By Katherine Russell Rich. Harcourt, $26.
Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York
Westerners at a spiritual or career crossroads have long made pilgrimages to India, looking for God or ganja—but grammar? So begins journalist Katherine Rich’s contrarian memoir of transplanting herself from New York to the desert town of Udaipur to learn Hindi. Motivated by a passion “for learning languages and understanding what learning a second language does to the brain,” Rich finds her casual Hindi lessons becoming an obsession. Having survived two bouts with cancer, and now recently fired from her magazine-editing job, Rich admits, “I no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided to borrow someone else’s.”
But India proves inconsiderate; to learn its language, Rich must tolerate its men and women (portrayed as lascivious and insipid, respectively). Her vitriol toward her fellow students and her host family erodes the reader’s sympathy.
The author’s conceit—that she isn’t merely learning a new language, she is becoming a new person—is stretched terribly thin. For a memoirist, Rich is stingy with self-revelation and provides little reason for why she initially latched onto Hindi with such zeal beyond saying, “Hindi is strewn with words no one in America has used since Agatha Christie’s time, and for that alone, I loved it.” Hindi is interesting to her only as a fossil—not as a still-evolving language. She resents other tourists because they are “annoying reminders of the current century.”
Rich is occasionally a skilled interlocutor for the science of language acquisition. She also guides us through some very arcane research, and traces India’s ugly history of anti-Muslim purging of Persian words from Hindi. But these merits cannot resuscitate a book clotted with stereotypes. Even if Rich eventually achieves mastery over the language, it comes at too high a price, if her bitterness is to be believed.