Updated: May 6, 2010 19:03 IST

Rich encounters

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An admirable tenacity underlies an account that is sometimes pitted with blunders

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.

Personal relationships are her metier. Her depictions of social dynamics at the language academy, with her various local hosts, among the expats, at a school for deaf children – all these leaven the narrative and make absorbing reading. She also has a gift for concisely expressing complex ideas. What adds great value is her attempts, before and after her Indian sojourn, to pin down the physiology of language skills. She has spoken to and read many experts, with almost as many theories. She offers these lucidly and convincingly where relevant to her story.

An instance, at random:

Recently, a cognitive neurolinguist at the University of Washington made an extraordinary discovery about the extent to which our brains understand more than we can say. [He] scanned neophyte French students… using a device that measures electrical activity in the brain. At two weeks in, after test participants had received only eight hours of instruction, [he] attached electrodes to their scalps and showed them lists of words. Some were French, some made up. When they were asked to say which were which, they did as expected: scored, on average, 50 per cent. They guessed…. But the scans showed their brains were getting the answers right.

There are too many such remarkable findings to quote in a review.

Rich falls into many of the traps India sets for Westerners. There is the inapposite caste-naming, for example: “the pretty Brahmin teacher”. When she wants to talk to “a dalit”, any dalit, she is warned off by an instructor. Is it so difficult, finding “a dalit”? There are outdated notions of Indian women living a secret life. (This is perhaps not so outdated in Rajasthan. But then she shouldn't talk of “Indian women”.)

To be fair, she makes her own bloomers too. She confuses the Indian Congress with the American idea; says south Indian languages are as far from Hindi as English is from Mandarin; describes the charkha as having adorned the Indian flag for many years…. And ye gods, her spellings: “atmaan, Brahmaan”, “mendhi”, “Vidyala” – I wonder why, if Westland must reprint an American book for us, they can't correct these things.


Though Rich achieved, in some measure, her dream of dreaming in Hindi, her language skills cannot be very considerable. Her Hindi is of that Sanskritic order which is taught in schools, and rings quaintly to the man in the street. Rajasthan is not the best place to learn the lingua Indica. Her English, too, like that of so many American writers (and Indian journalists), is often found to settle for the approximate rather than the exact. On the same page I find “a trifling” used for “a trifle” and “precedence” for “precedent”.

But working polyglots, unlike academics and UN interpreters, need to communicate, not dazzle. It is Rich's journey that is fascinating. She did not undertake it for any material reward (though this book must be selling), but for the excitement of what she discovered along the way. That is its own reward, both for her and the reader. A professional academic would have written a more factually accurate account. She would have used more method. She would also, nine times out of ten, have been boring. It is precisely Rich's peripatetic approach that gives this book its charm. So long as it is not used as a guide – but that is, unfortunately, just how the unwary and lazy will use it. Bhai, zaraa dekhke chalo.

Vijay Nambisan's translations of two 16th century Kerala poems were published last year.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming awake in another Language; Katherine Russell Rich; Tranquebar Press; Rs.395.

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