The week before Thanksgiving break, 52 secondary contacts of a new COVID-19 case on campus were identified and forced to observe in-room restrictions as a result of an event on the occasion of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The particular event in question was one where students volunteered to apply mehndi, otherwise known as henna, onto other students’ hands, a traditional form of body art that is typically part of the Diwali celebration.
“I need to be clear that if this kind of exposure happens again, we risk running out of quarantine beds and having to end on-campus learning,” Wellesley College President Paula Johnson wrote in a Health and Safety email update on Nov. 20.
Although the CDC-recommended six feet social distancing was impossible for an event like this, Riya Balachandran ’24, one of the event’s main organizers, said that students had followed every other precaution possible.
“[The mehndi artists] each had a table which set the artist and the person getting mehndi done apart, and we leaned across the table just to do it on their hand. We had Purell wipes to wipe our hands before and after,” Balachandran said. “On top of that we had timed slots. We didn’t pass the occupancy limit of 10 people at a time in the room, and the slots were 10 minutes long.”
According to Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Jacquelina Martinez, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life helped organize the puja event, during which the traditional Hindu prayers for Diwali were recited on the Chapel Lawn, and had provided funds to purchase the mehndi cones, conditional on approval of the event by residential life authorities. Balachandran reached out to the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life for the organization of the event and received approval from the Claflin House Council.
Alekhya Bhat ’24 was one of the students who volunteered to apply the mehndi to other students’ hands.
The week after the event, she awoke to a flurry of texts and calls informing her that she was a close contact of one of the cases and would have to move into the College Club quarantine facilities.
However, Bhat does not believe anyone deserves the blame for her predicament.
“I think this is a complicated situation and there’s no one [person] to be mad at. I can’t be upset because that’s just wasteful energy going nowhere,” Bhat said. “Granted, my position’s different [than others,] but I’m lucky that I’m healthy … I think there’s so much more to be grateful for than upset … I don’t want to waste time and mental energy being mad at this.”
Bhat did not face any issues during her experience in quarantine, but Sachi Tanwar ’23, who also volunteered at the mehndi event, had a markedly different experience.
“I did have the administration mix me up with someone else[,] which was very stressful [and] did impact my schoolwork as well. I would have rather just done henna with my blockmates,” Tanwar said. “I think Wellesley could have handled this in a much better way. I don’t think they handled it well at all, especially with me.”
Although Tanwar enjoyed the event itself and being able to do mehndi, especially for people who had not gotten it done before, she was disappointed with how the repercussions were handled.
“I understand the gravity of the situation when it comes to primary and secondary contacts, but to quarantine somebody when they were not present at the event during or after the COVID-positive individual arrived does not make any sense to me,” Tanwar said.
Arundhati Chandrasekhar ’24 was required to go into “soft quarantine,” where she had to self-isolate in her room for a week. Even with the repercussions of going to the event, she still believes it was important to have events to celebrate Diwali.
“Maybe if we had known [what was going to happen] we may have re-organized it,” Chandrasekhar said. “But, if [the administration] thought that the event was too risky, they shouldn’t have approved it. [The blame] was not on us for hosting the event.”
“Even if I knew what was gonna happen, I probably would still go to a fun event. It sucks because there’s so many people who were put into this situation and that’s horrible,” Bhat said. “Ever since I got here I wanted so badly to connect with my culture more than I ever did when I was actually physically in India. It sucks that we were trying to do something nice for the community, and this is what happened to all of us.”
Balachandran also reflected on the inherent risk of social events, despite taking every precaution.
“There’s also a risk in participating in any level of social life here. You’re exposing yourself to different levels of contact and different possible … risks of … going into isolation or quarantine, even if you are extremely careful,” Balachandran said.
Although the mehndi event sent a large number of students into self-isolation, many still took comfort in the sense of community they were able to find through it. Tanwar, like others, was appreciative of the opportunity to reconnect with the Desi community at Wellesley despite the current restricting circumstances.
“I also felt like I wanted to celebrate it more because I was away from home. When I’m home I take Diwali for granted, but now that I am in college I need some type of connection back to my culture,” Tanwar said.
Similarly, Bhat found comfort and community in the College-approved celebrations. “I feel like everyone on-campus who does celebrate Diwali wanted to find some semblance of normalcy in a way,” she said. “It was like — we’re all feeling homesick so let’s be homesick together — and then that turned it into a community.”
In addition to reconnecting with the Desi community on campus, students enjoyed sharing their traditions and culture with their non-Desi friends. Arundhati Chandrasekhar ’24 volunteered to be a mehndi artist at the event.
“My favorite part of it was explaining to people who have never heard about Diwali,” she said. “It was nice to share the holiday with people who didn’t necessarily know about it before.”
Kaveri Uberoy ’23, however, found the Diwali puja to be underwhelming in comparison to last year, considering the required social distancing and event limit. While this is necessary given the current circumstances, she said there was a lack of community in comparison to last year’s celebrations. Similarly, Tanwar had difficulty feeling the same sense of connection as last year.
Last year’s Diwali celebrations were not limited to Wellesley’s campus, thereby allowing for a much larger community. Tanwar and Uberoy both recounted attending garbas, a form of dance that originates from India, at both MIT and Harvard last year, and enjoyed spending the holidays with a community of Desis from different schools and immersing themselves in a community of people with similar backgrounds as them.
Overall, however, many students find it difficult to fully retain the traditional family celebrations whether before or during the pandemic. Uberoy, who lives in Delhi, India, reports that her family normally lights dozens of diyas, putting them at every water source, door and corner of their home to provide Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, with a way to find her path around their home. In addition, although there are major Diwali celebrations throughout India, she finds that the actual day of Diwali is incredibly family-oriented and introspective, contrasting from the majority of festive American celebrations.
“The attitude towards Diwali is very different here. In India it is very spiritual, but here it is to reconnect with a certain community, which is really nice too,” she said.
In a similar sentiment, Chandrasekhar, who lives in Mumbai, reports that although the Wellesley celebrations were incredibly sweet, they cannot compensate for the universality of Diwali in India. However, Chandrasekhar still found ways to maintain certain traditions here; this year, for example, she went to the Ville, bought a new sweater and conducted a personal ceremony the morning of Diwali.
Despite the inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 in social gatherings, every student interviewed emphasized their need to connect with their community.
Bhat also emphasized the insensitivity of shaming those who are in quarantine or have contracted COVID-19.
“It’s almost become taboo to know who’s in College Club and who’s in quarantine. It’s no one’s fault that people are getting COVID. It’s no one’s fault that the cases are spiking,” she said. “Everyone is trying to do the best they can.”