15 June 2010

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russel Rich

Staying ignorant in another language
Katherine Russel Rich survived cancer but then she lost a self-defining job of long standing. Of all the life choices this crossroads could have led her to, she picked the one that took her to India to learn Hindi. One of her objectives was to observe how the process of acquiring a second language, known to affect brain neurons, would change her as a person. This book tells the story and describes her experiences and observations in the context of the theory of language acquisition.
I tried reading Dreaming in Hindi aloud to my friend Gladys and found it exhausting. One reason was that the sentences are long and fanciful and often don’t make sense until you’ve stopped and examined them. Nowadays most people prefer a simple, straightforward and easily-understood style. There was certainly an element of poetry here – but far too much longwinded, self-indulgent expression for my taste.
Another reason both Gladys and I found this book tiring is because we felt it described a world we had never encountered and were constantly wondering whether in fact such a world did exist. The people seemed unreal and the situations ludicrous. We strongly felt that the author, despite her intention of immersing herself in something new and becoming different in the process, was describing India at a superficial level and in a rather precious, Lonely Planet sort of way, as one looking, self-absorbed, from the outside in.
One of the modules taught at the “institute” to which Katherine Russel Rich comes to learn Hindi is Sexual Harassment. She writes, “To the Indians, sexual harassment was a terrifying concept. Even its name, with its clacking, hissing sounds, was ominous. The idea behind it, actionable sexual attentions, was purely Western, and so no one understood precisely what it meant.”
Since sexual harassment is the most common or garden kind of street activity known to anyone who knows anything about the subcontinent, we found this observation strange. And when she said, “Just as South America is littered with antiquated cars, Hindi is strewn with words no one in America had used since Agatha Christie’s time, and for that alone I loved it,” we smote our foreheads in pity.
I’m sorry to say that about one fourth of the way into this book, we decided just to read a few bits from the middle and the end and then move on to another one next week. This means that you would be well justified in ignoring anything I’ve said here as superficial assessment.
Reading the last few pages, there were a fair number of missing links we had to address either by skipping because we couldn’t understand them, or by guessing what they referred to in context of what we knew. However, I’m glad we read the last bit because it has in it a valuable insight about how language works and how even someone who is an expert at a language may not understand two people who speak it because they belong to a different community and use it in a way only they can understand.

No comments:

Post a Comment