Doubtless many readers saw the recent article in the New York Times, profiling Katherine Russell Rich, author most recently of a book called Dreaming in Hindi — a memoir of a year spent in Rajasthan, learning Hindi.
Something about the article in the Times bugged me, starting with the following passage:
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, â€œThey donâ€™t speak Hindi in Rajasthan.â€ (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 Iâ€™m eavesdropping on a private conversation, like Iâ€™m breaking the fourth wall.” (link)
Wait, couldn’t it also be that the people Rich has been accosting, taxi drivers and convenience store clerks, might simply find this persistent American annoying, and have refused to speak Hindi with her mainly to make her go away? Lady, I’m sorry if your being in New York means your newly-acquired Hindi is going to start getting rusty. But I got a job to do, and that involves speaking English to patrons as I sell them stuff, not teaching you how to pronounce “lajawab” correctly. Next in line, please?
The question has to be asked: why does Katherine Russell Rich want to learn to speak Hindi? Is it to communicate with Hindi speakers while living in India? That would be a perfectly fine reason, indeed, an admirable one. But I suspect that sadly her real desire was to a) get paid for writing a book where she can talk all about her Hindi lessons and her impressions of Rajasthan, only to b) promptly move back to Manhattan, where she’ll irk Hindi speaking New Yorkers with her persistent demands that they speak Hindi with her?
Another annoyance in the article is the presumption that people refuse to acknowledge a white woman who speaks Hindi because we desis like to gossip about Americans in our secret language:
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. (link)
I really don’t know where the author of the article got this idea. (Why not ask an actual Indian, Hindi-speaker before making the speculative statement that “domain over a language unfamiliar to most Americans must feel like one of the few riches they can claim”?)
Finally, there is the obligatory dis on second-generation, “heritage” students who take Hindi classes at their universities:
â€œA lot of Indians who were born here or moved here when they were very small want to rediscover the language,â€ 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.) (link)
I’ll have you know, Ms. Rich, that most second gen, Indian-American college students do not take Hindi for this reason. I myself took Hindi at Cornell, and my professor gave me a “B” in intermediate Hindi (I deserved it, but it still smarts: certainly not an “easy A”).
In fact, most Indian-American college students actually take Hindi to meet, and flirt with, other Indian-American college students. So there. Continue reading →