American journalist and author Katherine Russell Rich spent a year between 2001-2002 in India learning Hindi at an Udaipur school. Recently released in India, Dreaming in Hindi, an account of her stay in the country, has won the approval of Oprah and was received warmly by The New York Times. In an email interview, Rich discusses how the trip shaped her understanding of India and its culture, the intricacies of Hindi, and how the Gujarat riots affected her work and perception of our country. Excerpts:
What about Dreaming in Hindi will surprise Indian readers?
I think a lot in the book will surprise them. The language took me deeper into the country than many Western writers go, or than the ones who come over and write about finding themselves in India go. I was more interested in finding India, which I’d fallen in love with through the Hindi language when I was studying it back in New York. A lot of Americans come to India and are overwhelmed by the differences, but because I was going in on words, I was able, through language, to make faster sense of India. The more I understood life there, the more that aspects of it became so compelling. I begin to love the closeness I found in Indian families, for instance, and maybe that’s one thing that will surprise Indian readers—that a fiercely independent, privacy loving New York journalist could come to cherish the nosiness and clamor and boisterous emotion that you find in Indian families. I still sometimes wish I had an Indian family here in New York to go stay with.
What was your first exposure to Hindi?
I first encountered Hindi on a fast-dash trip to India. The New York Times had call me, out of the blue, with an assignment in India. I grabbed a friend, a friendly Texan, and we went. She was practicing Hindi from a book the whole way, and it just kept breaking the ice with people; it kept sliding us in to the country. When I got back, for fun and to preserve the memory of India, I signed up for a Hindi lesson. And, well, I guess you could say that lesson snowballed.
I loved the script, loved practising it for hours, so that wasn’t a tricky part. But for the longest time, what really threw me was trying to speak in sentences where the verb went at the end. It felt like falling backward—it would give me vertigo! Finally, I ended up doing what I do when I ski—when I’d start a sentence, I’d just push off and not look down. And sometimes the words came out as gobbledy-gook, and sometimes, to my surprise, my teacher would look as if I’d just made sense.
What do I find most interesting about the language? The shades of meaning, the nuances, you can express. American English is such a direct, howdy-boy language. The subtleties of Hindi, by comparison, are beautiful. The fact that you can layer verbs with politeness — kar-dijiie — well, that still strikes me as something gorgeous.
What was the most fulfilling part of your trip, of learning Hindi and writing the book?
Two things come to mind. The friendships I made in India were and still are incredibly fulfilling. And so was the net effect of the whole experience — trip/book/learning Hindi, for the way that it made me see I didn’t have to be so afraid of the unknown. Writing the book took me into so many unknowns — a culture and language that was alien at first, the brain science of language acquisition — and each time, it was like learning to speak in sentences with the verb at the end. I’d hold my breath, not look down, and just go. In the eight years it took me to write the book, I learned that just because something scares you, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something to be afraid of. What’s fulfilling about all this now is that now I’ll try all kinds of things that before, I might not have. I’ll take on subjects in my writing that before, I’d have thought too complex, that would have intimidated me.”
Has any phrase stuck with you?
I don’t know if this is an standard aphorism or not, but one day, my Hindi teacher Vidhu said, “The earth wears everything, even us,” and that image has stayed with me ever since.
You were in Udaipur during the Gujarat riots. How did that affect you and your writing?
My understanding of the riots came in layers — I was trying to understand what was happening using what was still rudimentary language, my graduate school Hindi. It wasn’t till I got back to the States and poured through accounts of what happened that I really understood the extent of the atrocities that went on. There was a time that this did affect my perception of India and I had to wait for that general upset to fade. Once it did, I made the decision to write about the violence in the book. I wanted to be true to all facets of what I’d experienced in India, but at the same time, I hoped that the love I felt for the place would remain uppermost in my readers’ minds.
Are there any anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book?
There was the time I moved in with a family called the Bhatts, whose lovely 16th-century home revealed itself to be booby-trapped the first morning at 5 am. This, I soon determined, was when metallic slamming from what sounded like a munition factory would regularly start up somewhere in the bowels. Despite aural evidence to the contrary, Mr Bhatt, however, would insist the noise was a figment of my imagination. “There are no dum-dums,” he’d swear, using what was apparently the Hindi for “sound produced by crazed metal workers who’ve gotten a hold of sledgehammers.”
I tested Mr Bhatt’s patience as well. One day, he took me to a store to buy a geyser, a small heating tank. The word confused me at first, since it’s pronounced more like “geezer,” which in America, means “crotchety old coot.” So we were off to buy a geezer. “How much water do you require for your daily shower?” Mr. Bhatt inquired in the appliances department. I looked at him dumbly, tried to think. In the States, that question never comes up.
“HOW…MANY…LITRES…DO… YOU…REQUIRE… FOR…YOUR SHOWER?” he repeated, loudly. He ascribed to the same school of talking-to-foreigners my father did—if you shout it, they’ll get it, eventually. He tried speaking emphatically and when I looked blank, went back and enunciated some more. The geezer salesmen were all bent forward, staring, like they wished I’d just name a number, but I knew what would happen if I did—someone would go bug-eyed, for I’d have given an unfathomable number: I require 50,000 gallons of water, something like that. “To me the amount of water is not known,” I repeated, till Mr. Bhatt was whipped. “I am thinking 15 litres?” he said finally, appraising my body weight. Oh that’s right, I forgot, 15, I said, and he happily pointed to a model with pink roses. Everyone was relieved but me. I knew whatever size we got would be two liters short, that no matter how fast I was in the shower, it would always run out exactly when I put the conditioner in.
You mention returning to Udaipur four years afterwards – had your relationship with the city changed?
It felt flat and sorrowful at first to be there because, of course, the city had changed. Good friends had died. Others had moved on. The school were I’d studied was gone. And tourists! Tourists, Western tourists, were everywhere: so different from the year I’d lived there. There hadn’t been many then because five days after I arrived, the World Trade Centre was attacked and most Westerners cleared out. And I hadn’t realized it, but the city had remained entirely preserved the way it was in my head—I’d been working on the book for four years at that point, living in that one year, in that one place in my mind, for four years. So the changes were a shock to the system. But all the same, I was so extremely happy to be back, to see the people I did know there, to be back in a place I loved so much.
Have you heard from anyone inspired to learn Hindi by your example?
I’m constantly getting emails from Americans who tell me they’re about to start studying it–so get ready for hordes of white people wandering around saying, “Namaste, y’all!”