Skimming the surface

Skimming the surface

Lead Review

Skimming the surface

Sometime in 2001, Katherine Russell Rich decided to learn a new language. In fact, she decided to leave New York, go to the country where it was spoken and do a year-long course there to learn it. The language was Hindi, and the country was India. This book is partly a chronicle of that one year in India, and partly an exploration of what it feels like to learn a new language.

The book runs on four tracks simultaneously: Her experiences in India; discussions on the Hindi language itself; her views on Indian culture, religion, and so on; and finally, the neurology of learning a language, as understood from several researchers in the domain.

Of these four tracks, the last one is the most successful. Rich’s core theory is that learning a new language changes the way the brain itself works, and probably shapes the way experiences are stored in the brain. She interviews several experts (all of them American) about the latest findings, and explains their theories. At one point she uses the various flavours of sign language — American, Indian, formally structured and informally developed — to explain how the cadence of a language influences communication itself. These are the most interesting parts of the book; these topics have not been covered enough in popular writing, and Rich has created a good overview of the field here. Moreover, the discussion often goes way beyond Hindi itself, into what learning any new language is like, so there is plenty of interest here for Hindi-speaking readers too.

Unfortunately, the other three topics covered by the book fall flat. These sections are written with a very specific reader in mind: a monolingual person who thinks of India as an exotic land of turbaned, old-world maharajas. Neither of these criteria matches the typical English-speaking Indian reader, who speaks at least two languages and thinks of Maharajas as belonging to mythological serials on TV.
Rich’s year in India was spent almost entirely in Udaipur, which is described in loving detail, exoticised the way the tourists like it: She lives in havelis, walks past cows on the street, meets traditional housewives who never completed school. And yes, meets the requisite Maharanas.  

Narrow vision

Udaipur, however, is not equivalent to India, and Mewari-accented Hindi is definitely not the only language spoken in the country. So sentences like these jar: “In India, time is circular, a perception that’s shaped by the concept of reincarnation... yesterday and tomorrow are the same word: kal. “The day before yesterday” and “the day after tomorrow” are both parson... All the days in the spin are the same: aaj. In the west, in contrast, in English, time is linear...” What about the hundreds of other Indian languages with different words for “yesterday” and “tomorrow”?

At times, Rich attempts the near-impossible task of explaining India to the western reader from her Udaipur vantage point. When she opens up a newspaper, the paper invariably mentions some significant event, such as Godhra, or the Babri Masjid destruction and the resulting riots. A colleague’s idle comment is linked to the massacres on trains during Partition. All these incidents are pithily explained away, blame squarely placed, history turned into bite-sized chunks, definitely not intended to give the complete, complex picture.

Then there’s the required quota of exotic-India words, stuffed in at the first possible opportunity: tigers and saffron and saris. In the first chapter of this book, Rich sees a hotel swimming pool, and describes it thus: “The pool was mango-shaped.”
The overall form of the book causes a few problems as well. Because she’s using her experiences during her course as the springboard for the scientific theories, Rich needs to shoehorn in some incidents that roughly match the topics of the theories she plans to talk about. So random comments by acquaintances lead Rich to talk about the latest views on Chomsky’s papers, and an invitation to a deaf school leads to a discussion on the “spreading activation network theory.” This sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t.

Also, since we know she did a specific course in India and then came back, there’s no ending or climax to build up. Rich ends her chapters with cliffhangers like “... and now I would be the next one to go down,” which don’t really turn the book into a page-turner.
Rich winds up talking of too many things at once, and perhaps because of this, never really goes deep into any of them. The neuroscience sections are probably the only ones that feel authentic, and it would have been a good idea to have an Indian look through the culture sections for glaring errors (The definition of saala given actually means jija in Hindi — the problem probably happened because both words mean brother-in-law in English).

But, as mentioned above, the book isn’t written for Indians at all. It is definitely not a guidebook to India, nor does it help in any way in learning Hindi. No, the book is about an American woman’s jaunt to an exotic country, and her subsequent interviews with researchers back home. 

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