When Chai, Chai first came out, I had read about it and felt I should buy and read it . . . I spoke about this book to a friend of mine and he came up with a strange kind of response . . . hey, he has written about where-all he got down from the train and where-all in those towns he went to drink . . . I wondered how far this could be true . . . this friend could sometimes be way off the mark . . . and he has a healthy disregard for people who drink . . . so, I wondered . . .
I first came across Bishwanath Ghosh through his blog, On the Ganga Mail, when I was generally googling about Mont Blanc fountain pens and read a post about his visit to Varanasi and how he had to unwillingly keep his wallet, Mont Blanc FP, watch, etc., with a shopkeeper while he went inside the temple . . . and since then I have followed his blog regularly . . . (now I too have 3 Mont Blanc FPs!)
And whenever I used to visit Bishwanath Ghosh’s blog, which was not very frequent mainly because he writes fewer posts now than earlier (2 till the end of April 2015, 9 in 2014, 12 in 2013, 27 in 2012 . . .) (he has suddenly increased his output in May 2015!!), I used to see the ‘Buy Chai, Chai’ button and continued to wonder . . . and in a recent post, he wrote about how it’s been more than five years since Chai, Chai was published and still continues to do well . . . and how his two later books, though written with much more discipline, awareness, and research than Chai, Chai are not as popular . . . and he writes about how Chai, Chai has been received by readers, and quotes their responses . . . I decided . . . I have to buy Chai, Chai and read it . . . and I did . . . bought it online and read in a day . . . chapter-wise . . . or rather, station-wise...
And to my surprise, he says in the ‘new preface’ to this edition, how Chai, Chai was received kindly by reviewers and readers, but there was one recurring complaint, ‘that it contains too many episodes of my drinking in the local bars’ . . . I found that bewitching . . . I could have said ‘honest,’ but lots of writers are honest anyway . . . and he goes on to say how he was being faithful to the narrative by describing things as they happened to him . . . and he writes some more about the inevitability of it all . . .
So, what about the rest of the book? This post is only about my responses to the book, and not a review . . . firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book . . . what with me being as curious as Bishwanath Ghosh about places like Mughalsarai, Itarsi, Jhansi, Guntakal, Arakkonam, Jolarpettai, and Shoranur . . . places that you see only railway platforms of . . . I used to think about these places, but then the train moved on after replenishing and refreshing itself . . . it was only after my father was transferred to Sultanpur in UP, that I saw the platforms of Mughalsarai, Itarsi, and Jhansi . . . but Jolarpettai, Arakkonam, Shoranur were familiar platforms for our family as we moved around Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Karnataka in trains . . . there were other places too in the recent past as the trains chugged from Hyderabad to Howrah . . . and from thereon to Gaya . . . I saw only the platforms, and now don’t even remember the names . . . and somehow one place name keeps coming up again and again . . . Bongaigaon . . . I know it is in Assam, a place I have never visited . . . maybe it is a leftover name from my days of reading Railway Timetables . . . ha ha ha . . . ever done that?
The concept of alighting at transit stations where, except for the residents of these places, no traveler ever thinks of going, is itself extraordinary and beguiling . . . but I am sure many of us, train travelers of some vintage, would have wondered however briefly, what went on in these towns . . . are Arakkonam’s and Jolarpettai’s claim to fame only their railway stations? Or Shoranur, for that matter . . . Chai, Chai fulfils this desire in more ways than one . . . now we know a little more about Arakkonam and Jolarpettai, not to say Mughalsarai and Itarsi . . . these stations have become intervals in our journeys across India by rail . . . one measures the remaining distance or time depending on when the train reaches these places . . . aah, two more hours . . . enna, vandi late-a oduda? . . . aaf-en-avar-le Jolarppetai vandudum, sar . . . says the tea-man . . . or pantry-car person . . . time to get down, stretch one’s legs, see if you can get today’s ‘English paper,’ which could well be yesterday’s with today’s date, and carries news about things that might well have taken place on another universe altogether, except for cricket and films, of course . . .
The bars are all there . . . and Ghosh is clearly enjoying his time in them . . . the lodges, and the trouble he undergoes finding a room in one of them, the taxi journeys from the ‘centre’ of the towns to the ‘peripheries,’ his visits to ‘historical places,’ and temples, are all narrated with a great deal of involvement and interest . . . and towns like Arakkonam, Jolarppetai, and Shoranur, where Ghosh sees nothing to involve himself in and therefore less interesting, are dispatched in double quick time and space without dishonest lingering on . . . and it comes out very clearly that Ghosh has taken this journey seriously and is as curious about these places as many of us would be except that he alights and comes out of the railway station . . . and sees the town and smells the whisky . . .
Chai, Chai reminded me of two books . . . one is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August and the other is Pico Iyer’s Falling off the Map . . . for entirely different reasons . . . Chai, Chai evokes the small town feeling that is marvelously depicted in English, August . . . a feeling of ennui . . . especially for someone who goes there from a big city or ‘metro’ . . . you don’t know what to do . . . Pico Iyer’s Falling off the Map is subtitled ‘some lonely places of the world’ . . . though there is a difference in scale, experience, and style, Chai, Chai is conceptually similar . . . in Bishwanath’s Ghosh’s book one slides off these familiar platforms and tumbles into their unfamiliar towns . . .