Literary Animal: Reading India, Part III

Literary Animal: Reading India, Part III

This installment of the Literary Animal: Reading India series will be a slight foray into linguistics.

Part III: The Language of Violence

Katherine Russell Rich’s Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language is part travel memoir, part scholarly inquiry into the science of language acquisition. Rich documents her time in Udaipur, Rajasthan where she enrolled in a Hindi study program. The beginning of her studies coincided with September 11, 2001. The event and its aftermath influenced the Hindi words she would acquire those first few weeks.

“There are Hindi words from those days I used so often, they’re hardwired for all time: ‘terrorism,’ ‘fanaticism,’ ‘safety,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘war’.”

Rich witnessed violence elsewhere too in those initial days:

One afternoon on the street, I heard unholy screams and saw that two men outside a house had a pig lassoed by the neck. The animal was crying frantically…one man grabbed the doomed pig’s legs and flipped it on its back, and the other, flashing metal, leaned down, and the cries grew more terrified…In my room, I couldn’t stop crying. You’re a spoiled American, I thought. What do you think you’ve been eating all these years? Lovingly culled meat ‘products’? Happy cows? Happy pigs? ‘I’ve never seen anything being killed before. Never,’ I said out loud, which brought the next thought. ‘Oh God, those people.'”

While not vegetarian, Rich stayed with a Jain family for part of her time and subsisted mostly on rice and vegetables. As a former student of American Sign Language (ASL), one of the most interesting parts of the book for me was Rich’s time volunteering at a deaf school and learning bits of Rajasthani Sign Language. The ASL sign for meat involves the thumb and forefinger of one hand pinching the space between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, as if indicating the flesh. In Rajasthani Sign Language, the sign for meat is more direct:

“Do I eat meat, a boy, looking slightly green, wants to know. When I see how you sign that one’head decapitation’I do the sensible thing. I lie and say no.”

When I first started interviewing people for the Brighter Green India Case study, one of the challenges I faced was having the right vocabulary to talk about industrialized animal agriculture. While “veg” and “non-veg” are part of the vernacular in India, CAFOs weren’t, and at times people did not understand what I meant when I said ‘factory farms.’ Yet, households easily understood the vulnerabilities like bird flu, grain shortages, and drought. As Rich’s first days in Rajasthan suggest, catastrophes inform language.

It will be interesting to see the words that will be used to describe factory farming in India, and whether they will shape a narrative of dollar signs, growth, and modernity, or reveal the risks, inequities, and inherent violence. Perhaps the signed languages will more explicitly capture the realities.

To read the other posts in this blog series, Literary Animal: Reading India, click here.