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Learning Hindi Was Hard, but It Was Just the Start

Learning Hindi Was Hard, but It Was Just the Start

Author: Susan Dominus
Publication: The New York Times
Date: June 22, 2009

It is not unusual for Katherine Russell Rich, an author and a former magazine editor, to break out into song in the back of a taxi, and not just any song, but a song in Hindi from one of her favorite Bollywood movies. "Yaara, sili sili," she'll croon when she has an Indian cabdriver. "Biraha ki raat ka jalana." "Beloved, little by little - the separation of the night is beginning to burn."

The drivers are apparently too shocked to contemplate whether this is a seduction attempt. "The cabdrivers do things like laugh in surprise," said Ms. Rich, who is not Indian. "They say, 'Oh my God. That is really good. You are really speaking Hindi. Where did you learn that?' "

In other words, they loosen up upon hearing the familiar tune and start talking to her like a person, instead of a fare, which is what she hoped to accomplish in the first place. Then and only then, Ms. Rich has found, will drivers relax and start speaking Hindi to her, which allows her to keep up the language that she has been studying since 1999, including for almost a year in Rajasthan, starting in the fall of 2001.

The experiences of that year make up the substance of Ms. Rich's new book, "Dreaming in Hindi" (Houghton Mifflin), a work that will inevitably be compared to Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" (Viking Adult, 2006), given that it traces the far-flung adventures of a thoughtful, soul-searching single woman from New York (it is also a pick for Oprah's summer reading list, so Ms. Rich may have in common with Ms. Gilbert killer sales.)

Long before she left for India, however, while still a beginner studying the language, Ms. Rich was delicately trying to find personally escorted entry points into Hindi around New York.

"I used to try to ask a man who worked at a newsstand near my home to help me with my homework," she said. Delighted by her effort, he'd keep a line of people waiting while he patiently went over vocabulary with her on the back of lottery tickets.

But usually, finding a way to speak Hindi in New York posed challenges she did not anticipate. It's not for lack of potential tutors: The city, according to the 2000 census, has about 35,000 Hindi or Urdu speakers (the languages are very similar). In a promotional video for the book, Ms. Rich recreates some of the encounters she's had with Indians around New York. One store owner insists in English that she is not actually speaking Hindi; when Ms. Rich explains, in Hindi, that she studied the language for some time in Rajasthan, he retorts, in English, "They don't speak Hindi in Rajasthan." (This happens not to be true.)

When Ms. Rich returned to New York from abroad, she spontaneously spoke Hindi to a friend of a friend. "He told me that when I spoke Hindi to him, it was like a body blow," Ms. Rich said. "I think to Indians, sometimes it feels like I'm eavesdropping on a private conversation, like I'm breaking the fourth wall."

To some people from India, Ms. Rich learned, it is insulting to be addressed in anything other than English, a language of the privileged. And for some immigrants, domain over a language unfamiliar to most Americans must feel like one of the few riches they can claim.

Ms. Rich says she is becoming less of an anomaly. In the past 10 years, the number of universities offering the language has significantly increased, according to S. N. Sridhar, the director of the Center for Indian Studies at the State University at Stony Brook. Part of that rise can be explained by general educational trend toward improving foreign language fluency. But the demand for Hindi has also increased because of what Mr. Sribhar calls the "heritage phenomenon," a natural outgrowth of the large influx of Indian immigrants in the past several decades.

"A lot of Indians who were born here or moved here when they were very small want to rediscover the language," he said. (Ms. Rich said that she had overlapped with such students at New York University, and that many were already proficient in the language, less interested in their heritage and more interested in an easy A.)

She did feel that she got great instruction at N.Y.U., even if, in a local quirk of globalism, her teacher was Bulgarian rather than Indian. "It was like learning Hindi from Nadia Comaneci's coach," she said.

The shock of a Westerner speaking Hindi is still bracing enough that Ms. Rich rarely jumps right into the language she has mastered. She usually politely asks first if she might, a courtesy she understands now as intuitively as she does the language itself.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 30, 2009
The Big City column in some editions last Tuesday, about Katherine Russell Rich, whose new book, "Dreaming in Hindi," recounts her efforts to learn the language, misspelled the surname of the director of the Center for Indian Studies at the State University at Stony Brook, who said the number of universities offering Hindi classes has increased significantly in the past 10 years. He is S. N. Sridhar, not Sribhar.

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