The sensual experience of learning Hindi and the transforming glimpses of ‘elsewhere’ that it afforded was what attracted her to learn the language and write about it, says American author Katherine Russell Rich. Excerpts from an interview…
American writer Katherine Russell Rich's 'Dreaming in Hindi' is an engaging, informative account of a year spent in Udaipur, learning Hindi from scratch. In this email interview, she discusses the process and what it did for her.
You mention in your book that you weren't quite sure why you chose to learn Hindi in particular. But do you think your achievement, of re-imagining your world through a second language, would have been as personally rewarding if the language had been some other?
Yeah, I kind of stumbled into Hindi — I didn't know precisely why. I wasn't one of those Westerners who was after all-things-Indian to get jolts of spiritual enlightenment. I just liked the way the language felt in my mouth, I liked the glimpses it gave me of someplace so different from what I knew. It's funny to say this about something as cerebral as learning a language, but I liked the sensual experience of Hindi.
I sometimes think when we allow ourselves to stumble into something, we leave ourselves open to larger forces guiding us in the right direction... Hindi and India were an absolutely essential part of the mix, it turned out. But no way would I have anywhere near the same rewarding experience had I gone, say, to Cuernavaca to learn Spanish. Hindi and daily Indian life are so infused with the wisdom of the Vedas, that wisdom seeps in whether you're looking for it or not. And whether you intend for it to or not, it's transforming. In casual conversation, for instance, somebody said to me, “Life is a rope snake,” and I haven't felt fear with quite the same intensity since. And as a proper, distanced Anglo-American, I was at first horrified by, then totally melted by the boisterous closeness of an Indian family. I ended up loving that and yearning for more.
As someone who balks at the idea of learning another language in adulthood, I was very struck by your analysis of how traumatic a process this is, and how it requires unsettling your whole way of thinking. Do you think you could have done it if your own life had not been at a cross-roads at the time?
Being at a cross roads gave me the time to get away, but I'm not sure it's what enabled me in the process. It might sound weird, but I think what came in most useful was the fact that I've had cancer for two thirds of my adult life. When you live with cancer, you have to figure out ways to live with constant uncertainty, and same thing goes for when you learn a language: Did that man just say what I thought he said? No way. Wait, wait: I think he did. In both instances, you either learn to be fluid or you go nuts. In my case, I'd already gotten a jump on learning to be fluid when I started learning Hindi.
It's often said that we in India must all learn a common language if we're going to get over our linguistic rivalries. But since this can be such a painful process, would you say a ‘live and let live' philosophy is a better approach?
A live-and-let-live-philosophy is a better approach in theory, but I'm not sure it is in practice. For a country to truly function, doesn't it need to have some kind of collective national voice? On the other hand, just as you can't invent a symbol, you can't thrust a language on people. A language is so much a part of the unconscious, it has to be gently incorporated or it'll never seep into the deeper levels.
As India continues to change so rapidly, I have a feeling the situation with languages might too, maybe because there'll be more incentive to have a common language. It won't be a matter of ramming it down people's throats. It'll be a necessity for doing business.
Reading your book, it's obvious you love English. In a paradoxical way, do you think that helped you with your Hindi — knowing that it would always be at arm's length, so to speak?
I do love English but I think that's largely because, like a lot of writers, I love language. And loving language, no question, helped me with Hindi. Unfortunately, I think that knowing English would always be my primary language slowed me down with Hindi. If you're a Hindi-only speaker and go to America, you can't cheat and fall back on Hindi when you get sick of fumbling through in another language. But if you're American and go to India, you can always corral someone into speaking English with you, to the detriment of your Hindi.
Has your time in India learning Hindi changed your use of English?
In the beginning, that was happening all the time. You know how people in India often say “Hum” in a sentence where English speakers would say “I”? I was constantly doing the reverse — “We'll be there at 7, then” — and people would say, puzzled, “We? Who else is coming?”
I was in such an Indian frame of mind, it took me about a year to know how to begin the book. One small example: I'd gotten used to the Indian sense of hierarchy and so I kept balking at writing about my teachers in any way that might sound disrespectful. This is the dead opposite approach you want to take with an American audience, who've been seeped in notions of “everyone's equal” their whole lives.
I finally snapped out of it when one day, I was telling a writer friend a very rude but very funny story about one of the teachers and she said, “Of course you're going to put that in the book?” Without thinking, I answered, “Oh no, that would be disrespectful,” and she cried, “What. Are. You. Talking. About?” After that, I was back in America.