Midway through Katherine Russell Rich’s year of learning Hindi in India, she takes a holiday with a fellow New Yorker whose direct manner of speaking unnerves her. “In a place swathed in veils—veiled references, displays, emotions, half the women—directness was shocking,” Rich writes in Dreaming in Hindi, her memoir of that tumultuous year. In recounting her education, she is regularly amazed at the ways second-language acquisition can change a person: cognitively, psychologically, socially. Things that once seemed familiar, like New York speech patterns, become strange; things once strange become familiar.
And yet it was change Rich was after when she enrolled in a Hindi language-study program in Udaipur, India, in the fall of 2001. At forty-five, she had already survived divorce, a brutal bout with cancer (chronicled in her 1999 memoir, The Red Devil), and the loss of her magazine job. As Rich observes, many people seek out new pursuits when their lives are crumbling around them. Hers just happened to be Hindi.
Like Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly popular Eat, Pray, Love, this is a memoir of discovery and rebirth in an unfamiliar place. But unlike the very readable Gilbert, Rich prizes style over plot, describing people, places, and events without any sense of narrative momentum. This aimlessness is further compounded by Rich’s unwillingness to reveal much of herself—an unfortunate quirk in a memoirist always complaining about India’s veils. Everything the reader knows of her is gleaned through her obsession with words. “Along with the language, common knowledge appears unexpectedly in my thoughts,” Rich writes in a typical passage. “I am now mysteriously possessed of random gossip, national and local, that I know with the same utter certainty that everyone else does.” She emerges as a devoted if untalented student running away from the traumas of her past, an impossibly passive person who divides her time between being lectured by teachers and neighbors and marveling at her alien surroundings. The reader suspects that a more embittered, and interesting, soul lives beyond the page, but Rich chooses not to reveal that side of herself. Language, not people, is her primary concern.
No surprise, then, that Rich is at her best when discussing language science and history. Her journalistic skills shine in these sections, as she explores the process of acquiring first and second tongues, the cultural battles evident in etymology, and such fascinating cases as a Nicaraguan school for the deaf whose students developed, and over time passed down, their own unique system of signs. Rich cleverly applies this research to her experience in India, discovering, among other things, why her English worsened while she was learning Hindi and why the children at a local deaf school seem to know words their hearing teachers don’t.
If only this had been the bulk of the book. Instead, there are too many unessential incidents, and too many people, most of them as inscrutable to the reader as they must have been to Rich. Her India remains a veiled and hazy place, its citizens and conversations dazzling but forever out of reach.
Katherine Hill has written about books for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, Poets and Writers, and other publications. She lives in Philadelphia.