I knew I was on the cusp of one of life’s major moments as I passed through the arrivals door at India Gandhi Airport in 2010. I was seventeen years old and had moved to Delhi as an NSLI-Y exchange student to engage in a cultural immersion and Hindi study at Amity International School, Noida. It became clear during my first days of India’s sweltering summer that the next ten months would encompass incredible challenge, experience, and growth. Yet I was unaware that my exchange would be the single most formative experience in my life thus far.
I came to adopt “bohot,” translating to so much, as a way to understand India during my exchange. Everything from people’s generosity to the spectrum of realities I witnessed during my bus ride to school was overwhelming. Living in Delhi was a sensory experience-a medley of color, aroma, masala, heat, set to an unending soundtrack of car horns. Life became a lesson in vibrancy. However, it was only after returning to the United States that I realized I didn’t necessarily possess the tools to understand the entirety of my experience at the time of my exchange. I continued to unpack and reflect on those ten months for years after I left India, particularly when I went to college and explored themes related to social structure, inequality, and race. Although my former life was years and continents away, India stayed with me and served as a point around which I developed my worldview. But as the potency of my days began to recede into memory, the affection I felt for my life and family in Delhi transformed into a subtle biting in my stomach. I was second-homesick.
The first time I left India I made many promises; “Call me for shaadi,” “I will come back in four years.” After graduating from college and some unexpected twists in life I had the opportunity to give fullness to those words and return to India. I had been gone for six years and had sporadically kept in contact with friends and family, if at all, yet upon landing I felt the embrace of familiarity. Delhi was not new to me, but a city as intense as Dehli may never be wholly familiar in itself. Instead I felt an overwhelming sense of family. Although we had spent many years away, in those first moments with my host mother, father, and sister I knew I was second-home.
These past months in India have been vastly different from my exchange. I spent two months working in a sustainable agriculture and biodiversity internship outside Dehradun. I rode buses to the end of the road, seeing rivers wind around mountains and whip around the contours of massive hills in pursuit of Himalayan peaks. I spent time in Dharamsala and McCleod Ganj to attend a teaching from the Dalai Lama and even had a “bougie” clubbing experience during a night out in Goa. I have felt such gratitude for those invigorsting moments in which I was living something I dreamed about as a child. However the experiences and feelings that have been most affirming weren’t centered on new adventure, instead they have had everything to do with that which remained.
Returning to India and spending time with my host mother, father, and sister has been the continuance of a beautiful gesture of family. I wouldn’t trade a moment of lounging in bed with my host-grandmother hearing her stories of various Hindu Gods and her advice regarding my (ever-distant) future in-laws, for a private audience with the Dalai Lama. It is those experiences of connection, love, and passage of knowledge that changed me so many years ago.
I know I will continue to process in the months and years to come, much as I did after my first trip to India. I am sure I will look back on this trip and think about the limits of my current awareness. Yet it is this opportunity to forever grasp, experience, and quest for more that gives India its boundlessness. All of which is essential in the exceedingly beautiful process of discovering a place, and within that, more intimately knowing yourself.