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Is the world then really our oyster?

Musings on an idyllic place without countries, borders and visa control, writes Madhu Tehran.
By Madhu Tehran
UPDATED ON MAY 07, 2010 09:55 PM IST

Cross–Cultural Encounters
Kalpana Sahni
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group
Rs 595 | pp 192

‘Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace.’ Yes, the song is bordering on a cliché, used too often in print and television journalism, to bring a certain ethos to a story. It works here as Kalpana Sahni’s stories in her luscious but spare book show that she has lived in a way where there are no ‘countries’ and ‘borders’.

It also makes you wonder: John Lennon asked us in his song to imagine there are no countries. But, according to Sahni, “Borders are imaginary lines drawn by rulers who want to impart permanence to their whims.” Yet, no matter how eccentric and insane it is, tradition makes it acceptable. Blind acceptance of this has led to a turbulent world constantly on the boil.

What if we refused to partition our country? What if we said Kashmir is for all? What if we refused to carry passports? It sounds fanciful and ‘unrealistic’. If there were no countries today and one greedy joker got up and decided he would have one, that would be a revolutionary and unacceptable idea. But we are so far gone in the traditional mindset, that it is probably too late to implement a One World concept now.

Javed Akhtar’s lyrics in ‘Ishwar Allah’ (from Deepa Mehta’s film 1947 Earth) asks, “Tere jehaan mein nafrat kyon hai? Jung hai kyon?/ Tera dil toh itna bada hai, insaan ka dil tang hai kyon?”

Why do I bring all this in? Because Sahni’s book makes you believe that it really is One World, despite all the living arguments against it. She illustrates how “various democratic and non-democratic governments and organisations have attempted to conceal cross-cultural influences by inventing superiority, purity, and authenticity of cultures and civilisations to the detriment of others. Yet cross-culture pollination, an ongoing process, always reveals itself through the ignored cracks of history.” The joy of it all is that Sahni illuminates gems through those cracks.

In her obviously rich life, the author gambols around the world making multi-cultural connections with food, music, film, architecture, religion, history, with what I detect a distinctly Punjabi sense of humour. I anticipated a heavy academic approach, having known her in college. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a smooth yet rhythmic read where you imbibe and learn effortlessly. As she traces words and their origins, Sahni takes you on journeys across the world. For instance, she talks about how we call sugar ‘chini’. She explains the connection with China.

The author suggests a simple yet remarkable idea: “Have you ever tried to turn the map of the world upside down?” See how you react and it exposes how brainwashed we are. Read this book and it will change the way you travel, perhaps even the way you live and perceive the world.

Sahni’s facts and stories turn clichéd concepts on their head and what could be more interesting than that?

Madhu Trehan is a Delhi-based writer

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