In the summer of 2016 began a very fulfilling romance between myself and Hindi. At the time I arrived in Pune, I could barely read Devanagari script, nor had I ever stepped foot on the South Asian subcontinent. Despite a fond familiarity with many aspects of Indian culture, I was unsure of what to expect. Most saliently, however, was the excitement that had been bubbling up and spilling out onto everyone I met in the months leading up to the summer. The end of my adolescence was punctuated by embarking on my NSLI-Y journey two days after graduating high school.
I have since taken routes to India that have been much, much longer, but landing in Mumbai at 3AM felt like collapsing after running a marathon. And yet, I couldn’t close my eyes. In my jet lagged delirium, I felt like I had landed on a different planet, and I was so honored to have been chosen for this experience. In the following days, I began to establish routines, understand the geography of Pune, and adjust myself to life in India.
I could speak at great length about the minutiae of everyday life in Pune: the crossword puzzles I preferred to pluck out of the Maharashtra Times, the unique aroma of our school canteen, my favorite shops at which to empty my wallet, how I sometimes opted for seven flights of stairs on account of my irrational impatience with our apartment building elevator. These are the things that build your relationship with a place; beyond the palace photo ops and glamour of day trips to Mumbai was the coziness and comfort I felt in my little corner of the world in Pune.
One of my favorite NSLI-Y memories was a trip I took with my host family and their extended relatives. We rented a ten-seater van and traveled throughout the Maharashtrian countryside for a day. After many chai breaks, and a quick stop at an ashram near Lonavala, we made it to our hiking destination: a beautiful waterfall cocooned by incredible vegetation. It was the middle of monsoon season and the Western Ghats were a shade of bright green that I had never even seen before. I remember sitting in the cool water, overlooking the countryside, unable to believe that I had arrived here.
Then, of course, came the task of acquiring a new language. Admittedly, I was nervous around Hindi at first, poking it gently with a stick while anxiously receding everytime I made too many mistakes. Eventually, I bolstered my arsenal with enough vocabulary and grammatical structures to open my mouth confidently. I haven’t been able to shut up since.
The most cherished part of my experience was the bond I created with my loved ones in Pune: family, teachers, friends, the not-so-stray dog who enjoyed the protection of the market just down the street from school. I now have friends dispersed across the U.S. whom I still visit and talk to regularly. I still speak with my host family weekly and I visit them every time I am back in India. Their home has become my home, my family has become their family, my host sister has become my bridesmaid, and our lives have become inseparable. It is incredible how much space in your heart people can hold even when they are 8,000 miles away.
NSLI-Y really changed me as a person. Suddenly I gained another place to call home, and my experience became part of my identity. This became integrated in my professional and academic life as well--now I spend my time reading 19th and 20th century Hindi, Urdu, Persian, and Arabic manuscripts and doing my best to spotlight subaltern South Asian histories. In August 2021 I will move to New Jersey to begin my PhD in Near Eastern Studies, where I will spend the next chapter of my life dedicated to researching the nexus of gender and religion among Muslim communities in pre-modern and modern South Asia. My NSLI-Y experience was ultimately the catalyst for this; I cannot say with certainty that I would be at this point in my career without the passions that were incubated by my first encounters with Hindi.
Since NSLI-Y, I have been back to India every year, sometimes two or three times a year. In addition to personal travel, I have completed an internship with a local NGO in Jaipur, the Critical Language Scholarship for Hindi, and a semester studying Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies. I was in Jaipur when the world shut down due to COVID-19, and since evacuating in July 2020, I anxiously await the day I can return. More importantly, in light of the last few months, the safety of my loved ones and overall recovery of India is closest to my heart.
I consider myself the luckiest person for having had the opportunity to study Hindi in such an immersive setting, and create the bonds I have via NSLI-Y. I will forever be grateful for the privilege of living in India. As an alumna now solidly into adulthood, I have the impetus to continue outreach to younger candidates who are curious and openhearted toward the world around them. NSLI-Y is so much more than a summer or a year, it is the special and unprecedented chance of a lifetime for students to gain a deep appreciation for lives lived much differently than theirs. It is the opportunity to gain a level of independence, respect, and connection that will impact you for the rest of your life.