Book Review: Chai, Chai - A Travelogue by Bishwanath Ghosh

July 11, 2010

There is yet to be a great Indian travel book, the kind that is definitive or required reading for anyone wishing to understand India. My guess is that when it comes it will be written by Indians whether they be natives such as Pankaj Mishra or foreign born India residents such as Bill Aitken or India born semi-residents like Stephen Alter. The essential quality of great travel writing is local know-how and visitor travel writers, even giants such as Theroux and Naipaul rarely have the requisite penetrative insight into local custom. Thus their writing tends to be superficial. An example would be the travel books of Michael Palin which are witty but without any real understanding of the people or the hapless countries it visits. True, over time people do get a measure of insight. There is a gulf between the Naipaul of India, A Wounded Civilization (where one wondered whether it was India that was wounded or old Naipaul) and the Naipaul who wrote India a million mutinies now.But on the whole tourists rarely penetrate beyond the surface so while the writing is sometimes beautiful (such as Pico Iyers) or witty (such as Palins), they do not tell me anything I do not know. At their best they are like a witty and literary Lonely Planet Guide (remember to book early, carry your pills, keep spare money in your socks).

Good travel writing to me combines richness of external observation with insightful interpretation, and ideally a dollop of dry wit. There have been many great travel books and many countries have already produced at least one great travel book. The United States has had Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, Bill Bryson's Lost Continent, and a whole lot besides. Great Britain has had Kingdom by the sea by Theroux and Notes of a small island by Bryson.It is noteworthy that Bryson's best books deal with the USA and the UK, one a country he spent the first half of his life in and the other the second. His books where he is reduced to a tourist such as Neither here nor there (travels in Europe) and Down Under (Australia) are entertaining but lack the empathic insight that make his US, UK books among the best travel writing on those countries.

So for years I have been waiting to see who would come up with the first great travel writing on India. But alas, none I had read so far made the mark. Bill Aitken's books are honest and diligent but are filled with excessive 'do-I-really-need-to-know-this' detail and without sufficient humor to leaven the rest. Pankaj Mishra's Butter chicken in Ludhiana had wit but suffered from a surfeit of innocuousness. All you got were a few superficial experiences with the occasional memorable prose fragment. Of the lot of Indian travel writers, Stephen Alter's seems to be the best in a tight assed kadoos way but his writing too often seems to confuse detail with description. William Dalrymple writes beautifully and has written wonderful travel books about other places (Holy Mountain, Xanadu) but his Indian travel writing has been disappointing. The City of Djinns was written when Dalrymple was new to India and thus had all the failings of an India newbie and while his recent Nine Stories is an improvement, it veers too much towards the exotic and to my mind at least, still lacks empathic insight for non-Abrahamic faiths such as Hinduism or Jainism.

So when I picked up Chai, Chai by Bishwanath Ghosh it was with both a certain trepidation and expectation.

I liked Chai, Chai. The theme is original viz., checking out life in the towns that are attached or have grown up around the major railway junctions in India because while most railyway travellers would have passed through the junction, few go past the railway station to see the grey country that lies beyond. Like Alexander Frater's Chasing the monsoon and Pankaj Mishra's Butter chicken (a brave but unsuccessful attempt at doing what Bryson did so well in The Lost Continent), this is niche travel writing, i.e. not a general travelogue but focused on a specific event or region or community. I prefer such writing because given the staggering canvas that is India, general travelogues would always fall short while there is the possibility that justice can be done if the scope is limited.

Furthermore Ghosh is a figure with whom I find it easy to identify, as he comes from my age group, the same social milieu and with even a similar lifestyle. The consequence is that as he goes about his travels, you get a vicarious sense of traveling alongside since his perception and reaction in a circumstance mirror your own to a great extent.You too would probably take a rickshaw at that point, you too might go to similar hotels and your reaction too, to a large stain in the bedsheet would be disgust. All this made Chai, Chai, a kind of travel equivalent of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English August - An Indian Story, where too the protogonist is a person much like myself. Identifiable. You have never met him but you know him. You know you could go with him to a pub, have a few and have enough to say to each other.

In the course of the book Ghosh visits seven railway junctions, Mughal Sarai, Itarsi, Jhansi in the North and Guntakkal, Arakkonam, Jollarpet and Sholanur in the South.As Ghosh says in the preface, "..these junctions though they bind the extreme corners of India, are hardly ever mentioned in contexts other than railway journeys. ...But they too must have stories to tell. Just that nobody ever steps out of the station to listen. ...So why not, travel to these places and listen to the stories they may be waiting to tell"

With this evocative preface Ghosh launches into the visits to the seven junctions beginning with Mughal Sarai in Uttar Pradesh and ending in Sholanur in Kerala. It is an entertaining, easy to read book and as with most travel books one learns more about Ghosh than about the places he visits.His liking for street food, his need for a few drinks in the evening, his honesty in reporting his experiences.

At Mughal Sarai, Ghosh gets suckered into staying at a filthy hotel until he is rescued by the alcohol induced friends he makes in a dingy bar. At Itarsi he meets with a housewife turned reluctant prostitute.At Jhansi he meets an old school acquaintance whose fortune went up and came down with the stock market and who has now settled down to a contented obscurity. At Guntakkal he meets two car drivers who drive for realtors and also visits the tomb of Mastaan Ali whose principal devotees are a family of Reddys. And at Sholanur, he meets with a starched old world person who educates him on the history of the railway junction at Sholanur. The book is easy reading and you find yourself looking forward to Ghosh's next tete a tete with strangers in another small town bar.
So Chai, Chai is an easy morsel to eat but is it the great Indian travel book?

One would have to say no.

While an engaging read, CC falls short of great or even memorable travel writing. One does not really get a sense from the book of the towns Ghosh visits or the stories that they have to tell (which was Ghosh's goal in writing the book). There is no experience or insight in each town one can hang a mental memory peg on. Thus when you finish Mughal Sarai and get into reading Jhansi you are unable to recall what you read in the Mughal Sarai section. There are a few conversations in each town but they seem random and do not stitch a picture of the town or of its occupants. You just get the feeling that after Ghosh reached a town, he had no real plan except to sample the street food in the morning and hit a bar in the evening.  Nor does the book give us a geographical feel for the towns, a historical overview or a socio-cultural snapshot. Thus really all we come to know is that the towns have a range of hotels of varying quality, street food and booze bars. Not quite the uncovering of the veil and the hidden life of these shadow towns you were promised in the preface.

This is a pity because the premise of the book remains interesting and there is still a book waiting to be written about the towns behind the junctions.

In summary, Chai, Chai is a good read, easy on the eye but we are still waiting for the great Indian travel book.

Postscript: This is Ghosh's first book and I get the feeling that as he writes more, he will add that edge and depth to his existing narrative skills.We may yet see the first great Indian travelogue coming from Bishwanath Ghosh.

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Book Review: Chai, Chai - A Travelogue by Bishwanath Ghosh


Author: bevivek


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