Book Review: Dreaming in Hindi

Katherine Russell Rich. Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 384 pages.

In 2001, editor and author Katherine Russell Rich decided to spend a year in India learning Hindi as a way of better understanding both India and herself. The literary result is Dreaming in Hindi, a memoir of language, culture, location, and dislocation.

Rich enrolls in an immersion program in Udaipur, a small town in Rajasthan, and gets much more than she bargained for. In the aftermath of 9/11, Rich, a New Yorker, sees the terrorist attacks through an Indian lens, facing a major irony: she left New York, but now the city is all people talk about. Her host family is polite, but not entirely accommodating, and the language study school is less than top-notch.

The book’s chief focus is on how language can change perception and even, possibly, the brain itself. Rich weaves the latest in neuro-linguistics into her memoir of India, allowing the reader to learn the science behind second language acquisition as she wades into Hindi. This is where Rich is strongest–she is able to condense complex arguments and findings into an easily understandable summary.

The trials and travails of living in Udaipur are no less interesting but seem, ironically, less immediate. Perhaps out of sensitivity to her fellow students and friends in Udaipur, it feels like the people we meet are not fully fleshed out. I had the feeling of having wandered into a conversation already underway, having missed an important bit of characterization. I simply had trouble understanding the motivations of those around Rich, of appreciating them as autonomous human beings. This might also be a result of the mental fog that surrounded Rich’s Hindi learning; she describes how, in picking up Hindi, she lost bits and pieces of English. Her dislocation and confusion certainly come through, and much of what happens to her seems slightly flat, as if translated one time too many.

On the whole, though, this is a good, interesting book, particularly for readers who are interested in travel or language.