‘Dreaming in Hindi’, listed as one of the terrific 10 best reads in USA-2009, has the Indian edition on stands now. Neither a travelogue nor an essay, the book has the elements of both. It is largely description, bringing insights and concepts about human calibre to learn and soak up languages.
This is the first book that looks closely at the author – Katherine Russell Rich’s decision to learn Hindi. It is western, that India is where one needs to be, to lurch across the meaning in life. ‘Hindi is strewn with words no one in America had used since Agatha Christie’s time and for that alone I love it,’ she declares in the preface.
Katherine Russell Rich is a former lifestyle magazine journalist, who decided to move to Udaipur (Rajasthan), from New York to learn Hindi, inspired by a desire to learn a second language. But the real inspiration for her is a memoir of Elizabeth Gilbert – a fellow American whose extended trip after her divorce to India in finding spiritual sustenance, chronicled into a publishing phenomenon, now being made into a movie starring Julia Roberts who spent time recently in the same Ashram in Haryana on which Gilbert based her India adventure. Katherine, having survived divorce, bout with cancer and being fired by her editing job , felt she has no language to describe her experiences of life so decided to borrow a language from someone else – India!
A language is a whole map of reality; Katherine has drawn this map of Indian reality through the laborious task of learning Hindi, through her experiences and encounters in Rajasthan which offers segment of a complex and multilayered reality called India. When Katherine stretches this segment to look like the whole, the overview shows unjustly blown up, misappropriate and overdo simplification.
She starts by taking Hindi classes in New York which blossomed into obsession with the language, her journey to Udaipur, encounters with royalty and commoners, gurus, teachers and students, secularists and communists, some of them whom we can indentify like Nand Chaturvedi (Udaipur based Hindi poet) and Nand Kishore Acharya ( Bikaner based Hindi poet and critic). It pretty much describes the literary journey of the author that the reader will perforce to take to come in grips with author’s linguistic love affair. Very appreciatable is Katherine’s writing style, wit and calls for grade of compassion in this memoir part travelogue.
As the pages roll on, one feels that it is two books clubbed as one. The first part talks about her physical journey to India, with snapshots of life in India and the people she meets. Katherine arrives in India just before the September 11, 2001 and she highlights the reactions of different ethnic and religious groups towards the event. Some characters are two dimensional like the Jains – the host family and others who are described memorably like Helaena.
Once the reader is occupied in the narration of part one, the author shifts to other aspect which is her linguistic journey, told in three ways – the titles are entertaining, stories of her experience with the language and through the passages from linguistic theories which intersperse the book.
The story of her linguistic log is narrated in 19 chapters. Through her Hindi learning journey she ascertains that different language offers a different way of viewing the world. For instance, drinking a cigarette rather than smoking it, basking in the sun but not sunbathing or that in India there is no female orgasm, not to speak of it, as orgasm is applied to men only.
Katherine jumps to many conclusions sometimes suddenly, but once in a while they are interesting, like this one; ‘there weren’t separate terms for marriage and wedding, shaadi was your wedding and your marriage a small distinction’. This was closely on over-reading on the language as she writes ‘there is no conversion rite into Hinduism, but there is learn Hindi’, as this language is knotted with Hinduism.
The author while endorsing the view that emotions derive from cultural scripts and as such are learned in the language of the culture, perhaps that is why she explains months into learning the language she has become aware of feelings that she never experienced before. Fortunately enough there are many such moments when Katherine is expressively intensed and truthfully susceptible.
But what doesn’t go well with the reading is the central thesis, that mastery of a new language will make her a new person. There is little self-revelation to support it. Hindi is interesting to Katherine, kind of a slice of exotica. Her India is strewn with stereotypes and Hindi phrases which provide nothing to description. She depicts herself as a serious enough student of Hindi trying to escape the ordeals of her past without explaining what it is and what she gains by the end of it all.
There are many hit and miss incidents and people in this book, leaving her Indian sense and its language in literary midpoint. There are the ghastly Gujarat riots which interpose the plot but add a little to its expeditions. This is definitely conceited new age reading which adds little to the author’s status and fictional tastes. The book in the end embodies a rich emotional intelligence which gets formed from learning a language so distant and strange for someone brought up in USA. Truly an extraordinary read.
I write a lot, which keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. There is always something to write about, always a new story to craft. Not writing, for me, is like trying to hold back a sneeze. Learning to write was the most powerful influence in my life. I can still remember the awe I felt when I realized I could put real words onto paper and tell out a story. From that first ‘a-ha’ moment I knew I wanted to write.
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