Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

My spoken Hindi is shaky at best. But I can read Hindi fairly fluently, one reason being that it shares its script, called Devanagari, with my mother tongue. A little detail I love about the cover of Dreaming in Hindi is how the title of the book is fashioned to look like Devanagari, squiggly letters with a line running across the top.

One of the harder aspects of learning Hindi for an English-native must be this script, which unlike English, is perfectly phonetic and has no letters for vowels. We add additional markers on each consonant letter for any following vowel sounds and consonant clusters. So the name Priya consists only of two letters (प्रि and या) in Hindi - a fact that must take a while to wrap your head around. We in turn find it difficult to make sense of all the vocalic variations in English and spend long hours scratching our heads over why the word lose sounds no different from loose... I digress.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich is a book for language lovers by a language learner. Which makes it basically, very subjectively, the best kind of book. Having recovered from a long cancer treatment, American journalist Kathy Rich finds herself wanting to escape. And in what I have been told is a rather Eat, Pray, Love-esque way, sets out to remote India on a freelance writing assignment. A Hindi learning course takes her to Udaipur, a small city in the desert of Rajasthan. Kathy describes it as exactly the sort of exotic mess that the word India would bring to mind - dust and scorching heat, women in billowing sarees, lavish palaces, narrow streets, and minds steeped in old tradition.

Dreaming in Hindi follows Kathy's experience of learning by-immersion a strange foreign tongue, the struggle to make meaning when thrust into a new reality, the myriad misunderstandings it leads to, the peculiarities of the Hindi classroom, the cultural demands from a white woman in semi-rural India. Kathy's accounts also describe the political situation in the country, beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, which happens shortly after her arrival in India. Nearly a year later, even as she exchanges emails with her American friends about the tragedy, the India around her is cocooned in its own suffering, with many instances of communal violence leading up to the 2002 riots in Gujarat... it is a book that teaches vital lessons in empathy. 

But this is not a travelogue, Kathy never quite embraces the new. She frequently turns into a carping critic of everything Indian; not once acknowledging it as a natural result of culture shock. Many, many characters populate Kathy's accounts, much like they do the country. Kathy resorts to calling people by descriptors - the Whisperer, Dad 1, Dad 2. She mostly keeps to herself, and despite having lived in a home-stay for fairly long, leaves with hardly any insight into the middle-class Indian mind. Towards the end of the book, even as she waxes eloquent about how she misses Hindi back home, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, she actually liked about it. She is funny, I'll give her that. But her constant acerbic remarks about her peers are petty and take a while to get used to. 

The best moments are when Kathy becomes obsessed with the Bollywood movie Lekin, the time she spends volunteering at a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, learning sign languages, her doctor's visits, and her interactions with the Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi. Such times, when she castes aside her reckless judgement or learns better, are worth it. 

Miracles are limited by place. "If you smile, you heal faster," Dr Aggarwal told the uterine cancer patient, but away from her room, in the dim scruffy hall, he said simply, "If you get cancer here, you die." And her? Too advanced, he said matter-of-factly. He brightened. "To you make a patient smile, you make them healthy," he chimed. So cruel, I thought, breathless with anger, then I saw. That's all he had. All he had were words. 

She intersperses her anecdotes with conversations and consultations she later had with various linguists, academics, pedagogues about language acquisition. It is cool how many sociolinguists cite this book as a good perspective on language learning (most recently I saw it in a book by applied-linguist Vivian Cook.) Kathy also details the most basic theories of language science and its history, throws us interesting tidbits she learns along the way - like how sign languages have dialects, or how you can be dyslexic in one language and not another, and so on... things which, as a Linguistics student, I know and have studied, but are pretty cool either way. 

And these little dollops of information are what makes Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich just the nicest read for anyone interested not only in contemporary India, but its language and most of all, anyone curious to know what linguistics is all about. (More specifically recommended for people who already know a bit about Indian languages.)

Foreign language studies are a rigged operation, I learned. An estimated 95 percent of students "fossilize," the linguistic term for hardening at a certain level. Ninety-five! So accent's a given, perfection's impossible, and odds are you're on your way to becoming a linguistic fossil: good work. At some point, then, the question has to become, Why would you even try?

In Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. "Dhoop khana?" I asked Gabriella Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, first time we hit the phrase. "Sunbathe," she said smiling. "To bask in the sun." My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that's the short-form answer to the question of why you'd try. 

3 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Great post.

I never knew anything about Hindi. It sounds like such an interesting language. As you point out it really does sound challenging for a non native speaker to learn.

This narrative really sounds like it is a worthwhile read. i think that an imperfect narrator can make a book better.

Priya said...

Hi Brian, it is an interesting language, it sounds quite nice too. I wish I spoke it better. You make a curious point about the imperfect narrator, I've never thought about it that way...

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Interesting review. I think learning Hindi and learning Thai fall into the same category for people who follow the Roman alphabet. Thai writing seems to have the same "squiggle issue" (that's what I call those little things you add to words or letters).
Trying to understand another culture requires a flexibility of mind which takes a long time to acquire. By learning about the writing one can also learn a lot about the culture.

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