Book’s Name: Chai, Chai: Travels in places where you stop but never get off By Bishwanath Ghosh
Section from the description on the back of the book cover –
Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off allows the reader to join the author-narrator while he experiences new places and faces. The beautiful sun, the rich cultural history and the people are all rendered with humor and love. One can almost feel the narrator going through the little lanes in Kanpur and then end up in Madras. Whether one is drinking tea at a local café or sitting with numerous people in a local train, Ghosh breathes life into every moment. While speculating on life’s little moments, the author also realizes the amount of hours spent in waiting at railway junctions. The destinations are not just stations and stops for trains to drop commuters off. They represent a different life and a new adventure everyday.
It was this description that enticed me into reading the book .Long distance train journeys were ubiquitous for those of us who grew up in India in the 80s and 90s and I have fond memories of traveling with extended family, friends etc on these journeys. Moving across compartments, jolly conversations with these co-travelers with who you would share your meals, stories and jokes like you would with a close friend, street food bought at each such major railway ‘junction’ and so on – where you stopped but never walked out of the station premises. Having had my fair share of long distance railway travels I was curious how these nondescript ‘junctions’ were outside of railway premises .
Therefore, I can now say that the book while a travelogue, is not what I had expected. Author visits Mughalsarai, Jhansi, Itarsi, Shoranpur, Arakkonam, Jolarpetai, Guntakal etc.These places while don’t cover the extensive geography of India, are important connecting points on the railway line, that join the four corners of the country. While I particularly felt Western, Eastern part of country were not really covered, this seemed to be author’s personal journey – the junctions that have been important to him over his lifetime .
His modus operandi was to travel to each of these places, stay for a couple of days, attempt to know the history and collect the stories within such period. His account is in first person, reads like a travel diary really. His go to strategy seems to be finding the nearest popular bar and chatting up with patrons over a drink or two. This seems to have worked for the author because after losening over a drink or two, some strangers have regaled him with very interesting stories. I’ll say that the book in this case should have been called ‘Bar – Bar’ because the author hardly drinks Chai throughout the book, mostly bar hops and has also written from time to time about his cravings for a drink or two and how he met them. In fact Chai might have one passing reference that I already seem to have forgotten. He definitely has been able to capture small town charm / quaint lifestyle, more successfully in the middle chapters where he probably found his groove. I especially enjoyed reading Itarsi, Guntakal and Jolarpet chapters. His descriptions of nature and surroundings especially Jahangir Mahal at Orchha, the Shoranur – Nilambur railway track etc made me google these locations up and look at the images. Towards the end, he seems to have hastily wound up and concluded, either because his modus operandi /Sop got too monotonous or his own interest waned due to language barrier.
Overall, 2-3 days per location are never enough to really understand the culture, history and the roots of the place, the lifestyle of a town. Author seems to have done no homework before landing at the specific town and hence spends most of his 2-3 day stay looking for and describing accommodation, the food he got to eat or trying to reach right persons who could provide him more of historical perspective. Wherever he fails to meet anyone right, he just gives up and moves on to a different location. Also due to lack of homework his go to strategy seems to be wheedling out stories from fellow bar patrons over few pegs of whiskey which as a source of legit information seems dubious to me.
Still, for the off beat topic, and lucid writing in parts, it seems to be somewhat of an entertaining read. However is a one time read because there is nothing profound, no thought provoking observations and despite having finished it just a handful days back, I dont seem to recall most of the anecdotes mentioned therein. 🙂
Overall Rating: – 3/5