Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russel Rich

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I picked up this book after a rather long hiatus from my own Hindi learning, feeling the need to get back into it and wanting some encouragement. I initially found Dreaming in Hindi a bit stilted, but as I got to know Katherine better, the book grew on me. When looking up images to add to this post whilst I was about half way through reading it, I was saddened to discover that the author died earlier this year, from the breast cancer that she had struggled with off and on for about half her life. The poignancy of the second half of the book was heightened by knowing this.

Dreaming in Hindi is a memoir of New Yorker Katherine Russell Rich’s year spent in Udaipur in 2001-02, studying Hindi. At forty-five years old, Rich had been through a lot in life—suffering from cancer twice before writing this book, losing her job, going through a divorce—and immersing herself in a completely new and different experience was her way of feeling alive. The year is tumultuous but ultimately rewarding and life changing for Rich.

Interspersed with her observations about life in Rajasthan, her American classmates, and the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat—both of which happened while she was in India—are explorations of the linguistic theory behind the experience of learning a second language as an adult. Rich interviewed numerous linguists in the US and read a lot of the scholarship on the topic, to try to better understand what was happening to her brain as the Hindi slowly, but surely, took root. I haven’t read Rich’s first memoir, The Red Devil, about her battles with cancer, but I suspect this attempt to explore the workings of her brain as this new thing took root there may parallel how she attempted to understand the cancer spreading through her body. While this linguistic aspect of the book was interesting at times, I couldn’t help but feel that much of it was unnecessary. The memoir itself was strong enough to not need this. I found these parts a bit tedious, and I wanted to get back to the real story.

I enjoyed Rich’s humour, which enabled her to laugh at herself at times when she clearly felt out of her depth and uncomfortable as a foreigner in a small Indian city. As her Hindi progressed, she was able to make the kinds of connections and friendships with Indians that most foreigners would not be able to:

“With Hindi, I have the surprise element. “The first time I saw a Westerner speaking Hindi, it was like seeing a chicken barking,” Vidhu recently remarked. “Until then, I thought they were just coming here walking on their toes, looking at us like animals. But when a foreigner came to my house and started speaking Hindi, I was like, va! My whole world changed.” In France, the simple fact that I was saying it in their language elicited eye rolling and contempt. In India, I can mangle words till they squeak, but the fact that I’m saying anything at all provokes astonishment. “Oh, very good! Very good!” someone will invariably say after a sentence such as “Your shoes are nice.” I set up the cheap ego trick, fall for it constantly, don’t care that it’s merely proof that there aren’t a lot of other leghorns talking.” (p. 117)

Aside from this rather charming humour, I didn’t feel that Rich was a natural writer throughout much of the book. Parts of it were rather stilted or forced, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It may have been that she dropped pronouns a lot of the time, giving the impression of an interior monologue with fragmented thoughts and feelings that trailed off sometimes. I got used to this pace, but before I did it felt quite awkward.

I’m about to do an intensive Hindi course in Delhi myself (though not for nearly as long as would be needed to bring me up to scratch) and Dreaming in Hindi has encouraged me that it might be possible to be proficient, one day. I’ve had the nagging feeling that I started out too late—taking up Hindi in my mid-late twenties—and I’d repeatedly heard that learning a new language in adulthood is just too hard. I refuse to believe it, and Dreaming in Hindi proves that it may be a challenge, but not impossible.

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