Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book review - Dreaming in Hindi

I first heard about Katherine Russell Rich on NPR’s This American Life, for which she was interviewed not because of this book, but due to her claim to fame of surviving stage 4 cancer for 17 years.  I found the interview disappointing, in that the writers failed to ask her interesting questions or really get beyond the “wow, that’s so far out that you’re still alive” thing. Her trip to India and the book about learning Hindi was only mentioned in passing at the end of the show, and I thought, well why didn’t they get her to talk about that?  I immediately looked up the book and ordered a copy.
The author doesn’t need me to give her publicity – Oprah has already done that, putting Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language on her top-ten list. But I read it and liked it so much I wanted to talk about it in detail, and then I remembered I have a blog.
As a seasoned visitor & part-time resident of India, a student of several languages including Hindi, and an amateur linguist with an abiding interest in how we use and learn language, it would be difficult to find anyone more primed to appreciate this book than me. The author chronicles her sudden compulsion to learn Hindi and go to India to do so, and the simultaneous obsession with studying what second language acquisiton does to the mind.

She writes as a journalist, and the memoir reads in some ways like a very long New Yorker article, skillfully alternating between her personal experience of Hindi in India and linguistic analysis, the science of the brain and language which she researched upon her return.  They are equally tricky subjects.

A New York resident, Rich arrived in India five days prior to September 11, 2001.  Her stay in Rajasthan continued through the horrendous sectarian violence in Gujarat in early 2002.  These events add a particular intensity to her story, and deeply affect her experience of the language.  She notes that words such as “terrorism,” “fanaticism,” and “war” were burned irrevocably into her memory, so often were they heard and used.
I was in India during the same time period, but in much different parts of the country, less exposed to the furor of Hindu-Muslim conflict, and less affected by the “day the whole world changed” in general.  It is educative to see how this time played out differently in various Indian states.
Lest one assume that this makes for dreary reading – linguistic theory and the post-9/11 atmosphere –  Rich has a sense of humor that, in addition to being an essential prerequisite to learning Hindi in India, provides a delightful momentum to the book.  It’s possible that the funny bits are funnier if one knows India, or maybe they’re just funny on a subtler level.  At any rate, I felt a constant sense of knowing exactly what she was talking about, from discussions of “geezers” (the kind that provide hot water, not the old men) to the language of the head wobble, as in “’Haan’, I said, and gave a half head wobble, the one that means This is life.
The observations on immersion in a new language also struck home to me: “To learn a second language, you have to be willing to give your self up, the self encoded in your first one. You are no longer a person who speaks with facility and authority.”
Submitting to this state, this apparent idiocy, may be one of the hardest things about learning through immersion. I have often felt the frustration of people treating me like I’m dull-minded because of my rudimentary use of their language, or of feeling that these people can never really know me because they could not understand me if I spoke my native tongue, which is my native “me.”  There’s a surrender involved, as Rich observes and lives, and the lure and fulfillment of the second language self has to be worth the temporary sacrifice of the native language self.
There are endless arguments surrounding the extent to which language influences thought, and these are well addressed in the book, if only to illustrate the intractability of the question.  But it would be hard to deny the interweaving of language and culture, and Rich chronicles the transformation of her habits and body language, and even her face.  It’s literally impossible to be a brisk New Yorker in Hindi, and adopting the language necessitates adopting a certain air, a new approach to time, hierarchy, decorum.  This is also quite familiar to me, as I’ve slipped in and out of several different cultures, chameleon-like in the adaptation of outward behaviour and presumptions.  This is the best part of the adventure for me, and for Rich as well, it seems. By immersing in not only language but culture, one can become someone else, learning the ways of India by living them, as a method actor fully inhabits her character.
So I enjoyed the book because it was a good read, but also because of the way it made me think - the questions and ruminations that arose regarding this urge to dive into another place with one's whole mind, absorbing every aspect of the experience like a sponge, and becoming transformed by the process.
As if this book were not already more than appropriate for me, the author ends up sitting with a group of elderly Freedom Fighters and learning to spin cotton under a monument to Gandhi.  
Which could very well lead into my next blog post, if I don't get distracted by something else.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful post, thanks for sharing it.


Laura Mayotte said...

I enjoyed this post very much, as I have imagined often what it might be like to go somewhere new and completely different (for longer than a vacation), learn new languages, talk to people, awaken new parts of oneself, feel that tingle of taking in the world. I find myself watching many foreign movies lately, just to hear the languages and try to identify words and speak them. What if I woke up in France and had to just do it? So many thoughts about this concept from the point of view of having had a taste, and fantasizing about longer periods in the future. Just wonderful to read this and think of the possibilities, the good and bad that go with it, the adventure in conquering something that is both exciting and scary at once.