Kalpana Sahni will charm you with her cross-cultural anecdotes. Just don’t expect profundity, says Trisha Gupta
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.
The times they were a-changin’
How do you remain an independent member of the establishment? BG Verghese’s life offers some clues, says Ashok Malik
THERE IS no formula for an autobiography. Ideally, it should be well told, of a life well lived, of experiences worth recounting, and should perhaps describe not just the author’s years but also his times. BG Verghese’s First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India scores on all these counts.
Among the titans of Indian journalism, Verghese is a man of parts. He is an establishment figure, and yet a fiercely independent mind. In the 1960s, he served as press adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Less than a decade later, he was sacked as editor of theHindustan Times for being a conscientious objector to the Emergency. In 1977, he contested as an unsuccessful anti-Congress candidate from Kerala, among the first English-language journalists to attempt to move into politics. Indeed, the chapter entitled “No talking! There’s an Emergency”, describing Verghese’s election campaign in Mavelikara constituency, is at once humorous and melancholic.
Predictably, the earlier parts are more likely to captivate readers than those that cover recent events. Episodes in the Rajiv Gandhi years and later, of Punjab and Pokhran II, Mandir and Mandal, are still fresh. Less known are the insecurities and intricacies of Indira’s initial years as PM. Her wariness — “Oh, what would my people think?” — on being asked for a dance by the avuncular President Lyndon Johnson in Washington, DC, the intellectual stupor of the age, the secrecy and suspicion surrounding the devaluation of the rupee in 1966. Verghese offers us a ringside view.
SPEAKING OF foreign policy, he makes a larger point of his short tenure in government: “I was disappointed that our concerns … were too narrowly focussed and geared to discussing immediate problems and crises, and not sufficiently forward looking. I had done a paper suggesting we think of a post-Vietnam future. What kind of Asia did we desire or foresee? The British were planning to withdraw ‘East of the Suez’ … If the US, too, were to withdraw after a Vietnam settlement, would there be a power vacuum and would it be filled by China? Should we not look more kindly on Thailand in view of the troubles in its ethnic minority dominated north-east region, which was being penetrated by China?” It was to no avail. Like in other aspects — such as reporting on environmental concerns and more or less incubating the idea of development journalist — Verghese was ahead of his times.
Verghese offers a ringside view of Indira Gandhi’s insecurities as PM
A good journalist is a good storyteller. Verghese is at his best in his first chapters, introducing us to the Syrian Christian community, telling of how he got his (family) name and of being a pupil at Doon School in those idyllic years in the late 1930s and early 1940s when the small Indian middle class was getting itself (and its children) ready to run a free nation. These leave you with a sense of warmth; no reader can ask for more.
Malik is a newspaper columnist
Anuja Chauhan’s second novel is as funny as her first. Funnier if you recognise the political world she parodies, says Anita Roy
THE WORDS ‘Lok Sabha’ and ‘sexy’ are not often found together. But Anuja Chauhan manages to marry the two in a rollicking romcom complete with eccentric characters, a thwarted khap panchayat honour-not-quite-killing, a randy Labrador called Ponky, backhanders, double-dealing and political skullduggery, and a smattering of killer one-liners at least one of which had me snort out chai through my nose.
Our heroine, Sarojini Pande, and the author herself score a nearly perfect 10 in terms of their biometrical match. Pande is a bright young thing in advertising: so is her creator. Chauhan married into a political dynasty (the Alvas), Pande was born into one. And although it’s highly unlikely that Anuja Chauhan will stand for election — she seems to be having far too much fun, and enjoying far too much success as a bestselling author — Sarojini is pressganged by her wily grandmother into becoming the youngest candidate ever.
This is how Sarojini describes her grandmother’s entry into politics on the death of her freedom-fighter husband: “Once he and all his ‘batch’, so to speak, swarg sidhaaroed for their heavenly abode, Amma moved in to take over his mantle with gusto,” penning a political autobiography with the title Shaadi, Khaadi aur Azaadi. Amma is a wonderfully comic creation with an idiosyncratic way of speaking, more prejudices that you can shake a stick at and a fair few skeletons in her Godrej almirah. She berates her granddaughter for her dress sense on their way to attend a wedding: ‘Ij this any way to wear a sari? One choochi in and one choochi out! Drape the pallu higher, Sarojini.’ ‘This is the style, Amma,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘If I drape it over both my breasts, I’ll look like the Dalai Lama. Besides, I’m wearing a blouse, aren’t I?’ ‘We would not call that thing a blouj,’ she grumbled. ‘It doej not match your sari colour, and the neck is so deep, if you bend even a little bit, your partition will sow.’
MUCH OF the humour in this very funny book relies on the reader recognising the real-life situations, people and parties that the story involves. The disguises are tissue-thin — the ‘IJP’ for the BJP, the ‘Pragati Party’ for Congress, and so on, till Chauhan more or less gives up pretending when a Bollywood hunk called ‘Salmon Khan’ shows up for a bit of cheap electioneering
As for the hero, Zain Altaf Khan is everything a hero should be, dangerous and desirable in equal measure. In the words of his opponent — or is she? — “He was nothing but a snake, a devastatingly hot, rough velvet-voice snake with vulnerable dark eyes, a wicked sense of humour, and gentle, gentle hands…” The ‘will they/won’t they’ flip-flop is standard Mills and Boon fare, leaving very little room for doubt that, in the end, they most certainly will. Battle for Bittora is a worthy successor to Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor. The only thing left to decide is whether Salman gets to play Zain in the movie.
Roy is an editor with Zubaan Books
By Poorva Rajaram
What do books mean to you?
Books are the lifeblood of a master spirit. Literature is the cry of a writer at the spectacle of life before him or her. I’m supposed to believe in destiny — I don’t. I don’t believe in spirituality or god. Just books.
An author who means a lot to you?
Mary Higgins Clark. While I will openly say that I have loved many women, I have never been able to understand their psychology. From her books I learned that women notice hair and dress, unlike men.
Your favourite genre?
Detective stories show you the dead — they give you insight into the goodness and wickedness of human nature. I prefer the short story to the novel or the drama. You have to compress your life’s experiences in a few words. Ernest Hemingway was a master at this task.
Detective fiction you read recently?
Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey and Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly. Both were excellent.
Astrology books you recommend?
Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View by Richard Tarnas. He is an astrologer who is a thousand times better than me. I use Ganesha-based predictions, but as a western astrologer he can use the formation of the planets to decide the fate of the entire world. Not a small thing.
An underrated author?
The Dalai Lama. I have read his horoscope — he is Cancerian and a truly spiritual man.