My Own Private Bollywood
Following her acclaimed memoir about stage-four cancer, Katherine Russell Rich went to India to learn a new language. It was a lot easier than figuring out the showers.
When I decided to write Dreaming in Hindi, it was less than a year after I’d published The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer—and Back, a memoir about the clash of cultures that occurred when I contracted an illness that denuded my head while working for magazines that exalted perfection. It was riot grrrl in tone, had a narrator who wasn’t going gently anywhere. She poked fun at pretentious alternative practitioners; got fired by her oncologist for perceived bad attitude; never lay wanly on a bed making saintly pronouncements, the way most protagonists in cancer books, till then, did. Nowadays, there are scores of books with growling titles like I Have Lymphoma: What Are You Going to Do About It?, but 10 years ago, when The Red Devil came out, no one had been irreverent in writing about the disease. I soon found myself fielding requests to do that again in print.
I moved in with a family called the Bhatts, whose lovely 16th-century home revealed itself to be booby-trapped the first morning at 5 a.m.
I’d exhausted the subject, though, and didn’t want to place myself back in that world professionally for all time, which I knew is what would happen if I wrote much more about cancer. I’d get pegged, and I’d fought too hard for exit passes, had been lucky enough to come by them. By the time I wrote the book, I’d had a bone-marrow transplant and been diagnosed as stage four, which is when the disease has migrated from the original organ. As Margaret Edson writes in the play Wit, “there is no stage five.” There’s also no going back to stages one, two, or three. Once you’re stage four, you’re in it for the rest of your life, which, on average with breast cancer, what I had, is two and a half years.
As I continued to stay alive, as two and a half years became three and then four, as I remained in otherwise good health and began to let myself believe I might be this way for a while, the cancer became a memento mori—a reminder not to screw around. When you’ve incorporated a memento mori, you leave jobs that are stultifying, quiz yourself again on what you haven’t done and want to. The answer, when I posed it, came quickly: I wanted to learn a language. True, having already arrived at this conclusion without adequate follow-through in the past, I’d already made tangled heaps of French and Spanish, the likely candidates, and had one summer twisted Turkish out of shape. This time around, though, when I’d acquired resolve, I was just back from an assignment in India for The New York Times and was, for fun, taking Hindi lessons.
“But who told you you could do that?” In the months after I sold my next book proposal, more than one person raised this question verbatim. By “that,” they meant go off to India and write a book about what it was like to try and learn another language and then interlace the written material with reporting on neurolinguistics—what I was proposing to do. Nobody seemed to like the answer: “I did,” an answer informed by a realization I’d reached when I was heading into a bone-marrow transplant. Then, I’d spent many evenings on the phone with a woman who’d also had cancer, who one night said, “When you’re fighting the insurance companies, don’t you sometimes think: What are they going to do, kill me?” The wisdom of this point of view stuck, and I often afterward put that question to myself when I was in danger of losing nerve—for instance, when I was writing the book proposal.
No one had so much as threatened bodily harm. In fact, six houses bid, and less than a year later, I found myself in the medieval town of Udaipur, enrolled in a graduate program. At first, I could only get one word out of every 10 anyone said. I worried I was going to have to call the book What? I’d say “yes” when a more sensible response would have been “no,” and end up with five consecutive helpings of dessert. But even from the start, it was extraordinary to be bathed in all those words and in the incredible dessert culture that surrounded me. I loved the fierceness I found there—up at the palace, they still displayed the chair the maharana had refused to go to Delhi and sit in when the other local rulers met with the British. I loved how I could hear that fierceness in tone in advance of literal understanding. With time, the fierceness and the collective sweetness that underscored it grew more intelligible. Words collected.
Sentences cleared. The world I’d long for came slowly into view. It was like watching someone emerge from the mist.
As the bridge of language grew stronger, it could seem at times almost sacred, for the way it connected me to people I’d never have met otherwise, how it provided me with communion. Months in, I spent time with a woman who was a dalit, an outcast. Dr. Megval had written 12 books and gotten her Ph.D., despite having been married off at 13 and belonging to a group that was shunned. She spoke no English but because of my Hindi, I was able to go over and hear stories about her life and her crusades. In her garage lined with books, she showed me photographs of bloody string beds where a family of dalits had been killed for drinking from the village well. She related how, in the wake of this, she’d screeched out to the village in her jeep and organized a showdown. “But they will murder us,” the village dalits said when she insisted that, en masse, they use the well. But she’d stood by as they did and stared the other villagers down and no further violence occurred. Many of her stories involved screeching wherein she didn’t know the outcome but went ahead all the same.
Inevitably, I’d run into cultural frustration. But I never lost my passion for the language or place, even when my mantra would get slightly rearranged and become “What am I going to do, kill them?” There was the time I moved in with a family called the Bhatts, whose lovely 16th-century home revealed itself to be booby-trapped the first morning at 5 a.m. This, I soon determined, was when metallic slamming from what sounded like munition factories would regularly start up somewhere in the bowels. Despite aural evidence to the contrary, Mr. Bhatt, however, insisted the noise was a figment of my imagination. “ There are no dum-dums,” he’d swear, using what was apparently the Hindi for “sound produced by crazed metal workers who’ve gotten ahold of sledgehammers.”
I tested Mr. Bhatt’s patience as well. One day, he took me to a store to buy a gayser, pronounced “geezer,” a small heating tank. “ How much water do you require for your daily shower?” he inquired in the geezer department. I looked at him dumbly, tried to think.
" HOW...MANY...LITERS...DO... YOU...REQUIRE... FOR...YOUR SHOWER?" he repeated, loudly. He ascribed to the same school of talking-to-foreigners my father did—if you shout it, they’ll get it, eventually. He tried speaking emphatically and when I looked blank, went back and enunciated some more. The geezer salesmen were all bent forward, staring, like they wished I'd just name a number, but I knew what would happen if I did—someone would go bug-eyed, for I’d have given an unfathomable number: I require 50,000 gallons of water, something like that. "To me the amount of water is not known," I repeated, till Mr. Bhatt was whipped. "I am thinking 15 liters?" he said finally, appraising my body weight. Oh that's right, I forgot, 15, I said, and he happily pointed to a model with pink roses. Everyone was relieved but me. I knew whatever size we got would be two liters short, that no matter how fast I was in the shower, it would always run out exactly when I put the conditioner in.
Now that the India book is out, there’s a novel I’d like to write. Fiction is new to me, but what are they going to do, etc.? Of course, one day I’ll hurtle into a wall, but even then, I’ll have Dr. Megval’s example: There’s no sound so invigorating as a screech.