I picked up Chai, Chai with eager curiosity, charmed as much by its quirky title as by its engaging subject – train travels. The fact that the book committed to take me beyond the yellow station boards of some popular railway junctions seemed like tantalizing icing on the virtual travel cake that this book promised to be. Making the package more enticing were the words chai, chai – my favorite addiction. Train journeys, quaint towns, and chai – this was going to be one romantic getaway into India’s hinterland. Only it was not.
Now before I share my take on Chai, Chai, here’s a little background about the book, from the book itself. Chai, Chai, written by journalist Biswanath Ghosh, has no blurb, so I am picking snippets out of the prologue. Also, I wanted to share the blurb-esque introduction of the book from Goodreads, but turns out that the content there is not just hyperbolic, but also factually incorrect, for the author’s journey starts from Mughal Sarai and not Itarasi. Also, some facts are blatant additions making one wonder if the blurb writer has actually read the book. Anyway, here are some snippets from the prologue titled – Tiny Towns: Jumbo Stations.
Railways stations in India stand like fiercely independent states within cities and towns, insulated from the local flavour as if they are territories of a common colonial master sitting in Delhi, which they are anyway.
The first urge to abandon the book stuck at around page 15-16. The author had arrived at his first destination – Mughal Sarai, unprepared, and without any hint of the zest, one expects from a traveller. I overcame the urge, convincing myself that there would sure be exciting narratives ahead. In any case, the author deserved some benefit of doubt, given the fact that this was this first journey of this kind and also his first time in Mughal Sarai. I assumed that the author will, of course, adapt to his surroundings and get into the grove of being a journalist cum travel writer.
But this was not to be. All my assumptions and hopes stood quashed. At all the seven stations listed in the book, the author got off the train unprepared, with the impatience of a child, and listless to move on at the first opportunity. The only activity that seemed to infuse some energy into him was his quest for whiskey. This quest gets the readers following him inside dingy bars in quaint towns, and making random observations about other drinkers around him.
There’s hardly any meaningful insight about the towns the author is in, all the travel seems like a mindless chore, the desperation for whiskey is very in-your-face and there are ‘regrets’ galore – at all the places where the reader expects something interesting to happen – some fun conversation, some adventure, something to pull them back into the book – the author’s inhibitions kick in and he retreats into his own thoughts. While the word regret appears in the book a few times, ‘horrible timing’ is another oft-repeated phrase. Every time the author arrives at his destination at odd hours or fails to find himself an accommodation, he blames it on ‘horrible timing’. When one lands unprepared at little-known towns, is reluctant to adapt, and is impatient with people, the timing is bound to be horrible.
The book has its moments, like when in Guntakal (Andhra Pradesh), the author mistakes a man’s (presumably an electrician) voltage testers for pens. In the same town, he muses about the closing of a textile mill and its effects on the life of local workers. But moments such as these are so few and far between that by the time you wrap up the book, you don’t remember them. In fact, you don’t remember anything but some town trivia, and that too if you are a trivia aficionado.
Chai, Chai could have been a compelling off-kilter narrative about offbeat train journeys into quaint junction towns, but it ends up as a superficial and repetitive account of random musings. And yes, Chai is a mirage in this one.
More about the book:
Author: Biswanath Ghosh