Hemal is one of the most outgoing, cheerful members of Willy AB. We sat down to discuss his childhood in Coventry, England, and how he ended up at the College. He also described his love of music – both grime and classical Indian.
BH: What was it like to grow up in Coventry?
HP: I thought Coventry was a small city, but compared to here, it’s a megacity. [Laughs.] Growing up there was hard, especially the area where I grew up, even though I lived in a fairly newly built estate. Is “estate” a word here?
HP: Like, a group of houses?
BH: I consider it to be a big plot of land with a mansion.
HP: No, not like that. An estate refers to a bunch of houses. I grew up in a fairly new estate, but all of the surrounding areas were pretty bad with a lot of gang violence. The school that I went to was right in the middle of the city. It had people from similar areas to me, so it wasn’t the most privileged school, if you get what I mean. Everyone came from rough backgrounds.
Coventry was also a big refugee city, especially when I was at secondary school when a lot of wars were going on in the Middle East. A lot of refugees were coming to England, and a lot would come to cities like Coventry. They settled into the same area where I lived, so my school was mostly that demographic. It was a really diverse school – there was something like 60 languages spoken and only 750 students. It wasn’t the best school, and we were really low in terms of national rankings, but I enjoyed growing up in that school. It was rough, but I felt comfortable because I had a group of friends since the start, and we knew the whole area.
BH: Did you befriend people who were from different places and spoke different languages than you?
HP: Yeah, I had quite a mixed group of friends. We would make new friends because it was quite common for new people to come in every year. It wasn’t fixed.
BH: Could you tell me your favorite and least favorite things about England?
HP: My favorite thing is probably the football culture – soccer culture, right? I just love how everyone is in love with this one game. The atmosphere at games is insane compared to here. I’ve been to a baseball game here, and I didn’t feel like it was the same. There, you walk into a stadium and it’s just buzz everywhere. The crowds are insane, and there are all of these chants going on. But my least favorite thing is the weather, easily. It’s always wet, miserable and rainy.
BH: How did you end up at Williams, and what was your transition like?
HP: I was in this program for kids from less privileged backgrounds and low-performing public schools in England who performed highly in high school. It’s for them to access higher education in the U.S. I applied to that program and ended up getting in. They have a bunch of information sessions regarding U.S. schools and how to apply. They also take you on a week of summer school in the U.S.
I stayed at Yale, but we went to a bunch of other schools too. I got to see what the U.S. system is like. That’s how I got interested in American schools. The program covers the cost of the entire thing. They also provide you with a mentor who reads your applications and makes suggestions for how you can improve, so it’s a bit like Matriculate. So I came through that program, and they recommended that I apply to Williams, so I did. I came to Previews after I got accepted, and I just kind of loved the place because I wanted to get away from a city vibe.
BH: I know you’re a triplet. Could you tell me about your sisters and what that’s like?
HP: I have two sisters. One of them is currently retaking the last year of high school, and the other is at a college in England studying pharmacy. There was quite a lot of fighting growing up. [Laughs.] There was a really big rivalry between us, and we always wanted to be better than each other in school. But we’re way closer now than we were before. My sisters still fight with each other though, and I am kind of the peacemaker.
BH: You mentioned football/soccer earlier. What team do you support and why?
HP: I support a team called Manchester United. That’s the team I’ve supported since I was young, since the Cristiano Ronaldo days. He was just my favorite player; I decided that when I was 7. He was playing for United at the time, so I started supporting United. They would always win, so that’s what appealed to younger me, and then I just stuck with it.
BH: You are also a big fan of cricket. What do you like about it?
HP: I grew up watching cricket because my family is from India. In India, cricket is literally a religion. I always wanted to play, so my dad took me to my first club when I was 8 years old. I started playing then and I was decent at it, I guess. I ended up playing junior county-level cricket. If I had made it to national-level cricket, then I wouldn’t have come to the U.S. because there’s no cricket here. I kind of stopped playing during exam season anyway, and it whittled away. But I still love following it.
BH: In addition to sports, you are really into music. I know that you like grime and play the Indian drums (tabla). Could you tell me about that?
HP: Grime is basically a British form of rap. I know some people don’t like it – let me ask you a question: Why don’t you like it?
BH: I guess I prefer songs with clearer melodies.
HP: That’s one reason to not like it, and a lot of people think that the beats are stupid. But for me, it’s more about the meaning of the songs because a lot of grime artists are people that came from gang violence. They rap about their lives and their stories, and that’s what got me into grime because I’ve seen friends who have gone down that route. I can kind of relate to it. And I love the beats. I don’t know what you’re talking about. And now in the U.S., mumble rap is big. Grime is more like old school rap when they just rap and don’t make stupid noises, and the lyrics aren’t just meaningless. Their lyrics are genuine, and it’s straight, hardcore rap.
I’m also into Indian classical music because I grew up in the temple. I started going when I was young, and in Hindu culture and temples, music is a huge thing – it’s a way of offering devotion, I guess. That’s how I got into Indian singing and drums. I saw someone playing and said, “This looks so cool. I need to play this.” My granddad would buy me instruments from India and bring them back to the U.K., and I would literally watch people play onstage and try to copy it. I never had any formal training, because I couldn’t find a teacher in my area, and lessons are really expensive. So I taught myself and grew up accompanying people in the temple.
When I was doing that, I wasn’t into the classical part of the music; I was more into the devotional, religious music. But then I went to a Zakir Hussain concert – [he’s] one of the biggest musicians in the world. He’s big in the West too because he has done a lot of collaborations. The stuff that he played was just insane. I could never even imagine playing it, so I was like, ‘I need to learn this stuff’ and began watching YouTube videos and learning classical pieces. Now that I’m at Williams, I have a formal teacher, and he’s really good. He’s learned from some of the best musicians in the world. He is currently teaching me more Indian classical music, and I’m enjoying that.