This is an unusual book. It is neither a travelogue nor a treatise but has skilfully integrated elements of both. Largely narrative, every now and then it brings in insights and concepts about our capacity to use, learn, absorb languages and scripts. It’s a lively, entertaining account of life in a small town in Rajasthan, revealing a horde of real-life characters, some of whom one can identify, such as the Udaipur-based Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi and the poet, critic and cultural theorist Nand Kishore Acharya from Bikaner.
As far as I know, this is the first book that looks closely at the problem of learning Hindi by an American. As A.L. Becker is quoted as saying, “People who study languages think of them as codes, but they aren’t really. A language is a whole map of reality”. Katherine Russell Rich has tried to draw this map of Indian reality through the arduous task of learning Hindi. The map in its vignettes and details seems quite authentic, first-hand and all too often amusing. But such a map, drawn largely through experiences and encounters in Rajasthan, can offer only a segment of that complex and multi-layered reality called India. When Rich stretches this segment to look like the whole, the ensuing generalisations appear unreasonably blown up, disproportionate and overdone simplifications.