Gandhi Camp as a teen
Summer camp is a chance for kids to not only get a break from their parents but also to develop friendships new and old and come back home with great memories. So when I saw a promotion for India Community Center’s (ICC) Gandhi Camp, I was intrigued. Was this the same camp I attended so many years ago?
I had been to Gandhi Camp many years ago in the early 90s, back when it was held in Olema, Calif. I was in my teens, my vision was still 20/20, my skin was still clear of acne, my hair was very long and my teeth didn’t have the braces that would be with me throughout high school. I remember my Appa driving me up in his silver BMW, feeling immensely awkward and nervous, wondering if I’d make friends.
I spoke with Abhay Bhushan, 78, the main camp organizer, about coming to Piercy, Calif., and spending some time as an adult camper. That’s how I found myself on a Tuesday morning this past August driving up to visit the campsite where Gandhi Camp has been held for the last few years.
Four hours north of San Francisco, nestled just a handful of miles from Richardson Grove State Park’s majestic redwood trees, lies a collection of buildings called Krishnalaya. It’s owned by Chinmaya Mission West. The drive there is a bit windy and surrounded by some of the best natural landscape California has to offer.
I pulled into the parking lot and entered the large commercial-grade kitchen through the backdoor. The first person I met was Indira Anupindi, head of the kitchen who told me with a firm gaze to sit down and eat. “Do you want some mango achar?” she asked. The answer to that is always yes. Indira ji and Hema Vasanji, both adult volunteers, are responsible for preparing three daily meals plus snacks for 80-85 people, a task that begins at 5:30 am and ends at 11:00 pm at night.
Meeting old friends
As I sat down with my upma, they suggested I interview Vivek Shandas, a multi-year veteran of the camp who was once a youth counselor and now serves as a parent volunteer. Vivek thinks he remembers me from camp back in the day. We reminisce about the ramshackle Olema buildings, the nuns who once ran the place, and the feeling of peace we felt there.
“Olema was such a lovely place,” Vivek says. “It has a softness about it. And the fog comes in. There’s a row of eucalyptus trees. You can smell the trees. There’s a fog that just kind of lingers in the Marin mountains and the cattle that graze. They just bring kind of a real gentleness and a calmness to the atmosphere.” I wondered if I’d run into anyone else who knew me.
Later that evening I joined the campers in the auditorium for evening yoga as Vivek led the kids through poses and movements. Although I am a very restless meditator I stayed for the evening session led by former tech executive and adult volunteer Prasad Kaipa.
I remember Gandhi Camp founder Dr. S.N. Subba Rao, affectionately called Bhaiji, meaning older brother, leading us through meditation and breathing all those years ago. He would sit on the floor with us, legs folded, his lush white hair glowing, wearing tan cargo shorts and a peachy beige kadhi shirt.
It was 1985 when he founded Gandhi Camp in Olema, an extension of the youth camps he had first established in India. He founded the camp to teach youth the core Gandhian principles of truthfulness, tolerance, and fearlessness, similar to how they were taught in the ashrams Mahatma Gandhi established in South Africa and India.
Memories of Gandhi Camp
Over 30 years ago Abhay ji met Bhaiji in Ganges, Michigan, and has been associated with the camp since. “It was his first trip to the US,” says Abhay ji, “so we invited my friends to have a retreat, to talk about how we can help India and how we can help the Indian community here to retain part of their roots, but more importantly, become a force in our community for good.”
Giving back to the community is something that resonated with me since my camp days. More than a decade after I met Bhaiji, I visited India and bought yards of khadi cloth thinking of him, determined to volunteer wearing only khadi kurta tops and pants. I remember learning about the history of khadi cloth after hearing Bhaiji talk about it and its role in India’s Swadeshi Movement. I brought one of those tops, now twenty years old, with me to camp.
Bhaiji passed away in 2021 at the age of 92. “His presence was inspirational, both for the volunteers and for the campers and counselors. So we do miss him. But the camp has gone on. We are able to institute new things,” says Abhay ji.
Songs and journals
Some of those new things are as simple but important as the songs campers sing. Previously they mostly sang Hindi songs but now songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie have been included in the mix. “It’s not just about America or India, it’s about the planet,” says Abhay-ji.
Every camper receives a yellow booklet titled “Gandhi Camp: Resource Book and Journal” on arrival, with information on prayer, mantra, Gandhian principles, and space for journaling. Campers are encouraged to record their experiences and thoughts based on prompts from the evening discussions based on that day’s focus.
Standing up for what you believe in
Tuesday evening’s prompt was on sparsha bhavana, removing prejudice and racism. Prasad ji led the talk by saying “It is our responsibility to stand up for what we believe in” and asked the kids “What will it take for you to stand up?”
Campers were divided into breakout groups based on age. Senior and junior counselors led discussions. In the 9-11 age group, the kids deeply considered the questions before responding.
“99.99% of people who make a culturally insensitive joke have a reason behind it,” said one boy in a maroon sweatshirt.
“It can be hard to unlearn. But if you can’t, it would be good to acknowledge it,” another boy in a green shirt said.
Listening to these young kids speak I was amazed and inspired by their knowledge and thoughtfulness, qualities I did not possess as a teen during my camp year. The closest I got was appreciating my parents that week I was away.
Early camp mornings
At 6:00 am just as the sky turns misty purple blue, Abhay ji, in a bright fluorescent yellow vest, walks among the cabins waking up campers by blowing a conch.
Every morning the campers perform physical exercises and sing songs. After we went for a quick morning run, I listened to Bhushan’s I still remember more than thirty years later. The words to “Jai Jagat Pukare Ja” and “Sabke Liye Khula Hai” came back easily to me, filling me with a quiet joy.
Breakfast is served piping hot at 7:30 am. Some days it’s pancakes and hash browns, other days it’s tomato uthapam. What stays the same is the acknowledgment given to each person who helped prepare the meal by Indira ji and Hema ji, followed by a loud cheer of “Today’s Food! Very Good!”
Everyone benefits from camplife
Nirva Vahia first came to camp when she was 16. Now at 19, she is a senior counselor and attending for the third time. “It was a little bit of a culture shock,” says Nirva. “My family, we’re of course Indian, but we don’t necessarily participate a lot in many spiritual activities or activities that you would find at Gandhi camp.” It took a while for her to get used to waking up early, singing songs, and saying prayers before mealtime, but Nirva now enjoys it. “Camp is always like a breath of fresh air because you start implementing all those practices such as non-hoarding, or being truthful.”
Vinod Katepally, a parent volunteer, brought his sons, Aman, 14, and Ayaan, 12. It was the first time at camp for all three of them. Volunteering at his sons’ school through their elementary years brought him fulfillment, said Vinod. At camp, he figured “There’s 50 kids. If I have my own cohort of eight or nine kids, it’d be a great opportunity for me to feel that same sense of contentment.”
His cohort of kids confide in him. “They tell you what sort of problems that they’re going through, when they share their deepest, darkest secrets with you, you want to help them. It’s really fulfilling,” Vinod was impressed by the leadership qualities of the kids and counselors. “I think one of the things parents can take back as a lesson from these camps is you don’t have to do the work for them. You tell them how to do it, and let them go through their own process of performing that work.”
In service of others
Sharira shrama, or physical labor in service of others, the key tenet behind karma yoga or selfless action, is a large part of each day. Campers are separated into work groups led by an older adult or parent volunteer and also by junior and senior counselors. Each work group rotates through a service project, which emphasizes teamwork, leadership, and unity.
The role of youth counselors
Having younger counselors lead sessions is important says Mansi Saxena, 23, because many younger campers feel a disconnect between themselves and adults. “They feel like the adults who are running the camp don’t really understand what’s happening in their lives like they’re from two different worlds. And so that connection isn’t there. I think for both for camper comfort and for doing what this camp is meant to do and inspiring leaders, it’s really important to have younger people step in and take over.”
At 18, Mansi became a senior counselor straight out of high school and has attended camp every year as a counselor since then. This year is her first time managing all the counselors. “It’s almost like getting to be a big sister for 10 times as many people as I am normally. So I love all of that. And I really liked the structure of you wake up, you start the day off by completely unplugging and doing some physical labor, and then you get good food.”
Aman Katepally also enjoyed the scheduled structure of his days. “Probably one of my favorite things is definitely karma yoga at the Grove because we go hiking and see different things in the wilderness,” says Aman. He was nervous when he first came to camp, but “I really started to enjoy it,” he says. “How to fall asleep and rest our bodies, breathing in golden [fresh] air and releasing stress.”
Everyone draws different inspirations from the camp. “This is a time for me personally to kind of unplug from the daily grind,” says Vivek. “It feels like it’s a place where I can come to find some solace. I can really settle.”
Neilesh Rustagi, 20, a senior counselor and a previous camper, enjoys the connections to culture and friends. “It was really nice to feel that I found my people.”
“I feel like we can bond about those experiences in a way that we can’t really do at just a normal summer camp,” says senior camp counselor, Serena Mody, 18.
“This is a dedicated week of selfless service. And that is something that we enjoy,” says Indira ji speaking about herself and Hema ji and the effort it takes to prepare food for so many people during camp. “We both say that this is our karma yoga. This is our time to be giving.”
A camp that time hasn’t changed
Despite the usage of smartphones for videos and selfies, the camp hasn’t changed much. Waking up early, exercising, singing, karma yoga, making friends, and sleeping well after a full day was the norm. To my surprise, despite being a notorious night owl, I enjoyed rising early and falling asleep by 10 pm.
Perhaps it was the mountain air and karma yoga. Perhaps it was detaching from social media. Either way, I would have easily stayed another week.
As I pulled out of the parking lot to drive back home I remembered an afternoon of fun during my time at camp in 1999.
Some of us had decided to play a combination of Freeze and Simon Says. A tall boy stood in the middle of a circle of campers, who danced around him as he recited the lyrics to “U Can’t Touch This” by M.C. Hammer. The boy wore a white shirt and big round glasses, black hair wavy and thick, and his teeth a little too big for his face, Instead of saying “freeze” he would say “Stop! Hammer time!” We would always laugh.
There were no smartphones, no internet, not even a Walkman back then. The main elements needed for a good summer camp were there as they were this time. All that’s needed are kids, sunlight, and imagination.