Dreaming in Hindi
Katherine Russell Rich
Tranquebar Rs 395 pp 401
I wish I could say that I was reviewing this book having done what Katherine Russell Rich does: learning Hindi, immersion style. I'm only on my second Hindi lesson, despite having undergone my own Delhi immersion. It will be long before I'm talking unfalteringly with poets about poetry, as she managed by the end of her year.
The 40-something author hails from New York. She's made previous trips to India and has had the inevitable dose of 'fascination' with India. But to my untrained Western ear it manages to avoid the worst sort of clichés. Having spent years learning Hindi with teachers in the US Rich decides to pack in her glamorous magazine editing job, pack her Manolo Blahniks and throw her all into trying to master the language, the Devanagari script, the nuances of Sanskritisation and all.
The backdrop to this impulse, we learn someway into the book, is her remission from a second bout of cancer. She has to bargain with her doctors — that she will get her tumour markers checked regularly. It turns out that in 'coming awake in another language' she is actually 'slapping herself back to life' through the process of learning a new language, unconsciously trying to recreate 'falling in love with the world' in a way that psychologists have described the toddler's discovery of language.
The format of the book will no doubt lend itself to comparisons with fellow American journalist Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Where this book differs though is in its more nuanced tones and the feeling you get that she's almost embarrassed to write about the facts of her life.
As the months roll by in Udaipur, where she learns the language, she grows more and more aware of the peculiarity of the 'therapised' state of the Western world. Most of all, though, the difference lies in the fact that she replaces metaphysical musings with a focus on the neuroscience and psychology of 'second language acquisition'. How do neurons fire up during this process? Does your age matter? And, fundamentally, what role does language play in giving us our sense of our self as well as our sense of the world?
As the heat rises in Rajasthan, Rich deftly weaves together anecdotes about her new life. Hers is the clipped narration of a hardened New Yorker peppered with witty observations. I particularly enjoyed her sharp, yet not unkind, accounts of the increasingly surreal antics of her fellow US students.
Running throughout is the parallel story of her time spent helping out in a school for deaf boys nearby, where she discovers that the boys have invented a sign language all of their own that is entirely separate from the Rajasthani sign language being taught by the teachers. Then there's the political backdrop to the narrative — which she neither shirks nor, wisely, attempts to offer profound insights into — that could not be more ominous: 9/11, followed by the communal violence in Gujarat and a rising Indo-Pak tension.
There's enough to enjoy the characters, delight in the thoughtful, skilled writing, and learn plenty in the process. A bit overlong perhaps, but a winner nevertheless.
Katherine Rose is a New Delhi-based writer, editor and art consultant