Four days before 9/11, Rich arrives in Northwest India. She knows a little Hindi, and she figures she needs a break after eight successive jobs as a magazine editor have ended in her being laid off or the publication going under. Neither her Main Line suburban Philadelphia upbringing nor her years in Manhattan prepare her for immersion into the culture of Rajasthan.
Rich’s account follows a narrative pattern that may be familiar to those who have studied and lived abroad. Her romantic expectations fade, her terror at learning the language turns to resentment, resignation, and acceptance. After five months, her fluency grows despite her weariness at the overwhelming assaults of color, emotion, noise, and attitudes that distinguish Udaipur, the city where her school is, from her familiar American mindset.
This book succeeds when Rich describes what she sees. Before leaving New York, she studies the orthography of Hindi. “The beautiful letters, like stick trees that had bumped into a ceiling or a revue of performing snakes, came out shaped like cows’ heads in my hands.” She tells of Second Language Acquisition with interspersed summations and interview snippets from scholars and linguists. These may interfere with the Indian portions, but they attempt to align her own struggles with those that academics analyze as common situations for any adult learner. She feels speechless, yet the exhilaration of her Indian residence forces her to get beyond the persistent predicament that makes her a child in the eyes and ears of her interlocutors.
Many Indians want to practice their equally awkward English phrases with her; meanwhile those Indians adept in her mother tongue shift into English with her often. She compares her condition to “the daily schism to contend with, of having the mind of a woman who’s worked to have one and a voice that’s the Indian equivalent of a U.S. sitcom character named Babu.”
After five months, however, right on schedule according to professors, Rich leaves behind “receptive infancy” for a “naming explosion”. Her English can roam, especially in earlier chapters, wildly, into oddly cadenced constructions, strangely placed punctuation, and unidiomatic rhythms. This may leave a native English reader wondering if his or her own articulation also weakens under the pressure of another language, but this prose equivalence may have been subconscious on Rich’s part.
Her frequent digressions into scholarship alongside often humdrum interludes from her travels lengthen into an off-kilter, idiosyncratically accent work. Her classmates and friends earn attention, but many fail to stick to the page as memorable characters with worthwhile conversations. This may leave a reader both wanting more detail and wishing less of it; it veers between depth and superficiality for long stretches.
Hindi, in reflection, spreads into her mind long after her return to America as a “stain on my thoughts”, and this permeable nature of reminding her of places and people from nearly a decade before this book does testifies to her powers of recall. Her senses seem doubled. “The lights slanting down soft yellow makes the lanes look like misty stage sets.” Speech, in Sanskrit convention, becomes one of ten senses.
She tries to get to know her country’s hosts better. She assists at a deaf school and notes how some of the children draw self-portraits without a mouth. Her sign language nickname there is “Plane Crashing into Tower”.
As she lives in India longer, she feels more at home and less at ease. She is assaulted three times as tensions increase and foreigners meet insults. “When I looked up, two couples were hurrying past, the men’s heads pulled down by taut strings, the women’s faces turned back to examine mine—laughing, though it looked like they were grimacing.” America, to India’s increasingly nationalistic Hindus, appears self-absorbed by 9/11; soon after, two thousand deaths (mostly Muslim) nearer to Udaipur, during sectarian riots in neighboring Gujurat, result in no response from the US president.
She visits the rich and, perhaps less successfully given her outsider status and those of her caste-conscious hosts, she tries to talk to the poor. A haughty wealthy man tells her that by taking tea with him, she shows she is still foreign; a fellow Indian would not be offered tea. They contend to manipulate and dominate each other in a Third World economy that allows little space for mutual admiration.
Rich realizes the gap between herself and these natives. Her linguistic progress signals her willingness to reinvent herself, but her appearance and her age defy her wishes. At 45, her Indian counterparts may look like paper-skinned grandmothers. She hides her divorced status but this makes her single status all the more dumbfounding to her Indian inquirers. Staying at a former women’s quarters of an old house where the current women of the family challenge her can be both amusing and wearying. She must defend her reputation. As she filters it through what would have been her acquired Hindi:“I have not been bringing men up to my room. I have not been throwing condoms onto people’s roofs.”
Trying out for a “videshi” or “foreigner” singing competition so her sponsors can benefit from the prize she is promised at a resort, she reflects how in a sari, often like a bunched diaper at best on her figure, she looks like “a large, motorized confectioner’s cake gliding pinkly down the street.” Still, her inner immersion via Hindi has made her strut more confidently, and capably. She leaves after most of a year spent in India beginning to dream in both languages, and she keeps doing so today, she concludes.