18 October 2010

Book Review: Multi-Stories

Kalpana Sahni will charm you with her cross-cultural anecdotes. Just don’t expect profundity, says TRISHA GUPTA

Kalpana Sahni
Routledge India
172 pp; Rs. 595

A COLLECTION OF pieces originally published either in the Op-Ed page of the Daily Times, Lahore, or in Herald magazine from Karachi, Multi-Stories is an odd little book. Its 60 chapters — if they can be so described — have little connection to each other. There are potted histories of everything from tulips to time-keeping, interspersed with Kalpana Sahni’s observations as she meanders through countries as varied as Thailand and Georgia.

One can be reading about the global political ramifications of Mercator’s map projections, only to turn the page and find a slightly kooky-sounding plea for more bureaucrat-poets in contemporary India (a la China’s Tang period).

A book like this can either feel wonderfully wide-ranging or unforgiveably scattered. Sahni’s introduction tries to preempt the second response by claiming that organising her material by subject would “reinforce the very compartmentalisation, which has been the bane of researchers and which has resulted in hermetically sealed cultural constructs”.

But cheering Sahni’s opposition to the idea of pure, closed-off cultures is unlikely to prevent readers from seeking order in her narratives. Being whizzed in and out of an (admittedly charming) anecdote of how Uzbek women name deeply desired Middle Eastern fabrics after characters from The Bold and the Beautiful, to land bang in the middle of a history of the turkey, or being transported from an account of an American architect who loved the chaos of Delhi to the Indian visa official who wanted Sahni to find his daughter a groom, this reviewer had the inescapable feeling of being taken on a tour by a well-travelled, chatty aunt who forgets where her stories begin — but happily carries on talking.

But, as might well be the case with the imaginary aunt, you’re mostly happy to let her wander on. After all, how often are you going to find someone informed enough to hold forth on the history of sugar and its etymology (Sanskrit sharkara to Latin succarum via Arabic sukkar) and yet playful enough to end her challenge to “culturally authentic” clothing by suggesting that a bright ABVP student conduct research on “The Origins of Khaki Shorts in Vedic Texts”?

Despite her deliberately anecdotal style, Sahni is at her most engaging not when she’s describing her interminable encounters with airport officials, drivers and tour guides, but when she’s taking us, light yet surefooted, through historical and theoretical terrain she knows well — the literature and culture of Russia and Central Asia, those regions’ links with South Asia and the idea of cultures as inherently mixed up, built upon borrowings from each other.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 42, Dated October 23, 2010

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