In an excerpt from her new book, the author, fighting cancer, escapes to India to learn Hindi and throw her life “in the air for a passion.”

dunn300a.jpgIn Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. “Dhoop khaana?” I asked Gabriela Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, the first time we hit the phrase. “Sunbathe,” she said, smiling. “To bask in the sun.” My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that’s the short-form answer to the question of why you’d try.

“They really say ‘Victory to Rama’ when they answer the phone?” I asked a tutorial later, reporting what Chirag, a computer student I’d enlisted for practice, had told me. “Oh, it’s no different from you saying ‘Good God,’” she said. Gabriela was originally from Bulgaria and conversant in eleven languages. Her mother was the most famous actress in her country—“like Sophia Loren,” she said—which somehow gave the fact that she knew Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Old Church Slavonic an even greater gravity. Seeing that I still looked incredulous, she tsked: It’s just what they say! She was practiced in knowing when to convert the extraordinary to ordinary, when to let the extraordinary stand.

It was the pull of these conversions that kept me returning now, their mimicry of transcendence—ordinary to extraordinary, then back again. Invariably, once per class, the assumptions of one language would collide with the other’s, shaking me from the certainty that Aldous Huxley called “reduced awareness.” Boosted, I could skid across syntax so alien that if translated directly, it would read like a computer shorting out. “India returning of before to us right here stay” could remain “Stay with us before returning to India” only if you didn’t look down.

Hindimein! Hindimein!” Gabriela would call when my energy drained and I took a spill: Think in Hindi. “Come on! No English!” she’d chide. “Haan,” I’d snort, meaning “yes,” meaning “Why don’t you just speak it?” and she’d burst out laughing at the look on my face. I doubted that she laughed maniacally at her regular students, but a while back we’d become friends, and anyway, they were kids, we were adults.

“Did you hear? Did you hear?” she’d ask at the beginning of each class after I’d applied for a Hindi program in India that Susham had mentioned. I’d done this for complicated reasons, not one being I thought I’d get in. I didn’t fit a single entry requirement, didn’t, for one thing, have two college years of the language. But I’d needed just then to see myself as someone who’d do something on this order, who’d throw “my whole life up in the air for a passion,” as once or twice I’d floridly declared, a desire that stemmed from my truculent medical history.

The second time I’d gotten sick, they’d given me a year or two. The disease I had, cancer, was breaking bones from within, had turned vicious and insistent, when one night I dreamed I was fighting with a woman over a piece of cloth. The fabric was sleek and blue, beautiful, weft pressing warp in a way that caused ripples, and she was trying to take it from me. “But it’s mine!” I shouted. “I made it.” The woman grew somber. “You may have made it,” she said quietly, “but that doesn’t mean you get to keep it.” A friend had to explain that the cloth symbolized my life.

I’d accepted that I was losing mine when the illness went into one of those astounding reversals cancer sometimes does. It skidded and turned, leaving me in a perpetual state of spooked awe, with an impulse to keep my life narrowed. Though I’d fallen in love with a man when the disease returned, once that affair ended, I avoided romantic entanglement: too much anchoring to the slipshod processes of life, too much touch. My life became fortified, safely latched down, though I was left with a small, lingering need: to tell myself I was unafraid of anything. Not because I was, but in case I had to summon fast courage again.

I’d needed just then to see myself as someone who’d do something on this order, who’d throw “my whole life up in the air for a passion.”

“You’re prepared to live in India for a year?” Gabriela stopped one class to ask. The week before, my oncologist had stared at me when I’d said I wanted to. Stared, then smiled. He and I had a longstanding congenial accord, unusual in a relationship in which one member had had to nearly poison the other to death four times not that long before. That was, essentially, the protocol with bone marrow transplants, a now abandoned desperation treatment for a desperate group: stage four breast cancer patients, women who, on average, had two and a half years to live. If a little chemo was good, then earth-scorching amounts would be better, the thinking went—mistakenly, it turned out. But stage four is subject to experimental approaches, being, by and large, endgame cancer. My own illness, in the four years since the transplant, had been kept in check with lightweight hormone treatments, with pills that were portable if someone were to request permission to leave the country for a stretch. “India, huh?” my doctor said. “All right, but you’d have to be watched closely.” He said this after a pause. In the annals of medicine, I was guessing, there weren’t many case studies of patients with this diagnosis expressing a desire to light out for parts unknown. But he and I were in terra incognita, and besides, he’d helped keep me alive all these years. He wasn’t going to keep me from living.

I could have used a more encouraging omen than sudden bird shit from the sky.

“In Bulgaria, they think that’s lucky!” Gabriela cried after a bird spattered my textbook as I was hurrying down to tell her the acceptance email had come. “Welcome aboard for a world of experience!” the attached leaflet said: twenty hours a week of pronunciation, grammar, and film discussion ahead, with time off for holidays with names like Makar Sankranti and for chatting with the Hindi-speaking host families. Tips were included for cultural navigation, for engaging in life without toilet paper. I scanned them from a growing distance of disbelief. I was in, and stupefied to be. But they’d said two college years, and I wasn’t even in college. How could this be?

“We could have been speaking Swahili and they’d have taken us,” one of my co-academics, a metalhead turned Indology major, would remark upon our arrival. In the wake of several scandals, it seems, applications were down.

As the months sped by and departure hovered, I could have used a more encouraging omen than sudden bird shit from the sky. There were days I couldn’t believe I was doing this: Throwing my life over? Why? About to jettison it, I saw with clarity that it was finally where I wanted it. And days when I saw that was the reason to go.

Editors’ Recommendation:

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

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Photo by “Amit Gupta”: via Flickr

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