INTERVIEWED BY ALLISON MI
“It happened so fast.” Those were the four words Divija Chandupatla repeated when talking about her move from India.
Those four words summed up her move from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, her home of 12 years, all the way across the Indo-Pacific Ocean to the United States of America.
During a walk down a 12 year memory lane, Divija revealed that for many moments of her childhood in India, she doesn’t remember.
“You know how sometimes you remember some things from some years?” she said. “It’s like that.”
However, Divija did emphasize that the “some things” she recalls includes her winning prizes for sports competitions.
“It started in the first grade,” she said. “It was a sports competition with guys and girls and I got second place. I was really proud of that.”
From kindergarten to the second grade, she attended D.A.V. (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) and transferred to B.V.M. (Bala Vidhya Mandir), staying there from the third to seventh grade, until she moved.
“When I went to B.V.M. Global School is when I actually started focusing on sports.”
B.V.M. hosted inter-school competitions for track where participants had to get selected in order to compete. To add on, it was only for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and only one fifth grader.
“I was the only fifth grader to get selected,” Divija said. “That was also another event that boosted my confidence a lot. Like you know what I mean—being the only fifth grader to get selected?”
In the sixth grade, the inter-school competitions had even more in store for Divija.
“I signed up for long jump and I got second place!” she said. “It did boost my confidence and I got a lot of support.”
By the seventh grade, she was vice captain of the track team and was on the path to becoming captain in her eight grade. But soon enough, the mere thought of being captain—even being in Chennai, India—vanished.
“Everything happened so fast,” she said. “We had to rent out our house, we had to sell our cars, sell everything, throw away all of our stuff, give some to our maids, just give everything away.”
It was mid-June and the eight grade had already started for Divija. She already paid the fees for the first semester, she bought the books, she got new uniforms, and a couple of weeks later, her dad told the family that they had to go apply for a VISA because they were moving to the United States.
“He told us the night before [the first step for applying for a VISA],” she said. “He told me he was taking a day off from work so I should take a day off from school.”
On the day they got their VISAs, she had to go to school to get her TC (Transfer Certificate).
“I didn’t go to school for a couple of days and [my friends] were getting suspicious,” Divija said. “And on that day, they saw me. I had to tell them.”
While her dad was getting the TC, she walked around school, talked to teachers, talked to her friends and everyone.
“We took some pictures,” she said, “we cried a bit.”
But Divija’s friends weren’t the only ones despondent about her unexpected leave.
“My sports teacher was really upset because I was a good athlete,” she said. “He was hoping to see me go to states and nationals. He told me that he trained me, that he’s worked so hard on me and he was hoping to see my future in sports. But that’s not happening.”
The reason for why “it’s not happening” is due to a severe foot injury while Divija played in the girls’ basketball team in the eighth grade.
“I wasn’t able to do track later that year,” she said, “and when I came to high school, it just kind of went away.”
The dance style in India depends on where you are. Divija lived in Southern India where the dance style she pursued was Baratanatyam, the oldest classical dance tradition in India, indigenous to Tamil Nadu. Though dance is extremely valuable to Divija today, she used to dislike it.
“I was a child,” she said. “I wanted to be with my friends all the time and in dance class I had to go away from my friends.”
It wasn’t until a pivotal performance during Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the God Ganesh, when Divija actually began to enjoy dance.
“Until this performance, it was kind of like I was forced to do it,” she said. “I didn’t understand it. I was just doing it. I used to forget all the steps.”
She and a friend did this dance relating to the God Ganesh, both clad in purple and gold Bharatanatyam dresses.
“[The dance is] difficult to understand because it’s not English or a plain language,” she said. “There’s so much meaning, but it’s still a dance, so people still understand it by the actions. That’s when I started getting better. It’s one of my favorite performances.”
When I asked her why it was her favorite performance, she hesitated.
“It was just like a moment,” Divija said. “I just started doing better. It was like my first steps. It just happened and slowly I started understanding it.”
According to Divija, the dance is about the Hindu Gods. Each dance has a unique story behind it and facial expressions are crucial.
“It’s like acting,” she said. “If you understand it, it’s not like something you would memorize. It would just come naturally. It was the same for me. I would memorize all the steps, my expressions weren’t that good, but when I started understanding it, it was just an automatic thing. It was just very natural.”
Divija’s dance breakthrough happened ill-timed, however.
“When you start enjoying it, you can see it on your face,” she said. “But then, I moved.”
When Divija arrived in the United States, her parents didn’t want her to do dance. Instead, they wanted to alleviate the pressure and help her settle in and adjust to this new home, 8,955 mi away from her former one.
“When I came here I just got busier,” she said. “We were thinking about dance last year, but I honestly don’t know what happened. It just didn’t happen. I’m kind of sad.”
“I remember these small small things,” Divija said, “maybe it’s because I have these pictures on my wall.”
Divija’s wall of pictures is composed of 22 pinned images all from India. A few are class pictures from D.A.V. public schools. Others are more meaningful like the lower left hand one where she’s standing on an award podium as second place for long jump. Wearing forest green sweatpants and the same green-shaded shirt with white sleeves, representing B.V.M.’s school colors, Divija proudly held her certificate and blue-ribboned medal.
“I was feeling proud and happy,” she said. “When I received it, the entire school was looking at me.”
Another sports picture is a candid shot in action while she sprinted into the lead on the track field in a 400 m relay race in her cherry red shorts and the same forest green and white shirt. She got first place.
Next to that image is Divija in a long, white skirt, a gold-colored blouse, and gold dupatta at the end of her Kathak styled dance performance during Annual Day, hosted by B.V.M. It was her last dance performance and she didn’t even know it at the time. But today, these recollections live forever on her wall of pictures and far, far beyond.
“These are the moments I remember and it’s just a supportive moment,” she said. “It’s like you’re proud of yourself. You know?”