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When American writer and journalist Katherine Russell Rich found herself at a turning point in her life she didn't go down the route recommended by many women's magazines by getting a hair-cut, going on a diet or finding a pretty young boyfriend to make her feel better. Instead, she did what I would do in her shoes and hopped on a plane to India to spend a year there. Her latest relationship had ended, her career had stalled, and she'd already lived fifteen years with a diagnosis of terminal breast cancer which had been supposed to see her off thirteen years earlier. She really did have the total freedom to just go off and do what she wanted. On the cover of her book she tells us "I took up Hindi at a time when it seemed my life had buckled out from under me - I no longer had the language to describe my own life, so I decided I'd borrow someone else's". 'Dreaming in Hindi' is the story of what happened during her year of language immersion in India.
'Dreaming in Hindi' was Katherine Russell Rich's second book. Her first had been a deeply personal account of her experience with breast cancer but please, don't switch off now as 'Dreaming in Hindi' is not about her illness; it's entirely about her 'wellness' and the redemptive power of getting away from everything you know and care about and immersing yourself in an almost totally alien culture and language. As a divorced woman in her late forties, Katherine was almost invisible in her home country but as an American-born mature student studying in India she found herself regularly stared at and a source of fascination to those around her. As her language develops she starts to enjoy the shocked looks of locals awestruck by this white woman trying to speak their language. It must have been like seeing a cat bark or a dog miaow.
She had taken Hindi lessons at home in America before leaving for India. Her tutor was a polyglot Bulgarian and, by her own admission, Katherine wasn't a great success as a student. She applied to study in India and succeeded in getting a place, not so much through her linguistic skills as through the desperation of the college to fill their places. Towards the end of the book one of the tutors praises her progress and tells her she had the worst level of Hindi of anyone they'd ever accepted on the course.
~Life and death~
After an induction period in Delhi, she and half a dozen other students are sent to the beautiful Rajastani city of Udaipur for their year of study. She soon learns that it's a strange choice of location because the locals don't actually speak Hindi as their first language. She was soon billeted in a home with a large Jain family who do their best to encourage her Hindi, despite all speaking fluent English. It must have been frustrating for all concerned. She makes friends with locals and expats alike, mostly avoiding her fellow students, none of whom are particularly 'normal'. There's a leery old bloke and a young girl who fears just about everything as well as a glamorous woman who takes up romantically with the nephew of the local Maharani, who also has the 'hots' for her. There's a good balance of observation about her fellow students and the local people she comes across and both facets of the reaction to India and to her being there are interesting.
She lives through what the old Chinese curse would have called 'Interesting Times' especially when the events of September 11th, 2001 see other Americans fleeing India to return home in fear of the country's Muslim minority. By contrast, Russell Rich sees an outpouring of sympathy by the Indians around her who are anxious to show the USA how much they care and how they share their pain. She wonders - rather appropriately - whether anyone in the USA would give a hoot if the same thing had happened in India, and of course similar things did happen in the years that followed, largely ignored by the west unless our own nationals were caught up in the violence.
~Much more than a travel tale~
Dreaming in Hindi is not your standard tale of 'I went to India and here's what I did'; it's actually rather more than that, although I'd have been pretty happy if it had been a mere travelogue. Instead, we are treated to a lot of information about how we as human beings actually learn a new language. It's clearly a topic close to her heart and after her return to the USA, she spent a lot of time interviewing linguists and educationalists who specialised in how our brains process second (or further) languages. To be honest, some of the theory went right over my head and as someone who can do little more than grasp the basics of food and drink and 'Where's the railway station?' in more languages than I care to count, I probably am not the target audience for her more academic discussions. This wasn't a problem for me as I tended to take in the relatively simplistic bits which related to how Indian people speak in Hinglish (English words with Hindi sentence constructions) rather than worry over the complexities. At times (shhhh, don't tell anyone but I paid for the book so I can read it how I like) I skipped the chunks about the science of language learning. I didn't need them because I was there to read about the experience and not the academic ponderings. I didn't find they interfered with my enjoyment and I am sure there's an audience for such stuff that's every bit as big the audience who want to read about life in India.
If you are a linguist and are interested in how we learn (or sometimes don't learn) languages, you'll most likely find this fascinating. If you love to read about people's experience of India, you can also put a tick in the box. If neither applies, it's probably best to avoid.
By the end of the book I found I really came to care about Katherine Russell Rich and I enjoyed her writing so much that I popped off to Amazon to see if she'd written anything more recent than 'Dreaming in Hindi'. I could find nothing. So next step was to Google her name and see what she'd been up to. I had a horrible shock when I learned that the woman I'd come to feel so affectionate for just by reading about her time in India had died earlier this year, at about the same time that I tracked down my copy of her book. Tragically the cancer which she'd had for 25 years and which doctors said should have killed her 23 years ago finally claimed her life. She was 56, ten years older than when she went to India. If you ever needed a morality tale about why sometimes you should put all your fears of the unknown to one side and - as Nike would say - "Just Do It", then 'Dreaming in Hindi' is such a tale.
RIP Katherine Russell Rich, author, journalist, and medical miracle - 1955 to 2012