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'Dreaming in Hindi' Author Explores Linguistic Culture Shock

In her new memoir, Dreaming in Hindi, New York writer Katherine Russell Rich recounts her journey to the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan, where she undertook an ambitious challenge to learn the Hindi language and tune in to the region's unique culture.

Many factors led to Rich's decision to go to India. She had lost her job as a magazine editor and had few immediate job prospects; she had fallen in love with what she calls "the swirl" of India while on a freelance writing assignment for The New York Times; and, she had begun taking Hindi lessons in New York. But mostly, Rich wanted to shake up her life.

At home in a close-knit community

Rich moved to Udaipur, a highly traditional Rajasthani city to live for a year with a local family and study Hindi at a graduate institute. Six months into her adventure, a new Indian friend named Ruby convinced Rich to enter a singing contest for foreigners. Rich said, "the whole town [then] got in on the act and they were all coaching me." Rich won the contest and a stay at a fancy local resort.

But the bigger prize was becoming part of a close-knit community. "I came to love the Indian closeness," Rich said. "I come from a pretty 'WASPY' Anglo background, so it was incredibly shocking to me."

She got her first taste of that closeness soon after her arrival, when her host family came into her room and started rifling through her possessions. "To Americans," Rich said, "that is, like, not done. But they were just being friendly. They just wanted to see my stuff!"

Rich learned that the Hindi language has no verb for "to own." Instead, one says something is "in one's direction." That phrase, said Rich, "shows that objects are always transitory, which is true, of course. And I found that after using that construction, I began to feel like I had too much stuff and it began to bother me."

Language communicates a view of the world

Along with learning the language, Rich absorbed a sense of Hinduism's hierarchical worldview. "If somebody is older than you, for example, you attach an honorific - "ji" - to their name. So someone younger than I am would call me 'Kathy-ji,' and I would call my teachers 'Swami-ji' [or] 'Vidhu-ji.'" Rich said that the honorific add-on, expresses the concept of "dharm," meaning one's "spiritual duty."

Dharm means spiritual duty

When Rich learned that people don't say 'thank you' in India, she thought it rude until she understood the custom. "I would say 'thank you' to a waiter who had just brought something and he would say 'No madam. It is my dharm.' You don't need to thank somebody because it is their spiritual duty to do what they just did."

In India, the most important place to express dharm is in honoring one's parents, said Rich. "And at the time, my dad he had a kind of dementia, and all I wanted to do was take this idea of 'dharm' and go home and look after my dad."

Unfortunately, ten days after Rich returned to New York, her father died. "I will always regret that I couldn't have tried some of that Indian sweetness [with him] which I think stays with me," she said. She added that, like the title of her book, she plans to keep, "dreaming in Hindi."