tedious.

Our taxi rolled into the hotel’s gate like a king’s carriage, or at least that’s how it felt when 20 or so staffers rushed to help with our luggage and welcomed us with refreshments. The hotel, which used to be a palace, seemed to be the most beautiful in the world. A magnificent water fountain in the courtyard and attractively adorned walls indeed appeared royal. Unfortunately, though, all this beauty was surrounded by a thick, gray smog. The dismal substance seared eyes and coated lungs. Somehow, Agra managed to be even more polluted than Delhi.

[Left] The family with Nitin, their tour guide in Agra.

The next morning, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to beat the crowds to go see whether India’s most iconic monument, the Taj Mahal, was truly wondrous. All of us were drowsy, but Nitin, our bright-eyed tour guide, was as energetic as ever. Even though it was still early in the morning, the city was just as packed as it was during the daytime.

When we entered the premises, my first impression was that it resembled nothing like the many photos of the famed monument that I had seen. The fountains were dry, and the plants were failing miserably to stay alive. The Taj, however, towered unfazed above the decay. Our eyes seemed to be transfixed on the marble giant as we hypnotically progressed toward the great tomb.

The interior of the Taj may have been twice as beautiful as the exterior, but it was surely half as useful. Two polished coffins sat in the center of the room, but as Nitin informed us, neither of them occupied a body. The actual bodies of the emperor and his bride were in the unfinished cellar of the Taj, where none were allowed to venture. What was the purpose of creating such a grand tomb, I thought, if it was not to be used for its original purpose?

A grand family celebration in the city of lakes

Is there anything bigger than a wedding that sums up Indian culture? Food, dancing, and more aunties than you can count (who you don’t recognize) complimenting you on how much you’ve grown. Unfortunately, there was no Indian wedding on the cards for us during our two-week excursion to India. There was, however, the next best thing: the good old Indian family clan coming together to celebrate an event, even if it was not a wedding. It was my grandparents’ 50th anniversary, and for the occasion, our nuclear family took a three-day trip to Udaipur, my father’s hometown.


[Top] The Sancheti family with other extended family members at Shaan’s grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

The flight from Agra to Udaipur was quite the spectacle, with a plane full of Indians frantically conversing, again, breaching the capacity of my noise-canceling headphones. The relief of our arrival at the airport was combined with a few surprises. Not only were we stunned by the airport’s cleanliness but also by its size. Udaipur is not a megapolis like Delhi, so we had expected a smaller airport. This time, stepping out of the airport did not feel nearly as extreme as it did when we first landed in Delhi from Atlanta. Or perhaps I had gotten used to India. Before I could breathe in the strangely clean air, a stray dog nearly knocked me off my feet.

A dark-skinned, bearded man who had come to receive us commanded us to a dark caramel S.U.V. I sensed an aura of respect and familiarity that both my father and grandmother shared with the man. Was he another family member I didn’t know of? My grandmother cleared things up, explaining that he was our family’s driver. The man nodded at me and smiled.

MyTurn_5_07_24.jpgJust minutes later, the car arrived at what seemed like nothing more than a cloud of dust and sound. We were greeted by a golden retriever who looked quite healthy compared to the skinny dogs just outside the gate behind us. I saw my uncle come out of the house, and thought, “Finally, a familiar face!” I bowed down to touch his feet. My uncle laughed and acted embarrassed, though it was clear he was flattered. 

[Right] Shaan playing a bucara drum during the anniversary celebration.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and introduce yourself to your cousins?” he offered. Once inside, he pointed us to the marble steps and gestured for us to go up. As we were doing so, my little brother froze in fear. Just above his head, on the wall of the landing, rested the head of a tiger, frozen in an angry snarl directed at anyone who dared traverse the staircase. “You know that’s real, right?” A pre-adolescent Indian boy standing at the top of the stairs teased my brother. We glanced up at our cousin’s green Minecraft shirt, the tribal mark of a nine-year-old boy (even in India, it seemed). “You play Minecraft?” my brother asked excitedly. It seemed like we had hit it off immediately. ​

While most of our days in Udaipur were spent at our family’s home, nights took a different turn. My grandparents’ celebrations would take place in an urban hotel with palace-like domes, which is where we spent our nights during our stay. The views from both sides of the hotel were nice: the famous Lake Pichola on one side and the hotel pool on the other.

The night of the celebration began with all four cousins cooped up in a crowded hotel room, playing Minecraft together on separate devices. This wasn’t my proudest moment of the trip, but it sure was fun. While running up the stairs to the hotel’s deck on the 15th floor, we almost escaped my mother’s insistence on the customary photo session, but she managed to catch us just before we got soaked in rain on the deck.

When we came down to the event site, we managed to settle in at the tent-covered open bar—before countless family members could bother us with pleasantries. The tent was now an inviting dry oasis from the pouring wetness outside. We ordered the first drinks of the night: two Fantas, one Sprite, and one Coca-Cola. Before the next round of drinks could be poured, my dad swiftly intercepted my brother’s attempt at swigs of more caffeine. As we, the older boys, drank our second and third rounds, we listened to one speech after another. Some of what was said I could understand, but most of it I couldn’t.

MyTurn_6_07_24.jpgAs the night grew older and the speeches grew longer, a communal grumble of hunger fell over the room. Luckily, we were all soon headed towards the glowing dining room. But between the damp, gray tent and the welcoming buffet in the dining room was a six-foot strip of nothing but rain, darkness, and slippery, slippery marble. Most guests shuffled between the two dry refuges faster than they should have, trading their general safety for a bit of dryness. A noble sacrifice, I thought.

The food was the highlight of the night by far. Guests were drawn to the spread of yumminess like moths to a lamp. The food itself seemed to be alive, beckoning to be eaten by any and every passerby. After dinner, we celebrated with dancing, singing, and music despite our full bellies. That night, I was tired enough to sleep for days. Instead, I slept for a grand total of four hours.

[Left] Enjoying a meal of daal-baati.

Souvenirs of memories

After returning to Delhi, on our last full day in India, we finally accepted what we had been denying the entire trip: we were tourists. That day, we drank mango lassis, ate dosas, and pronounced everything wrong. When we slowly shuffled into the dark, liminal airport, it seemed like everything was returning to normal. I was used to the smells, the sights, and the sounds inside the ultra-modern airport. As I was reflecting on the wonderful two weeks we had in India, it dawned upon me that we had not purchased any souvenirs. But then a warm feeling took hold of me, knowing that the souvenirs were all in my heart.

Shaan Sancheti is a rising sophomore at Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. This is an edited version of his essay, written on his 13th birthday, which was awarded a Scholastic Writing Award, the nation’s longest-running, most prestigious recognition program for creative teens.


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