Monday, March 29, 2010

REVIEW: Dreaming in Hindi

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language
Katherine Russell Rich
Rs 395
Pp 401


Having miraculously survived a serious illness and now at an impasse in her career as a magazine editor, Katherine Russell Rich spontaneously accepted a free-lance writing assignment to go to India, where she found herself thunderstruck by the place and the language. Before she knew it she was on her way to Udaipur, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, in order to learn Hindi.

In this inspirational memoir, Rich documents her experiences in India — ranging from the bizarre to the frightening to the unexpectedly exhilarating — using Hindi as the lens through which she is given a new perspective not only on India, but on the radical way the country and the language itself were changing her. Fascinated by the process, she went on to interview linguistics experts around the world, reporting back from the frontlines of the science wars on what happens in the brain when we learn a new language. Seamlessly combining Rich’s courageous (and often hilarious) personal journey with wideranging reporting, Dreaming in Hindi offers an eye-opening account of what learning a new language can teach us about distant worlds and, ultimately, ourselves.

Review The Economic Times

Katherine R Rich has a wicked sense of humour and this becomes apparent from the very start of the book. The account of her stay in India brings forth the many Indias, a cauldron that would leave any straight-head American bewildered in no time. But Rich is in no rush to go back. Besieged by the idiosyncratic, passionate, and the argumentative Indian, she takes her time to settle down and belts out her chronicles in lucid chapters—one after another. And she soon begins to see and present India from the prism of Hindustani language.

To an Indian reader, this book offers a mirror, though often not as brutally as did VS Naipaul or Pankaj Mishra in their accounts under similar surroundings. Rich has a subtle touch, and she makes good, timely use of Hindi words to drive home her observations. Not for nothing that the book was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s list of ‘Ten most thrilling reads of 2009’.  
Getting transformed by learning a new language Suite

Near the start of Dreaming in Hindi, author Katherine Russell Rich says: "I took up with Hindi at a time when it seemed my life had buckled out from under me." In the wake of a bout with cancer and the discovery that her job didn't make her happy any more, Katherine decides to head for Udaipur in India to learn Hindi. She continues: "I no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided I'd borrow someone else's."

So begins a year long odyssey which is chronicled in Dreaming in Hindi. The book blends the author's memoirs from that period with the latest thinking on linguistics and second language acquisition. An assignment for a magazine starts the ball rolling, and on her return from India she begins taking Hindi lessons. Soon that's not enough and she makes the decision to leave her old life behind and take a course in India.

Rich encounters Hindu

It so happened that I read this book at a time when I was having to speak five languages on a daily basis. None of them was new; but reading this made me aware of what I was doing. I could almost sense the different brain paths in use, and I was certainly sensible of a different cultural approach to each. It was the best way – and one I could never have planned – to appreciate Rich's experience of learning Hindi from scratch.

Writerly forays

Rich's background is with magazines, not academics. Why she chose to learn Hindi is never clearly spelled out. She'd lost her job, and was recovering from cancer. (She wrote an award-winning book about her battle with “The Red Devil”.) She lied to an editor who'd asked her for some freelance work, saying “I'll be in India,” and was told, “Do something for us there.”

From Delhi, she was sent to an academy in Udaipur which taught foreign students. She arrived at a difficult time: five days before the attacks on New York, and that was followed in short order by the attack on Parliament, then came Godhra and the subsequent carnage. Her magazine background serves her well. She details with painstaking and sometimes painful honesty her reactions to the hatred spewed by fanatics everywhere, the branding of humans by community. There was then a palpable, shimmering unease in the air which she describes elegantly.

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