Ski Hindi

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The first paragraph of chapter 1, "To go", in Katherine Russell Rich's forthcoming memoir Dreaming in Hindi:

The whole time I was in India, I was never confused, though often, for days, I thought I was. "Vidhu-ji," I asked the teacher with the angular face, remembering to attach the "ji," an honorific that could also mean "yes" or "what?" — point of bafflement right there. "Vidhu," I'd repeat, promptly forgetting, "how do I say 'I'm confused'?"

"Main bhram mein hoon," he said: "I am in bhram," and for the rest of the year, I used that sentence more than any other. "Vidhu-ji! Wait! I am in bhram," I'd say, flapping my hand, interrupting grammar, dictation, till he must have wished I'd yank myself out of it, must have regretted the day he ever told me. I was in bhram, off and on, at the school and beyond: when I'd try to ask a shopkeeper in Hindi if he had the thing in blue, for instance, while he stared at me with his mouth half-open, as if he were watching a trick. Some weeks, I was in full-press bhram, in nonstop confusion, or so I thought. It wasn't until I returned to the States that I learned the word's exact meaning: "illusion." The whole time in India, I'd been in illusion.


At the end of the last chapter, she describes learning to spin khadi from an old woman at the Gandhi museum:

"If someone else has made the cloth, then it won't matter to you," she said. "But if you make it yourself, it will have knots and imperfections, but you won't care. You will hold on to it."

I thought of all the loopy sentences I'd constructed that year, all the conversations that had been knotted and imperfect and that, all the same, I'd keep forever. And I was cheered some to realize this, but on this, the last day, all that was, was consolation. I wanted more than anything I ever had to stay, to just keep on going. The language, in the past week, had gained even more momentum. [...]

I bent down over my wheel and was uselessly sad: but I'd gotten so close, but the sounds were just forming right.

The woman laughed: I was holding my charkha wrong.

But I'd just learned a new expression that only native speakers used: Aur nahin to kya? "If not that that, then what?"

Every thread I tried to spin broke.

But the language was so ephemeral, this was all going to fade.

A boy readjusted my hands.

But I'd just had one immaculate conversation, but Vidhu had said six months, but I'd only ever dreamed in English and not Hindi.

And then the threads began to hold.

Sometimes now, I dream in both.

The book in between is a charming intellectual travelogue, partly about the culture and history of India, partly about the nature of language and language learning, and also, as usual for great travel writing, very much about its author.

Ms. Rich connects her own experiences as a language learner to what she's learned by reading and talking to linguists, psychologists and anthropologists, in the same way that she connects her linguistic journey with what she learned by spinning khadi. In fact, I've never seen adult language learning connected to such an extensive set of metaphors:

At school, I'm still dead last, too self-conscious to push myself in front of the others, but outside, I ski Hindi, have long, gleeful conversations in shops (gleeful for me, long for my interlocutors).

Elsewhere in the book, she skis psycholinguistics, in long, gleeful conversations in university laboratories and the pages of books and articles; and just about every other language-related discipline gets at least one downhill run as well.

Since I don't know Hindi, I can't tell whether Rich's bhram story is a meditation on cross-linguistic differences in etymological associations, like the connection in Somali between intellectual maturity and the exteriorization of a camel's soft palate, or an amusing example of not-quite-right word choice, like a foreigner who says in English that she was boring when she means she was bored. The entry for भ्रम bhram in Mahendra Caturvedi's A Practical Hindi-English Dictionary gives the gloss "misunderstanding, illusion, misconception; confusion", which doesn't help me out.

But it doesn't really matter. The best thing about the book, I think, is how it conveys the coming-unwrapped exhilaration of learning by immersion:

To acquire a language, I exhort myself, you have to give up your accumulated assurances — this is how to say things, this is how it is done. Pretty soon, I give up my American pretenses that things should be any way at all.

And then the threads begin to hold.

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9 Comments »

  1. mgh said,

    May 31, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    I heard this author telling a really funny, endearing story on the storytelling podcast "The Moth" a few months ago (listen here) — the same self-deprecating insightful voice shows through in the passages Mark excerpted here.

    I'm looking forward to the book's release.

  2. Nitin Madnani said,

    May 31, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    As a native Hindi speaker (born and raised in Delhi), I can verify that 'bhram' is indeed most commonly used in the 'illusion' sense. I am not sure how I would say "I am confused" in Hindi. Most likely, I'd probably use the translation of the paraphrase 'I did not understand' which would be 'mujhe samajh nahin aaya'.

    BTW, thank you for pointing me to this seemingly fantastic read. As someone who loves books on both travel and language, I am really looking forward to it. Especially since this time, I would be able to really understand what the language contributed. Hopefully, I am not in any bhram about that :)

  3. [links] Link salad wakes up and yawns | jlake.com said,

    May 31, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    [...] Ski Hindi — A charming story from Language Log. [...]

  4. RKM said,

    May 31, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    The Hindi translation for "I am confused" would be "Main bhramit hoon". "Main bhram mein hoon", while grammatically correct, is not idiomatic.

    Of course, it is another matter that the colloquial expression is likely to be along the lines of "main samjha nahi" (I did not understand) – as already pointed out by Nitin.

    And thanks for this post. I'll put this book on my wish list.

  5. Sumesh said,

    June 1, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    "To acquire a language, I exhort myself, you have to give up your accumulated assurances — this is how to say things, this is how it is done. Pretty soon, I give up my American pretenses that things should be any way at all." NIce quote.
    Learning by immersion though sounds poetical, is an extremely difficult feat to accomplish. The case point, as pointed out by NM & RKM above, is you won't find a native Hindi speaker saying "Main bhram mein hoon" to mean "I am in bhram". Even if one gives up American pretenses, "Main bhramit hoon" won't come easily.

  6. goofy said,

    June 1, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    मैं भ्रम में हूँ (maiṃ bhram meṃ hūṃ) – "I am under an illusion"
    according to this dictionary.

  7. confused said,

    June 1, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    I am confused – Mein asamanjhas mein hoon. Isn't it?

  8. Benjamin Slade said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:05 am

    There's an interesting discussion of this book from a South Asian perspective at: http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/005833.html

  9. Antariksh Bothale said,

    May 17, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    While mai.n bhram mei.n hoo.n/mai.n bhramit hoo.n (the .n means that the vowel before it is nasalized) are grammatically correct, I don't think either of them is idiomatic.

    They reek of text-book Hindi, and I doubt I have ever used this sentence or heard it being used to mean "I am confused". It is the sort of construction that you are likely to find in mythological TV shows but never on streets.

    And I am really impressed by what has been said about forgetting one's pre-conceived notions about languages when one starts learning a new one. I wish more people paid heed to this advice.

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