Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Linguistic Awakening: Interview with Katherine Russell Rich

(Excerpts from this interview were published in The Hindu Magazine today)

American writer Katherine Russell Rich's 'Dreaming in Hindi' is an engaging, informative account of a year spent in Udaipur, learning Hindi from scratch.
In this email interview, she discusses the process and what it did for her.

1.You mention in your book that you weren't quite sure why you chose to learn Hindi in particular. But do you think your achievement, of re-imagining your world through a second language, would have been as personally rewarding if the language had been some other?

Yeah, I kind of stumbled into Hindi—I didn’t know precisely why. I wasn’t one of those Westerners who was after all-things-Indian to get jolts of spiritual enlightenment. I just liked the way the language felt in my mouth, I liked the glimpses it gave me of someplace so different from what I knew. It’s funny to say this about something as cerebral as learning a language, but I liked the sensual experience of Hindi.

I sometimes think when we allow ourselves to stumble into something, we leave ourselves open to larger forces guiding us in the right direction... Hindi and India were an absolutely essential part of the mix, it turned out. But no way would I have anywhere near the same rewarding experience had I gone, say, to Cuernavaca to learn Spanish. Hindi and daily Indian life are so infused with the wisdom of the Vedas, that wisdom seeps in whether you’re looking for it or not. And whether you intend for it to or not, it’s transforming. In casual conversation, for instance, somebody said to me, “Life is a rope snake,” and I haven’t felt fear with quite the same intensity since. And as a proper, distanced Anglo-American, I was at first horrified by, then totally melted by the boisterous closeness of an Indian family. I ended up loving that and yearning for more.

2.As someone who balks at the idea of learning another language in adulthood, I was very struck by your analysis of how traumatic a process this is, and how it requires unsettling your whole way of thinking. Do you think you could have done it if your own life had not been at a cross-roads at the time?

Being at a cross roads gave me the time to get away, but I’m not sure it’s what enabled me in the process. It might sound weird, but I think what came in most useful was the fact that I’ve had cancer for two thirds of my adult life. When you live with cancer, you have to figure out ways to live with constant uncertainty, and same thing goes for when you learn a language: Did that man just say what I thought he said? No way. Wait, wait: I think he did. In both instances, you either learn to be fluid or you go nuts. In my case, I’d already gotten a jump on learning to be fluid when I started learning Hindi.

3.It's often said that we in India must all learn a common language if we're going to get over our linguistic rivalries. But since this can be such a painful process, would you say a 'live and let live' philosophy is a better approach?

A live-and-let-live-philosophy is a better approach in theory, but I’m not sure it is in practice. For a country to truly function, doesn’t it need to have some kind of collective national voice? On the other hand, just as you can’t invent a symbol, you can’t thrust a language on people. A language is so much a part of the unconscious, it has to be gently incorporated or it’ll never seep into the deeper levels.

As India continues to change so rapidly, I have a feeling the situation with languages might too, maybe because there’ll be more incentive to have a common language. It won’t be a matter of ramming it down people’s throats. It’ll be a necessity for doing business.

4.Reading your book, it's obvious you love English. In a paradoxical way, do you think that helped you with your Hindi- knowing that it would always be at arm's length, so to speak?

I do love English but I think that’s largely because, like a lot of writers, I love language. And loving language, no question, helped me with Hindi. Unfortunately, I think that knowing English would always be my primary language slowed me down with Hindi. If you’re a Hindi-only speaker and go to America, you can’t cheat and fall back on Hindi when you get sick of fumbling through in another language. But if you’re American and go to India, you can always corral someone into speaking English with you, to the detriment of your Hindi.

5 .Has your time in India learning Hindi changed your use of English?

In the beginning, that was happening all the time. You know how people in India often say “Hum” in a sentence where English speakers would say “I”? I was constantly doing the reverse—“We’ll be there at 7, then”--and people would say, puzzled, “We? Who else is coming?”

I was in such an Indian frame of mind, it took me about a year to know how to begin the book. One small example: I’d gotten used to the Indian sense of hierarchy and so I kept balking at writing about my teachers in any way that might sound disrespectful. This is the dead opposite approach you want to take with an American audience, who’ve been seeped in notions of “everyone’s equal” their whole lives.
I finally snapped out of it when one day, I was telling a writer friend a very rude but very funny story about one of the teachers and she said, “Of course you’re going to put that in the book?” Without thinking, I answered, “Oh no, that would be disrespectful,” and she cried, “What. Are. You. Talking. About?” After that, I was back in America.

Book Review- Maria's Room, by Shreekumar Varma

(First published in April's Hindu Literary Review)

Not many novels are able to combine good writing with good story-telling. Maria's Room comes close- which makes the shortfall easier to sight. This atmospheric, highly literary novel is also an example of a mis-crafted narrative, which, while containing all the elements of a powerful story, doesn't effectively arrange them.

A Potent Setting

But the elements are there. Shreekumar Varma sets his book in rain-lashed Goa, an inspired choice of setting for a protagonist on a breakdown. Far from the revelry of sun and sand, this is a Goa of overflowing streets, vivid foliage, lonely, courteous hotels. It is the perfect place to brood, and that is our narrator's intention. Following his arrival in Goa, he takes us through his sojourns to the town, his encounters with locals and fellow guests, and his abiding introspections. He is Raja Prasad, a novelist searching for material for his next book, while wrestling with the failure of his last- and more than that, with the scars of personal tragedy. Soon he shifts into 'Maria's Guesthouse', and drifts into an affair with a young girl, even as he learns the story of another love, from another time. But the events of the past are impinging on the present, and the novel that Raja is writing begins gradually to lay bare his own predicament.

The Unreliable Narrator

However, as readers, our grasp of the demons that assail Raja- either what they are, or where they come from, or what is strange about them- remains only vague until late in the book. Realistically, this is not a problem- an afflicted narrator need not be particularly informative. But the question, from an artistic perspective, is whether he is then fit to narrate. Imagine, for example, a party at which a man is drunk out of his wits and involved in a series of fascinating scrapes. He is certainly the subject of a great story- but he is no position to recount it. We would much rather listen to a more sober onlooker, someone capable of marshaling the facts.

Something similar is the central defect of Maria's Room- a defect of story-telling. Raja tells us too little, until it is too late. Even the murkiest mystery arises from facts, and our interest in his situation could only really be piqued if we knew something solid about it. But his narrative, though rich in thought and observation, is short on facts. We are led to a conclusion without ever being primed for it. And when we finally understand, not just the secret of Raja's pathology, but the bare details of it, we wish we'd been told before.

Skill and Sympathy

Even saddled with this defect, though, the book remains very readable. Partly this is testament to Varma's skill with words. He brings to life the primal energy of Goa in the monsoons, so that even when the story flags, the atmosphere holds. His descriptions, as a rule, are precise and vivid: the rain 'writhes' against a window, a breeze 'dances' across a swimming pool, lights glow 'damply.' His language has flair: a cell phone is shaken 'like a faulty thermometer'; interrupting a compulsive talker is likened to 'boarding a train in motion.' But more than writing well, Varma cares about his protagonist- and that feeling communicates. Raja may be an enigma to us, but he is appealing in his vulnerability, and his open acceptance of it, as, for example, in his relationship with his father. Not many thirty one year old men could accept their parent's constant concern, and yet come across courageous. And not every writer could write them like that. Which is why, despite its errors of craftsmanship, Maria's Room is well worth visiting.